Stacey Harwood-Lehman, poet laureate of the New York Greenmarkets and New School faculty member (where she teaches ‘Food Narratives’), serves as our Medium of the Month for October. She brings the voices of poets past to The Inquisitive Eater this Halloween season. Welcome, Stacey.
M.F.K. Fisher (1908-1992), could count among her many admirers the poet W. H. Auden (1907-1973) who in his introduction to Fisher’s “The Art of Eating” (MacMillan, 1954) boldly states: “I do not know anyone in the United States today who writes better prose.” He cites several examples, including the passage below.
“I now feel that gastronomical perfection can be reached in these combinations: one person dining alone, usually upon a couch or a hillside; two people, of no matter what sex or age, dining in a good restaurant; six people, of no matter what sex or age, dining in a good home. . . A good combination would be one married couple, for warm composure; one less firmly established, to add a note of investigation to the talk; and two strangers of either sex, upon whom the better-acquainted could sharpen their questioning wits . . .” (The Art of Eating, pg. 738)
Isn’t’ that terrific? Fisher’s conviction and specificity are qualities that make her writing so enjoyable, and so difficult to imitate, though many have tried.The essay from which the is taken passage (“From A to Z: The Perfect Dinner”) likely inspired Auden’s poem “Tonight at 7:30.” in which he translates into poetry what Fisher describes so deftly in prose. Here is a representative excerpt:
comity the gathering should be small and unpublic:
at mass banquets where flosculent speeches are made
in some hired hall
we think of ourselves or nothing. Christ’s cenacle
seated a baker’s dozen, King Arthur’s rundle
the same, but today, when one’s host may well be his own
chef, servitor and scullion,
when the cost of space can double in a decade,
even that holy Zodiac number is
too large a frequency for us:
in fact, six lenient semble sieges,
none of them perilous,
Is now a Perfect
Social number. But a dinner party,
is a worldly rite that nicknames or endearments
diminutives would profane: two doters who wish
to tiddle and curmurr between the soup and fish
belong in restaurants, all children should be fed
earlier and be safely in bed.
Well-liking, though, is a must: married maltalents
engaged in some covert contrast can spoil
an evening like the glance
of a single failure in the toil
of his bosom grievance.
At Auden’s imaginary dinner, he envisions “a table / at which the youngest and oldest present / keep the eye grateful / for what Nature’s bounty and grace of Spirit can create . . ” He takes Fisher’s straightforward advice and with his technical virtuosity and wit creates a work of art. His rich and unusual vocabulary, which he uses even in his rhyme words (“cenacle,” “rundle”), is a special pleasure. “Tonight at 7:30” comprises seven stanzas, each written in the same unique form. You won’t find it on line. To read it in full, visit the library or, even better, buy a collection of Auden’s poems, an investment that you will never regret.
feature image via Best American Poetry.
See Stacey Harwood-Lehman’s other work as our Medium of the Month here.