Study Guide

Eating Poetry Analysis

By Mark Strand

  • Sound Check

    The lines are succinct and Strand's language is straightforward in "Eating Poetry." Even if the actual content seems ridiculous, the sound of the poem comes to us so matter-of-factly that we can't help but believe what we're reading.

    It's no accident that Strand chose to be particularly precise with his diction and syntax in this poem, considering that some of the themes we've addressed involve personal experience. There's no need to go overboard with explaining one's own experience, because—no matter if it's 10 words or 100—those outside of the experience will never fully grasp what it's all about. Sometimes saying "she does not understand," is explanation enough.

    In "Eating Poetry," then, we don't get a ton of sound-games being played. Generally, the poem uses sound to punch up its more surreal imagery by drawing attention to those moments in a subtle fashion. For instance, we get the alliteration of "blond" and "burn" and "brush," which helps make those extra surreal moments of burning dogs even more memorable and vivid without saying too much (11). We also get some long E assonance in the very next line ("feet" and "weep") and then again with "knees" (14) and "scream" (15). These subtle, sonic echoes only highlight the more intense moments of this poem, calling our attention to the sound level, as well as the content. (As if burning dogs weren't interesting enough? Sheesh.)

  • What's Up With the Title?

    If Strand's title "Eating Poetry" doesn't set us up for some pretty weird stuff, we're not sure what would. The very idea of eating something that's not only inedible, but also the very thing we're reading, makes us consider that strange action on many different levels.

    On the one hand, we might think of the more general idea of "eating" those experiences that we enjoy so much. We've got to have every last part of it. On the other, we might think more specifically about the experience of reading poetry. When we read (or eat) a poem, we internalize our understanding of what the poet is saying based on our own experiences and personalities. We each chew things over and swallow them in our own time (kind of like a herd of poetry-eating cows).

    Strand is suggesting that anything goes when it comes to our personal experiences, whether we're talking about poetry or panini. Perhaps that's why the effects of eating poetry can be so unpredictable. We might suggest putting a warning on anything that causes flaming dogs to show up when you eat it. Our speaker reminds us, though, that it's all part of the joy of (eating) poetry.

  • Setting

    Okay, let's see: we've got a librarian, a guy eating poems, and some burning dogs climbing up the stairs. Suffice it to say that we can't exactly pin down any sort of conventional setting in "Eating Poetry." Are we in a badly-run library, or a really nice animal shelter? The presence of the librarian and the poems suggests that we're in a library, where there's lots of poetry to be found (or eaten).

    Strand is known for having these kinds of dreamlike settings that are difficult to categorize. And since he writes a lot about individuals struggling in their own metaphorical darkness, it makes sense that he wouldn't have any cookie cutter settings. So instead we see settings like libraries suddenly take on a more surreal look with burning dogs coming up from the basement and a weeping librarian stamping her feet.

    So yes, we're more than likely in a library, but don't expect the goings-on here to look anything like your local neighborhood reading spot. Instead, it's better to think of this library as resembling our speaker's mind. As the setting shifts between joy and surrealistic darkness, we're asked to think of our speaker's changing mood. In the end, the dark setting is something that the speaker can embrace and romp around it. Poetry's transformed him, just as it's transformed the library he's now playing fetch in.

  • Speaker

    Where would we be without our poetry-eating dog-man speaker? Imagine if we heard this poem from the librarian's perspective. It would no doubt sound a whole lot different. But since we get a firsthand account from the guy who's eating the poems and seeing burning dogs, all the weirdness seems oddly familiar to us. It's as if he brings us into his surreal world where things like this actually happen and there's no need for too much explanation.

    First-person point of view really matters in "Eating Poetry." And the speaker's matter-of-fact tone makes the poem believable, or at least makes it feel relatively real. His cool, dry sense of humor makes it even quirkier as he satirically confesses, "I have been eating poetry."

    But the speaker also accents the poem's themes of personal experience and the absurdity of trying to convey those experiences to others. He's perfectly at home with his sudden transformation that comes after eating poetry, and he doesn't worry too much about snarling and barking at the librarian. And since he "romps with joy in the bookish dark," we also get the sense that he's found a nice balance between his initial joy and the darkness that comes after eating all the poems. He gives way to the transformative experience of the poetry, and seems to embrace a more primal element of his nature. By doing so, he models for us readers just how radical an effect poetry can have on your life. It can totally change the whole way you think and behave. Thanks for the lesson, poetry eating dog-man speaker. You're one wild dude.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (4) Base Camp

    If it weren't for those burning dogs and the fact that our speaker is eating poetry, we would have given this one an easier rating. But all the weird stuff, no matter how plain the language is, keeps us scratching our heads. And since there's room for interpretation, we might find ourselves walking around in circles trying to figure it all out. Then again, all the ridiculousness is cause for laughter and celebration, so it can't be all that bad. Put a smile on your shaggy face and come take a romp through this poem with Shmoop.

  • Calling Card

    Dreamlike and Dry

    If you come across another Strand poem, it'll more than likely look something like a dream or manifestation of the speaker's thought process. In other words, you're bound to see a lot of shifts in mood, setting, and tone to accompany the speaker's changing thoughts.

