Monday, December 17, 2007

Potato Poems

There is one batch of leftovers remaining to be served before the new year. (I take John Cleese's Linkman in Episode 18 as a cautionary tale against letting that metaphor get out of hand. So that'll be all.)

The potato post contained a couple of poems. In putting that together and subsequently, I have collected them in a low-key way. And come to the conclusion that there is pretty much an inexhaustible supply. I don't know how one would measure, really, but potato looks like it might well be the most popular vegetable for poetry.

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To keep the length of this post manageable and avoid copyright problems, I will not quote everything in its entirety. When it is readily available online, I will try to make it clear in the hyperlink that there is more there.

Without too much effort, I acquired two book-length potato poetry anthologies, An Anthology of the Potato and Spud Songs.

An Anthology of the Potato was published in 1961 for the Irish Potato Marketing Company, Ltd., Dublin in an edition of 500. It contains several centuries of Irish potato poems. All the poems are in English, or translated from Irish into English. The title page has this little ditty (apparently without attribution):

We praise all the flowers that we fancy
    Sip the nectar of fruit ere they're peeled,
Ignoring  the common old tater
    When, in fact, he's King of the Field.
Let us show the old boy we esteem him,
    Sort of dig him up out of the mud;
Let us show him he shares our affections
    And crown him with glory—Kind Spud

The opposite end has a list of proverbs, like “Mushrooms and potatoes—they go together.” Which probably means something profound, though I'm not clear what.

The Introduction to the Anthology notes the first “reference in metre to potato” in “An Account of an Irish Quarter” from Songs and Poems of Love and Drollery (1654):

And now for ſupper, the round board being ſpred;
The Van a diſh of coddled Onions led,
I'th' Body led a ſalted tail of Sammon
And in the Rear ſome rank Potatoes came in. (more)

Earlier occurrences outside an Irish context (and so outside the Anthology) run into a problem outlined in the earlier post: the likelihood that the word refers to the sweet potato. Either because of how they are prepared, as in A Terrible Battell (1606?):

Let them not want (I praie) Potato pies, (more)

Or their supposed aphrodisiac properties, as in The Most Elegant and Witty Epigrams (1618):

33 Against an old Lecher.

Since thy third carriage of the French infection,
Priapus hath in thee found no erection:
Yet eat'ſt thou Ringoes, and Potato Rootes,
And Caueare, but it little bootes. (more)

One of the earlier longer poems in the Anthology is “A Lament for the Potatoes in the Year of the Big Frost 1739,” by Seaghan O Connaire (pp. 43-45), which begins:

My great sorrow is that the nobles of the Gael
Are now in great distress,
Because all their means of livelihood
Have been destroyed by frost.

In the winter of 1739-40, the temperature never rose above freezing and was frequently in the single digits Fahrenheit. In London, the Thames froze solid and carriages moved and fairs were held on it. This poem is a translation from the Irish, but I cannot find the source given (RIA MS 23 T 12) in the online Bibliography of Irish Linguistics and Literature. But there is one there on the same topic, “Poem on the Great Frost of 1740”, by Séamas Mac Coitir. It can be found in Éigse 27 (1993; pp. 120-121). And since there's a world-class Irish Studies department down the hill from me, here it is:

Ní cogadh ná cargaill fhada idir airdríthibh
Ná stoirm na mara fé chaismearthaibh bárc biobha
Ná cloistin na n-arm chum leadartha dá líomhadh
Fá ngoilid fir Bhanba, a gclanna 's a mná timpeall,

Acht cogadh na ngarraithe a leagadh 's a lánscaoileadh
Cogadh na gcarad do dhealaigh na potátaí linn,
An cogadh so an tseaca do fearadh ón Airdrí orainn,
Seo an cogadh leo is measa 's is fairsinge ghnáthchaoinid.

Cogadh bheir ainnise is airc agus ár daoine,
Osna agus atuirse is mairg ar mhnáibh tí anois,
Bheir orchra im scartaibhse trasna gach tráth smaoinim
Gurb é moladh na marbh mo theastas a photátaí oraibh.

As listed, the poem occurs (with slight variation) in four manuscripts, but none of them have yet been scanned for (the very fun) Irish Script on Screen. So I haven't used an uncial font. Also, unfortunately, it has the opposite problem as the previous poem. I cannot find an English translation. And I am not up to it myself:

Naturally enough, many of the poems are about potato famines and blights, some with a more satirical tone. For instance, “The Potato Commission” by Professor Edward Forbes (pp. 71-72), which begins:

Have you heard the report—the last Edition—
Sent out by the Great potato commission,
Who crossed the water to find some new
Materials for an Irish stew? (more)

The subject is Peel's 1846 scientific commission to investigate the potato blight. Of additional interest here is a couplet later in the poem:

(Sure never since the days of Plato
    Was there such a row about a rotten potato!)

