Letting in The Other: What does Hospitality Have in Common with Poetry? Part 1. Written by Dr Linda Berman.

‘An act of hospitality can only be poetic.’ Jacques Derrida.


Image: Unsplash. Artem Bali.

Do you have a special poem that seems to invite you in and stays with you? If you do, please tell us about it in the comments at the end of this post. Thank you, Linda.


How does hospitality connect with poetry and what can we learn from this connection?

They may at first seem quite different ideas and we might wonder what Derrida, in the quotation above, meant by linking them.

The statement ‘An act of hospitality can only be poetic’ might initially seem to be a conundrum; it can have many interpretations. Derrida makes us work hard as readers, grasping at meaning and trying to understand.

However, when you really think about it, there are many links between the two concepts. What are these links?

First, both poetry and hospitality invite you in to their world. They do so in an emotional way. Poems attract you in through the power and beauty of their language, their offer of a story, word-pictures, their creativity. Hospitality involves an invitation, a loving offer to enter into, to share, to experience.

Hospitality and poetry offer a kind of service to others and aim to meet some of their needs. They are giving a gift to another, of their time, their consideration, their feelings.

Both take us, the stranger, into their world, one that it different from our own. Both ask us to see that world from their point of view and open themselves up to us, to show us who they are. There is a way in revealed to us; the one shows us a place unlatched, unbarred, maybe a country allowing entry, passage. The other is a poetic path to disclosure, a letting drop of boundaries, a release, a declaration of the poet’s inner feelings, impressions and thoughts.

This representation of an opening of things might perhaps take the form of a door, a perimeter, a soup kitchen, an opinion, an idea.


Old door of secret room in Church of

Saint Martin in Třebíč. Wikimedia Commons.By Jiří Sedláček – Frettie




Both hospitality and poetry necessitate an understanding of another’s needs and we can feel grateful for both. They involve an offering of the self, and reflect our personality and our world view. Sometimes it might seem as though that world view goes against reason and possibility; it might come across as implausible and unrealistic to us.

Poets and those offering their hospitality allow another person into the depths of their soul, their inner world, no matter how eccentric, unconventional or bizarre that might appear to the other.

Both are involved in a relationship with the other. Hospitality signifies a considered letting in of the other, a beckoning, a reflective, generous, non-hierarchical act of admittance, perhaps to a home or country. That home might be very odd to the incoming stranger, yet it has been offered without regard for the manner in which it is received.

Poetry represents an opening up through words, a welcoming in of the other to one’s world, of other voices, other ideas.

Poetry and hospitality each need another person to receive and accept the offer to ‘enter’ into their world.

These are the first lines of two beautiful poems and they, quite literately invite us in.

‘Let us go then, you and I,

When the evening is spread out against the sky’  (T.S. Eliot)


‘Come live with me and be my love,

And we will all the pleasures prove,’ (Marlowe)

What wonderful invitations!

Poetry can still be inviting even when the hospitality is not quite so evident:

What draws us in is the identification with the poet, the descriptions, the lyricism, the beauty of the lines.  This still applies even when the subject is trivial:

This Is Just To Say

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox
and which
you were probably
for breakfast
Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

The poet is making a confession. He has eaten the plums. We are very much invited into his private world. We can identify with his desire to devour them, even though they were not his. We can almost taste them, so vivid is his description.

We can also identify with the guilt of being unable to resist what was not his to eat. Along with the guilt is a modicum of humour, of mischief, to which we can all relate. The tone- and the title – of the poem imply that the poet knows he will be forgiven for his transgression.

Our attention is captured by the unusual, and perhaps eccentric nature of the subject matter; snaffling someone’s plums from the fridge! The boundaries of the poetic are stretched here into a rather eccentric subject for a poem. Yet the poem is still strikingly effective.

We are offered hospitality by the poet in two ways: he invites us into his kitchen, into the trivia of his life. Simultaneously we witness his rather embarrassed state of mind.

This post continues next week, with a further look at hospitality in the light of empathy, poetic thinking and the celebration of difference.

Don’t forget, if  you have a special poem that seems to invite you in and stays with you, please tell us about it in the comments below.


(Alan Sheffield. Chilean Black Plums. Flickr.)

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