In an earlier post I quoted a lovely poem by Elizabeth Burns. She responded by leading me to two other poems about porridge – or about how one is linked to other people through preparing and eating it.
The first is by James McGonigal, and was published in The Dark Horse 24 (Winter 2009.2010) http://www.thedarkhorsemagazine.com (my thanks for the permission to quote it).
My granny made porridge first thing
with the same untroubled movements
of hand and eye, the same patience
that she gave to her night prayers.
It is a holy and wholesome thought
to eat porridge and pray for the dead
every day of your life, I now think,
reaching down a white bowl from its shelf.
The ‘first things’ are both the things he learned from his grandmother, the kind of life she represented, and the routine of porridge as the first thing in the morning, as prayers are for her the last thing as night. I think I can call it a porridge poem, because the porridge is not incidental. Porridge here can’t be replaced with bacon and eggs or muesli; it is part of a routine, it takes time (particularly if one sets out the pinhead oats to soak the night before) and it takes attention, the ‘untroubled movements / of hand and eye’. I like the way in the second stanza the line-ending noun ‘thought’ parallels and contrasts with the verb ‘I think’; the general moral, with the generic ‘you’, changes to ‘I now think’, and the ‘I’ in the present reenacting the movement and coming to this understanding. I’m thinking about the white bowl.
Elizabeth also led me to Galway Kinnell’s wonderful ‘Oatmeal’:
‘I am aware that it is not good to eat oatmeal alone.
Its consistency is such that it is better for your mental health if somebody eats it with you.'
So he invites Keats.
I won’t quote more because the poem is on-line with the poet’s wonderfully deadpan reading: http://www.poetryarchive.org/poetryarchive/singlePoem.do?poemId=2641
Again the porridge is not incidental, not just what he happens to choose for breakfast. In the lines I have quoted, there is an echo of the standard advice about alcohol, and he goes on to give one of the most unappealing descriptions in all these literary porridges, which is saying a lot. While in ‘First Things’ the porridge links to his grandmother and a tradition of living, in ‘Oatmeal’ it links to Keats and a tradition of poetry as a practical, everyday craft, the great poets sharing their working processes.
Reading about the Kinnell poem led me to Jeffrey Cane Robinson, who tracked down another bit of porridge and poetry I’ve come across several times as a kind of proverbial expression: ‘What porridge had John Keats?’ OK, you knew already, but I didn’t, though I should have – it is the last line of Robert Browning’s ‘Popularity’. It is a part of a very complex analogy to the poetic tradition, but if I read it right, the later flashier poets get the turtle soup and claret that comes with popular success, while the poet who made this possible (who fished out the source of the brilliant colour in the poem’s metaphor), eats porridge. (Oh no, porridge as poverty again). So I guess Browning's poem is one reason Kinnell invites Keats and not that other porridge eater, Wordsworth.