Who are the great poets of coffee? Everyone knows William Carlos Williams was the poet of plums, Keats the poet of urns. Elizabeth Bishop, fish; Robert Bly had snowy fields; Ginsberg had cocks and balls; Emily Dickinson had the soul.
There’s Ron Padgett’s prose poem “The Morning Coffee” which is pretty good, though it’s not about coffee at all—you’ll have to read it, no spoiler here.
There’s the old nursery rhyme:
Molly, my sister and I fell out,
And what do you think it was all about?
She loved coffee and I loved tea,
And that was the reason we couldn’t agree.
Now there are plenty of poems that feature coffee and we’ll have a look—but there are no poems of coffee, the hot tropic wind of coffee’s phenomenology—in poem after poem, all written by excellent poets, coffee is a minor thing, lacking salience, like pillows on a couch. I do not dislike these poems. I’ll trade coffee for a pillow most of the time. Here are some of my favorite “almost coffee” poems:
A man is fighting with a cup of coffee.
The rules: he must not
break the cup nor spill its coffee; nor must the cup break the
man’s bones or spill his blood.
The man said, oh the hell with it, as he swept the cup to
The cup did not break but its coffee poured out
of its open self.
The cup cried, don’t hurt me, please don’t hurt me; I am
without mobility, I have no defense save my utility; use
me to hold your coffee.
“Recipe for Happiness Khaborovsk or Anyplace”
One grand boulevard with trees
with one grand cafe in sun
with strong black coffee in very small cups.
One not necessarily very beautiful
man or woman who loves you.
One fine day.
“How Did You Meet Your Wife?”
Swimming the English Channel,
struggling to make it to Calais,
I swam into Laura halfway across.
My body oiled for warmth,
black rubber cap on my head,
eyes hidden behind goggles,
I was exhausted, ready to drown,
when I saw her coming toward me,
bobbing up and down between waves,
effortlessly doing a breaststroke,
heading for Dover.
I asked in French if she spoke English,
and she said, “Yes, I’m an American.”
I said, “Hey, me too,” then asked her out for coffee.
Coffee is a stage prop in poetry—Wallace Stevens—“Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair…”
Gary Snyder: “There are those who love to get dirty and fix things./They drink coffee at dawn, beer after work./And those who stay clean, just appreciate things./At breakfast they have milk and juice at night./There are those who do both, they drink tea.”
Some poets get closer to coffee’s fizz in the nervous system. Neruda:
Take it all back. Life is boring, except for flowers, sunshine, your perfect legs. A glass of cold water when you are really thirsty. The way bodies fit together. Fresh and young and sweet. Coffee in the morning. These are just moments. I struggle with the in-betweens. I just want to never stop loving like there is nothing else to do, because what else is there to do?
The coffee plays in my coarse hair.
When it gets to my tongue it takes the rust off old family stories.
Regarding the premise of life, coffee entered me.
I breathed its steam; wrote with my finger when it found a window.
Coffee: a stop in midair.
—these are my lines, just off the top of my head, be-coffeed, quick, still trying to reach the world….