Questions and Answers

James Bateman, "Haytime in the Cotswolds" (1939)

James Bateman, “Haytime in the Cotswolds” (1939)

In today’s poetry feature, Stephen looks at the big questions and the small questions of life…

In the following poem, Elizabeth Jennings speaks of “small answers” and “big answers.” Perhaps I have grown old and jaded (by the antics of humanity, my own included), but I prefer small answers. How tiresome to seek The Meaning Of Life! It is enough for one lifetime to struggle (emphasis on the struggle) to conduct oneself in a thoughtful, kind, and honorable manner. Oblivion will come in due time, with or without an Explanation. (I fear that I am starting to sound like Philip Larkin or Thomas Hardy.)

A remark by Ludwig Wittgenstein in the preface to his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus comes to mind: “What can be said at all can be said clearly, and what we cannot talk about we must consign to silence.” I think that the whole Meaning Of Life business is one of the things that must be consigned to silence.


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

The huge abstractions I kept 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, still I hear
Big answers striving for their overthrow

And all the great conclusions coming near.

Elizabeth Jennings, A Way of Looking (1955).

The following poem by James Reeves considers the role of questions and answers in Life. To wit: what if one sets out to be a solver of puzzles and then discovers that there are no solutions, or, perhaps, that there is nothing to be solved?

The Solvers

Invalids and other hotel residents
Unpuzzle themselves with patience-cards and jigsaws.
Crosswords engage saloon passengers at sea.
Philosophers invent puzzles with answers.
Each knows that what he is trying can be done.
Not all enjoy such comfort of assurance.
I, watching the backs of houses and of books,
Work away at my mind, fitting the pieces,
Pairing the cards, rejecting words.
So sitting, I become suddenly conscious
Of playing patience with crooked pieces,
While solving an incomplete jigsaw with words
In the precise non-language of a dream.
Some of the pieces fit, some of the cards match,
Only some of the pieces and the cards are lost.
I have tried to play it according to the rules,
Only the rules they sent are in Chinese.
Is it too late, I ask, to start again?
Or will extinction, when it comes, surprise me
Sorting the pieces, working out the clues?

James Reeves, The Questioning Tiger (1964).

Stephen Pentz curates poems and pictures at the First Known When Lost blog.
Share This Post

About Author Profile: Stephen Pentz

Stephen Pentz curates poems and pictures at the First Known When Lost blog.

One thought on “Questions and Answers

    Seamus Sweeney
    August 25, 2014 at 08:22

    At first I wondered if “Philosophers invent puzzles with answers” combined with “I have tried to play it according to the rules/Only the rules they sent are in Chinese” referred to Searle’s “Chinese room” thought experiment – – however it turns out Searle’s paper was published in 1980.

Comments are closed.