Poetry and the Precision of Bread

First turn

William Cowper spends most of the first book of his erratic long-form poem The Task (1785) walking in circles. In a block of blank verse hard on the heels of the infamous “I sing the sofa sequence,” Cowper narrates his habit of taking a daily walk in a lordly neighbor’s enclosed property. Most of this section lavishes attention on local flora and fauna or describes the pleasure Cowper derives from this routine and from the presence of Mary Unwin, his companion. But then the poet, hoofing it alone one morning, discovers “A cottage…so thick beset/With foliage of such dark redundant growth,/I called the low-roofed lodge the peasant’s nest.” This moment comes as the climax of a diatribe about the rampant excess of city life and the insincerity of society, here run to its logical conclusions in the imagined bucolic poverty that crops up too often in Romantic texts: Cowper wills himself into an overgrown writer’s retreat, “secure” from the “incessant,” “grinding,” and “clamorous” clamor of social life. But two lines later, Cowper reminds himself,

“the dweller in that still retreat
…nor seldom waits
Dependent on the baker’s punctual call,
To hear his creaking panniers at the door,
Angry and sad and his last crust consumed.
So farewell envy of the peasant’s nest.
If solitude make scant the means of life,
Society for me!”

The same dweller who aspires to escape all unwelcome sounds would end up breadless in the woods, listening for the “creaking panniers at the door.” Galled at the prospect of this loss, Cowper walks back his reasoning—“farewell envy of the peasant’s nest.” Aside from its Romantic formulation of hangry, this passage sticks out for the expression, “the baker’s punctual call,” which presents the buying and selling of bread as a social structure with a reliable timeliness. It’s the comfort of the baker’s routine visit that tempts the dweller in that still retreat to return to society. More importantly, baking bread is also a way for the poet to measure time.

Timeliness isn’t one of The Task’s strong points. As Cowper explains in the poem’s preface, he wrote it on a dare, which was issued by friend in an attempt to shake him out of a depressive episode:

A lady, fond of blank verse, demanded a poem of that kind from the Author, and gave him the SOFA for a subject. He obeyed; and, having much leisure, connected another subject with it; and…brought forth at length, instead of the trifle which he at first intended, a serious affair—a Volume.

In other words, this was a pet project gone off the rails. Cowper was a hugely susceptible writer, and his tendency to “connect another subject” to the current topic produced a recursively branching poem with unexpected logical jumps, as from the sofa to the walk. Weirder still, the abruptness of these distractions and tangents is unnervingly slowed by the iambic pentameter. The result is an awkward and dissipated distraction that pivots less like a hinge than a cargo freight. In some sense, The Task is a study in the failure to structure time. Cowper is prone to tangents, and sometimes in the midst of a long lecture, he’ll embark on what seems like another tangent, with the reader waiting for the return of the original topic. Then, a page later, it becomes clear that what might’ve been a tangent was actually a bridge, and The Task has fully moved on. As the poem lurches through its topics, the pulse of the blank verse—nearly perfect throughout—and the slick segues with which Cowper introduces each new topic caulk his fractious attention. The effect is glacial. The Task is a smooth, icy behemoth of a poem that, barring a few dramatic ruptures, puzzles a reader not by outpacing them but slinking past so slowly that we fail to catch it in action. This isn’t infinite time, it’s something else, closer to routine and daily cycles, boring, bored, and “rinsed with private despair,” as Anahid Nersessian puts it in her article on “Romantic Difficulty.”

No kidding. I read The Task for the third time last July, in the haze of a (by then two-years-long) depression so severe that I would fall asleep on top of the Romantic poems I was reading for exams. The only text that held my attention for any span of time was The Task, for a few reasons. I had read it before. It was familiar and boring—the good kind of boring. I couldn’t muster the energy for sustained pleasure or grief or outrage, and I had only ever managed to feel ambivalent about Cowper. And by July, the poet and I shared a routine: I was also circumambulating a large park every day, taking streets with gratingly Anglophilic names, and when I wasn’t sleeping or walking or trying to read, I was baking bread.

