Questions and Echoes


The assignment for this week was to write poems that begin and end with a question. To add a complication (and to promote some great poems), I cited works by Keats, Shelley, and Yeats that end with a question, and works by Goethe, Rilke, Auden, and Shakespeare that begin with one. Extra credit went to entries that echoed any of the poems that I had named. The 170 entries in the comments included wonderful poems, valuable suggestions, more than a few centos, and strategic references to poets both famous (Byron, Keats, Yeats) and little-known.

Angela Ball refers to “Ode to a Nightingale” in the title and first line of her poem, “Viewless Wings”:

Are there still “wings of poesy”? Yes. They’ve been shelved,
like a beaver top hat collapsed when not in use, whose hatter
survives in a madhouse, where he deplores the lake
for its surly, copulating swans. Stylish poets reject
metaphorical levitation, as evoked by John Gillespie Magee, Jr.,
in his sonnet, “High Flight,” where he “slips the surly bonds of earth”
in a Spitfire MK1, aided by wings from Cuthbert Hicks,
author of “The Blind Man Flies” and source of the line,
“And touched the face of God.” What are these straw-man
“bonds of earth”? Why “surly”? Can plagiarism

Elizabeth Solzburg found “Viewless Wings” to be “brilliant,” and I agree. The poem’s delights include the attention it gives to “High Flight,” the sonnet by John Gillespie Magee, Jr., which begins, “Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth, / And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings.” Lines from this poem—a celebration of an aviator’s exaltation—adorn many gravestones in Arlington National Cemetery.

Magee, an American pilot in the Canadian air force, flew a British Spitfire in World War II. In 1941, he died at the age of 19—but not before he had visited “the high untrespassed sanctity of space, / put out my hand and touched the face of God.” Ronald Reagan quoted the poem in his address to the nation on January 28, 1986, the day when the space shuttle Challenger exploded, killing all astronauts on board. (Peggy Noonan wrote the address.)

The key word in Angela’s poem is “poesy,” a term that has come to signify a kind of gushing that “stylish poets reject.” In his comment, Eric Fretz followed the poem to where he thought its trajectory lay—“the hatred of poetry,” to quote Ben Lerner—but reserved his greatest enthusiasm not for the argument but for these wondrous lines: “whose hatter / survives in a madhouse, where he deplores the lake / for its surly, copulating swans.”

Michael C. Rush dazzled many of us with the questions raised by “Eleutheromania” and with the magnificence of sound in the poem’s sixth stanza:

Who holier than the disbeliever?
Even the thirstiest visits the cistern of drool.

Choose your delusion? Choosing your delusion
is just one of the delusions that chooses you.

I smell burning books, millions of them, unseen, unread,
hijinks of accusing kachinas and kinkshamers drinking the soul-ution,

instantiating confusion, a quasi-tsunami of ludonarrative dissonance,
a knucklefruit parley between the chronic ironic and the cure of the curve

as was kisses will be with the lips of is.
What we take for granted is taking things for granted.

The shock of a duck
jerked up in the jaws of a dog.

Which is more powerful, narrative or verisimilitude?
Is power determined by the ability to deceive?

I’m with Stephanie Cohen, who said her favorite lines of the week were “The shock of a duck / jerked up in the jaws of a dog.”

In “Requiem,” Pamela Joyce S. beautifully weaves echoes of Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale”: “full of sorrow,” “half in love,” “full-throated ease,” “tender” night.

What are you thinking?
To think is to be
full of sorrow and
I am full of thought.

Only half in love,
you said half joking,
the quiet breath escaping
like a death rattle.

I called you soft names
with full-throated ease
In the forlorn landscape
of tomorrow’s separate dreams.

What thoughts will please you,
Love, on this last tender night?

Christa Whitsett Overbeck did what all poets should do on occasion: visited a museum and wrote a poem about a painting she saw.

At the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, November 7, 2016

Where do we come from? I stand and contemplate
Gauguin’s Tahitian canvas, yellow present, blue past, inscrutable
time to come; My fortieth, two days earlier, spent marveling at boundaries
on the bracing sweep of Popham Beach, how water perfectly meets the land;
Soon, I will board a flight back to the middle, red Ohio and the future,
a less pliable boundary than water, of matter both lesser and greater—

What are we? Supplicants, revolutionaries, time travelers, idiots, mortals—
The question contains all answers—we are, to our great awe and horror, all;
I envy the clarity of Gauguin’s canvas, so contained.
Out here, unframed, unshored, is to trust in principles unseen, as in flight,
even as the gyre widens and the raptor deafens.

The secret it seems is stretched upon the rack of air,
but we lack the Pacific light, the myth, the reason by which to see;
A painted figure plucks fruit from the bough. Where are we going?

