Grilled cheese is, of course, the perfect food with which to celebrate Poetry Month, combining as it does those two ingredients both universal in their appeal and infinite in their variety. As poetry transforms and elevates language, so the grilled cheese sandwich transmutes the humble elements of bread and cheese into a golden unity. Indeed, in the realm of edible alchemy it would not be unfair to draw a comparison with the mythical Philosopher’s Scone.
It’s no surprise, then, that many poets have turned their hands to the subject of grilled cheese. Most famous, perhaps, was Robert Frost, who saw so clearly the transience of earthly things in “Nothing Grilled Can Stay”:
So curds go down to whey.
Nothing grilled can stay.
W.B. Yeats saw all too well the limitations of earthly food, but he also saw a promise of transcendence. These lines recall another famous verse about a grain of wheat.
A grain of wheat is but a paltry thing,
A tattered groat upon a stalk, unless
Mill turn its wheel and sing, and louder sing
For every kernel in its stone compress.
“Grilling to Byzantium” gives eloquent voice to his desire for immortality, for “monuments of melted magnificence” that stand beyond the natural world and its ceaseless cycle of death and rebirth.
O bread-loaves standing by the flour mill
As in an old prosaic pastoral,
Come from the flour mill, burn on a grill,
And be the sandwich-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dieting animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artistry of the panini.
For Wallace Stevens, though, there is nothing beyond the circle of the dinner plate.
Let catsup be finale of squeeze.
The only emperor is the emperor of grilled-cheese.
These lines place the grilled cheese squarely within the philosophical traditions and concerns of the twentieth century. But the concept of heated sandwiches long predates these poets, and has hardly been limited to poems in the English language. Grilled cheese may be a quintessentially modern and Western food, but scholars have traced the genre back as far as Bashō.
The hot grill–
Sandwich jumps on,
Sound of butter.
This too has found its twentieth-century adherents. It was from the quasi-Imagist manner of this haiku that Ezra Pound derived “In a Station of the Food Court”, with its arresting vision of
Cheeses on a hot, black grill.
And no one who has heard these lines of Octavio Paz can ever forget his idea of a midnight snack:
Si abres los ojos,
se abre la noche de tostado de queso,
se abre el reino secreto del sopa
que mana del centro de la noche.
Y si los cierras,
una sopa, una corriente dulce y silenciosa,
te inunda por dentro, avanza, te hace hambre,
la noche calienta emparedados en tu alma.
In nineteenth-century France, Baudelaire himself was not immune to the seductive lure of the cheese sandwich, but in “Fromages du Mal” his imagination, unsurprisingly, takes a surreal turn.
On dirait ton sandwich d’un fromage couvert;
Fromage mystérieux (est-il bleu, jaune ou vert?)
Alternativement tendre, crémeux, cruel,
Réfléchit le splendeur et l’éclat du ciel.
In the midst of these competing visions and interpretations, Archibald MacLeish pleaded for simplicity and a return to basics in “Ars Sabulovica”.
A sandwich should not go to waste
But the last word, of course, must belong to Elizabeth Bishop who alone had the courage to transform grilled cheese into an imperative and a formula for living.
The art of grilling isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be grilled that their loss is no disaster.
Grill something every day. Accept the fluster
of melted cheese, the sandwich badly burnt.
The art of grilling isn’t hard to master.
Then practice grilling farther, grilling faster:
flatbread, pizza, and what it was you meant
to stir-fry. None of these will bring disaster.
I grilled my tuna melt. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three grilled reubens went.
The art of grilling isn’t hard to master.
I grilled two burgers, lovely ones. And, after,
some cheddar cheese, two pickles, a condiment.
I grilled them, but it wasn’t a disaster.
Even grilling this, (the turkey club, a sandwich
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
The art of grilling’s not too hard to master
Though it may look like (Grill it!) like disaster.