New Yorker poems

2 posts

Poems That End with a Question


Let’s hear it for poems that end with a question. Reason? Questions are more fun than statements. Questions better reflect life, which is, after all, nothing but a big question mark. Good question makers are much more inspiring to be around and to talk to than big pronouncement types who hit us with their ego-driven blah, blah, blahs like so many blasts of hubris in a growing balloon.

Last time out I discussed a New Yorker poem that gave me pause like so many big-glossy-winning poetic efforts do. You know, the type poem that has you saying, “Really?” to some imaginary editor with an imaginary dream job.

Today, though, I come not to bury Caesar but to praise him (move over Mark Antony). The Sept. 4, 2017, issue serves up a breezy philosophical piece by old friend Stephen Dunn, a poem that ends on a question that, like every good question, leaves you thinking. Have a look, why don’t you:

“The Inheritance”
by Stephen Dunn
You shouldn’t be surprised that the place
you always sought, and now have been given,
carries with it a certain disappointment.
Here you are, finally inside, and not a friend
in sight. The only gaiety that exists
is the gaiety you’ve brought with you,
and how little you had to bring.
The bougainvillea outside your front window,
like the gardener himself, has the look
of something that wants constant praise.
And the exposed wooden beams,
once a main attraction, now feel pretentious,
fit for someone other than you.
But it’s yours now and you suspect
you’ll be known by the paintings you hang,
the books you shelve, and no doubt
you need to speak about the wallpaper
as if it weren’t your fault. Perhaps that’s why
wherever you go these days
vanity has followed you like a clownish dog.
You’re thinking that with a house like this
you should throw a big party and invite
a Nick Carraway and ask him to bring
your dream girl, and would he please also
referee the uncertainties of the night?
You’re thinking that some fictional 
characters can be better friends
than real friends can ever be.
For weeks now your dreams have been
offering you their fractured truths.
You don’t know how to inhabit them yet,
and it might cost another fortune to find out.
Why not just try to settle in,
take your place, however undeserved,
among the fortunate? Why not trust 
that almost everyone, even in 
his own house, is a troubled guest?


Very cool, don’t you think? Especially if you consider your mind a “house” of sorts. We are all troubled guests in our short durations here, and just when we think we’ve stumbled upon the key to happiness, we are disabused of the notion in swift fashion.

Some people, for instance, think the key to happiness is a new start, as in moving away. They quickly discover, however, that you can’t move away from yourself. That “house” we call a mortal coil moves with you.

Money? An inheritance? It is to laugh. In that sense, Dunn’s poem is a cautionary laugh, a troubled, how-did-this-happen laugh.

I don’t know about you, but I like troubled poems, ones with furrowed brows, ones that finish in a questioning tone. It’s as if the poet brings up a problem in life and then hands it off. “Here,” he seems to say, giving it over like a meditation bead, “why don’t you chew this over for a bit.”

And so, we’re left with bougainvilleas and Carraway-less dreams that gently disturb us. Isn’t that what good poetry ending in questions do? Isn’t that one thing we ask of them?

When Famous Poets Get Lost…


It’s a sad feeling, watching a poet you like slowly transform into a poet you like a little less. Or into a poet that’s a bit more mortal than believed. Or maybe into a poet that’s cashing in on his own capital, cannibal-like, over time.

The classic example nowadays is Billy Collins, former Poet Laureate and Everyman, a rare and precious combination in poetry-writing circles. Yes. Billy whose verse could speak not only to academics but to the masses. Billy who was both wise in his ways and homespun in his approach. Billy whose wit was drier than the Gobi on a sandy day (wait… oh, never mind).

These thoughts came home to roost yesterday when I read Billy’s latest (“Safe Travels”) in America’s glossiest (The New Yorker). Shall we voyage together?


Safe Travels
by Billy Collins

Every time Gulliver travels
into another chapter of “Gulliver’s Travels”
I marvel at how well travelled he is
despite his incurable gullibility.

I don’t enjoy travelling anymore
because, for instance,
I still don’t know the difference
between a “bloke” and a “chap.”

And I’m embarrassed
whenever I have to hold out a palm
of loose coins to a cashier
as if I were feeding a pigeon in the park.

Like Proust, I see only trouble
in store if I leave my room,
which is not lined with cork,
only sheets of wallpaper

featuring orange flowers
and little green vines.
Of course, anytime I want
I can travel in my imagination

but only as far as Toronto,
where some graduate students
with goatees and snoods
are translating my poems into Canadian.


It may be a bad habit, but I often wonder if famous writers’ works would see the light of publishing day if they were subject to blind readings. The opening stanza, not exactly intriguing as openers go, offers a poor play on words, first the title of Swift’s book becoming a noun and lower-case verb and second the pun on Gulliver’s name and the word “gullibility.”

Stanza two offers two British terms as reasons for Collins’ self-enforced (and Proust-like) sedentary ways.

The highlight of this poem comes in the third stanza with its alliteration and its simile (loose coins as pigeon feed), but then it’s on to Proust and the assumption that readers know the French writer kept house in a cork-walled bedroom.

What really throws me is the end. Like the opening, a poem’s last play calls for a trump card. Here it comes across as a rather random deuce. Toronto? Graduate students in snoods? And, as in the first stanza, a rather lame joke (translating English into Canadian) coupled with a lamentable tip of the hat to self: “translating my poems.”

That last grates a bit, almost as if Collins is in on the joke: “Ha-ha, look at me, famous poet using his name to take up bandwidth in the rich medium known as The New Yorker, writing poems alluding to my poems!”

Or maybe it’s mini-me, munching sour grapes on Lilliput. Acting like a Yahoo in general. And wishing I had a Houyhnhnm’s chance of horsing around on The New Yorker‘s pages, too.