For all its appeal as a subject for poetry, there aren't many words in English that rhyme with potato. One that does, and is particularly popular in this kind of verse, is Plato. John Emerson, of Idiocentrism and frequent commenter at LanguageHat, traced Plato/potato back through Ransom and Gilbert to Byron's Don Juan (Canto VII, IV.) The same essay appears in the book of Idiocentrism essays, Substantific Marrow, for reading away from a computer (pp. 173-174). He does not quote the entire Byron verse, and since this is ottava rima (abababcc), there must actually be a second potato rhyme:

By Swift, by Machiavel, by Rochefoucault,
    By Fénélon, by Luther, and by Plato;
By Tillotson, and Wesley, and Rousseau,
    Who knew this life was not worth a potato.
'T is not their fault, nor mine, if this be so —
    For my part, I pretend not to be Cato,
Nor even Diogenes. — We live and die,
But which is best, you know no more than I.

The interesting thing is, potato/Cato is much older. In Tobias Smollett's The Reprisal (1757):

The brav'st chief, ev'n Hannibal and Cato,
Have here been tamed with—pinnin and potato. (more)

And the Irish Hudibras (1689):

Who can forget the Learned * Cato
That writ ſo much on a pottado (p. 142; also quoted here in the Potato chapter of a book of Irish songs)

The margin note

This is Cormack Mac Art, ſtyled, the Cato of Ireland. He writ a Treatiſe of the Vertues of a Pottado, beyond the Wiſdom of Solomon, the Knowledge of Ariſtotle, the Rhetorick of Cicero. Con. Clerenaugh, and Mureartagh O Collegan.

does not disqualify it, since the whole work is a parodic “transversion” of Aeneid VI to Fingal: there is no “Cato of Ireland.” Its other potato rhymes are Granadoes (i.e., grenades; p. 3) and Meadows (p. 86), which like potato/tomato only works in some dialects. The Irish Hudibras is also notable for being one of the earlier records of any length of “stage-Irish,” like in Thackerary's “Mr. Molony's Account of the Crystal Palace” (contrasted with Tennyson's somewhat more careful dialect attempt in “Tomorrow” from about the same time) and well through to Vaudeville.

It did not take long for Plato/potato to take hold. From Belfegor (1837 — a verse adaptation Belfagor arcidiavolo):

I deemed it not worth a potato,
Although the progeny of Plato. (more)

Or an interior rhyme from Robert MacNish's “Bacchanalian Song” (1833), “Who cares a potato for Solon or Plato.” Note that this song also has the Aristotle/bottle rhyme.

From Walter Landor's “Shakespeare in Italy” (1863):

I'd rather sup on cold potato,
Than on salmon cookt by Plato, (more)

So that by the turn of the century, the doggerel role is firmly established and things begin to get completely out of hand. “The Future of the Classics”:

No true son of Erin will leave his potato
To list to the love-lore of Ovid or Plato. (more)

Back in the more serious vein, another “A Lament for the Potato : A. D. 1739 : From the Irish” by “Speranza”:

There is woe, there is clamour, in our desolated land,
And wailing lamentation for a famine-stricken band; (more)

I have not seen any full reference to the Irish original. This translation first appeared in 1854, in the Dublin University Magazine, in an essay on “The Food of the Irish,” by Sir William Wilde. “Speranza” is the pen-name of Lady Wilde. Nowadays, this couple is perhaps best remembered as Oscar Wilde's parents. I don't know that Oscar quipped about potatoes in particular, but he did use them as a means of poking fun at the English diet, in an unsigned review of Dinners and Dishes by “Wanderer,” in the Pall Mall Gazette:

There are twenty ways of cooking a potato, and three hundred and sixty-five ways of cooking an egg, yet the British cook up to the present moment knows only three methods of sending up either one or the other.

More famine-inspired poetry can be found in The Hungry Voice : The Poetry of the Irish Famine.

A poem titled “To the Potato,” which was sometimes associated with Robert Burns, begins:

Guid e'en, my auld acquaintance cronie!
I'm glad to see thee bloom sae bonie; (more)

The discussion in Notes and Queries (s4-ii 339-340, 477, 614-615; s4-iv 371-372) seems to conclude that it was actually by an Alexander Clerk, from a book Poems on Various Subjects from 1801.

William Wilkie, “The Scottish Homer,” was known as “Potato Wilkie,” but alas not because of the subject of his poetry, but because he grew them.

Spud Songs : An Anthology of Potato Poems : To Benefit Hunger Relief was published in 1999 for that stated purpose. Most of the contents are included by permission of the living authors. Many major poets are represented, such as Seamus Heaney's “Digging” or Richard Wilbur's “Potato.”

