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“Poets have been mysteriously silent
on the subject of cheese.”
– G.K. Chesterton
Today is Cheese Lover’s Day.
It was probably not his intention, but G.K. Chesterton may have inspired future poets with his comment. I found several poems with cheese in them, and even some poems in which cheese is the subject.
Instead of cheese poetry, William Shakespeare gave us cheese insults. In The Merry Wives of Windsor, Bardolf mocks Abraham Slender: “You Banbury Cheese!” (Banbury cheese was very thin, so after paring away the rind, almost nothing was left.) And in Henry IV, Part I, Hotspur is so exasperated with Glendower that he declares: “O, he is as tedious as a tired horse, a railing wife; worse than a smokey house: I had rather live with cheese and garlic in a windmil, far, than than feed on cates and have him talk to me in any summer-house in Christendom.”
Chesterton himself attempted to break the poetic silence on the subject of cheese with this sonnet. I don’t find it a very impressive effort, but I like Chesterton’s essays and mystery stories better than his poetry:
Sonnet to a Stilton Cheese
by G.K. Chesterton
Stilton, thou shouldst be living at this hour
And so thou art. Nor losest grace thereby;
England has need of thee, and so have I–
She is a Fen. Far as the eye can scour,
League after grassy league from Lincoln tower
To Stilton in the fields, she is a Fen.
Yet this high cheese, by choice of fenland men,
Like a tall green volcano rose in power.
Plain living and long drinking are no more,
And pure religion reading “Household Words”,
And sturdy manhood sitting still all day
Shrink, like this cheese that crumbles to its core;
While my digestion, like the House of Lords,
The heaviest burdens on herself doth lay.
G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936), English writer, essayist, philosopher, lay theologian, and critic of literature and art. Also noted for his Father Brown mystery series. He wrote around 80 books, several hundred poems, some 200 short stories, 4000 essays, and several plays
G. K. Chesterton apparently missed this poem by Arthur Conan Doyle, which almost certainly predated his cheese remark, because Doyle’s poem was first published in 1898. In that year, Chesterton was only 24 years old.
by Dr. Arthur Conan Doyle
The cheese-mites asked how the cheese got there,
And warmly debated the matter;
The Orthodox said that it came from the air,
And the Heretics said from the platter.
They argued it long and they argued it strong,
And I hear they are arguing now;
But of all the choice spirits who lived in the cheese,
Not one of them thought of a cow.
Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) British writer, who created Sherlock Holmes. Originally a physician, in 1887 he published A Study in Scarlet, the first of four novels and more than fifty short stories about Holmes and Dr. Watson. He grew to detest Holmes, and tried to kill off the character, but the demand of the public for more Holmes, and the less-than-stellar sales of the “serious” literature which he was determined to write, forced him to resurrect Holmes
This poem by Donald Hall is a compendium of cheese, a grand tour of places with names associated with cheese.
by Donald Hall
In the pantry the dear dense cheeses, Cheddars and harsh
Lancashires; Gorgonzola with its magnanimous manner;
the clipped speech of Roquefort; and a head of Stilton
that speaks in a sensuous riddling tongue like Druids.
O cheeses of gravity, cheeses of wistfulness, cheeses
that weep continually because they know they will die.
O cheeses of victory, cheeses wise in defeat, cheeses
fat as a cushion, lolling in bed until noon.
Liederkranz ebullient, jumping like a small dog, noisy;
Pont l’Evêque intellectual, and quite well informed; Emmentaler
decent and loyal, a little deaf in the right ear;
and Brie the revealing experience, instantaneous and profound.
O cheeses that dance in the moonlight, cheeses
that mingle with sausages, cheeses of Stonehenge.
O cheeses that are shy, that linger in the doorway,
eyes looking down, cheeses spectacular as fireworks.
Reblochon openly sexual; Caerphilly like pine trees, small
at the timberline; Port du Salut in love; Caprice des Dieux
eloquent, tactful, like a thousand-year-old hostess;
and Dolcelatte, always generous to a fault.
O village of cheeses, I make you this poem of cheeses,
O family of cheeses, living together in pantries,
O cheeses that keep to your own nature, like a lucky couple,
this solitude, this energy, these bodies slowly dying.
“O Cheese” from Old and New Poems, © 1990 by Donald Hall — Ticknor & Fields
Donald Hall (1928-2018) American poet, writer, editor and literary critic. He was the author of over 50 books across several genres from children’s literature, biography, memoir, essays, and 22 volumes of verse. He was the first poetry editor of The Paris Review (1953–1961). He won the Robert Frost Medal in 1991, and was U.S. Poet Laureate (2006–2007)
I found the name Richard Maxson on a list of poems about cheese, and I had a moment of excitement during the name search, because there was an English immigrant to America named Richard Maxson who was born in 1602. But he became a blacksmith in Throgs Neck, New York, and has left us no poetry. Alas, poor Richard-the-blacksmith was killed in 1643 during an Indian raid. The contemporary American poet Richard Maxson was born in 1946. He says of himself: “I am a poet and the Poetry Editor for Every Day Poems for T.S. Poetry Press.” He’s also a pretty prolific blogger, which is how I tracked him down
After the Party
by Richard Maxson
After the piquancy of conversation is gone,
and the music switched off,
you wake at three o’clock, streetlight
you pad to the kitchen for water,
a motorcycle whines somewhere far off;
you cork a half bottle of white left on the counter, the light
from the fridge interrogates
and you shuffle with your glass to the ruins of the living room:
slices and crumbles of cheese,
Lacey Swiss, oil beading around its ragged holes,
the Roquefort, used to being abandoned, you think
may offer consolation to this wanderer with like blue veins.