    But don't expect Strand to get all weepy and emotional on you. He might talk about emotions a lot, but you won't catch him getting all sentimental on you. Instead, his tone will often sound like it does in "Eating Poetry," either dryly humorous or coolly discursive (meaning he freely moves from one thought to another).

    At the same time though, he's apt to be very precise with his word choice, so it's not as if he'll burden you with pages and pages worth of thoughtful explanation. He keeps it simple and he keeps it on point. Check out another poem here that provides a good idea of what we mean by Strand-like.

  • Form and Meter

    Free Verse, With Scattered Couplets

    With a title like "Eating Poetry," we get the feeling from the start that what we're reading isn't going to fit into any conventional boxes of form and meter. And in this case, we're right on the mark. At first glance, the poem looks pretty neat, organized in only six regular stanzas with three lines in each. But when we look more closely, we notice that Strand isn't too keen on metrical patterns and cute couplet pairs. 

    In fact, there are only two instances of perfect end rhymes in the poem, including lines 13-14 ("understand" and "hand") and the final two, lines 17-18 ("bark" and "dark"). Both couplet pairs are kind of freely thrown in there in a way that isn't forced or severely prescribed. So, why so loosey-goosey, Mr. Strand? Why all the aversion to those pretty forms and meters?

    For one thing, we know Strand is not your run-of-the-mill poet, interested in crafting lyrical sonnets. He did a lot of growing up in the '60s, so the guy is more interested in experimenting with different ideas and less interested in flexing his conventional metrical muscles. In "Eating Poetry" it's pretty clear to us that the surreal and dreamlike content is supposed to sound just as free as those fluctuating experiences of joy and darkness.

    In a lot of ways, then, the poem's lines come to us just as freely as our own thoughts and experiences would. Without a prescribed meter, it also sounds rather natural and conversational, which again is part of Strand's notable style. (Check out "Calling Card" for more on that.)

  • Eating Poetry

    The idea of "eating poetry" might make us chuckle a little, or think that our poet is really crazy about poetry (or, you know, just plain crazy). Whichever way we read it, the surreal imagery announced in the title tends to stick with us right from the get-go. We know things are going to get weird, but we also get the sense that there's more going on here than just a dog-man cramming poems in his mouth.

    • Lines 1-3: The first stanza paints the image precisely with a matter-of-fact tone that tells us this is really happening. The speaker is thoroughly enjoying himself, and there's no need for too much explanation.
    • Lines 7-8: It's like reaching the bottom of a Ben & Jerry's container. The "poems are gone" and the lights are dim so that joyous moment is beginning to wane. So, we get the sense that "eating poetry" is just like anything else we enjoy. The moment can't last forever.
    • Line 18: By the end though, the speaker "romps with joy in the bookish dark." So even though things got a little dark for a moment, the joy that comes with all that poetry eating is what we're left with (as is the speaker).
  • The Librarian

    We kind of feel bad for her, right? She's sad, she's got some dog-man eating poems in her library, and she just doesn't get any of it. At the same time though, she also represents the inability of any outside party to truly understand someone else's personal experience. So, even if we feel bad for her, we also get that this is just the reality behind any individual experience. She might also be representative of the bookish types who are awfully well read, but still don't get the world around them (or those weird, delicious poems).

    • Lines 4-6: She sees the speaker chowing down on some poems and she can't believe it. But after seeing how happy he is, she can't help but think about how unhappy she is. 
    • Lines 12-13: Here she's stamping her feet and weeping because she just doesn't understand anything that's going on. By now her sadness has escalated while the speaker is feeling right at home with all the weirdness, since he's the one experiencing it.
    • Lines 14-15: Now the speaker is licking her hand, as if things weren't weird enough. By now she's frightened and she "screams." So we get the sense that her inability to understand has also made her feel afraid of what she's seeing from an outsider's perspective.
  • Burning Dogs

    No need to call ASPCA—these burning dogs are not your fluffy best friends. At first they look rather hellish, with rolling eyeballs and burning legs. And since they come up from the basement (some kind of underworld), we know they can't be bringing good news. But they're also a big part of the speaker's joyous transformation after eating all that poetry. So there's something of a silver lining in their presence, especially when he himself essentially turns into one of them and licks the librarian's hand. Yum.

    • Line 9: The dogs look pretty ominous here as they come up from the basement. Dogs stuck in basements aren't the happiest pups in the world. And since they "come up" after the poems are gone, we get the sense that they represent some of the speaker's darker thoughts and feelings.
    • Lines 10-11: Since their eyeballs are rolling and their legs are burning, they're looking pretty hellish at this point. They don't strike us as too friendly.
    • Lines 16-18: But even though they look hellish, they still have a pretty significant influence on our speaker, who's now snarling, barking, and romping with joy. So it's as if they're part of him now, or as if he's joined their pack. If they represent some of the speaker's darker thoughts, it makes sense that they'd be part of him. If we see this as him joining their pack, it could mean that the poetry has transformed him into a someone (or something) more in touch with his animalistic, primal nature. (Cue the wolf howls.)
  • Steaminess Rating


    The librarian doesn't look too sexy in this poem, but then again neither does the poetry-eating speaker. And don't even get us started about the hellish dogs. It's all rather dreamlike here, but in a decidedly unsexy way.