The speaker in Mark Strand’s “Eating Poetry” is transformed so much by his consumption of poetry that he frightens a librarian with his animalistic behavior. At first glance, the poem focuses on the literal and visceral consumption of poetry by the speaker and how it transforms him into a doglike creature. On closer inspection, the poem deals much more with the difference in how people experience and consume poetry, specifically the drastically different ways the man and the librarian both enjoy it. In assuming that the librarian also appreciates poetry, the reader is led to wonder why she has never transformed like the speaker.
In the first stanza of the poem, the speaker tells the reader, almost as if in a clandestine confession, that his happiness is due to his consumption of poetry. At first the reader is unsure as to whether or not this sentence is to be taken metaphorically—perhaps the speaker is actually a dog acting as a man? This is disproved later on in the poem, which hints that the meaning of the poem is more than its surface metaphors. Eventually, when “the poems are gone”, he experiences the first of several changes in mood, which also leads to a tonal shift in the poem (Line 7). His joy begins to turn into sadness, mirrored in the librarian’s behavior at the sight of the man’s destruction. The effect of the poetry on the speaker is highlighted when he references and describes dogs that “are on the basement stairs and coming up” as if they are on wild or insane (Line 9). These dogs become an important symbol, as the speaker’s consumption of poetry leads him to seemingly transform into one of them. It is as if the dogs are hungry for more poetry. Perhaps they were once men like the speaker, and have consumed so much poetry that their being has been permanently transformed. Their arrival brings the tone of the poem quickly from sadness into chaos. The speaker’s transformation is spurred on by the appearance of the dogs. He embraces their chaos and becomes one of them. This is mirrored in the form of the poem itself, as the last two stanzas contain the only instances of end rhyme throughout the poem. This is meant to finalize the transformation itself and show how happy the speaker is once he is transformed. From this chaos and transformation, the tone of the poem and the mood of the man shifts back to the joy from the beginning: he is a “new man, / [he] snarl[s] at her and bark[s], [he] romp[s] with joy in the bookish dark.” (Lines 16-18). The poetry he consumed has taken him and become a part of him, changing his being into something much more primal.
This display of primal behavior, the speaker’s need for poetry and immediate transformation, is deeply upsetting to the librarian because it is not something she has experienced. Even “[h]er eyes are sad” when she sees the damage the man has caused to the poetry in the library (Line 5). The librarian is drawn into the chaotic mood when her at-first demure attitude and quiet sadness later become outright weeping. As librarians are the protectors of all things literary and treat the written word with a reverence, she is devastated at the destruction of something she is meant to safeguard. She would never dream of destroying poetry in the way that the man has in his consumption. Her discomfort with the man’s actions are also highlighted in the form of the poem. Line 5 showcases the Strand’s only use of enjambment. All of the other lines end in some kind of punctuation, mostly periods. They are very concise phrases, while line 5 is much more fluid. This use of enjambment serves to show that the librarian reacts to the destruction of the poetry immediately without being able to hide her feelings. She is horrified at his actions.
While the librarian is upset at the man’s treatment of poetry, her discomfort may also stem from confusion. On a deeper inspection of the poem, the focus shifts from the speaker’s actions and the librarian’s subsequent horror to the discomfort of the librarian. “She does not understand” how the man can treat poetry in such a harsh manner because she has always been taught to revere the words (Line 13). The issue is not that she is upset, but that she cannot figure out why the man would do such a thing. From her literary perspective, poetry should not be abused or destroyed. The chaos his consumption of poetry and transformation brings is not something that she is comfortable with, nor is it a thing she has ever experienced herself, as poetry has never transformed her the way the it has for the man. The librarian serves to remind the reader that experience and the way we consume poetry is individual and personal.
The amount of shock and dismay the librarian reacts to the situation with indicates this personal experience. Because everyone consumes things in different ways, the man and the librarian are experiencing the same situation very dissimilarly. He voraciously consumes the poetry and allows it to transform him and the way he acts. For him, this is the ultimate tribute and act of love for the words he has internalized. They became a piece of him and he is made of them. For the librarian, on the other hand, poetry is a ritual. It is a sacrament and to be respected. Neither way is right or wrong, but the way they each love the words is a very intimate and personal experience. Her discomfort is a result of seeing something she loves torn up and destroyed in the teeth of the speaker. She is frightened of the way it transforms him because poetry has never affected her like that. In his trying to show her the way the poetry has made him feel, in an almost apologetic fashion, when he “lick[s] her hand,” she is horrified to the point of screaming because his animalistic behaviour is outside of her comfort zone. (Line 14).
The meaning of this poem is much more than its first impression. The first impression the reader gets is one of a dog, speaking as a man, destroying a librarian’s poetry. The entire poem can be read very literally like this, from the man eating poetry to his “get[ting] on [his] knees” like one of the dogs (Line 14). However, the metaphor is much deeper on closer inspection. Strand creates a parallel between the man, transformed into something animalistic by the words he has read, and the bookish librarian to comment on the process of personal experience. Two people can love the same thing in very different ways. The difference does not make either of their feelings lesser or invalid, but does make it difficult for one to understand the other. Strand plays off of the intimate personal experience that comes from loving something so much that it affects your being, and how that affectation looks to outsiders.