“Answers” by Elizabeth Jennings


Answers by Elizabeth Jennings

I keep my answers small and keep them near;
Big questions bruised my mind but still I let
Small answers be a bulwark to my fear.

The huge abstractions I keep from the light;
Small things I handled and caressed and loved.
I let the stars assume the whole of night.

But the big answers clamoured to be moved
Into my life. Their great audacity
Shouted to be acknowledged and believed.

Even when all small answers build up to
Protection of my spirit, I still hear
Big answers striving for their overthrow

And all the great conclusions coming near.

I love this poem, written primarily in tercets. I, too, keep my questions and my answers small and soft. Unlike the voice in Elizabeth Jennings’s poem, however, I have not allowed the big answers to enter my home. I know that they are out there; I prefer to wonder about the inner workings of the feline mind. I would rather read a student paper on Leonard Bast’s umbrella than an examination of poverty, the abyss, and the Teutonic influence on literature.

I don’t know what form “Answers” is written in; it does seem like a formal poem and it might be something like a Sicilian tercet or a variation.Elzabeth-Jennings-008

Tichborne’s “Elegy”

TichborneChidiock Tichborne’s Elegy

Chidiock Tichborne’s Elegy
written with his own hand in the Tower before his executionMy prime of youth is but a frost of cares,
My feast of joy is but a dish of pain,
My crop of corn is but a field of tares,
And all my good is but vain hope of gain.
The day is past, and yet I saw no sun,
And now I live, and now my life is done.

My tale was heard and yet it was not told,
My fruit is fallen and yet my leaves are green;
My youth is spent and yet I am not old,
I saw the world and yet I was not seen.
My thread is cut and yet it is not spun,
And now I live, and now my life is done.

I sought my death and found it in my womb,
I looked for life and saw it was a shade;
I trod the earth and knew it was my tomb,
And now I die, and now I was but made.
My glass is full, and now my glass is run,
And now I live, and now my life is done.

I was about 11 or 12 when I first read this poem and it immediately delighted me. The use of antithesis and paradox is a superb way to learn about reading poetry with thought. I now longer know or remember if the circumstances of its composition are true, but to my young and melodramatic mind a picture arose of a handsome young man with long, flowing hair wielding a quill pen in the Tower of London, where he had been afforded a nice writing desk of Victorian style—remember, please, I was young and did not have yet an ample stock of historically accurate images in my mind’s eye.

The poem is probably a good one for students to work at: “tares” might send them to the dictioary, but if you count the number of words exceeding one syllable, you’ll come up with approximately one. The abundant metaphors are worth chewing over.
Tichborne may have been a “one-hit wonder” (by necessity) but this poem suggests that the prospect of immediate death can indeed clarify and focus the mind.

“Elegy for a Dead Seal with Surfers”

“Elegy for a Dead Seal with Surfers”

Elegy for a Dead Seal with Surfers

Wounded, he must have crawled out of the surf
to lie between two boulders, blond and smooth
and his lost brothers. Below the bite,
a stain has soaked his flank’s embroidered gold.
I can’t help noticing the seabird-emptied sockets,
the frayed, black eyelids tasseled like anemones,
and his face built for underwater speed
and for that child-like play among his kind, which serves
two purposes: grace, and hunting practice.
After his war with sharks or killer whales had ended
in his suffering, he turned back to face the sea,
that other, older brother he left reluctantly.
Trudging back up the footpath, lost in dazzle,
I pass men and women clad all in neoprene
with boogie-boards tucked beneath their arms
like candy-coated tribal shields. They descend
the last few steps from that airy world above
and emerge into this brilliant afternoon
they’ve set aside for battle.

by Eric Bliman

I found this poem in the TLS quite a while back and clipped it out and kept returning to it and rereading it. At first, I was astonished by the visual effects: I, too, have seen dead seals on the beach and paused, feeling sad, feeling the admonition of nature, and feeling lacrymose. Yes, I wept for those unnamed, unknown dead seals. They provided a sort of Wordsworthian natural object which brings us to feel our own still sad music of humanity.

Bliman’s poem very adroitly and beautifully clarifies my response. I love his use of sound, alliteration, and images. Of course the smooth boulders are the dead seal’s brothers–but I could not think of that for myself. Later on we learn that the the sea is that “other, older brother”.

I love the artistic images–the embroidered gold of the dead seal’s shank, the tasseled eyelids. When Bliman turns to the surfers, we see what I would call “man-made” langauge–neoprene and boogie-boards and candy-coated. These humans add to all of the natural imagery earlier in the poem with their presence and their battle. For me, the elderly woman and curmudgeon, the human battles with the surf are meretricious compared with the seal’s battle and the seal’s brotherhood with nature. I like the speaker’s phrase “lost in dazzle” about his encounter with the dead seal. The “dazzle” of mortality and nature is to me much stonger than the candy-colored surfers.

