Publication: A Gastrocritical Reading of Seamus Heaney’s Poetry

The paper I published in the journal East-West Cultural Passage entitled ‘”My Palate Hung With Starlight” – A Gastrocritical Reading of Seamus Heaney’s Poetry’ is now available online! You can find it here: https://doi.org/10.2478/ewcp-2019-0010

abstract

Nobel-prize winning poet Seamus Heaney is celebrated for his rich verses recalling his home in the Northern Irish countryside of County Derry. Yet while the imaginative links to nature in his poetry have already been critically explored, little attention has been paid so far to his rendering of local food and foodways. From ploughing, digging potatoes and butter-churning to picking blackberries, Heaney sketches not only the everyday activities of mid-20th century rural Ireland, but also the social dynamics of community and identity and the socio-cultural symbiosis embedded in those practices. Larger questions of love, life and death also infiltrate the scenes, as they might in life, through hints of sectarian divisions and memories of famine.

This essay proposes a gastrocritical reading of Heaney’s poetry to study these topics in particularly meaningful ways. Gastrocriticism is a nascent critical approach to literature that applies the insights gained in Food Studies to literary writings, investigating the relationship of humans to each other and to nature as played out through the prism of food, or as Heaney wrote: “Things looming large and at the same time […] pinned down in the smallest detail”.

key words

gastrocriticism, Seamus Heaney, food studies, Ireland, foodways, georgic poetry

Thirst

Wet snow drips misery from the rooftops.  
I shouldn't have had that last bottle of beer.
Or the dozen before it. Or that shot of tequila – 
I guess that was not such a brilliant idea.
 
But last night, I was thirsty for beer and adventure
and a glint in your eye told me you were too.
So the drinks had no bottom, and the clock had no meaning,
'til the sky started turning a lighter blue.
 
You bought the first round at the bar of the venue,
a scene we've rehearsed on many a day.
Cold beer in the dark, heartbeat soaring with drumbeat,
and on stage someone sings what we never could say.
 
We picked up more drinks on the way to the party.
It was somebody's birthday, with cake and a grill.
Someone brought out tequila. Someone brought out a camera.
In the pictures you smile as only you will.
 
Early this morning I woke up on your sofa 
and snuck out of the house while you were asleep.
Maybe the next time we meet I will tell you
that it's for you that my thirst runs so deep.
Berlin, January 2013

A thought by Allen Ginsberg

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Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997) was an American poet and one of the leading figures of the Beat Generation of the 1950s and the counterculture of the 1960s. His poems often mix impressions from his life as a Jewish, homosexual intellectual in modern mid-century USA with Eastern mysticism and literary references.

In his prose poem “A Supermarket in California”, he places two famous poets, American Walt Whitman and Spanish surrealist Federico García Lorca, alongside himself in the very mundane setting of a contemporary (1950s) supermarket with its neon lights, stacks of cans, frozen foods and shopping families. It is Walt Whitman that he references most in the poem, not just by name, but by the very form, tone and content of the piece. Continue reading

A thought by Paul Schmidt

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Paul Schmidt (1934-1999) was a US American professor of literature and translator of mainly Russian and German authors (Chekhov, Brecht…). He also wrote poems, plays and essays himself.

The above quote was taken from his essay “A Winter’s Feast”, published in Parnassus – Poetry in Review in 1990. The essay reflects on a passage from Russian author Alexander Pushkin’s novel Eugene Onegin, which was entirely written in verse. Continue reading

A thought by Seamus Heaney

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Seamus Heaney (1939-2013) was an Irish poet, playwright, translator and lecturer. He won the 1995 Nobel Prize for Literature and many other awards besides, honouring his prolific work “of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past.”

Born and raised in Northern Ireland, the topic of the struggle for civil rights and the sectarian violence in the region often shone through his poems. But he sought to reflect the private and apolitical side of it, describing the lives and voices of the people who lived and died in those troubled times.

His poetry was also evocative of his natural surroundings, of the bogs and seasides and not least the local food and foodways. He wrote of picking blackberries, peeling potatoes and eating oysters, “my palate hung with starlight”. The above quote is taken from his poem “Oysters”. It is a mark of his eye for the lyrical details of everyday life that he not only celebrates the food, “philandering sigh of the ocean”, but also the gift of friendship.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!