There is a red grape poised at the top of the stairs;
you wonder how,
when it stopped,
how it avoided departing guest, stepping, turning for hugs and hands.
This is not your house,
you realize, and the morning’s headache is beginning to form;
you would have seen the grape, perhaps heard it
as the carpet received its roundness;
or, if you had stairs, you would have paused and bent
between your shielding shoes, forgoing hands and hugs for prevention.
Why are you there still, with rounds of bread
and music on the floor,
the city going through its gears in the distance?
When you were a child you wished to be
in another house, any house,
away from a family that seemed so unlike you;
is this it? So many years gone between
then and saying yes, you will be there, tonight for the party;
years like dreams, half remembered;
You could tell stories of those years, you do not remember.
Tomorrow you will go home.
Tonight you will leave the cheese.
You will watch the grape bounce so silently down the stairs.
Then you will go back to sleep and maybe dream.
© 2015 by Richard Maxson
This poem makes barely a mention of cheese, but it does make an appearance.
by C.D. Wright
Some nights I sleep with my dress on. My teeth
are small and even. I don’t get headaches.
Since 1971 or before, I have hunted a bench
where I could eat my pimento cheese in peace.
If this were Tennessee and across that river, Arkansas,
I’d meet you in West Memphis tonight. We could
have a big time. Danger, shoulder soft.
Do not lie or lean on me. I’m still trying to find a job
for which a simple machine isn’t better suited.
I’ve seen people die of money. Look at Admiral Benbow. I wish
like certain fishes, we came equipped with light organs.
Which reminds me of a little known fact:
if we were going the speed of light, this dome
would be shrinking while we were gaining weight.
Isn’t the road crooked and steep.
In this humidity, I make repairs by night. I’m not one
among millions who saw Monroe’s face
in the moon. I go blank looking at that face.
If I could afford it I’d live in hotels. I won awards
in spelling and the Australian crawl. Long long ago.
Grandmother married a man named Ivan. The men called him
Eve. Stranger, to tell the truth, in dog years I am up there.
“Personals” from Steal Away: Selected and New Poems © 2002 by C.D. Wright – Copper Canyon Press
C.D. Wright (1949-2016) American poet, editor of Lost Roads Press (1978-2005), and teacher. In 2010, her poetry collection, One With Others, won the National Book Award for Poetry, and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry
You can’t make a cheeseburger without cheese, and there are 30 cheeseburgers in this poem.
by Jim Daniels
An average joe comes in
and orders thirty cheeseburgers and thirty fries.
I wait for him to pay before I start cooking.
He ain’t no average joe.
The grill is just big enough for ten rows of three.
I slap the burgers down
throw two buckets of fries in the deep frier
and they pop pop, spit spit. . .
pssss. . .
The counter girls laugh.
It is the crucial point—
they are ready for the cheese:
my fingers shake as I tear off slices
toss them on the burgers/fries done/dump/
refill buckets/burgers ready/flip into buns/
beat that melting cheese/wrap burgers in plastic/
into paper bags/fried done/dump/fill thirty bags/
bring them to the counter/wipe sweat on sleeve
and smile at the counter girls.
I puff my chest out and bellow:
Thirty cheeseburgers! Thirty fries!
I grab a handful of ice, toss it in my mouth
do a little dance and walk back to the grill.
Pressure, responsibility, success.
Thirty cheeseburgers, thirty fries.
“Short-Order Cook” from Show and Tell: New and Selected Poems, © 1985 by Jim Daniels – University of Wisconsin Press
Jim Daniels (1956- ) prolific American poet, writer and professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Cheese is featured as a metaphor here.
Round of Cheese
by Sandra Heska King
Round of cheese
hung high at daybreak,
demanded an omelet
before it cracked
the western horizon.
Sandra Heska King – listed as a contributor to The Mischief Cafe, published by T.S. Poetry Press, an extension of Tweetspeak Poetry, an on-line space for poets and poetry-lovers
This stinky cheese overpowers whatever food you put it in.
by Monica Sharman
Her flavor is
to die for.
will betray her—
Above all, do not
Monica Sharman, author of Behold the Beauty: An Invitation to Bible Reading. Also listed as a poet, children’s fiction writer, and a freelance editor