Second turn

My roommate and I have two active sourdough starters, two buckets of discard starter, a stiff starter (less water) and as often as not, a proofing loaf in our fridge. We share a weekly(ish) ritual of feeding our starters, and we bake as often as time permits. It’s sourdough starters that scare people off, more than the actual baking of bread. Those who don’t give up at the prospect of keeping something alive for an extended period of time, balk at hosting a symbiotic blob of lactobacilli bacteria and yeast in the fridge. Yeast live on a steady diet of flour and water, and the starter has to be fed (given fresh flour and water) every week, or the yeast will go dormant.

Although I’ve been baking bread since high school, I didn’t build a starter until my second year of grad school, when I settled on a routine stable enough to support caring for one. But that was only part of it. I built my starter in October 2018 as half of a two-part reinvention of myself; the other half was to book an appointment with the counseling center. Unfortunately, the channels for grad students who need mental healthcare are all but impossible to navigate, and by the time I recognized I needed help, I couldn’t handle the intake processes’ fancy footwork. In the meantime, keeping and baking with my starter was a regular reminder that I still needed to get help; it was also a reminder that I existed in the interim period.

Third turn

The most beautiful loaf of bread I’ve seen is on the Great British Baking Show. The intro sequence features a shot of a loaf as big and oddly shaped as a giant puffball mushroom, sitting on a counter alongside a basket and a bowl. While Season 10 was running last fall, my roommate and I watched GBBS almost ritualistically. I watched for that loaf every time, never got tired of looking at it. Mystery bread! No one baked anything that ambitious on the show; I doubt it would fit in the contestants’ dainty ovens. Still, “bread week” looms as large in the competition as the loaf does in the intro reel, as almost none of contestants in season 10 had substantial experience with bread prior to the competition. The trouble is that Paul Hollywood, the judge who casts himself as the cantankerous stickler on the show, bakes a lot of bread. He’s sort of famous for it. In the “Ultimate Guide to Making Hollywood-worthy Bread,” GBBS content creators lay it out like this:

This week the bakers experienced a phenomenon otherwise known as #breaddread…as Paul Hollywood got extra kneady with his devilishly precise bread requirements.

Forgive the dated hashtag, but I needed this quote for one word—precise. As Hollywood explains to the bakers gathered in the high-beams of his performatively baleful glare, baking bread requires precision. A loaf with too little water will have a thin, colorless crust. A loaf with too much water will struggle to rise and might not bake through. An under-proofed loaf will be uneven and craggy, with gaping air pockets around the surface and a gummy bottom layer. It won’t taste like anything. An over-proofed loaf won’t rise, and the whole loaf will be gummy and dense, and it will taste unbearably sour or funky. Since the proofing and baking process for bread vary with the oven, the weather, the vitality of the starter, and for all we know, whether or not mercury is in retrograde, there’s no single rule for getting it right, and this bizarre combination of precarity and precision is reflected in recipes for home bakers.

Fourth turn

Sourdough recipes are rarely given in mass/volume measurements. Instead, baker’s percentages indicate a scalable ratio between flour and water. For example, a 75% hydration loaf is made with 75% as much water as there is flour. If you include 1000g of flour (about 2 large loaves), you’ll add 750g water. The proportions of salt and starter also vary with the flour. Baker’s percentages are easily to adapt and, although harangues on thefreshloaf.com would have you believe otherwise, incredibly forgiving. A 77% loaf will do just fine. With bread, it’s the timing, more than the recipe, that’s crucial, as in this recipe that I’ve used several times:

