Galway Kinnell

poetry

Blackberry Eating

I love to go out in late September
among fat, overripe, icy, black blackberries
to eat blackberries for breakfast,
the stalks very prickly, a penalty
they earn for knowing the black art
of blackberry-making; and as I stand among them
lifting the stalks to my mouth, the ripest berries
fall almost unbidden to my tongue,
as words sometimes do, certain peculiar words
like strengths or squinched or broughamed,
many-lettered, one-syllabled lumps,
which I squeeze, squinch open, and splurge well
in the silent, startled, icy, black language
of blackberry-eating in late September.

– – –

The other night in my poetry class, we talked about poems like this. Thick, juicy poems, poems that drip, that fill you up like a meal, that leave you drunk like a bottle of red wine. Poems that leave you woozy and red-faced. Poems so filled with language, when you finish reciting them or hearing them recited, you just feel…lost. Drunk. We talked about William Carlos William’s plums, and the way you can feel them, almost, in your mouth. This is something more…this is a prayer to blackberries. Black tends to get a bad rap as a color. Here, the black is so black it has become something more…black’s ability as a pigment is to absorb, and here I feel absorbed, enveloped by the black of the blackberries. I feel buried in the crevices between the little lumps. “The black art of blackberry making.” Ah…

More than anything this is an example of wordplay in its highest form, and a showing of the power repetition has in language. His words are mostly polysyllabic, or else long monosyllables, like “black” itself, a word that stretches out from its vowel, as absorbent as its namesake. And then words like “September,” “overripe,” “prickly,” “ripest,” “unbidden,” “peculiar,” “startled” and “language.” Big words full of tongue motions. (Compare again to Williams; his poem is far simpler in its language, and that is where its success lies.) Kinnell goes so far as to single out particular words that remind him of blackberry eating, “strengths,” “squinch,” and “broughamed.” What’s unique about these word choices is that none of them have anything to do remotely with eating: “strengths” we understand; “squinch” is similar to squint; “brougham” is a horse-drawn carriage. Here Kinnell has made a separation between a word’s sound and its meaning, a rare feat. He has found sounds that remind him of blackberries, not word-meanings. This is the sort of thing poets try and fail at their whole lives. In this case the success is palpable, and it’s delicious.

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Percy Shelley
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Found Poetry: The Sandwich

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