Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Informal analysis of Jack Gilbert's 'Hunger'

The title of the poem is abstract but it carries an emotional weight – I immediately think of starvation, of need, while my initial response to the poem on the page, the vertical shape of it, and the repetitions my eye picks up even before reading it from line to line, suggests a journey of some urgency.

The first line with its hard consonants and continuous present tense also communicates and reinforces this sense of urgency – we have come across the poet/narrator in the middle of an action, no preliminary details, no introduction, we’re as involved as he is in this activity of ‘digging’, a verb which we might not initially associate with eating, or taking apart, a piece of fruit.

As I continue on with the poem I begin to realise that this poem isn’t about eating, at least not in the traditional sense. It is more about searching for something, about discovery. The present participles continue - digging, scraping, refusing, digging, turning, feeling, getting, going, not taking, getting – and they’re reminiscent of the language we’d naturally associate with an archaeological dig, the hard earth being dug away, the soft earth cleared, going below the surface. We even have images of clogged nails and going deeper that resonate further with the idea of the possible discovery of something valuable that lies under the earth.

I actually begin to feel quite physically uncomfortable while reading the poem. Eating an apple is generally a pleasant experience, yet here I’m affected by the discomfort of the clogged nails, then the poet’s explicit statement of the sweet juice running over his hands unpleasantly. He compounds this with the violent word gouge, the sensation of the juice as sticky, and the skin itching. We’re made to feel that this is ‘dirty’ work, and also ‘hands on’ work – something we have to get involved with at a physical level.

It’s also interesting how the poem moves from pleasant images of the moon colour of the flesh and the smell and memories associated with a sweet apple, and works towards less appealing images of chunks and stickiness and the hard wooden part. Though the hardness, or difficulty, doesn’t stop him. He goes beyond that to reach the seeds, an image that suggests the beginnings of something new, of growth, of hope, at which point we might have expected him to stop. Because if this poem is working as an extended metaphor, then surely reaching the ‘heart’ of something, the seeds at the centre of the apple, would be the desired destination, wouldn’t it?

But no, the poet urges going on and getting beyond the seeds. The line that interrupts these two phrases (Not taking anyone’s word for it.) is the only line in the poem that shifts us away from the concrete physical activity, yet it also uses the language of metaphor. We don’t literally ‘take’ someone’s word. We ‘accept’ intellectually or emotionally what other people tell us.

It seems to me that the poet here might be referring to the idea of ‘received learning’. I can’t help but associate the image of the apple/fruit with the Bible story of Adam and Eve and its issues of obedience and the poem has given me a greater insight into how I’ve previously interpreted that myth.

I’ve always seen the judgement of Eve as unfair. Why shouldn’t she have eaten of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil if she wanted to. Why should limitations be imposed upon her by an omniscient (and very male) god?

With the benefit of reading this poem I’m now considering an alternative interpretation. Eve’s taking of the fruit could symbolise a refusal to think for herself. The easy option of eating the fruit from a tree already in existence could represent her ‘eating’ someone else’s knowledge in favour of developing her own and learning ‘the hard way’ from her own experiences.

Gilbert uses the apple as a symbol for something that holds much more inside of itself, more than we already know. We might be told it’s an apple and it’s good for us, but if we stopped to think for ourselves we might look at it again, and end up going beyond the flesh and the juice (the easy parts of learning) to the wooden core and find the seeds. But to stop at the seeds isn’t enough either. They still represent the seeds of someone else’s knowledge. To be really authentic we need to get beyond those too, and become the creator of our own seeds.

As a poet I feel the poem works as a very successful metaphor for the writing process during which I do dig, and refuse to accept the first ideas and images that surface (moon flesh and sweet juice) in order to discover what lies beneath them.

It’s true that the images I first write down can end up being unpleasantly sweet - too easy or cliched. And, at times, the editing process does feel like gouging out chunks. And it can make me feel physically uncomfortable – itchy – as if the writing is still at a stage of being prickly and uncomfortable. And the wooden part feels very true too! All writers have the experience of hitting a ‘wall’ – the feeling that we might not get through this barrier.

The image of the seeds threw up a feeling of paradox for me at first – isn’t this what I start with? The seeds of fleeting ideas and images that arrive suddenly, or are noticed arbitrarily? The poem makes me wonder about my creative process – that before the seeds can arrive I have to cultivate or prepare the ground. In this way I’m going beyond the seeds. I am responsible for creating a place for those ideas and images to be received. For me this is a state of mind that’s receptive and open, rather than resistant to change and possibilities.

Gilbert’s apparently simple structure of repeated grammatical phrases draws us into the poem. The simplicity of the language allows the poem to be accessible on the surface level yet the familiar metaphorical verbs take us to a deeper level very quickly so the idea of the poem as an extended metaphor is realised without any real effort.

