Sunday, November 29, 2009

Think outside the haggis . . .


. . . . . Austrian Pfeffernuss . . . . . . . . . . . . . . honey-cakes . . . . .


. . . German Lebkuchen . . . . . . . . . . Oblaten . . . from Salzburg. . . . . . . . French pain d’épice . . .

Finger-Lickin’ Good,

. . . . truffle of Perigord. . . . . . . . . . Auvergnian roast ham . . . . . . . . . thick cabbage soup of Thiers . .


poulards of Bresse . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Algerian couscous . . . . . . . . . . . . Spanish puchero . . . . . . . . . . .


. . . . . Polish barszcz . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . and kromeski . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Italian gnocchi . . . . . . .

International Smorgasbord

Calves’ tongues from Greece . . . . . . . . . . . . . Goulash . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . and sherbet au . . . . .


Tokay from Hungary . . . Bamboo sprouts from the Far East . . . . Watarzoie de Poulet from Belgium . . .

Hugh MacDiarmid’s

. . . Scotch grouse . . . . . . . . . . . . Scandinavian hors d’oeuvre . . . .


. . . . . American lemon pie . . . . . . . . . . and Viennese Linzertorte


The staggering plenitude of the just-passed Thanksgiving holiday meal – and I hope you had an opportunity to enjoy such a feast, with those you love – brings to mind another grand spread: the great Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid’s imagining, in verse, of the impressive array of foods served by his poetic muse.

MacDiarmid’s gastronomically inspired vision takes up nineteen lines in “The Kind of Poetry I Want.” This poem, as its title indicates, is a highly opinionated ars poetica. It runs for 56 pages, or would if its various published sections are considered together (some segments appeared within MacDiarmid’s 1942 prose autobiography, Lucky Poet, and additional sections were published as a stand-alone book in 1961). All parts of the poem, albeit split up as just described, can be found in the two volume editions of MacDiarmid’s Complete Poems.

“The Kind of Poetry I Want” rollicks with expansive passion and deep intelligence. The poem has direct statements (for example, MacDiarmid calls for “A poetry the quality of which / Is a stand made against intellectual apathy” and “A poetry full of erudition, expertise, and ecstasy” ) as well as principles couched in metaphor and allusions drawn from just about everywhere, including fishing, film, billiards, poker, wild goats, Zouave acrobats and the great Indian dancer Ram Gopal, to name just a few of the dozens of matters MacDiarmid references. There are lengthy stanzas (one is four pages long), and others that are but a couplet or, in one memorable instance, just two words (“Pinwheeling poetry”).

One thing that MacDiarmid definitely wants is, “A poetry with the power of assimilating foreign influences.” To this end, there are a multitude of references to matters outside of Scotland. Among these – and now I circle back to the point of this post – are the foods on the table of his muse. For, as you surely gathered from the photo-spread at the top of this post, and as you’ll specifically see (via the full excerpt) just below, MacDiarmid’s muse ain’t no bannock, scotch-broth, crowdie, and haggis eatin’ woman. What she puts down, and serves, is a multi-national feast, a cosmopolitan smorgasbord that neatly encapsulates MacDiarmid’s demand for a more universal poetry.

MacDiarmid begins by describing what’s on his muse’s “tea table” and then switches, in the eighth line, to what it is to “dine” with her. Here are the nineteen lines; pour yourself an apéritif or two, take a deep breath, and have at it:
On my muse’s tea table appear
Such delicacies as Austrian Pfeffernuss, iced honey-cakes,
Round or oblong in shape, or those other honey-cakes
From Dijon, wrapped in green and gold, very gay,
And many varieties of the German Lebkuchen,
And Oblaten, thin biscuits from Salzburg,
And delicious French pain d’épice,
While to dine with her is to know
The truffle of Perigord, the brocarra of Tulle,
Auvergnian roast ham with chestnut sauce,
The thick cabbage soup of Thiers, the poulards of Bresse,
Algerian couscous, Spanish puchero,
Polish barszcz and kromeski, Italian gnocchi,
Calves’ tongues cooked with almonds from Greece,
Goulash and sherbet au Tokay from Hungary,
Bamboo sprouts from the Far East,
Watarzoie de Poulet from Belgium,
Scotch grouse, Scandinavian hors d’oeuvre,
American lemon pie, and Viennese Linzertorte.
This is a marvelous bit of poetic list-making. It’s deeply poignant too. The lines were written in the late 1930s and early 1940s while MacDiarmid was dirt (more accurately, peat) poor, living on Whalsay, one of the Shetland Islands, famed for stark beauty and ferocious winters. While writing this incredible menu of food from ‘round the world, MacDiarmid and family actually ate potatoes and sometimes fish gifted them by neighbors.