8:30am – mix leaven

2:30pm – mix dough

3:15 – add salt and water

3:30  – bulk fermentation

4:00 – turn

4:30 – turn

5:00 – turn

5:30 – turn

6:00 – turn

7:15 – pre-shape bread

8:00 – shape rounds


4hr – proof at room temperature 78

11:00 – preheat oven

12:00am – bake loaf 1

1:00 – bake loaf 2



overnight – proof in the fridge

7:00am – preheat oven

8:00 – bake loaf 1

9:00 – bake loaf 2

In my experience, @ellorysmith’s tweet, quoted above, is regrettably accurate. If anyone reading this takes up sourdough baking, I hope you’re not depressed. I was. I’ve been baking for years, but I’ve increasingly come to rely on baking as a way of anchoring depression’s blighted repetition. I said bread is a way of structuring time, but this is especially true for kinds of time that are resistant to “regular” structures: stultifying afternoons deliberately wasted, or routines carefully exacted from the weariness they also induce. A baking schedule is a method of getting through time when you’ve lost the ability to plan anything in advance, and the only way to keep yourself functional is by setting a timer for 30-minute intervals. In this way, the precision of bread offers stability against an emptiness that is by turns infinitely expansive and agonizingly immediate.

Fifth turn

I’m too willing to read anything through the lens of baking, but throughout The Task, Cowper really seems to be looking for a baker’s formula, some ratio between routine and variety to maximize happiness. Book I of The Task is especially interested in hitting the right balance between boredom and excess, underlying Cowper’s fear that overstimulation inures the mind to variety, “the spice of life” and comfort. He notes “Like a coy maiden, Ease, when courted most,/Farthest retires.” The solution, for Cowper, is a disciplined existence structured around moderate labor and activity; no sofa for him! The baseline of this existence is a stable routine. Of morning walks through the same wood, Cowper writes:

“Scenes must be beautiful which daily viewed
Please daily, and whose novelty survives
Long knowledge and the scrutiny of years.”

The brilliantly enjambed chiasmus on “daily viewed /please daily” presents this routine not as simple linear repetition—“a daily walk, daily viewed, daily pleases”—but as circular, folded back on itself into a neatly packaged unit. This is routine as loop, but in a generous reimagining of routine and habit as sites of pleasure instead of oppressive control.

It’s fair to say that a recipe is a routine, in the machine-sense of the word. Precision, as a temporality drawing increasingly close to ritual, likewise embodies this kind of habitual repetition, a pointer to personal and healthy routines (the kind no one has right now). But for Cowper, the antithesis of daily pleasure is

“the constant revolution, stale
And tasteless, of the same repeated joys[,]
[which] palls and satiates, and makes languid life
A pedlar’s pack that bows the bearer down.”

Cowper paints a bleak picture of variety here, in which “constant revolution” erodes the thrill of “repeated joys,” until satisfaction (“satiates”) becomes disgust (“palls”). In other words, the repeated experience of novelty (as opposed to the sober pleasure of routine) doesn’t safely complete the acquisition of some commodified joy but recapitulates a cycle of making, marketing, and purchasing. In these aphoristic asides, The Task experiments with a recipe for being alive.

Sixth turn

Having watched the show for several seasons, I have to conclude that GBBS exists in a parallel universe. The premise is ludicrous: you’re supposed to watch strangers sweat and cry over elaborate desserts that they present to judges who eat a bite, maybe two, of the final result. This isn’t reality television—gone is any recognizable world beyond the footage of ducks and ponds that remind us the whole thing is being shot on the grounds behind an oh-so-British manor house. I’m not saying it’s fiction, just that the pleasure in GBBS comes not only from the narrative of real people competing over time but also from an immediate, wordless activity, not unlike those birds-eye cooking videos that became popular a few years ago. You know the ones: a single burner, a pot, and a series of ingredients added by a disembodied hand.

