Kevin’s Much-Loved Poems: “Oatmeal” by Galway Kinnell

This is the eighth in a series of columns that feature a much-loved poem and a second poem that speaks to, or resonates with, that poem. This week’s poem is “Oatmeal,” written by Galway Kinnell in the late 1980s. Kinnell was Poet Laureate of Vermont from 1989 to 1993 and a Nobel prizewinner. A follower of Walt Whitman, most of Kinnell’s tightly-crafted poems reject the idea of seeking fulfillment by escaping into the imaginary world. His best-loved and most anthologized poems are “St. Francis and the Sow” and “After Making Love We Hear Footsteps.”

I chose Kinnell’s poem “Oatmeal” because in it, he does escape into an imaginary world. I’ve heard him read this several times, always with a smile. As you can hear on this 2010 reading, when Galway was 83 years old, the audience is with him all the way, laughing aloud almost from the beginning of the poem: Galway reading “Oatmeal”

 

Oatmeal

by Galway Kinnell

I eat oatmeal for breakfast.
I make it on the hot plate and put skimmed milk on it.
I eat it alone.
I am aware 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.
That is why I often think up an imaginary companion to have breakfast with.
Possibly it is even worse to eat oatmeal with an imaginary companion.
Nevertheless, yesterday morning, I ate my oatmeal porridge,
as he called it with John Keats.
Keats said I was absolutely right to invite him:
due to its glutinous texture, gluey lumpishness, hint of slime,
and unusual willingness to disintegrate, oatmeal should not be eaten alone.
He said that in his opinion, however, it is perfectly OK to eat
it with an imaginary companion, and that he himself had
enjoyed memorable porridges with Edmund Spenser and John Milton.
Even if eating oatmeal with an imaginary companion is not as
wholesome as Keats claims, still, you can learn something from it.
Yesterday morning, for instance, Keats told me about writing the “Ode to a Nightingale.”
He had a heck of a time finishing it those were his words “Oi ‘ad a ‘eck of a toime,” he said,
more or less, speaking through his porridge.
He wrote it quickly, on scraps of paper, which he then stuck in his pocket,
but when he got home he couldn’t figure out the order of the stanzas,
and he and a friend spread the papers on a table, and they
made some sense of them, but he isn’t sure to this day if they got it right.
An entire stanza may have slipped into the lining of his jacket through a hole in his pocket.
He still wonders about the occasional sense of drift between stanzas,
and the way here and there a line will go into the
configuration of a Moslem at prayer, then raise itself up
and peer about, and then lay itself down slightly off the mark,
causing the poem to move forward with a reckless, shining wobble.
He said someone told him that later in life Wordsworth heard about
the scraps of paper on the table, and tried shuffling some
stanzas of his own, but only made matters worse.
I would not have known any of this but for my reluctance to eat oatmeal alone.
When breakfast was over, John recited “To Autumn.”
He recited it slowly, with much feeling, and he articulated the words
lovingly, and his odd accent sounded sweet.
He didn’t offer the story of writing “To Autumn,” I doubt if there is much of one.
But he did say the sight of a just-harvested oat field go thim started
on it, and two of the lines, “For Summer has o’er-brimmed their
clammy cells” and “Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours,”
came to him while eating oatmeal alone.
I can see him drawing a spoon through the stuff, gazing into the glimmering furrows,
muttering. Maybe there is no sublime; only the shining of the amnion’s tatters.
For supper tonight I am going to have a baked potato left over from lunch.
I am aware that a leftover baked potato is damp, slippery, and simultaneously
gummy and crumbly, and therefore I’m going to invite Patrick Kavanagh to join me.

* * *

The poet doesn’t describe oatmeal in any romantic way—”gluey lumpishness, hint of slime, and unusual willingness to disintegrate”—but from that banal, if well-described, beginning, Kinnell takes us on a flight of whimsy, imagining himself dining with John Keats because “it is not good to eat oatmeal alone.” Kinnell wrote this in a period of introversion; he titled the volume he was working on “When a Man Has Lived a Long Time Alone.”

I enjoy the little jab at Wordsworth and the close contemplation of poetry itself that Kinnell brings to this imagined dialog. I also note the long, flowing lines that evoke the rhythms of the Bible, and how, from something as simple as a bowl of oatmeal with skim milk, Kinnell manages to work his way to a discussion of the sublime. But the key take-away for me was that a keen imagination cleverly created whimsy as the logical antidote to loneliness.

* * *

Once a poet moves toward whimsey, the question is how far to go. The poem I feel best resonates with Galway Kinnell’s whimsical “Oatmeal” is probably the most famous “nonsense poem” of all time, “Jabberwocky” by Lewis Carroll. To hear a recording of this poem with the words displayed, press hereIt was included in Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, the follow-on to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.  What makes it a “nonsense poem” is that, when the words are parsed as “normal” English, it makes no sense; it appears to be gibberish. But somehow if a reader goes along with the music of the syllables and accepts Carroll’s inventive neologisms, the poem starts to take shape. Indeed, the poem is a favorite of linguists, who argue its meaning. See this link: A Linguist’s view of Jabberwocky.

Jabberwocky

by Lewis Carroll

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!”

He took his vorpal sword in hand;
Long time the manxome foe he sought—
So rested he by the Tumtum tree
And stood awhile in thought.

And, as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! And through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”
He chortled in his joy.

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

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