Elizabeth Alexander

‘Butter’ by Elizabeth Alexander uses potent imagery to create a nostalgic vision of the home-cooked meals enjoyed in childhood.

Elizabeth Alexander

Nationality: American

Elizabeth Alexander is an American poet, who spent her career promoting African American poetry..

Her 2005 book, American Sublime, was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize.

Key Poem Information

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Central Message: The food cooked by one's parents can be a defining characteristic of one's childhood

Speaker: A person remembering childhood

Emotions Evoked: Gratitude, Joyfulness, Passion

Poetic Form: Free Verse

Time Period: 20th Century

Elizabeth Alexander's poem utilizes a variety of richly tantalizing imagery to underscore the ways in which butter was a savory centerpiece to both their mother's dishes and their own childhood.

‘Butter’ is a poem dedicated to a very specific type of nostalgia. One that is rooted in the memory of delicious home-cooked meals and idiosyncratic palettes inherited by one’s parents. The speaker in Elizabeth Alexander’s poem focuses on just one ingredient — butter — which their mother apparently used in virtually every recipe. As a result, the poem overflows with visual and gustatory imagery that inspires both a heartwarming fondness for such memories and a whetted appetite.


‘Butter’ by Elizabeth Alexander reminisces over childhood memories that revolved around the speaker’s mother’s love of butter.

At its savory core, ‘Butter’ revolves around the speaker’s recollection of the way their mother’s habitual use of butter in many of the meals she cooked for her family. The reason for its consistent presence in every dish is explained as being owed to the matriarch’s singular love of butter. A fact that is underscored in the poem’s opening lines when the speaker describes how their mom used to eat it plain and by the stick.

Much of the poem then becomes a roll call of the different recipes in which butter was used and savored, with the speaker naming many of her favorites. At the end of this list, the speaker makes it clear that butter is synonymous with happy memories of them and their brother. They then allude to the children’s storybook “The Story of Little Black Sambo,” originally written by Helen Bannerman, envisioning themselves as the children of the main character’s parents and glowing as if made of butter.

Structure and Form

‘Butter’ is comprised of a single stanza of 25 lines written in free verse. It doesn’t possess a formal meter or rhyme, though it does use everything from internal rhymes and alliteration to repetition to create its own cadence. Alexander also uses both end-stopped lines and enjambment to accelerate the poem’s tempo.

Literary Devices

‘Butter’ uses a variety of literary devices, but for the most part, Alexander relies on vivid imagery that graces nearly all the senses. The ones present in the poem include but are not limited to:

  • Alliteration: “My mother” (1); “butter better” (8); “grinning greasy” (19).
  • Visual imagery: “butter better / than gravy staining white rice yellow / butter glazing corn in slipping squares” (8-10); “butter disappearing into / whipped sweet potatoes” (14-15).
  • Kinesthetic imagery: “She pulls chunks off / the stick” (2-3); “cream spun around into butter” (4).
  • Gustatory imagery: “eats it plain” (3); “we ate turkey cutlets sauteed in lemon / and butter” (5-6); “butter licked off the plate / with warm Alaga syrup” (17-18).
  • Metaphor: “butter melting in small pools in the hearts / of Yorkshire puddings” (7-8); “butter the lava in white volcanoes / of hominy grits” (11-12); “glowing from the inside / out, one hundred megawatts of butter” (24-25).

Detailed Analysis

Lines 1-4

My mother loves butter more than I do,
more than anyone. She pulls chunks off
the stick and eats it plain, explaining
cream spun around into butter! Growing up

The opening lines of ‘Butter’ establish the speaker’s mother as a devoted and passionate butter lover. The speaker says she loves it “more than I do, / more than anyone” (1-2). As if to drive their point home, they offer a compelling visual image as proof of that assertion, describing the way she “pulls chunks” (2) of butter right off the stick and “eats it plain” (3).

