The Great Poem Series: Jennifer Keith’s “Eating Walnuts”

In my opinion, one great poem from the 2015 Best American Poetry volume is  “Eating Walnuts” by Jennifer Keith.  This structurally symmetrical, 4 stanza, 16 line poem talks about the ins and outs of properly eating a walnut.  Keith goes on to portray the proper way to crack open a walnut underlying an important message about society and life.  Keith correlates the messiness of eating a walnut, with the flow of generational society.

Jennifer Keith hints at the idea that life can best be described as trial and error and the idea that with age and experience comes wisdom.  Keith says, “the old man eating walnuts knows the trick: you do it wrong for many years.”  The old man was once the novice eating walnuts, he was once the man who failed to “crack open on its arc,” but he learned and adopted the more efficient way of consuming.  In the eyes of Keith, regarding life, if something does not go your way, try again with maybe a different view or method-which I really like in this poem.  Not everything is going to go smoothly and 100% correct the first time through, you need to experience the downs to eventually reach the highs.  In this case, the highs of successfully eating the walnut.  “Eventually you learn to disbelieve the testimony of your eyes” when faced with a situational mishap.  Something might seem like it would operate one way, but be totally different.  In this case, “you soon discover that the brains inside must be cracked on right angles.”  Instead of the seams running along the walnut, you crack it on the right angles; this is a perfect example of life visually leading you one way but operatively working another.  With these lines, Keith is explaining that life throws curve balls at you from time to time.  This poem is filled with small life lessons that should not go unnoticed which is another reason why this poem is a great one.

To begin the analysis of this poem, Keith structurally outlined this poem as somewhat of an instructional guideline on the most effective way to eat a walnut.  According to the contributors notes, Keith’s father was always showing her the quickest, most effective ways to get little things done, so this has a personal meaning to her.  Keith’s metaphor regarding finding your way to the center of the walnut and the unpredictable fashion of life can be seen when she says that you have to “make a choice about what you’d prefer to sacrifice.”  Now, in this poem, you are sacrificing cleanliness for the whole walnut; the more pieces the shell is in, the more walnut you are going to get, essentially.  Keith is explaining that you really cannot have everything go your way; either you “sweep your lap” of the shell and eat well, or do not get the full walut experience.  This poem does a good job explaining compromises in life and the idea that life is not always perfect and neat.

Not only did Keith make this poem great through its structural framework, but the humor aspect of this poem was appealing.   Right off the bat, the title of this poem “Eating Walnuts” should draw attention because of its weirdness.  Personally, the title drew me in and got me wondering what this poem was really going to be about.  A good poem will do that with its title; it will enhance the reader to have to read the poem based on the title.  The basis of the poem and the metaphor Keith uses are somewhat humorous because not many people would correlate life with a walnut.  The way she executes the comparison however is very professional and well thought out.  This poem has a great mixture of humor and contextual lessons, for example, “you sweep your lap and mutter, try again.”  This sentence is describing sweeping the failed attempt at a crack of the walnut off your lap.  When Keith “mutters” she is describing the typical talk with yourself whisper you do when something doesn’t go your way.  The words you mutter are up to you, but the concept is very real because who hasn’t muttered in anger of frustration?

As mentioned earlier, there is a personal connection between Jennifer Keith and the meaning behind this poem.  Her father, likely, was the influence and background behind this awesome piece of writing.  There are many lessons Keith wants the reader to get out of this poem, however, the most important lesson, arguably, is to not get too frustrated with what life throws at you.  There will be times that you will “sweep your lap” and fail to accomplish your goal.  There will be times that you will not get the full potential of the walnut, but from experience, everything will turn out fine.  You will get to the bottom of the shell, and be the “old man.”  Keith’s father, assumable, was a drastic influence on her career and her ability to write.  What he taught her was so influential that she was able to write a poem on his small life lessons and how small tutorials on tasks in everyday life can have a bigger life lesson engraved inside.  The lesson is not to take the easy way out, it is to find the most effective and efficient method to properly get something done to completion.

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