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Analysis of Poem "Eating Poetry" by Mark Strand

Updated on March 6, 2017
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Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Mark Strand
Mark Strand | Source

Mark Strand and Eating Poetry

Eating Poetry is a surreal, dreamlike poem set in a library. A man has been eating poetry and the effects this has on him upset the female librarian. When he turns into a dog and starts licking her hand she can't handle it anymore. It's all beyond her understanding.

Mark Strand's poetry tends to be a little on the wild side, incorporating the unreal, the unconscious. He combines curious imagery with imaginative turns of phrase and can unsettle the reader with sudden leaps into and out of the mundane.

For a time in his poetic career he had 'a wish to possess/Something beyond the world we knew, beyond ourselves.'

Eating Poetry, written in 1968, is a timeless tribute to the wonderful transforming nature of poems, what they can do to a 'consumer's' insides. That said, once eaten, in public, poetry can be a disturbing force which many just do not understand.

Eating Poetry

Ink runs from the corners of my mouth.
There is no happiness like mine.
I have been eating poetry.

The librarian does not believe what she sees.
Her eyes are sad
and she walks with her hands in her dress.

The poems are gone.
The light is dim.
The dogs are on the basement stairs and coming up.

Their eyeballs roll,
their blond legs burn like brush.
The poor librarian begins to stamp her feet and weep.

She does not understand.
When I get on my knees and lick her hand,
she screams.

I am a new man.
I snarl at her and bark.
I romp with joy in the bookish dark.

Analysis

Eating Poetry is a six stanza, 18 line poem, and looks formally conventional on the page. It's contents are anything but, which is a primary contrast, perhaps set up by the poet to throw the reader.

Each tercet (three line stanza) takes us deeper into the mind of the speaker and the bizarre consequences that unfold once he has eaten the poetry.

There is no set rhyme scheme or meter (metre in UK) and poetic devices are thin on the ground. But note the repetition of certain words at beginning of some stanzas, known as anaphora:

The poems...

The light...

The dogs...

from the third stanza. And in the last stanza:

I am...

I snarl...

I romp...

Very simple straightforward sentences using the most basic words known to the English language. In stanza three 'the' is repeated three times. The most commonly used word in English, which only ever accompanies a noun, a thing, is itself difficult to define - the poet has purposefully used it here to create yet another sub-plot to the theme of realism versus surrealism.

Alliteration

This device occurs in the second stanza, with relatively soft consonants:

and she walks with her hands in her dress.

And also in stanza four, again a soft consonant is used:

their blond legs burn like brush.

Assonance

Repeated vowels in proximate words occur several times. Note the following:

like mine/been eating/believe what she sees/feet and weep/she screams

Alliteration and assonance add texture to the sound and help enliven the read.

Further Analysis

First Stanza

The speaker's voice is like a quiet commentary, telling the reader that ink is running from both corners of his mouth. Not one corner, both. Ink runs, it doesn't drip or fall; it is running, like some sort of exotic juice.

And this poetry has been so good to eat it inspires an ultimatum - this is a selfish kind of happiness, unlike any other.

This opening stanza is already painting a vivid picture for the reader in three short, end stopped lines. Something delicious, tasty and wholesome has been consumed, and the result is extremely positive. So far.

Second Stanza

The eater of poetry is in a library, and the librarian has just witnessed this act of gluttony, this devouring of verse. She doesn't quite believe her eyes. She walks away looking sad, hands stuffed into pockets. It's not everyday that someone comes in and eats poetry right in front of her. Is she upset about the mess? Is she envious? She has no clue what to do.

Third Stanza

Again, there are three end stopped, factual lines. The speaker is direct when he informs the reader that the poems are gone. Gone where? Off the page, off the inked page and into the digestive system of the poetry eater. Viola! Poetry is me. Poetry is inside me.

In the library the light is dim, another close observation that adds to the increasingly weird atmosphere. Is the light dim because he ate the poetry? Surely not. If you eat poetry don't you become enlightened? There is no causal link.

And then the dogs arrive. The third line is at a tangent to the rest. Where have the dogs come from? The basement of the library? Are these the dogs of the unconscious, the symbols of unleashed, wild energy? The speaker can't see the canines yet, only hear them, but the reader has the advantage of the imagination and can visualize them running upstairs.

Fourth Stanza

What do they look like? Are they mad dogs, with odd eyeballs? Yes, it appears so, for not only do they convey a hint of horror, their legs are on fire, a motif that contrasts heavily with the dim light.

By now the librarian is so freaked out she goes into tantrum mode. Not only has her day been made miserable by the poetry eater, the appearance of rampant dogs, his fault of course, has sent her out of control. Her nice, quiet existence in her nice, quiet library won't ever be the same again.

Fifth Stanza

She does not understand, according to the speaker. Perhaps the speaker has some logical, common sense explanation by which he can make her understand? But hang on, that's impossible because he is now a dog, transformed by the poetry into a hand licking mongrel or pedigree.

There is now no chance for the librarian, whose hand is now wet with dog drool, presumably combined with the remains of the ink.

Screams ensue.

Sixth Stanza

The contrasts in this poem are many but none so crucial as this last one. The speaker, eater of poetry, dog-man, is now a new man. He has lost his old self and become a passionate, well fed, energetic romper, happy to celebrate a love of poetry.

What happens to the librarian meanwhile? The reader is left to imagine, perhaps a good thing.

© 2017 Andrew Spacey

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