‘The Hungry Ear: Poems of Food & Drink,’ Kevin Young, Editor By DWIGHT GARNER
Published: October 21, 2012
“Take away this pudding,” Winston Churchill reportedly said. “It has no theme.” I can understand Churchill’s hilarious pique. It’s how I often feel about poetry and about food writing. Both can be thin and flavorless. Both can be puddings without themes. Combine dining and verse, as has been done in a new anthology called “The Hungry Ear: Poems of Food & Drink,” and you have the potential for a perfect storm of muckiness. The good news about “The Hungry Ear,” edited by Kevin Young, the talented, prolific and sometimes sloppy poet, isn’t that it sidesteps bad poetry (it doesn’t), but that it also delivers such a groaning board of things to love, from Seamus Heaney on oysters and Lucille Clifton on collard greens to Theodore Roethke on root cellars and Jane Kenyon on shopping at an IGA. In Kenyon’s wonderful poem her narrator walks the dingy supermarket aisles in Franklin, N.H., while thinking: Things would have been different
if I hadn’t let Bob climb on top of me
for ninety seconds in 1979.
There are 158 poems about food and drink in “The Hungry Ear.” This volume is easily the best bathroom book of 2012, no small praise. (There should be a National Book Award in this category.) It’s surprising that no one has thought to do an anthology like this before. Getting to the good material, though, is like working your way to the heart of an artichoke. There are tasty things along the way, but you’ll be shedding a lot of inedible bits. There are many lines like this one from Mary Swander’s “Ode to Okra”: “Heal me with the nod of your leaves.” Persevere. Mr. Young reprints the entirety of Howard Nemerov’s “Bacon & Eggs”: “The chicken contributes,/But the pig gives his all.” He gives us Thomas Lux’s delirious poem about his childhood refrigerator in 1957, with maraschino cherries as “fiery globes, like...