The time lapse in those videos emphasizes the aesthetic pleasure of precision, that weirdly obvious and otherwise tedious pattern of doing something that is, remarkably, extracted from the waiting and hassle that should accompany it. Call it immediate or call it the consumption of a visualizable precision, but this time-lapse remakes labor into its own commercial byproduct. At the same time—I’m trying to be generous here—the pleasure extracted from this literal or repetitive execution is itself a measure of exhaustion. These are the shows you watch when there is nothing left to feel.

In describing Cowper’s baking formula, I’ve suggested that the didactic poem is the poem you write when there is nothing left to feel. Cowper puts it this way: “There is a pleasure in poetic pains/Which only poets know.” For Cowper, poetic precision—the “arresting,” “holding,” and “penciling off” of a “faithful likeness”—is an innately violent act, one that slips into the poet’s relationship with his surroundings. Despite his investment in poetic labor, most of Cowper’s poetry relies on watching other people at work.

Barely a few stanzas after the baker emerges with his panniers, Cowper pauses to watch a thresher harvesting wheat. He listens while “Thump after thump resounds the constant flail,” while “atoms” of straw scatter in the sun; before the baker, we have the thresher, whose “primal curse” is “softened into mercy; made the pledge/ Of cheerful days, and nights without a groan.” I’ll state the obvious—it is unlikely that the Thresher’s work, undertaking daily undertaken, pleases daily. Yet it must, for Cowper, because the same system that enables the baker’s punctual calls requires the thresher’s “merciful” labor.

This vision of agrarian labor persists in the way we talk about bread. Take Chad Robertson’s Tartine Bread, which, by the way, is a brilliant introductory manual. Beyond promising “country loaves” and “pain de campaign,” Robertson separates the book’s chapters with charcoal sketches of fields populated by sheep and hillside flora. He might as well be illustrating The Task, since this is the same “rustic” iconography you would expect to see in an eighteenth-century sketchbook, the same desire for a peasant’s nest.

In fact, this craving is part and parcel of the aesthetics by which bread insinuated itself into our twenty-first-century existence. Take Paul Hollywood’s (bad!) recipe for a “classic cottage loaf:”

This is a classic British crusty loaf. It’s easy to make and suitable for everything from dunking in bowls of hearty soup to serving up with cheese and pickles in a homemade Ploughman’s.

The worst part of this recipe is Hollywood’s unquestioning fallback on “classic Britishness,” whatever that means, and let’s be honest, the same reductive aspirations are written into every line of the show; second worst is the wallpaper-thin crust. It’s hard not to hear echoes of Cowper in Hollywood’s appeal to a cottage aesthetic, complete with the recipe for a “Ploughman’s lunch” that dates back to Virgil’s Georgics. But underlying this twisted cosplay is an even more pernicious desire to escape, to take shelter in the “peaceful covert” that is a warped sense of history. Here is the smugness of those that build their doomsday bunkers in the style of classic cottages, insisting that the apocalypse will take us back to the olden days. From Cowper’s thresher to Blake’s “dark satanic mills” to the King Arthur flour with which my roommate and I feed our starters, the artisan breadmaking process peddles a fantasy of rural or bygone pleasure that would lull the unsuspecting baker into believing that every loaf recreates or, worse, aspires to a history that never existed.

Seventh turn

When the poet Sean Bonney died in November 2019, Twitter exploded with grief. I went back to Bonney’s Letters Against the Firmament (2015), which I had set aside years before:

in the days of our fiercest anger

the precision of beauty
the joy      of the whole world

soaked bread     in their darkness
enemies pressed their mouths on us

a snare is come among us
there are none to comfort us

The suggestion here is that precision sits somewhere between anger and beauty, not ambivalent but profoundly affirmative. Bonney suggests that the perception of beauty is also the perception of precision, or that beauty requires being precise. Precision is a non-negotiable shift out of infinity into a world where no one should, as Bonney writes in his last book, Our Death, “claim a difference between day and night, between nightmare and routine.” It refuses to concede to the all-negating “everything is bad, alas”—a mocking tone that buys into a different kind of business as usual. In some associative misfire, it could be the “stale and tasteless” hardtack that “[permanent] revolution” takes on in Cowper’s imagination. It could also be the equally tricky effort to reinsert nutrition into the allegory of bread. Bonney’s bread belongs on the table, in hand, in mouth; it has carbohydrates. It nourishes or it decays. But this bread isn’t, strictly, not metaphorical. The passage is also deliciously imprecise and abstract. For example, where is the darkness and is the bread soaked in it?

