Prompt #42 Poets, Food, Limes, Love and Death

Food makes regular appearances in poetry: appetites, hunger, desire, love, family, togetherness, physical senses, the body, color, flavor and scent. It’s not surprising that poets, who famously attend to the textures of the world, would use food metaphors and write whole poems in honor of the senses that we savor.

Some of the most famous poems to food include the following:

  • Pablo Neruda’s odes — including these two, among my favorites — “Ode to A Large Tuna in the Market” and “Ode to the Orange.” (If you want a real treat, check out this amazing food and poetry blog, Eat This Poem, for recipes and poetry. What did I tell you about this relationships between eating and poets?) (Neruda is so beloved, his poetry is everywhere. Check out this blog where “Ode to the Onion” is translated into many languages!)
  • Gary Soto’s “Oranges” which from this link can be printed onto handouts to use in a classroom!
  • Giggle Poetry has a whole page of silly food poems, ready to tickle kids.
  • Food poetry is often nostalgic, as in Amy Gerstler’s “Fruit Cocktail in Light Syrup.
  • The Academy of American Poets has a great list of books with food and poems.
  • Even the important and creepy Emily Dickinson uses food imagery. “Fame is a Fickle Food” is a scary poem and should be a lesson to us all!
  • And what about Kay Ryan’s “Lime Light” which is a modern (and slightly less creepy, more compassionate version of ED’s poem)??

I think you get the idea.

Perhaps my favorite use of food in poetry is, however, not silly, or even in a poem about food. When Donald Hall‘s wife and fellow poet, Jane Kenyon, died, he wrote an astonishing book called Without. The poem at the center of this bleak, grim, grief-struck book — which marks the turn towards poems that begin to think about the possibility of healing — is a poem called, “Without.” Fortunately, you can click through and read it for yourself. The reason I thought of it for this post, is because the last word in the poem is “garlic” — a word that hangs at the end of the last stanza — a potent, flavorful, sharp universal food at the end of a poem that can’t possibly end. How can a husband ever finish a poem that describes all the things he is forever without, now that his wife has died? There are other food words in the poem, many sensual and intellectual images, but to end with garlic seems so wrong, so painful, so impossible. It’s a remarkable poem and I hope you’ll take the time to read it. I have never forgotten it, or how strange and perfect that one food image resonates with the universal experiences of love and great loss.

So, your challenge, today, this week, is to write a food poem! I had the delightful experience today of reading at Erica Goss‘s Poetry Kitchen, a new series she is hosting at the Los Gatos Library. I read several food poems that I’ve written. I’ll write a new one, too, if you will.

(Onion illustration source here.)

Good Friday with Emily Dickinson

To honor my Christian cultural tradition, I’m not posting much today, other than to share this poem of Emily Dickinson. ED wasn’t a religious poet, but her poems express the kind of spiritual inquiry that I aspire to. (The Bartleby link shows the poem as it was published first after Dickinson’s life, and edited by her publishers. The version I have here is from Johnson’s Complete Poems with reconstructed words and punctuation.)

“To know just how He suffered – would be dear –”

By Emily Dickinson

To know just how He suffered – would be dear –
To know if any Human eyes were near
To whom He could entrust His wavering gaze –
Until it settled firm – on Paradise –

To know if He was patient – part content –
Was Dying as He thought – or different –
Was it a pleasant Day to die –
And did the Sunshine face His way –

What was His furthest mind – Of Home – or God –
Or what the Distant say –
At news that He ceased Human Nature
On such a Day –

And Wishes – Had He Any –
Just His Sigh – Accented –
Had been legible – to Me –
And was He Confident until
Ill fluttered out – in Everlasting Well –

And if He spoke – What name was Best –
What last
What One broke off with
At the Drowsiest –

Was He afraid – or tranquil –
Might He know
How Conscious Consciousness – could grow –
Till Love that was – and Love too best to be –
Meet—and the Junction be Eternity


This video offers a musical rendition of the poem, with music by David Bennett Thomas, performed by The Gregg Smith Singers and organ accompaniment.

This blog has done a lovely job of presenting the poem as published initially. Click through to see.



“Tonight” by Agha Shahid Ali (with hyperlinks and audio)

What a find! A phenomenal poem, in a traditional and beautiful form, with both hyperlinks to comfort those used to interactive web play and an audio of the poet reading. Read, understand, inquire, listen, enjoy! One of the Poetry Foundation’s “Annotated Poems” — there are even lessons plans and teaching tips.

Agha Shahid Ali is superbly active politically and lyrically, and one of the most interesting poets to read currently writing. IMHO. His poem, “Tonight” is a ghazal, but rather than tell you all about it, I invite you to explore for yourself. Whether you’re searching for poets from India, Muslim poets, poetic forms, Emily Dickinson, the Bible, or Mughal architecture, you’ll find something to love here.

Photo courtesy of Flickr.


“Negotiations with a Volcano” by Naomi Shihab (PAD Prompt #26) Nye

Today I went looking for a poem to go with world events. Browsing email this morning, I was struck by the power and beauty of the images of Tungurahua volcano that erupted in Ecuador yesterday. ( Incredible images courtesy of According to the Associted Press, Tungurahua is from the Quichua word tunguri (throat) and rahua (fire): “Throat of Fire.”


I know of many references to volcanoes in poetry; Emily Dickinson alone wrote many poems about the terrifying possibilities. I love Naomi Shihab Nye’s work, but was unfamiliar with this poem. I especially like it for its domestic details and its prayer-like quality. And that wonderful title, the idea that one might negotiate with the natural world, with whatever gods or goddesses might be listening — such a great tradition of poetry she is following.

Negotiations with a Volcano
by Naomi Shihab Nye

We will call you “Agua” like the rivers and cool jugs.
We will persuade the clouds to nestle around your neck
so you may sleep late.
We would be happy if you slept forever.
We will tend the slopes we plant, singing the songs
our grandfathers taught us before we inherited their fear.
We will try not to argue among ourselves.
When the widow demands extra flour, we will provide it,
remembering the smell of incense on the day of our Lord.

Please think of us as we are, tiny, with skins that burn easily.
Please notice how we have watered the shrubs around our houses
and transplanted the peppers into neat tin cans.
Forgive any anger we feel toward the earth,
when the rains do not come, or they come too much,
and swallow our corn.
It is not easy to be this small and live in your shadow.

Often while we are eating our evening meal
you cross our rooms like a thief,
touching first the radio and then the loom.
Later our dreams begin catching fire around the edges,
they burn like paper, we wake with our hands full of ash.

How can we live like this?
We need to wake and find our shelves intact,
our children slumbering in their quilts.
We need dreams the shape of lakes,
with mornings in them thick as fish.
Shade us while we cast and hook—
but nothing else, nothing else.

The volcano referenced in this poem is Agua, in Guatemala. This great site (Smithsonian Institute) has great information.

For anyone who is used to writing a poem-a-day with me, and comes on Saturdays to look for a prompt, try writing a poem of prayer, bargaining, or negotiation with a force of nature: oh dear mountain; please deep ocean; no, no, not me snow and rain! What exactly would you be asking for? What are you hoping to be spared from?