The anthology has not one, but two, instances of the original snowclone, specifically about the number of words for 'potato' in Quechua. Ray Gonzalez contributes “In Peru, the Quechuans Have a Thousand Words for Potato” and Albert GoldbarthMishipasinghan, Lumchipamudana, etc.” I wish I knew where Goldbarth got those words in the title. Of course, at some level this is a not particularly remarkable truth. W. LaBarre's seminal “Potato Taxonomy Among the Aymara Indians of Bolivia” listed a couple hundred identifications and more modern studies of related folk taxonomies have apparently done likewise. And something similar would be expected of an Idaho potato farmer. So, then it is just a matter of what the slippery term word refers to.

Poem is defined rather broadly for some of the works. Nam June Paik contributed a photo of his Couch Potato, now permanently in the Joslyn Art Museum — with its fax machine answering at (402) 342-0091. Otto Piene refines the famous story of the rebus Jeu de paume between Frederick II and Voltaire by having the proposed meal consist of potatoes, which Frederick introduced to Prussia. Unfortunately, I do not think there is a picture online and I hesitate to scan something with so recent a copyright. Piene's is a little different from the usual form, having venez p / a à 6 / 100! (a sous p à cent sous six) “à souper à Sanssouci!” and J a (J grand a petit) “J'ai grand appetit.” And rough sketches of potatoes for themselves. Plus flags, as it would need to be decided which country's produce to have. (Does anyone know where this rebus story originates? Wikipedia is, not atypically, devoid of reference.)

All the poems proper are in English. But Rudolfo Anaya does contribute one titled, “La Papa,” which plays on the difference between papa and papá. It is not online or listed as having been published elsewhere. It begins:

In Spanish potato is papa.
As in papas fritas.
Papas in a chile con carne stew.

Papa is not Papá, which is father,
As in he who brings home the papas.

Pablo Neruda wrote a poem entitled “Oda a la papa,” this time playing on the difference between American Spanish papa and Iberian patata:

te llamas
y no patata, (more — but note that that transcription is imperfect on the next two lines: “no nasieste con barba, / no eres castellana:”; dozens of other copies on the net are incomplete and Google Books is No preview available; the only one I have found that is accurate is deep inside this Spanish lesson)

Translating this into English, Ken Norris has to use the pretend dialectal variation that really only exists for tomato:

you are called
not potahto; (more)

As noted above, it is not at all surprising that Quechua has a rich potato folk taxonomy. And as it is for the Irish, the potato is an important cultural symbol. Now apparently there is a long tradition among linguistic anthropologists of studies of folk taxonomies of hot peppers, aided in no small part by the inclusion of a term with obvious appeal to college students, lāda.balaynum.mahārat.qūtin.kutiq 'cat-penis houseyard chili pepper', in a Hanunóo plant taxonomy by Harold Conklin in these proceedings (work for which he had sought a grant from the James Joyce Society). Thus Joel Sherzer did a careful taxonomy for Kuna in his book and how it is projected in kapur ikar 'the way of the hot pepper', a curing chant for high fever. Which got Paul Friedrich thinking about the “poetry of peppers” in his book on the application of Sapir-Whorf to poetry. Which in turn motivated Regina Harrison to include a “The Poetry of Potatoes” section in the “Potato as Cultural Metaphor” chapter of Signs, Songs, and Memory in the Andes : Translating Quechua Language and Culture. Which gets us back from chili peppers to potatoes. She translates a potato song, of which this is the first verse:

Q'uñi uquchapi
papacha tarpusqay
icha manaraqchu
icha manaraqchu.

In the deep [earth] of Quni,
the potatoes [I] planted,
are they growing yet?
Are they [I wonder]?
Are the [tiny] potatoes forming?
Are they [I wonder]? (p. 190; substantially the same song here)

The earlier potato post included a Japanese potato fart poem, but it was in Classical Chinese, which may be cheating. Robin D. Gill specializes in producing English translations of Japanese poetry, and in particular of those with subject matter outside the usual popular themes, through his Paraverse Press. His The Woman Without a Hole & Other Risky Themes from Old Japanese Poems has a fart chapter (complete Table of Contents) with a yam fart senryū and a related folk-song that the poet, Issa, copied into his journal (pp. 373-374):

屁くらべや芋名月の草の庵  一茶
he-kurabe ya imo-meigetsu no kusa no an issa

comparing farts, for smell, for tune,
a grass hut below the yam full moon

かはい男は芋喰て死んだ 屁をひる度に思ひ出す
kawai otoko wa imo kutte shinda // he o hiru tabi ni omoidasu
(cute man-as-for yam-eating died // fart[obj] cuts time remember)

lover boy choked
on sweet potato tarts
she still recalls him
whenever she farts

Lest it seem that Japanese potato poems are always about flatulence, here is a famous haiku by Bashō about looking for Saigyō's old hut and finding a woman rinsing vegetables in a stream instead:

芋洗ふ女 西行ならば 歌よまむ
imo arau onna / saigyō naraba / uta yoman

A woman washing potatoes;
if Saigyō were here,
he would be write waka. (tr. Blyth)

Since some amount of ambiguity is usual in the form, this one actually has three non-crazy interpretations:

  1. If Saigyo were here, he'd write a waka.
  2. If Saigyō were the one here (i.e., if I, Bashō, were / could be Saigyō), I'd write a waka.
  3. If Saigyō were here, she (the woman) would write a waka.

