Celebrate National Poetry Month with some 'Cake'
One of my favorite lines in all of poetry comes from Alexander Pope’s “An Essay on Criticism,” which defines true wit as “what oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed.”
These nine words seem, to me, the perfect definition of an autological statement: they express the property that they also possess. They are about truth and they ring true.
Poetry lovers know exactly what Pope is writing about. How many times have we lingered over a line, an image, a stanza, because it articulates something we’ve always understood but never been able to put into words?
But what about thoughts that aren’t even thoughts, merely vague feelings, nameless perceptions that slip through our fingers whenever we try to pin them down with language? Can poetry articulate what oft was felt, but ne’er so well understood?
“Cake,” by Noah Eli Gordon, comprises only 28 words. It spans 14 lines, though several of those lines are only one word long. Even at a measured pace, the poem takes less than a minute to read aloud.
And yet within those 28 words, those 14 lines, there is profound wisdom. It’s a kind of wisdom, though, that reveals something people can spend their whole lives trying to understand.
The title “Cake” gives us a context for the poem’s lines. “Look, you / want it,” the speaker says, as though gently admonishing us, the audience, to be honest with ourselves. We can picture the slice – for me it’s a slab – of cake before us. Yes, we do want it. We want it very much. Our mouths are watering. We can’t wait.
So we “devour it.” And it’s good. Very good, in fact. But it leaves us, somehow, unsatisfied. And the lack of satisfaction, the nagging hollowness, is upsetting. It doesn’t make sense. After all, it was only a few moments ago that we seemed to know so clearly what we wanted. So how come we’re not satisfied?
Because, the poem states simply, “it wasn’t / exactly / what you / wanted / what you / wanted / exactly was / wanting.”
“Cake” isn’t really about cake. It’s about all the things we think we want, tell ourselves we want, believe that we want. And it’s about how obtaining those things leaves us if not empty then at least unfulfilled.
This isn’t “buyer’s remorse,” exactly. We can still derive pleasure from the things we want, but that pleasure will never exceed the pleasure of simply wanting a thing, anything. Even a piece of cake. We want the wanting.
And if we do happen to get what we want – clothes, cars, money, success – we still have to reckon with the sense that getting what we want won’t solve all our problems.
All of this might sound downright Sisyphean; no matter how hard we try we’re condemned to roll boulders uphill the rest of our lives, wanting things that will never entirely satisfy. I don’t think that’s what “Cake” is telling us, though. I think it’s helping us recognize something about ourselves we barely understand. And the more we understand it, the more we can see our wants for what they are.
We read poetry because it can elucidate our thoughts, but it can also, in the case of “Cake,” reify our emotions, crystallizing something that once was inchoate.
Most of all, poetry can take hundreds of words (over 500 in this case of this blog post) and distill them down to 28.
Click the link below to listen to a recording of yours truly reading "Cake."
by Noah Eli Gordon
you devour it
and then, then
good as it was