Do You Think You Can Tell? Powerful Questions That Wake Us Up

Sometimes the questions are complicated and the answers are simple.
Dr Seuss

Sometimes the questions are simple but the answers… unanswerable.

Powerful Questions

Thanks to those of you contributed to the conversation about powerful questions in poems.

A big thanks in particular to Amy Palko at Less Ordinary who took the time to record a voice thread of Tell Me The Truth About Love by W H Auden. I’ve included the thread here (if you’re reading in a feed you’ll probably need to pop over here to play it)

As Amy says in her post, the poem asks us some questions about love that are unanswerable - but that make us go searching after our memories, our tastes, our version of the story anyway.

Does it look like a pair of pyjamas,
Or the ham in a temperance hotel?
Does its odour remind one of llamas,
Or has it a comforting smell?

Puzzles and Riddles

Riddles and puzzles also get our brains stretching and searching. Robyn McMaster from Brain Based Biz shared a great line from Van Morrison that’s still rumbling away in my head (or heart?)

If my heart could do my thinking,
would my brain begin to feel?

Do You Think You Can Tell?

The title of this post is inspired by Brad Shorr’s contribution to the conversation. In Do You Wish You Were Here? he shared some lyrics - and powerful, searching questions - from Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here.

So, so you think you can tell Heaven from Hell,
blue skies from pain.
Can you tell a green field from a cold steel rail?
A smile from a veil?
Do you think you can tell?

They’re questions that have lingered in his head (and heart) for many years now, perhaps because:

For me these questions raise all sorts of issues about careers, authenticity, being true to yourself, the consequences of being taken in by charlatans or lulled to sleep by creature comforts.

And for me they’re questions that hint at a bigger deeper truth, one we only recognise when we’re fully awake. Questions that demand we go looking, asking ourselves if we can still tell the difference.

Nonsense Rhymes

Nonsense wakes up the brain cells
Dr Seuss

One of the poems I shared was a nonsense rhyme from Alice in Wonderland: the Lobster Quadrille.

It ends with this refrain: another question that’s inviting us to wake up don’t you think?

Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, will you join the dance?
Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, won’t you join the dance?

Thank you to everyone who joined that conversation about the power of nonsense and shared some favourite pieces of nonsense (not least Joe Haukes who didn’t just share some but wrote some).

The Power of Plain Questions

The other poem I shared here was “The Sun” by Mary Oliver, one big question of poem, asked in the plainest of language, asking the most powerful of questions.

It reminds me of two other favourite ‘questioning’ poems of mine - in fact the two I originally had in mind with this challenge. Amy Palko quoted one of them. It’s one of those poems that once heard, once read, is not easily forgotten.

Late Fragment by Raymond Carver

And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.

We often think of poetry as ‘difficult’ to understand yet some of the poetry that we cling to, remember, type out, quote to each other is written in the plainest and simplest of words.

Like this question, that I’ll leave you with, from the end of Mary Oliver’s The Summer Day:

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?

Poems, songs and questions were contributed as part of the Writing With Purpose theme, including a conversation around purposeful, powerful questions.


    • July 8, 2008

    Definitely a collection of thought provoking quotes, Joanna. Without doubt, a feast to be digested one at a time.

    The questions toss my imagination backwards and forwards, working out the answers. Each one explores a unique aspect of who we are.

    “Tell me, what is it you plan to do With your one wild and precious life?”

    “As much as I can,” Scott replies :-)

    I offer an almost oxymoronic quote to the collection:

    “Stay at home in your mind. Don’t recite other people’s opinions. I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

    To me, it is a very clever quote because Emerson is proving the very point he is making!

    • July 8, 2008

    Joanna, you have a truly inspiring collection of quotes here. Thanks for getting my day off to a perfect start.

    • July 8, 2008

    Odd bits and pieces of my early school years come to mind now and again, and in reading your post, I remembered how I was always fascinated with the question mark when I first learned about it. Both its shape and function seemed filled with a call to thinking. Other punctuation seems to confine, whereas the question mark is more free to leave the page and follow you home.

  1. Scott, I like the image of the questions throwing ideas around your imagination, tossing back and forth. And what a fabulous quote from Emerson. “Tell me what you know” - I’d say that’s a key that can unlock our words for sure.

    Brad, I’m glad, and thanks for making such a positive contribution to it yourself

    SpaceAgeSage: how fascinating! I’ve never really thought about punctuation like that before… Hmm… I think I can feel a post forming somewhere :-)


    • July 9, 2008

    Joanna, this is a wonderful collection of questions. I loved Brad’s comment - what a beautiful way to think of the question. I like questions because they are not finite. They represent possibility and invite introspection. Perhaps it is why the question is so appealing to writers. Without the finality of a period, a question represents freedom, imagination and room for individual responses that uniquely reflect our individuality.

  2. Karen, thanks for sharing that perspective. I think you’ve summed it up beautifully “they represent possibility and invite introspection” - taking us inside but also onwards and outwards to new and previously unimagined worlds.


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