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“There is a sense in which paradox is the language appropriate and inevitable to poetry

C. Brooks 1

Hello Poets – today’s prompt was prompted by a couple of distant memories – the first from ‘the Confession’ in the Book of Common Prayer:-

“We have left undone those things which we ought to have done;
And we have done those things which we ought not to have done;”

As a small child I loved those words without quite knowing why and it was not until studying poetry when a teen that that delight in the contrary was re-invoked:

“Out of a fired ship, which by no way
But drowning could be rescued from the flame,
Some men leap’d forth, and ever as they came
Near the foes’ ships, did by their shot decay;
So all were lost, which in the ship were found,
They in the sea being burnt, they in the burnt ship drown’d.”

Thus was I introduced to the term ‘paradox,’ exemplified in the final couplet of John Donne’s “Burnt Ship” when those who went down with the burnt ship were drowned and those who leapt into the sea burnt up, presumably in the flaming tar and gunpowder that coated the surface.  Donne, along with his contemporary metaphysical poets, made regular use of paradox so what place does this literary device have in poetry?

From the Latin, para translates as ‘beyond’ and doxum as ‘meaning’ so paradoxum is literally ’beyond meaning’. It does not connote meaninglessness but rather unbelievable in the first instance, with its departure from received wisdom and juxtaposition of incongruous ideas. The seeming contradiction surprises the reader and enables a rethink for an unexpected insight.

And H.A. Dobson makes much of the contradiction in “The Paradox of Time”:
“Time goes, you say? Ah no!
Alas, Time stays, we go;
Or else, were this not so,
What need to chain the hours,
For Youth were always ours?
Time goes, you say? -ah no! “…

Another poet who makes liberal use of paradox in poetry is Robert Frost, not least in The Gift Outright:
“The land was ours before we were the land’s.
She was our land more than a hundred years
Before we were her people. She was ours
In Massachusetts, in Virginia,
But we were England’s, still colonials,
Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,
Possessed by what we now no more possessed.
Something we were withholding made us weak
Until we found out that it was ourselves…”

The paradox can suggestively imbue a poem and not be confined to the literal juxtapositions, as for example in Wordsworth’s “Composed upon Westminster Bridge”. Thus, the famous ‘lake poet’, seeking to make the prosaic poetic, is able to see the great metropolis of London as a lovely landscape:

“Earth has not any thing to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!”

For this Poetics challenge I’m giving you choices but you can only choose ONE!!

1. Here are some lines from Paul Dunbar’s
The Paradox:  – select ONE and build your poem around it.

  • I am thy fool in the morning, thou art my slave in the night.
  • I am the mother of sorrows; I am the ender of grief;
  • I am the bud and the blossom, I am the late-falling leaf


2. Take the last lines of Wallace Stevens’ The Snow Man and write a poem that is imbued with the existential paradox implied there. [the meaning of which is the ridding of our usual human observation and viewing winter as a ‘man of snow’ not a snowman! (more HERE)]

  • For the listener, who listens in the snow, And, nothing himself, beholds nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

Preferably do NOT use the lines within your own writing but cite the source at the end of your post, or at the start as epigraph.

Note: Read the poems by all means before you start writing – the links are there.
We should not fret if paradox seems hard to grasp (it can be slippery). The purpose of the prompt is to let the chosen line seed our own imagination – after all the paradox has been done for us already.

1. The Language of Paradox (1947) Cleanth Brooks

Once you have published your poem, add it to the Linky widget and leave a comment (see below). Then go visiting, reading and sharing your thoughts with other contributors which is half the fun of our dVerse gatherings.