The Bean Eaters
by Gwendolyn Brooks
Stanza 1 Summary
Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
They eat beans mostly, this old yellow pair.
- Here's the thing about eating beans: they're sort of the Ramen noodles of the past century. In fact, they're the cheaper version of Ramen. Yeah. Don't get us wrong – Ramen can be really tasty, especially at three in the morning. But, chances are, if you're faced with a plate full of Ramen or a big, juicy hamburger, you'd probably take the burger. When it comes right down to it, Ramen (or, for this couple, beans) are what you eat when you've spent every last dollar.
- It makes sense, then, that an elderly couple who eats beans every day probably isn't doing so because they think beans are simply the tastiest things they've every come across. Nope. Chances are good that they just can't afford anything else.
- Note how our speaker doesn't really tell us much at all about the present condition of her two subjects. Sure, we know that they're old and that they're "yellow" – which makes us guess that they're probably black, since Brooks tends to write about the black community in Chicago's South Side. But we don't know that for sure. And our speaker seems to like keeping our knowledge to a bare minimum.
Dinner is a casual affair.
Plain chipware on a plain and creaking wood,
- Hey, we all know about casual dinners, right? Pizza on the couch? Sticking a fork into whatever container of leftovers you found in the fridge?
- Well, this poem's definition of "casual" is slightly more tongue-in-cheek than those dinners. In fact, the old couple seems to be "casual" because they can't afford to be anything else.
- Chipware, in case you were wondering, isn't a fancy brand of dinner plates. They're just plates that are – you guessed it – chipped. They're old. Broken. And even when they were new, they were probably "plain" like the "plain" table that they're placed upon.
- Notice how our speaker repeats the word "plain" twice so that we won't miss it? It's a good way to emphasize that these people aren't poor because they blew all their money on fancy cars or expensive gadgets. They've always had plain, serviceable things. If they're poor, then it's probably not because they're just tend to spend their money extravagantly.
- Keep an eye out for all of the things in this poem – we're warning you now, there's a lot of them. In fact, things seem to outnumber people by a good measure. Why? Well, we're not really sure. We're guessing, though, that this is Brooks's way of circling around the people she's describing without beating us over the head with the exact circumstances of their lives. We learn about the people through their plates. It's actually pretty sneaky. And clever.