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Writing Verse : Smell Me a Poem

Smell Me a Poem
by Trevor Maynard

Sight and sound are often the primary senses used in poetry and in fact most fiction, but what of our sense of smell, is there such as genre of The Poetry of the Nose? The London Literary Gazette of 1831 had an article with the rather grandiose title of On Genius and The Poetry of Nose, but quite forgot the purpose of the nose itself is to smell and concentrated on the visual protuberance, though it does quite sensibly point out

“Oh! Queen of Flowers! Lovely rose!
What would thou be without a nose?”
Saʿdī (The Rose Garden, circa 1280)

William Carlos Williams, always one for innovation and taking on a challenge gave us SMELL (around 1912) with “a festering pulp on the wet earth” but maybe this was more about his nose than describing through smell. On the other hand, Erica Funkhouser’s THE WOMEN WHO CLEAN FISH (1990) gives us more a feeling of the quality of eponymous workers with “the smell of themselves more like salt than peach”, but even here the effect of smell is reported; we are told there is “chlorine” and “dead fish”, so we have to bring our version of the smell to the table, rather than being engaged directly.

You could argue this example from CORRESPONDANCES by Baudelaire (1850’s)

“There are perfumes fresh like the skin of infants
Sweet like oboes, green like prairies”

attempts to use our olfactory sense, but even here, you have to have some pre-knowledge of infants, oboes and prairies, and anyway, the oboe; it sounds good, looks good, but what does it actually smell like? Changing tack, is a bad odour easier to describe than a pleasant one? Try these two examples that may fit into Roethke’s “congress of stink”

“Sickly sweet the maggots grasping rotting
Flavouring the monkey-jack of this and every town”
Trevor Maynard (No Progress 2012)


“Her kitchen reeks of gas leaking,
Sour bacon, stale apples, weeping pee.”
Hilary Sheers (Smelling the Past 2000)

As well as his own;

“Roots ripe as old bait,
Pulpy stems, rank, silo-rich,
Leaf-mold, manure, lime, piled against slippery planks”
Theodore Roethke (Root Cellar 1948)

Is it possible to have a poem just from an olfactory view, or do we have to accept, smell is a trigger, and sight and sound are always the dominant senses in poetry?

Then again, maybe this is perfectly acceptable and it is a false, and indeed, pointless plan to look for poems just based on odour. Michael Ondaatje’s THE CINAMMON PEELER (1989) certainly evokes a series of powerful, and sensual, images through smell with the use of “smoking tar”, “honey gatherers”, “the grass cutter’s wife”, “the lime burner’s daughter” and of course the finale
“I am the cinnamon Peeler's wife. Smell me.”

You can also get a whiff of how the scents associated with food are used to elicit emotions in this this example

“scented with ackees, sno-cones, dunks,
sugar cakes, nut cakes, tamarind balls”
Mark Jason Welch (The Truth About Oranges* 2011)

Finally, maybe a poem can only be truly constructed from our sense of smell if we use fragrance instead of words as our only tool, for example, visiting one of the many perfumeries in Grasse, South of France, and wandering through their rooms and gardens with your eyes closed and earmuffs on. Alternatively, try your own back garden or a local park. Breath in the poetry!

(* Originally Published on the anthology, THE POETIC BOND, ISBN 9781466498419)

Trevor Maynard is the author of many poems and professionally performed plays. Trevor runs the group Poetry Review and Discuss on and is the editor of THE POETIC BOND, now available on Amazon and KINDLE. Find out more at; twitter @zonetbm.

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