Ending on a gustatory image that recalls the savory creaminess of plain butter. As she does so, the speaker recalls how their mom would explain the process that creates butter via kinesthetic imagery: “Cream spun around into butter” (4), the speaker exclaims.

Lines 5-18

we ate turkey cutlets sauteed in lemon
and butter, butter and cheese on green noodles,
butter melting in small pools in the hearts
of Yorkshire puddings, butter better

The middle section of ‘Butter’ unfolds as a cataloged list of all the dishes the speaker’s mother would create using butter. Here Alexander employs mouthwatering imagery that tantalizes a variety of the senses.

They describe with delectable detail through visual imagery how the “butter better / than gravy [stains] white rice yellow / butter glazing corn in slipping squares” (8-10). Or through gustatory imagery, which relishes in “turkey cutlets sauteed in lemon / and butter” (5-6) and the rich sweetness of “butter licked off the plate / with warm Alaga syrup” (17-18).

The speaker’s tone and diction also start to reveal a nostalgic reverence for the meals alongside an appetite for their flavor. One example of this is the description of the butter as “melting in small pools in the hearts / of Yorkshire puddings” (7-8).

The metaphor implies through the adjacent “butter” and “hearts” that the ingredient is emotionally essential to the speaker’s memories of enjoying home-cooked comfort food in their youth.

Lines 19-25

the good old days I am grinning greasy
with my brother, having watched the tiger
chase his tail and turn to butter. We are

‘Butter’ ends with the speaker reiterating the way butter reminds them of their childhood. Their nostalgia for these “good old days” (19) is rooted in the happiness that characterized them. A striking portrait of this joy is offered in a piece of visual and tactile imagery that envisions the speaker and their brother as “grinning greasy” (19) and presumably covered in butter.

The speaker also alludes to the parents in “The Story of Little Black Sambo” and their child, who returns home with enough butter for 169 pancakes. The implication is that butter was such an abundant staple of the speaker and their brother’s lives that they might as well have been “Mumbo and Jumbo’s children” (22).

Alexander ends the poem with an astonishing image as they emphasize the permeance of butter in the speaker’s childhood, implying they are made of butter themselves: “glowing from the inside / out, one hundred megawatts of butter” (24-25). The visual imagery of their luminescence symbolizes the rich radiance of the butter in both flavor and memory, while the decision to give it an electric quality only adds to the vibrant vivaciousness it inspires in the speaker.


What is the theme of ‘Butter?

The poem’s theme centers on the speaker’s nostalgic savoring of their childhood and how it is rooted in the butter used by their mother. Alexander’s poem underscores the powerful sensory memory of taste and how certain flavors can inspire such emotion.

Why did Elizabeth Alexander write ‘Butter?

It is perhaps safe to assume that Elizabeth Alexander wrote the poem from personal experience and refers to her mother’s obsession with butter. The poet often wrote about her family and cultural experiences.

What does butter symbolize in the poem?

Butter, to the speaker, symbolizes a variety of things relating to their childhood. It is a sensory reminder of the delicious food their mother used to cook, as well as of their childhood home and brother. One that symbolizes the emotional and nostalgic comfort of home-cooked meals.

What is the significance of the tiger turning into butter?

In “The Story of Little Black Sambo,” the main character finds themselves confronted by four tigers. To avoid getting eaten, the boy cleverly offers them his new clothes, shoes, and umbrella. This leads the tigers to vainly argue about who looks the best, and they start chasing one another around a tree. They move so quickly that they’re turned into ghee (clarified butter) which the boy collects and takes home to his parents. The speaker — being a young child when they heard the story — fixates solely on the striking image of tigers turning to butter.