Finally, I think that this poem is quite original at the same time that it has earned its right to greatness by participating in the great line of poems that I love. It gives me a new way of looking at things–art should do that, I believe. Browning’s wonderfully energetic Fra Lippo Lippi says that:

…..we’re made so that we love
First when we see them painted, things we have passed
Perhaps a hundred times nor cared to see;
And so they are better, painted — better to us,
Which is the same thing. Art was given for that;
God uses us to help each other so,
Lending our minds out.”

While I would leave God out of the equation, Bliman’s seal crystallizes and clarifies my own murky tears on seeing a dead seal. Bliman’s seal makes me think of the brilliant animal poems by Keats, Shelley, Hopkins, Hardy, Yeats and of course Wordsworth’s “rocks, and stones, and trees”.

While the “bird” might be the standard bearer of the “memento mori” poem, the seal from the sea with its brothers, the boulders, is a stunning addition to the group of poetic images which console me.

I want to thank Eric Bliman for permitting me to reprint his poem–for “lending his mind out” to us.

“At Grass”



At Grass
by Philip Larkin

The eye can hardly pick them out
From the cold shade they shelter in,
Till wind distresses tail and mane,
Then one crops grass, and moves about
– The other seeming to look on –
And stands anonymous again

Yet fifteen years ago, perhaps
Two dozen distances sufficed
To fable them: faint afternoons
Of Cups and Stakes and Handicaps,
Whereby their names were artificed
To inlay faded, classic Junes –

Silks at the start: against the sky
Numbers and parasols: outside,
Squadrons of empty cars, and heat,
And littered grass: then the long cry
Hanging unhushed till it subside
To stop-press columns on the street.

Do memories plague their ears like flies?
They shake their heads. Dusk brims the shadows.
Summer by summer all stole away,
The starting-gates, the crowd and cries –
All but the unmolesting meadows.
Almanacked, their names live; they

Have slipped their names, and stand at ease,
Or gallop for what must be joy,
And not a fieldglass sees them home,
Or curious stop-watch prophesies:
Only the grooms, and the groom’s boy,
With bridles in the evening come.

The technical merits of “At Grass” redeem it from any charges of sentimentality. I gravitate more and more towards poems about aging and loss. It may be less painful to see the representation of retirement and waiting for death anthropomorphized. But one need not read the horses as allegorical figures, I think.
Larkin most likely intended us to see his characters simply as horses and not representations of human anguish. He is typically great with animals; his poem “Myxamatosis” is heartbreakingly chilling. He left money for the RSCPA in his will.

I think that “At Grass” belongs in the brilliant tradition of the “bird poem”–Shelley’s skylark, Yeats’s swans and gold enameled bird, Hardy’s thrush, Keats’s nightingale–they sing to us of what has been and what is and what will be. Although Larkin’s horses do not sing, he imbues them with memory and desire.   Larkin’s horses are playing out the scene of the future of everyone who manages not to “die young”.

A Sestina: “The Book of Yolek” by Anthony Hecht

The Book of Yolek

Anthony Hecht

Wir Haben ein Gesetz,
Und nach dem Gesetz soll er sterben.*

The dowsed coals fume and hiss after your meal
Of grilled brook trout, and you saunter off for a walk
Down the fern trail. It doesn’t matter where to,
Just so you’re weeks and worlds away from home,
And among midsummer hills have set up camp
In the deep bronze glories of declining day.

You remember, peacefully, an earlier day
In childhood, remember a quite specific meal:
A corn roast and bonfire in summer camp.
That summer you got lost on a Nature Walk;
More than you dared admit, you thought of home:
No one else knows where the mind wanders to.

The fifth of August, 1942.
It was the morning and very hot. It was the day
They came at dawn with rifles to The Home
For Jewish Children, cutting short the meal
Of bread and soup, lining them up to walk
In close formation off to a special camp.

How often you have thought about that camp,
As though in some strange way you were driven to,
And about the children, and how they were made to walk,
Yolek who had bad lungs, who wasn’t a day
Over five years old, commanded to leave his meal
And shamble between armed guards to his long home.

We’re approaching August again. It will drive home
The regulation torments of that camp
Yolek was sent to, his small, unfinished meal,
The electric fences, the numeral tattoo,
The quite extraordinary heat of the day
They all were forced to take that terrible walk.

Whether on a silent, solitary walk
Or among crowds, far off or safe at home,
You will remember, helplessly, that day,
And the smell of smoke, and the loudspeakers of the camp.
Wherever you are, Yolek will be there, too.
His unuttered name will interrupt your meal.