The personification of inspiration or creative power in the figure of a muse is an ancient (“Sing, O Goddess” begins The Iliad) poetic device, and “the muse” trope still resonates today. Less helpful, I think, is any conception of the muse as exclusively female. Such an exclusive gendering seems to suggest that women are only catalytic generators to be invoked and revered, as opposed to real-world producers to be worked with. Regardless of the biological truths that presumably in part give rise to assigning a feminine persona to the symbol of creative power, a broader conception is surely more appropriate and accurate, including the idea, to quote Rachel Blau DuPlessis, of the muse as “labile & bisexed, bigendered.”

MacDiarmid’s muse, alas, is purely female, and perhaps even worse he envisions her entirely in a domestic realm, more or less in the kitchen, serving and preparing a sumptuous feast. Even if his muse was a woman, couldn’t she do more than prepare and serve food? Perhaps instead of a multi-national menu, the muse could have been imagined – and the same cosmopolitan point made – as making and sharing architectural models indicative of various cultures (e.g., the central-dome mosques of Islam, Mesoamerican monuments (or the present day plazas) in Mexico, New York City’s skyscrapers, and Navajo hogans).

While acknowledging the sexism in MacDiarmid’s conception of his muse as a woman who serves or prepares food, I do celebrate it here. The listing of foodstuffs just works so well, poetically. Geographically, we travel far, and rapidly, in MacDiarmid’s lines, covering much of Europe with further stops in Algeria, the far east, and America. This again is exactly MacDiarmid’s point: to show the range of international influences he would like poetry, particularly his own, to sample and digest. Food, of course, is a near perfect stand-in for the process of assimilation (in this regard, my suggestion to substitute architectural models fails miserably).

MacDiarmid’s conception also works poetically because, on the page and in the air, it is linguistically rich. The many non-English words used, when pronounced, fill the mouth with novel pleasures (ah, all the double consonant sounds of “Pfeffernuss” and the run of consonants that ends “barszcz”), and some of the terms are familiar only to the most experienced gourmets (I still can’t figure out “the brocarra of Tulle”). The muse’s menu, as presented by MacDiarmid, is also wonderfully vivid and idiosyncratic, a poetic quality perhaps best illustrated by the description of the honey-cakes’ wrappings (“green and gold, very gay”) and his choice of “American lemon pie,” far more striking than the more typical apple.

Finally, MacDiarmid’s muse’s menu is so damn good because, well, because it’s so damn good, by which I mean those listed foods sound delicious. Although vegans and even vegetarians are out of luck, those with omnivorous eating habits no doubt would enjoy many great meals with this particular muse. Like I said above, it’s mouth-watering, finger-lickin’ good, imagination-igniting, and just plain mind-blowing. I think of it whenever I’m lucky enough to come across or sit down to a magnificent spread.

Of course, the muse whose menu symbolizes a particular quality of poetry need not be a female figure. A chef or food server can easily be imagined as male, and, for that matter, lesbian, gay, bi and/or trans too. Given that the idea of muse as maker or server of food can be all-inclusive, I dream that perhaps MacDiarmid’s trope might be taken up by other poets, who might then write up what their particular muse would serve at tea and/or dinner, reflecting the particular kind of poetry they want.