More generally, potato is a 季語 kigo 'season word', required in a standard haiku:

  • Spring: 馬鈴薯 / 芋 植える bareisho / imo ueru 'planting potato(es)'; 種芋 tane imo 'seed potato(es)'.
  • Summer: じゃが芋の花 jyagaimo no hana 'potato flower'.
  • Fall: 馬鈴薯 / 芋 bareisho / imo 'potato; yam'.
  • Winter: 焼き芋 yakiimo 'baked potato'.

One of the earliest works of a young Adam Mickiewicz, the Polish (or Lithuanian or Belarusian) poet, was “Kartofla” 'Potato'. The region was still suffering from the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars and the increased yield of potatoes over grain averted much starvation in 1816-1818. Intending it as an epic in the neo-classical style of Voltaire, he wrote two cantos in 1819, of which only the first survives, and an additional fragment in 1821, presumably intended as the beginning of the third. Evidently only that fragment is online. The conceit of the poem is that the Olympic gods have been driven from Europe to America by Christianity and out of concern for their new Indian charges halt Columbus in mid-ocean. (cf. Os Lusiadas) They are driven away by the Catholic saints, but the matter remains whether the discovery of America is a net-gain and should be allowed or not. The arguments include predictions by Saint Raphael of the New World and its freedoms. But the scales are tipped by Saint Dominic, who holds up the potato. Likewise, he averts mutiny by the men by throwing down a potato, thereby indicating that land is near. Part of his oratory description is:

Ten zboża w ziemię rzuca, sad innego trudzi,
Wtem mróz podetnie drzewa, nasiona wystudzi;
A kartofla, w głąb warstę przekopawszy skrzepłą,
Na łonie wielkiej matki potrzebne ma ciepło
I owoc z tysiącznego dająca porostu,
Wygłodzonych oraczów zachowa od postu. (ll. 391-397 Dzieła Poetyckie : 1 - Wiersze p. 429; snippet)

This one sows corn, orchard is another one's toil,
When sudden frost undercuts trees and chills seeds in the soil.
But the potato, down deep in the ground lies still,
In great mother's bosom all needed warmth feels
And fruit of thousands giving its growth, thus
Will all hungered ploughmen preserve from fast. (tr. Lisinska and Leszczyński)

Fans of Mad Magazine will probably recognize potrzebne 'needed' as closely related to potrzebie 'as needed' < potrzeba 'need (n.)'

Menke Katz wrote poetry in Yiddish and English. If he wrote a potato poem in Yiddish, I haven't come across it. But he was a vegetarian from childhood and a baked potato was his standard fare when dining out. Here is his “Hymn to the Potato”:

O my first hymn was to the potato,
lure of my childhood, fruit of the humble,
the diurnal festival of the poor.

No fruit is noble as the potato.
Cherries are coy, plums have hearts of true stone.
The wind is a drunk fiddler at the grape.

The potato knows how much light there is
in the fertile darkness of seeded earth,
kissing the dust to which Adam returned.

On the hungry alleys of my childhood,
The Milky Way was a potato land. (Rockrose, p. 62; snippet)

Here is Katz' NYT obituary. He really should have a Wikipedia page, but then Melech Ravitch (also a vegetarian) doesn't even appear in the list of Yiddish poets and only has a Hebrew page: a bit of a mess, as always.

James Joyce, the master of puns, could not fail to notice the resemblance between poem and French pomme (de terre) 'potato', particularly if the former is spelled as in his Pomes Penyeach. And indeed, Finnegans Wake has:

pome by pome, falls back into this terrine (80.22)

A potato meta-poem.

Update: MeFi reminds us that 2008 is the United Nations International Year of the Potato; since it looks like it was indeed the last post of the year, consider the above a segue.


e. e. reid said...

The last stanza of one of my favorite Robert Bly poems includes a potato:

My heart is a calm potato by day, and a weeping
Abandoned woman by night. Friend, tell me what to do,
Since I am a man in love with the setting stars.

Shawn said...

Many thanks for this detailed post. I've been leaving poems in my son's lunch box. Tomorrow his 1st grade class is going potato picking and found your blog an excellent resource. I was tempted to quote one of the Japanese poems, but after a tedious spell of Captain Underpants books we've put a moratorium on fart stories at the table. I ran with the 1st poem, it seemed apt... nice work on the foodie lit, may it grow and prosper!