The repeated present participles also act as rhyme within the poem – they have a unifying effect that pulls each action into another, almost drags the reader along with their insistent patterning.

His line breaks generally follow the pattern of natural breath pauses, as if we are too having to stop for breath at each stage of this activity. Sometimes the images are confined to single end-stopped line, as in moon color and smell and memories and this feels appropriate for the pause we might have to make to consider the loveliness of what we are refusing before making ourselves go on.

On other occasions the images extend over two lines for clarity as different senses are dealt with – the implied taste of sweet juice followed by the sensation of touch: running along my hands. There is, I feel, a particularly successful line break with on my wrists. The skin itching/ which connects the two images and allows us to read the line backwards and forwards, a technique that also acts as a unifying tool, uniting each step of this process.

However, the last five lines of the poem are all end-stopped lines. They add a rhythm and weight to the seriousness of each statement. They reinforce the idea of any process being constructed around steps. And the last line with its image of the unknown – going beyond the seeds – avoids closing the poem down, leaves it open for the reader to ponder the possibilities that might exist there.

I admire the deceptive simplicity of this poem. It uses straightforward concrete language to express something profound. And the universality of the language makes the poem open to interpretation in all sorts of processes – not just the creative arts. The use of repetition is both a warning and an encouragement. It says: this will not be easy, it will take hard work, yet it’s worth working towards an absolute beginning, something that will be your own hard-earned creation.

© Lynne Rees 2010


martin cordrey said...


there are times when i realise
the limitations of my vocabulary

and why i love words so much

Glenn Buttkus said...

A good poem, like a good painting, can be read and stared at freshly, daily, and the interpretations
are nearly inexhaustable. Like watching a film, listening to a piece of music. We are creatures of perception, and are limited to the experiences, the gems of wisdom, the emotional spectrum, of that moment in our life; processing it through the membranes
and tissues of our self, and the etherial delights of our intellect.
Your discourse was in depth, and it pointed out that the process of
analysis and criticism can be never ending, continuous, regenerating. Thanks for the lesson.

Anonymous said...

Great analysis, Lynne.
I scribbled a few sentences, but after reading your analysis I don't want to post mine now, which I think is too shallow.

Anonymous said...

Really enjoyed reading the poem alongside your analysis. It did prompt me to write:

Feeling lost

she takes the fruit in both hands
before balancing its leathery skin
slicing it clean with a sharpened knife
watching the red juice running, staining,
dripping ruby drops across her fingers

she pushes aside the flood of juice,
tears at pulp, searches segments,
scrapes the yellow membrane, delves
into glistening chambers to devour
seeds, taste their sweet sharpness

Glenn Buttkus said...

Jack Gilbert, 85 now, growing up in Pittsburgh during the depression is one of the least known of the "best American poets"; twice nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, he had only published 4 books in 50 years. He came up with the Beat poets in the 50's, and lived and toured in Europe in the 60's. Only recently has he published Book Five: THE DANCE MOST OF ALL. I love the statement written by his publisher, Gordon Lish,
"Why I like Jack Gilbert's poetry and why I think Jack Gilbert is one of the best American poets, and why I publish Jack Gilbert's books is, was, and shall be to bring about the embarrassment of the power of discrimination in force in the assembly of fucking Harold Bloom's fucking canonicity list. The End."
Who is Harold Bloom? What is this referencing?

Lynne Rees said...

That's the kind of publisher quote you don't read often! LOL

Harold Bloom is a critic who has the reputation of being the bees knees in the literary world. It might give you an idea of his seriousness if I tell you, and I quote, he 'learnt to speak english by reading the works of William Blake'.

I only really know one of his books - How to Read and Why - which is very insightful if rather heavy.

I imagine that Gordon Lish prefers the non-didactic, very human, accessible poetry of JG to the critical elitism that does scent the literary world. I do too.

Lane Savant said...

Thanks for your comments on "freeze dried life"
It's nice to know somebody gets it.
Pity I forgot the title to "Blood donor.
Sic Semper Erato and all that polyphony.

Lynne Rees said...

Hello Anonymous - Your poem, Feeling Lost, is a vivid response to the Gilbert poem. Thanks for posting.

In fact there's a great writing exercise where you 'write back' to a poem - I'll post it either this month or next.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Lynne. It's an early draft .. not yet saying what I want it to.. but it's a start.

Anonymous said...

making some progress, I think..possibly:

coming home

she wonders where they have gone,
how they slipped away, leaving gaps
of silence, like broken frames in an old film,
a banquet once full, now emptied,
chairs cast aside, a table almost bare

she takes the fruit in both hands
before balancing its leathery skin,
slicing half moons with a sharpened knife,
watching the red juice running, staining,
dripping ruby drops across her fingers

she welcomes the flood of juice,
searches segments, scrapes yellow membrane,
guards herself against seeds scattering,
delves into each glistening chamber,
devouring such sweet sharpness