First published in the 60s, “Eating Poetry” is a typical illustration of the unusual and illusory writing style of Mark Strand, a Canadian-born American poet, writer, and translator who is known for surrealistic, dreamlike, and a little “wild” verse compositions.
Portraying a man devouring poetry and the effect of such consumption on himself and the one who has witnessed – a librarian, “Eating Poetry” is a priceless tribute to the literary work’s power.
A Summary of “Eating Poetry”
One man’s excessive poetry eating and a librarian’s response are surrealistically portrayed in Mark Strand’s story “Eating Poetry.” The man in the poem claims that nothing brings people greater joy than eating poetry, and that is precisely what he’s been doing.
Meanwhile, the librarian is completely taken aback by the speaker’s actions. To the man, she’s just a poor woman who doesn’t “get it.” He then gets down on his knees and licks her hand, to which the librarian screams in response. He continues to act like a dog, growling and barking at the librarian before bounding around joyfully in the peaceful darkness of the library.
To read the full poem, click here.
The theme of “Eating Poetry”
The poem’s setting is an unknown library, and the story it tells is quite macabre with a man eating poetry, literally. Ink has been running from both sides of his mouth and he then behaves just like a dog. Can you imagine witnessing this? In Strand’s composition, a librarian who has confronted him is speechless.
With a dreamlike scene of joy sparked from eating poetry, Strand creates a theme of happiness and transformation, as well as surrealism throughout the poem.
- The landscape, characters, and everything in this Strand’s composition appears to be a work of the imagination only. The speaker is engrossed in a hallucinatory and imaginary world, while his actions drag the librarian into the same surreal surroundings.
- The joy expressed in “Eating Poetry” is also unlike any other experience we are familiar with. Even as the narrator “romps with joy,” we can tell he’s doing so in the “bookish dark.” The speaker devotes his entire life to poetry. He’s reborn as a “new man”, which is a tribute to poetry’s arcane and transformative power.
- Might the narrator be extremely happy, all of his merriment is frightful and inexplicable to the librarian? She “does not believe what she sees” and “does not understand”. With a bizarre and unreal main concept, this poem demonstrates how challenging it is to pin down a notion of common reality.
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“Eating Poetry” Analysis by Stanza
The poem begins in media res, or immediately in the heart of the action. As implied by the title, the narrator is “devouring” poetry.
“Ink runs from the corners of my mouth.
There is no happiness like mine.
I have been eating poetry”
Although this is a metaphor for reading lines, the stanza very bluntly depicts the process of consumption as though poetry were a delicious dish. Strand uses “runs” for the ink, instead of “drips” or “seeps”, which provides the image of someone eating voraciously.
With a series of short, end-stopped sentences, this introductory stanza creates a vibrant picture. The confident periods closing each line suggest that the person is not in a rush and intends to relish all. Something delectable, excellent, and nutritious has been ingested, and the outcome is favorable – “There is no happiness like mine.”
The main idea behind this writing is the concept of incomprehensible joy and enthusiasm. Strand illustrates how impractical it is to express the true extent of one’s enjoyment by depicting it as something crazy, such as gobbling up poetry.
Line 4 presents another character, the librarian, who seems to be a lot more normal than the speaker. Beholding such an act of gluttony, she “does not believe what she sees”.
There is an enjambment between lines 5 and 6, depicting the librarian’s responses:
- She is portrayed as “sad”. Her eyes appear to be filled with sorrow, and she walks “with her hands in her dress,” implying that she is unable to change things.
- The hidden hands also suggest caution and a wish to secure herself.
It is obvious that the librarian stands in stark contrast to the narrator.
Here comes anaphora, the recurrence of “the” at the beginning of each line in this stanza. Mark Strand has purposely utilized the most often used English word, which only ever comes in conjunction with a noun, to develop another sub-plot to the concept of realism against surrealism.
These three solid lines bring the readers back into the illusory world of the man. Simple statements are made. The speaker is straightforward to say “The poems are gone”. Off the page and straight into the poetry eater’s stomach, poetry is now a part of the man.
The light in the library is “dim”. This has no causal relationship with “eating poetry”. It could be because the library is shutting and lights are switched off, or it could be because nighttime is approaching and the daylight is fading. No matter what the reason is, the dim light contributes to the eerie ambiance.
In the final line of stanza 3, Strand brings extra abnormalities into the verse by abruptly introducing dogs.
The man fails to see them, but he can listen to them. These animals appear to have come from nowhere and are making their way up the stairs, which raises further questions: Why are they here? Are these the canines of the subconscious, or are they representations of wild, free, and uncontrollable energy?
The fourth one describes the dogs in a similar way to how the second stanza portrays the librarian.
- “Their eyeballs roll,” a sign of insanity, depicts a crazed or frenzied loss of control.
- The alliterating words, “blond legs burn like brush”, give the dogs a scary and feral appearance.