No doubt, these imaginary smorgasbords would be delightfully varied. Would Kenneth Goldsmith’s muse, for example, serve fried optical scanner and a side dish of very fine black toner powder? How about the muse for a flarf-list poet? Tutti-frutti popsicles at a formal sit-down dinner, along with pink hearts, yellow moons, orange stars, and green clovers randomly selected from a box of Lucky Charms? And the muse for a poet such as John Olson, who sometimes seems to combine the word-views of Gertrude Stein and Andre Breton’s conception of the marvelous: would s/he cook up a plate of tender buttons of found Arcimboldean vegetables? And how about Garrett Caples, whose poetry takes in the work of recent and current greats (e.g., Philip Lamantia, Barbara Guest, Creeley, and Michael Palmer) as well as the energy and approach of hip-hop? Does his muse serve po-mo style smoked broccoli?

See how fun this could be? I could do this for all sorts of poets, from Rachel Loden to Joseph Massey, and everyone else I’ve had the privilege to read deeply and repeatedly. But my dream, once again, is that poets write their own muse-menus, to themselves poetically describe their poetic ideals. In the meantime, I’ll always have MacDiarmid’s imagined muse’s menu, at the least. Thanks for allowing me to share it with you today. I wish you only the very best in eating, both imagined and real, as the 2009 holiday season continues. Bon appétit!


Hugh MacDiarmid
(1892 - 1978)



Cy Mathews said...

Hmmm. I wonder if anyone has actually re-created MacDarmaid's feast in edible reality? I must look into this. Here in Dunedin (NZ) there is a strong Scottish cultural movement - we have tourist-oriented Haggis nights with the obligatory Burns recitation, but a MacDarmaid Feast would leave that for dead.

Ed Baker said...

I said to her:

"well, your now my new muse.
here is the first "baby" that you've you birthed."
She replied: "OH,, so I AMUSE YOU.?"

then she ran off with a sushi cook! they now have 4 babies and eat all of their food straight out of cans or out of little white and red paper boxes...

Rachel Loden said...

Alas, my muse is the guy who likes cottage cheese with ketchup! And pumpkins with papers in them. I'm with Cy, though -- somebody (the Poetry Foundation?) should take a run at serving up MacDiarmid's feast for big bucks and send the proceeds to starving poets.

Cy Mathews said...

By the way, I know a few good poems about food (though none where the muse is explicitly involved). Once I get a few deadlines out of the way I'll write up a blog post or two.

John Olson said...

Wow. My eyeballs got fat just reading this. You've mentioned MacDiarmid before and greatly piqued my interest. I can't find "brocarra of Tulle" either. I consulted several French and Italian dictionaries and the Larousse Gastronomique. Nada. The word does appear to be related to the word for brocade, so maybe some form of convoluted food similar to broccoli? There is a goat cheese in Corsica called broccio, and Tulle is to the south of France where such cheese may have migrated. I am going to guess that it is either a cheese or a meal made with cheese, à la lasagna. Or perhaps a truffle. The truffle of Perigord, incidentally, is also called a Black Diamond. Brillat Savarin deems them the finest of all truffles. They have a powerful, yet subtle, smell and taste. Very complex. The department of Perigord is also famous for its Cro-Magnon cave paintings.

Steven Fama said...

Thanks for the comments everyone! Cy, it would be something to cook all this up. If you were to do it, I *might* get myself to NZ to check it out! Personally, I'm highly motivated to try the "Spanish puchero."

Rachel L., I've read that sometimes your muse not only really liked cottage cheese and ketchup, but sometimes also added black pepper, and even had it all for breakfast, not just lunch! There also -- said to be one of Nixon's "favorite foods" -- Pat Nixon's meatloaf. Some also claim that Nixon's favorite snack food was "dried figs" and that in later life his favorite 'comfort food' was "Spaghetti-O's." That right there might just explain it all.

And John O., thanks much for checking the LaRousse for "brocarra" (I wonder if MacDiarmid screwed up a word-spelling on that one). And especially thanks for all the information on Perigord, the truffle and the department. I keep meaning to -- and have for years meant to -- read Savarin. I think it was you who at a certain point suggested the book is almost prose-poem-like, at least in parts.

Rachel Loden said...

Oh no, Spaghetti-Os? Thank you, I think, for inserting that into my cranium. A sad but dizzying new spin on the Proustian madeleine!