Whenever I open up a new book of poetry these days, I seem to find a pig poem. It is a well-loved topic of poets. Why? Because we all love bacon, but feel guilty about it? No, that can’t be it—I’ve heard of a vegetarian poet or two. Maybe it’s because pigs are paradigms of imperfection and contradiction, en route to sure slaughter, a perfect mirror of the human condition? Dirty, but unashamed? Are we, actually, jealous of pigs?
In Philip Levine’s poem, his pig speaker is used as a vehicle of defiance. Margaret Atwood also speaks in the voice of the pig, exhibiting a wide range of emotions: lament for her domestication/removal from wildness, self-hate, animosity toward her prisoners, and a simultaneous “hymn,” an appreciation of being alive in the first place: “I have the sky, which is only half /caged, I have my weed corners,/I keep myself busy, singing/my song of roots and noses,/my song of dung…” David Lee’s poem is from a book entitled The Porcine Canticles, which uses pig farming as a narrative epicenter for the emotional lives of its characters and is described by the publisher as “fashioned out of the red dust of Paragonah, Utah, and Kolob Lake…a lyric tribute to the indomitability of the human spirit and to the human heart which learns first by learning how to break.” Tom Sleigh’s “Pig from Ohio” hearkens back and pays tribute to Levine’s poem, with an expansion of the themes of death and defiance into an all-too-human subject: war. And, finally, in Donald Hall’s “Eating The Pig,” Hall emphasizes the connection of all beings through our hunger, greed, and mortality, transforming his centerpiece, a roasted pig, into a Christ-like figure.
If these poems don’t say anything “true” about pigs themselves, they certainly say something about how we view pigs and what’s rattling around these poets’ brains/hearts. So, here are some excellent poems about pigs that are not really about pigs. Or, are really about pigs. Well, you figure it out.
who drives me along believes
that any moment I’ll fall
on my side and drum my toes
like a typewriter or squeal
and shit like a new housewife
or that I’ll turn like a beast
cleverly to hook his teeth
with my teeth. No. Not this pig.
2. Pig Song by Margaret Atwood (excerpt)
This is what you changed me to:
a greypink vegetable with slug
incarnate, spreading like a slow turnip,
a skin you stuff so you may feed
in your turn, a stinking wart
of flesh, a large tuber
of blood which munches
and bloats. Very well then…
3. Jubilate Agno, 1975 by David Lee (excerpt)
For I will consider my black sow Blackula.
For she is the servant of the god of the feed bucket and serveth him.
For she worships the god in him and the secret of his pail in her way…
For God has blessed her womb and the red boar’s seed.
For they multiply in ecstasy at the appointed time.
For God has blessed her in many ways.
For God has given her the red beets to eat.
For God has given the water for her to drink.
For God has allowed the water to run to mud in a place for her to lay.
For she cannot fly to the mountain streams, though she walks well upon the earth.
For she walks the earth heavy upon tiny feet.
For she treads all the rows of the summer garden.
For she can jump the fence.
For she can push it down.
For she can eat.
4. Pig from Ohio by Tom Sleigh (excerpt)
If you’re a pig from Ohio,
all muscle and gristle,
not knowing they’re planning
to rend you into bacon,
what better place
to find a wallow
than this blue-black mud
where you can keep yourself cool
as you wait for David
from Williamsfield, Ohio,
Sergeant in the Army’s
casualty whose shadow
in the 16 acre, 70 foot
hole that floats
on the Late Edition’s
5. Eating the Pig by Donald Hall (excerpt)
…and I am drawn to him, my brother the pig,
with his large ears cocked forward,
with his tight snout, with his small ferocious teeth
in a jaw propped open
by an apple. How bizarre, this raw apple clenched
in a cooked face! Then I see his eyes,
his eyes cramped shut, his no-eyes, his eyes like X’s
in a comic strip, when the character gets knocked out.
This afternoon they read directions
from a book: The eyeballs must be removed
or they will burst during roasting. So they hacked them out.
"I nearly fainted," says someone.
"I never fainted before, in my whole life."
Then they gutted the pig and stuffed him,
and roasted him five hours, basting the long body…