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Elizabeth Alexander (poems)

Elizabeth Alexander

This poem by Elizabeth Alexander reflects on a profoundly universal experience through a lens of personal experience. The poet's imagery overflowing with the savored joy of remembering the home-cooked meals that defined one's youth. It's a poignant and moving poem that illustrates how taste is such an intimately enduring and powerful element of nostalgia.
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20th Century

Alexander is an American poet from Harlem, New York, whose poetry is often characterized by its reflections on both memory and race. This poem, in particular, might not directly address race, but it does hone in on the poet's personal experiences and her talent for revealing the universal within individual experience, as well as the way food is a means of connection and community across cultures.
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Alexander famously read her poem ‘Praise Song for the Day’ at the 2009 inauguration of President Barack Obama. Her poetry is renowned for its articulation of not just her own history but the history of the U.S. as a whole, especially in regard to Black experiences. This poem reveals the incisiveness with which she can present any memory and bring its essence to life.
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Alexander's poem unfolds as an appetizing celebration of the key ingredient with which the speaker's mother used to cook their childhood meals with. That ingredient was lots of butter, which is praised in all its savory deliciousness throughout the many images conjured up in the poem. But as tasty as the meals made with butter were, the speaker is also celebrating what the butter symbolizes for them now: a delectable nostalgia.
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Identity is another theme found within Alexander's poem. In savoring the memory of butter used in their mother's recipes, the speaker reveals how essential these recollections of food are to their understanding of their adolescence. They also speak of the love and care that their mother evidently poured into their cooking and, by extension, into their upbringing.
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This poem by Alexander also touches on one's relationship with their parents, especially when it comes to your memories of them. The speaker obviously only has positive memories of their mother regarding their love of cooking with butter. But it also illustrates their relationship with their sibling, who, like them, reveled in the delicious foods their mother made for them.
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One emotion conveyed in Alexander's poem is a sense of gratitude. Given how fondly the speaker remembers their mother's recipes, it is understandable to insinuate that they are quite thankful so much love and compassion were cooked into those meals, especially given just how many of those dishes the speaker can recall with such tantalizing and precise detail.
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This poem gushes with as much butter as it does joy. Of course, in the eyes of both the speaker and their mother, the yellow creamy ingredient was virtually synonymous with such euphoric emotion: this is not just because of its contribution to taste but also its vivid versatility and appeasing nature to a variety of senses.
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The poem opens with the speaker declaring that their mother loved butter "more than anyone." They then proceed to illustrate with great clarity all the ways in which their mother used butter to create delicious meals that her children would remember all their lives. Her passion for butter even passed on to her own children.
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One of the topics touched on in Alexander's poem is childhood, as all the speaker's memories take place when they are still young. Their childhood is illustrated in terms of the food that was cooked by their mother but eaten and savored by themselves. It's a moving poem that reveals just how powerful a gustatory memory can be and the potency of home-cooked meals as anchors of familial love.
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Cooking is evidently a central topic of this poem, specifically the use of butter in creating a variety of dishes. A large chunk of the poem is comprised of a catalog of images that list with great detail the different ways in which butter was often the centerpiece of the recipes created by the speaker's mother.
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Food within the poem is presented as a core memory for the speaker when they think of their mother. Not just because of the deliciously memorable food she created for them. But also because such comfort food is itself symbolic and tangibly expressive of parental affection. It also helps that the poet's imagery is so appetizing.
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Nostalgia is another topic that is referenced in Alexander's poem. The memory of butter is one that the speaker is clearly fond of for a variety of reasons, yet it is also obvious that they pine for days when butter dominated the menu of their childhood. A sentiment that echoes the commonly expressed wistfulness all adults feel for the simplicity of adolescence.
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Free Verse

This poem by Alexander is written in free verse, as it does not contain any formal rhyme scheme or meter. Instead, the poem's cadence is guided by the poet's cataloged imagery of the different meals that the speaker's mother would cook, as well as the repetition of the key ingredient: butter. Plus, sound devices like alliteration also add to its rhythm.
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Steven Ward Poetry Expert
Steven Ward is a passionate writer, having studied for a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature and being a poetry editor for the 'West Wind' publication. He brings this experience to his poetry analysis on Poem Analysis.

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