Can a poet lose weight by snacking on poems?


Merrill Leffler, Poet Laureate of Takoma Park. ((Handout photo by Michele Morgan))

Was I surprised to learn Takoma Park has a Poet Laureate? No. It makes sense. Takoma Park is a nuclear-free zone. As politics go, Takoma Park makes even bluest states seem red. Recycling prevails. Arts abound. Every spring, residents walk around reading poetry hung on facades along busy city streets.

The Poet Laureate title is decreed upon a local poet by the city’s arts commission, and the current Laureate — the one with the munchie problem — is Merrill Leffler. He fits this role as comfortably as 14 lines in a sonnet. “I’ve been involved in a lot of poetic things,” he told me on the phone. Has he ever! He’s a poet, he publishes poetry collections through his own press, and when he talks, the words flow beautifully, often at length.

When I asked Leffler in an e-mail for clarification about a French phrase he slipped into our phone conversation — jeu d’esprit — he noted, at the end of a long note, that “You asked for a crumb and I set a stew before you!” Leffler said he had used the French phrase, which according to Merriam-Webster means “a witty comment or composition,” to categorize his column about losing weight by reading poems.

His previous few columns had been heavy. Around New Year's, for instance, he wrote: “It’s the new year but I am thinking of the Old. Not the old year but the Old, the Aged, those among us who may not view the future so aboundingly — after all the years ahead are much briefer than those behind.”

Combining weight loss efforts with poems about food — poetry snacks — seemed like a way to lighten his prose through metaphor. Under the headline “The Poetry of Losing Weight,” Leffler wrote: “Instead of late-night binges, when the hunger was on, I could eat poetry, the richest and the most fattening poems, and it wouldn’t matter.” Leffler then reflects — at length — on poems with food as their central image.

He reprints an old favorite of mine, “This Is Just to Say,” by William Carlos Williams, which discusses plums pilfered from an icebox and reads, in part:

Fogive me

they were delicious

so sweet and so cold

Lovely.

But still, I wondered: Is it possible to lose weight via jeu d’esprit? Can a poet actually trim his waistline using a metaphor? If so, Leffler’s discovery amounted to a potentially viable business opportunity for poets to impart these skills to non-poet overweight guys like me. So I put the question to Leffler unpoetically: “Did snacking on poems late at night cause you to lose weight?”

His answer: “No. I did not. I still snack at night. It’s a problem.”

Michael Rosenwald is a reporter on the Post's local enterprise team. He writes about the intersection of technology, business and culture.

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