Today’s poem is a reminder that we are never too old for imaginary play. If Galway Kinnell can share a bowl of oatmeal with John Keats and then write a fantastic poem about it, what’s stopping us from rediscovering the powers of play? Maybe it’s exactly what we need during times like these. Try listening to Kinnell read his poem as you follow along with the text.
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 got him 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.
Poetry is meant to be heard. It’s always a treat to hear poets read their poems, but, when that’s not possible, you can try reading it aloud to yourself. Reading a poem aloud forces us to slow down and hear each word instead of skimming over the text quickly in our heads. Not unlike song lyrics, words in a poem will take on new meaning when we hear them. The number of times someone has told me, “Oh, I like this poem after hearing it,” or “I didn’t get this poem until I heard it,” is countless.
Some questions for reflection:
- How did listening to the poem change your impression of it?
- How has play helped you spice up the “gluey lumpishness” of these pandemic days?
- What artist — poet, musician, painter, chef, etc. — dead or alive, would you invite to breakfast?
“Oatmeal” by Galway Kinnell from, When One Has Lived a Long Time Alone, 1990. Copyrighted material used for educational or therapeutic purposes.
Photo: Getty Images