While the flaming image of dogs stands out against the dim lighting, the “poor” librarian is beginning to lose her calm. She is unable to handle the circumstance that is unfolding in front of her. The internal rhyme in “stamp her feet and weep” has created an image of a miserable librarian.
From now on, the library’s quietness and peace have been altered. The imagery in these sentences is striking. The poetry the man has read, which now gets inside him, brings these scenes to reality.
Mark Strand keeps up his style of short sentences with end punctuation in the last two stanzas.
He continues that the librarian does not “understand” what’s going on in front of her, either symbolically or physically. She is completely an outsider who is at a loss in this situation. And perhaps this image of the librarian also reflects the types of bookish people who study topics yet don’t acquire a sense of the actual world.
Might the narrator have a reasonable, common-sense answer to the librarian, he has been turned into a dog himself and starts to “lick”. Screams ensue naturally since her hand is now drenched in dog drool which is likely mixed with the leftover ink.
There are numerous contrasts within the verse, but none are as vital as this last one. The narrator, poet eater, or dog-man has become a “new man”.
He has devoted his own old self to his passion and evolved into an enthusiastic, well-fed, active romper, delighted to show his passion for poetry: “romping with joy in the bookish dark”. The dog portrayed now is much less scary and the dark has a light of wisdom – “bookish” – rather than the hellish one in stanza 4.
Strand’s poem comes to a close with the rhymes “bark” and “dark”. In the final lines, there is also a mixture of both “joy” and “dark”. These bring the poem to a melodious, gratifying end, evoking the speaker’s joy at being filled up with poetry.
In the meantime, what happens to the librarian? The audience is allowed to guess, which may be a nice sign.
Literary Devices Used in “Eating Poetry”
Although “Eating Poetry” uses few poetic devices, they are nevertheless quite good. Anaphora is probably the easiest one to spot. Take note of how some stanzas, like the third and last one, begin with the same words. Short, direct lines employing the most fundamental words available in the English language.
The word “the” is used in the third stanza along with a noun, an entity that is hard to define in and of itself. In this instance, the poet deliberately used it to develop yet another sub-plot related to the issue of realism against surrealism.
“Eating Poetry” sounds more clearly poetic when another literary device, alliteration, is used. Alliteration is like a display of celebratory fireworks in a poem that is all about the joyous powers of poetry. It appears in a number of lines in the poem, including the first line.
Ink runs from the corners of my mouth.
The word “my mouth” is emphasized by the humming /m/ sound, which also gives the impression that the speaker is cramming as much poetry as he possibly can into his body.
The Style of “Eating Poetry”
Mark Strand’s poem “Eating Poetry” has six stanzas piece of poetry broken into tercets (groups of 3 lines). Its language is straightforward, and the sentences follow a structure of subject-verb-object.
This poem is composed in free verse since its lines have inconsistent lengths and adhere to no set rhyme scheme or metrical structure.
Nonetheless, this does not imply that the verse lacks any form of organization. There are still pretty steady iambic rhythms at times. The poem also contains various rhetorical devices, along with the use of half-rhyme. Finally, the 2 final lines end the poem in a melodious and gratifying way.
In addition, these neat lines do give the poem an episodic attribute, moving from frame to frame and generating tension along the way. That there’s no meter also somehow reflects the speaker’s primordial and animalistic conduct.
Symbolism in “Eating Poetry”
“Eating Poetry” illustrates the marvelous transformative power of poems in a comic dark and surreal way. This poem amplifies how silent lines may elicit strong emotions in readers and transform them. Poetry consumption does not only bring exceptional pleasure but also transforms a person into a turbulent creature, a “burning dog”.
Furthermore, there is also a stark contrast between the narrator, who turns into a dog for his happiness of eating poetry, and the librarian, who is completely shocked at what she confronts.
The librarian should love literature, and the one who eats poetry is also passionate about poems. Two people can love one thing in different ways. Not less, just different. Yet such a dissimilarity makes it a struggle for them to understand each other. Genuine love can affect one’s being, which is way too weird for outsiders to grasp the idea.
The librarian’s existence may also allude to the necessity to classify and defend lingo, whereas the narrator chooses to just consume it. The speaker’s actions, then, may reveal how the narrator (and possibly the author himself) believes verses should be read: with appreciation, excitement, and passion.
Mark Strand is notable for his unique and “eccentric” poetry that challenges the audience to reinvent one or many themes.
And “Eating Poetry” is one of Strand’s beautiful pieces of poetry, with 18 lines arranged into 6 stanzas. Written in free verse and with a few poetic devices, the poem still impresses its readers with anaphora and alliteration.
This work combines aspects of both comedy and fantasy, as implied by its name. The man’s transformation indicates happiness and the power of poetry consumption.
That said, once consumed in public, poetry might become an unsettling power that many just can not grasp. That the man stands in stark contrast with the librarian means the difference in the way we love the same thing. Love, especially to poetry, can be powerful, even frightful, and inexplicable to many.
Long hair, short-sighted eyes – I am a mix of contradictory things. Also, a poem & art enthusiast.