Poets Online

Proust's Madeleine
by Kenneth Rexroth

Somebody has given my
Baby daughter a box of
Old poker chips to play with.
Today she hands me one while
I am sitting with my tired
Brain at my desk. It is red.
On it is a picture of
An elk’s head and the letters
B.P.O.E.—a chip from
A small town Elks’ Club. I flip
It idly in the air and
Catch it and do a coin trick
To amuse my little girl.
Suddenly everything slips aside.
I see my father
Doing the very same thing,
Whistling “Beautiful Dreamer,”
His breath smelling richly
Of whiskey and cigars. I can
Hear him coming home drunk
From the Elks’ Club in Elkhart
Indiana, bumping the
Chairs in the dark. I can see
Him dying of cirrhosis
Of the liver and stomach
Ulcers and pneumonia,
Or, as he said on his deathbed, of
Crooked cards and straight whiskey,
Slow horses and fast women.

typing prompt

Current Writing Prompt

Kenneth Rexroth's poem, "Proust’s Madeleine" (from his collection The Collected Shorter Poems) alludes to novelist Marcel Proust. Proust is the author of the multi-volume novel À la recherche du temps perdu, translated as In Search of Lost Time (and also previously as Remembrance of Things Past). The "Madeleine Effect" is the sparking of a memory from a related object: For Proust, a madeleine cookie and cup of tea, and for Rexroth, poker chips. Though Rexroth's memory of his father comes from an object rather than a fragrance, he includes "His breath smelling richly / Of whiskey and cigars."

I believe that many memories have an attachment to a fragrance, pleasant of not. There is a clear but mysterious connection between fragrance and memory. I don't want to get stuck in the science of it (limbic system, amygdala and hippocampus) but research has shown that memories associated with smells are more likely to be remembered. Why? Because they are more emotionally evocative and vivid autobiographical memories tend to be the result of emotional events. 

For this month's call for submissions, we ask for poems inspired by the fragrance of memory.

      Read the relevant Proust passage and learn a bit more about that cookie connection

submit The deadline for submissions for the next issue is March 31, 2024
Please refer to our submission guidelines and look at our archive of 25 years of prompts and poems and follow our blog for more about the prompts and poetry.

cover Kenneth Rexroth (1905 – 1982) was an American poet, translator, and critical essayist. He is regarded as a central figure in the San Francisco Renaissance, although he did not consider himself to be a Beat poet, and disliked the association. Still, he was dubbed the "Father of the Beats" by Time magazine. Largely self-educated, Rexroth learned several languages and translated poems from Chinese, French, Spanish, and Japanese.

The form Rexroth adopted in his mature work, which he called “natural numbers,” was unrhymed and syllabic rather than metrically regular. Generally varying from seven to nine syllables per line, the structure allowed him to emphasize the “natural cadences of speech.”

He spent his final years translating Japanese and Chinese women poets, as well as promoting the work of female poets in America and overseas. The year before his death, on Easter, Rexroth converted to Roman Catholicism.