The Poetry of Questions (and Possible Answers)

leaves

Poetry serves many purposes, but one of my favorites is as facilitator of questions and possible answers. Why? Because the answers are often novel concepts. Even better, they’re often new questions in answer’s clothing. Sure, they might not pass muster with a scientist, but who’s worried about scientists when reading poems? Not this guy.

The late W. S. Merwin provides a nice example of the Q&A model with his poem “Old Man At Home Alone in the Morning.” As is true with all Merwin poems, the first hurdle is reading for rhythm, specifically the rhythm lost by his habit of forsaking my favorite writing prop, punctuation.

Once you have that figured out, you can better notice how the age of wisdom (read: old age) both is and isn’t so wise. Or at least the narrator seems to conclude here. Let’s don our poetic bathing suits and jump into his stream of consciousness:

 

“Old Man At Home Alone in the Morning”
W.S. Merwin

There are questions that I no longer ask
and others that I have not asked for a long time
that I return to and dust off and discover
that I’m smiling and the question
has always been me and that it is
no question at all but that it means
different things at the same time
yes I am old now and I am the child
I remember what are called the old days and there is
no one to ask how they became the old days
and if I ask myself there is no answer
so this is old and what I have become
and the answer is something I would come to
later when I was old but this morning
is not old and I am the morning
in which the autumn leaves have no question
as the breeze passes through them and is gone

 

I think we can agree that the narrator has figured out a few things about life, and one of them is that we’ll never figure out everything about life. One pearl of wisdom is knowing what questions not to ask anymore, either because you’ve come to learn the answers through experience or because you’ve come to the conclusion, “Why bother?”

Then there’s that mirror thing, namely those questions that reflect the asker. According to the speaker, these are questions…

 

…I return to and dust off and discover
that I’m smiling and the question
has always been me and that it is
no question at all but that it means
different things at the same time

 

Got it? You are the question, but it is not a question, and it holds multiple meanings. Here the poem takes on the character of a koan.

Then comes the paradox of age: how an old man or woman always holds within the young boy or girl, both simultaneously alive in one form.

Finally there’s an admission: Though the answer is incomplete and always will be, arriving to an advanced age seems a partial solution.

The poem “turns” (as many good poems do) in the 14th line with that heavy-lifting conjunction “but.” Despite all the deep, head-scratching thoughts about life, the narrator knows this much for sure (and it’s a novel concept, the kind poetry is uniquely positioned to pose):

 

…but this morning
is not old and I am the morning
in which the autumn leaves have no question
as the breeze passes through them and is gone.

 

If you’re Buddhist, you’re finding the familiar in this thinking: Let’s focus on the present. Sure, I’m old, but this morning (like all mornings) is not old and “I am the morning.”

Hot damn. Ponce de Leon spent all that time hunting the Fountain of Youth in the Everglades, and all he had to do is become the morning, which sat on his doorstep each dawn.

Sounds easy, right? But not so fast. The last two lines place this poetic meditation in the season of autumn. Note that the leaves have no questions. Note that the breeze (our short lifetimes on Earth) “passes through them and is gone.”

To return, the speaker implies, because that’s what winds and seasons do. The circle thing. Samsara. The old mouth-eating-tail metaphor of questions and answers.

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