Precision is a funny word. It comes from a Latin verb “to cut short,” but the root is pre + caedere ‘to cut.’ Linguistically, it hovers between the moment before the cut, with its attendant measuring and aligning, and the moment of making the first incision. In the word, the anticipation of measuring and the finality of slicing are one and the same. Precision is the care with which supplies are rationed or instructions executed. Its exactness promises the satisfaction of getting just enough; but there’s somehow never enough. Precision is cut short, and it leaves you wanting more. This isn’t austerity; it is affirmative, delicious, and uncompromisingly antithetical to learned helplessness. I think the intense, precise focus required to do anything, to find the electric current of “good enough” and run with it, the focus required to bake bread, for instance, can be radical.

For Cowper, the challenge is how to ensure that novelty survives; a sense of novelty perhaps like what he felt upon discovering the peasant’s nest and finding a way to cheerfully absorb it into his daily walk. Routine is a safeguard against inundation, a way of protecting some receptive purity against indifference. But precision is never indifferent. It may be automatic (I hope so, with practice!) but it deals in obviousness and proximity. This bluntness, raw utility coupled with the labor of merely doing something, insists on an entirely different relationship between novelty and routine, where the razor-sharp focus that’s required in any labor of love doesn’t wear out with time or become inured to its wordless pleasures.

Cowper wants instructions laid out in advance, but precision requires more active recalculations, connecting with and submitting to material constraint while remaining absolutely distinct from resignation. I don’t blame him in his search for a precise formula, which betrays a joint willingness to do [something, anything]. When you’re caught between restlessness and exhaustion, sometimes all you want is to follow the breadcrumbs like a delirious Pacman. I do blame Cowper for his greedy metaphors and for the bland morality with which he outlines, crumb by crumb, a poetics of dull recitation.

The most radical people I know, know how to seek their pleasure, how to perfectly brown garlic and frost a cake. In these moments of pleasure, they find a fragility that fractures rather than congeals the world as given. They remind me that our fiercest anger can also produce a kind of precision, that anger seeks pleasure with precision. It’s easy to categorize everything as either flawless or catastrophic, easy to plug into the programmatic cycles of a self-destructive perfectionism and its counterpart, absolute resignation, a deliberate sloppiness desperate to absolve itself of responsibility, a defense against caring too much. Somewhere between the two is a precision that happens (that has to happen) every day, an active recalibration of itself relative to its context. This precision is aesthetic and vital, an orientation toward pleasure that knows when to shrug off theorization or consistency. Like inexplicable bursts of joy, precision interrupts time, and then it inhabits the rupture. Far from being a cruel and imposed measurement, this precision is inconsistent, explicitly and necessarily so. It makes inconsistency possible.

What I know of precision, I learned from poets and friends. In their tireless kindness, I’ve found feelings as patient as I am, as domesticated and polite, as timid as they are angry, gleaning a fierce affirmation of life from the most ordinary surroundings. My friends (and the poets) live by thrift and macronutrients. They know how to plan a nourishing meal, knit hats, open a bottle of champagne; they use baking soda on everything, own bread scales, and have in so many other ways taught me the constraints that it takes to survive a day and know you’re doing it.

Jesslyn Whittell is a poet and grad student in English at UCLA, where she works on poetics and the urban humanities, with a split emphasis on British Romanticism and 21st-century work. Her favorite kind of bread is whole wheat sourdough with walnuts.

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