Modernist poetry's polarized representation of and relationship to food anticipates Claude Lévi-Strauss's anthropological binary of “the raw” and “the cooked.” Indeed, Lévi-Strauss's “conceptual tools” may help us to discriminate not only between the kinds of foods served up in modernist poems but between varieties of poetic modernism as well. With reference to poems by D. H. Lawrence, T. S. Eliot, and Wallace Stevens, this chapter posits that the appetites and allergies of this “culinary triangle” are paradigmatic of the dialectic, in modernism, between poets who align themselves with the party of nature (Lawrence) and those whose greater affiliation is to the party of culture (Eliot and Stevens).
Like many of their modernist contemporaries, both Lawrence and Eliot raid the larder of vegetable lore that is J. G. Frazer's The Golden Bough (12 vols., 1890–1915): in his Notes on The Waste Land (1922), which appeared in the same year as the abridged edition of The Golden Bough, Eliot acknowledges that Frazer's “work of anthropology … influenced our generation profoundly.” The antithetical ways in which Frazer's compendium of vegetation myths is processed in The Waste Land (1922) and presented in the “Fruits” poems of Lawrence's Birds, Beasts and Flowers (1923) reveal a difference not only in aesthetic taste but also in the relation of the symbolic to the organic or natural order. Chacun a son gout, albeit that Eliot and Lawrence do share an aversion to “patent food” products—Eliot, in The Waste Land, to “food in tins,” and Lawrence, writing in the year of Eliot's poem's publication, to “tinned meat,” which, together with telephones and the movies, epitomizes for him the unappetizingly synthetic “reality” of the 1920s. In The Waste Land, too, mechanization is the mark of a debased modernity: in the third part of the poem, “The Fire Sermon,” the ancient Theban prophet Tiresias casts a cold eye on the Modern Girl, a London typist who comes “home at teatime, clears her breakfast, lights / Her stove, and lays out food in tins.”