In response Eric Fretz complimented Christa’s use of “ekphrasis”—art about art; in this case, a poem about a Gauguin painting—as the springboard for philosophical questions. Eric was moved to share these wonderful lines from Canto VI of Lord Byron’s masterwork, Don Juan:

My tendency is to philosophise
On most things, from a tyrant to a tree;
But still the spouseless virgin Knowledge flies.
What are we? and whence came we? what shall be
Our ultimate existence? what’s our present?
Are questions answerless, and yet incessant.

Millicent Caliban appropriates the job announcement as an ad hoc form in “Creative Talent”:

What does the job entail?
When called, you must provide
fresh poetic inspiration,
apt similes and such.
Sing so that my words come lilting
forth with fine invention.
You must be immersed in nature,
know the musk-rose and white
hawthorn, pastoral eglantine.
Your voice to my ear be
not in vain. Will you be my Muse?

“Ode to a Nightingale” is the source of the “musk-rose,” “white / hawthorn” and “pastoral eglantine.”

Diana Ferraro’s “Clockwork” begins and ends with timeless questions:

What time is it?

The sorry round face, two bones as hands
The mock banner of a forbidden ship
Poison, pirate, prowess, no lighthouse warns.

The past, a sacking bag laid on the bare land
Jewels and coals shifting and clanking
A peaceful cow with a bell hails the future.

Bright stamps on lost letters, used gloves, missed calls,
Stocked sunrays heaped within a tall fire
Written papers burn on the trail of autumn leaves.

Weightless witnesses stolen by the wind
Zephyr, sirocco or gale, so many skies!
Present melts in the sigh of a lived life.

Is it time?

One of the week’s most memorable centos came from the palindromic Tony W. Wynot. The poem’s title, “O Body Swayed,” comes from Yeats’s “Among School Children,” and it also alludes to poems by Shelley, Rilke, and Auden:

Where does the dance end?

On the blue surface of Percy’s aëry surge?
Does it come to its conclusion out of Wystan Hugh’s question?
Tell for once and all what bird that was?
Does it terminate where granite turns to grass?
Or wash away with Rainer’s darkened sobs?

Does it spring forth from a mess of shadows?
Reveal itself in the Bard’s bitter cold?
Does it pirouette from the steep sky’s commotion?
Bloom lilacs on your once-gray soul?

Driven like a ghost, a dead thought comes to life
Accepts the world’s offer to take a little spin
We who sway to music and whose glance is bright

Where does the dancer begin?

In “Long Story Short,” Beth Dufford makes ingenious use of the plot summary as an organizing device. Here is Homer’s Odyssey in wittily succinct form:

Oh, where have you been? said weaver to sailor
and what have you done to delay your return?
We sailed. We sacked. We ate some flowers.
I rendered a one-eyed giant blind.
Gifted a sack of wind to deliver us home,
my greedy men did what greedy men do and
we were blown back to square one. Next:
cannibals. After that, those left were turned to pigs, though—
thanks to me—were turned back to men. We met the dead
(including Anticlea, who told me of your suitors). Redirected and
forewarned, the men plugged their ears but, oh, I heard the women
I lost six men to the six-headed one and the rest as they thwarted
Zeus once again.
I stand before you undisguised, unfaithful maids and suitors
Our bed is our bed, rooted in place: now may we finally have peace?

I have long been held spellbound by the climactic lines of Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy:

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought;
And enterprises of great pith and moment,
With this regard, their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.

Here is my own effort, prompted by these lines:

What does it look like, the native hue of resolution?
We have not seen its like in years.
Sick we are, and lied to. Medicine we need.
What do we get? Pills, serums, black holes
as predicted by Einstein, a cyclone in Mozambique,
an April blizzard crippling the Midwest,
a new tax on wind, additional troops at the border.
Who would accept what is, when the unknown
Offers a long, well-earned, dreamless sleep?
What is the color of thought? Do you know?
Do you know who you are?
Or have you, too, lost the name of action?

I am grateful to all who commented favorably. Emily Winakur’s note meant a lot to me: “I admire the middle section, ‘What do we get?’ Followed by the terrible, useless list. The contrast between the list and ‘the long, well-earned, dreamless sleep’ is powerful.”

Commendable other poems, unmentioned in this post, make your NLP captain feel a renewed sense of pride in the team. A new prompt goes up next Tuesday. Suggestions are welcome.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

David Lehman, a contributing editor of the Scholar, is a poet, critic, and the general editor of The Best American Poetry annual anthology and author of the book One Hundred Autobiographies. He currently writes our Talking Pictures column.


Please enter a valid email address
That address is already in use
The security code entered was incorrect
Thanks for signing up