Prepare to receive him in your home some day.
Though they killed him in the camp they sent him to,
He will walk in as you’re sitting down to a meal.

* We have a law, and according to the law he must die.


The compelling sestina by the late, great Anthony Hecht is a good example of the old Medieval form., the sestina, which consists of 6 six line stanzas and a tercet (three lines at the end).

The sestina is governed by the 6 end words, or syllables, which pop up in each stanza according to a preordained arrangement.

Hecht’s six words are:
to (2, too, tattoo)

Notice that all 6 appear in the final tercet. Also note that the final word of each stanza becomes the final word of the first line of the following stanza.

The first two stanzas of “The Book of Yolek” depict a peaceful and almost opulent scene: a midsummer camper is enjoying a walk after a meal of grilled trout and then remembers a childhood summer camp and the sense of homesickness.

Then there’s a segue: “No one else knows where the mind wanders to”.

The next three stanzas are dedicated to the speaker’s thoughts of a young boy named Yolek who perished in a concentation camp. During WWII, Hecht, an American serviceman, was in a division that helped to liberate the few survivors of a concentration camp. Because he knew a few languages he interviewed and transcribed the statements of the survivors. That’s my theory as to where he got the story of Yolek.  But his fecund imagination would have sufficed.


According to Poetry:  “Much has been written about Hecht’s experience as an infantryman in wwii, both in combat and at the liberation of Flossenbürg concentration camp. “The place, the suffering, the prisoners’ accounts were beyond comprehension,” Hecht said of the camp, an annex of Buchenwald, in an interview with Philip Hoy. “For years after I would wake shrieking.” The survivors were naked, skeletal, their yellowed skin stretched over bony frames; contemporary reports note that the smell was unbearable. Hecht explained to Hoy how he let go completely [of] illusions of heroism when on another occasion he saw American soldiers mow down a group of women and children who were attempting to surrender.”



This poem is daunting to write about because it is so powerful; Hecht must have worked at it for a long time to achieve such a breath-taking, heart-breaking effect. I think he’d like us to always be prepared to receive Yolek in our thoughts, at our tables, in our souls.

Be kind, for you never know who might be a Yolek.   And even if you don’t know him, and you possibly don’t, keep a place for him.



“Not Waving But Drowning”


Not Waving but Drowning

By Stevie Smith

Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.

Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he’s dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
They said.

Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.

Stevie Smith is an odd duck, in the very best sense of the phrase. Her poetry can be witty and she clearly attends to strong rhymes and meters much of the time. She does not eschew anything–seemingly. Yet this impression fails to acknowledge the clear craft of her work.

“Not Waving But Drowning” looks at English “refinement” less directly than the epigram below. The poem has three speakers: the narrator, the drowned man, and his friends. The narrator gets lines 1-2 and line 10; the drowned man “speaks” lines 3-4, and the final stanza save line 10. The chums speak the second stanza.

The poem is a quick glance at the anthropology of the English. No matter how distressed one is, one puts on a hearty appearance of “larking”. Better to assume a person has had a heart attack than a possibly preventable death. And how do you discern the differences between the language of drowning and the language of play?

The dead man tells us that he’s been out too far all his life; drowning all of his life. In his few words he manages to convey a Prufrockian sense of isolation (Prufrock, too, spoke of drowning).

It’s easy to “get” the snap! response to an epigram such as:

“This English woman is so refined
She has no bosom and no behind.”

The mills of refinement have ground away at her sexuality. The two line poem pokes fun at English stereotypical ideals of class and refinement. A refined English woman would never be callipygian and would never qualify to work at Hooters.

April is Poetry Month!


I’m a riddle in nine syllables.
An elephant, a ponderous house,
A melon strolling on two tendrils.
O red fruit, ivory, fine timbers!
This loaf’s big with its yeasty rising.
Money’s new-minted in this fat purse.
I’m a means, a stage, a cow in calf.
I’ve eaten a bag of green apples,
Boarded the train there’s no getting off.

–Sylvia Plath

Plath is not best known for her humor. Many critics comment on the resentment seething in this poem.

But is it not possible that she’s created a little jocundity of nineness? And the poem is a riddle. Many readers do not first understand that all of the metaphors, all of the syllables in each line, the number of lines, even the number of letters in the word metaphors all add up to a “nineness” or a “novecissimo” comment on pregnancy and its 9 months. Plath could indeed be funny–the triolets of her poem “Mushrooms,” for example, or “Balloons” are archly sportive.

To begin poetry month on the first of April, I thought I’d post a brief and amusing poem.