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Postcard from nowhere: airports and assumptions

By A.E. Stallings

Why are there so few good poems about air travel? And are there any great ones? Is it just that it has been around for public transport less time than boats or trains or even automobiles? I can think of terrific poems about all of these, but only a brace of air travel poems spring to my mind, both about the attendant misery of airports, among other things. I’m sure folks here can remind me of others and broaden my list.


There is Robert Conquest’s charming
747 (London-Chicago)
After the horrors of Heathrow
A calmness settles in.
A window seat, an ambient glow,
A tonic-weakened gin.
The pale grey wings, the pale-blue sky;
The tiny sun’s sharp shine,
The engines’ drone, or rather sigh;
A single calm design.
Those great wings flex to altering air.
Ten thousand feet below
We watch the endless miles of glare
Like slightly lumpy dough.
Below that white all’s grey and grim,
The wrong side of the sky.
Reality’s down in that dim
Old formicary? Why?
….
the poem goes on its elegantly discursive way, and ends:
We drift down from pure white and blue
To what awaits us there
In customs shed and passport queue
–The horrors of O’Hare.
I have to say I adore that word “formicary” here–though I think there are critics now who would protests at such a self-consciously literary word. (“Does anyone really say ‘formicary’” I hear the predictable cry.) But “ant-hill” just would not have done.
There is Larkin’s sonnet, “Autobiography at an Air-Station”:
Delay, well travellers must expect
Delay. For how long? No one seems to know.
With all the luggage weighed, the tickets checked,
It can’t be long . . . We amble to and fro,
Sit in steel chairs, buy cigarettes and sweets
And tea, unfold the papers. Ought we to smile,
Perhaps make friends? No: in the race for seats
You’re best alone. Friendship is not worth while.
Six hours pass: if I’d gone by boat last night
I’d be there now. Well, it’s too late for that.
The kiosk girl is yawning. I feel staled,
Stupefied, by inaction–and, as light
Begins to ebb outside, by fear; I set
So much on this Assumption. Now it’s failed.
It’s classic Larkin, and brilliant in its evocation of the stultification of air travel (and I for one love that pun on Assumption) and its larger metaphorical implications; but it ain’t no Whitsun Weddings.
I don’t know that I have ever penned a poem in the air despite untold hours of waiting and travelling in airports and airplanes. Air travel doesn’t seem conducive to that kind of thought or reflection–and as such is perhaps a metaphor for poetry in the modern world.
One of the things that does give me pause these days in airports in the US is how it is the one place where you understand we are at war. Whenever we come through Atlanta, we see impossibly young people in brand new desert fatigues shipping out, older soldiers coming back, reservists with middle-aged paunches and greying temples bidding farewell to their families, or being welcomed home.
In the Newark airport, we noticed a returned reservist with his military haircut and artificial leg (he walked quite naturally, but was wearing shorts.) Moments later, in one of those juxtapositions of travel, I ran into a family with a small boy in tears. He wanted to take a toy with him on the plane–a GI Joe-type action figure–but it was missing a leg. The father kept saying it was broken, it was trash, and to just throw it away.

Comments (11)

  • On October 27, 2007 at 2:34 pm Don Share wrote:

    You probably don’t want to count James Dickey’s “Falling”:

  • On October 27, 2007 at 4:15 pm Andrew Shields wrote:

    Australian poet Dennis Haskell’s “Samuel Johnson in Marrickville” has some good airplane poems, especially one called “Night Flight.”

  • On October 27, 2007 at 4:29 pm Aseem Kaul wrote:

    How about this:
    I.
    The jet bores like silverfish through volumes of cloud -
    clouds that will keep no record of where we have passed,
    nor the sea’s mirror, nor the coral busy with it’s own
    culture; they aren’t doors of dissolving stone,
    but pages in a damp culture that come apart.
    So a hole in their parchment opens, and suddenly, in a vast
    dereliction of sunlight, there’s that island known
    to the traveller Trollope, and the fellow traveller Froude,
    for making nothing. Not even a people. The jet’s shadow
    ripples over green jungles as steadily as a minnow
    through seaweed. Our sunlight is shared by Rome
    and your white paper, Joseph. Here, as everywhere else,
    it is the same age. In cities, in settlements of mud,
    light has never had epochs. Near the rusty harbour
    around Port of Spain bright suburbs fade into words -
    Maraval, Diego Martin – the highways long as regrets
    and steeples so tiny you couldn’t hear their bells,
    nor the sharp exclamations of whitewashed minarets
    from green villages. The lowering window resounds
    over pages of earth, the canefields set in stanzas.
    Skimming over an ocher swamp like a fast cloud of egrets
    are nouns that find their branches as simply as birds.
    It comes too fast, this shelving sense of home -
    canes rushing the wing, a fence; a world that still stands as
    the trundling tires keep shaking and shaking the heart.
    - Derek Walcott, from ‘Midsummer’.

  • On October 27, 2007 at 9:31 pm Steve wrote:

    Randall Jarrell, “Field and Forest”!
    Walcott has other air travel poems: there’s a much-anthologized one beginning “The airport coffee tastes less of America.”
    Auden’s poem ending “God Bless the USA, so large/ So friendly and so rich.”
    Several poems by John Tranter.
    Merrill’s “Flying to Byzantium.”
    Michael Blumenthal’s “Over Ohio.”
    Auden: “Consider this and in our time/ As the hawk sees it, or the helmeted airman”– though that’s a military air poem (cp. “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death”).
    Thom Gunn, “Small Plane in Kansas,” though, again, that’s not about major airports and commercial air travel either.
    I really like airports, honestly– they’re like the badly-dressed cousins of libraries, and who doesn’t love libraries?
    There’s also this new poem about flying into JFK from points north, though I have no idea whether it’s any good.

  • On October 27, 2007 at 9:35 pm Vivek Narayanan wrote:

    This brilliant (as you say) Larkin poem is different from Whitsun Weddings, but in its own subtle way no less multidimensional. It’s a comment on the true nature of time at airports (sort of like a devilish riposte to Mann’s Magic Mountain) that is contrary to all of what our civilisation continually tries to tells itself, something we all know and find it hard to admit to ourselves or accept. And somehow, it only grows more true year after year.

  • On October 28, 2007 at 2:52 am emily dickinson wrote:

    Bill Manhire: “Breakfast” – a flight right across the world

  • On November 1, 2007 at 12:08 am C. Dale wrote:

    Aseem Kaul beat me to it. The Walcott poem quoted above is the one I usually think of when I think of poems about air travel.

  • On November 1, 2007 at 12:45 pm jenn lewin wrote:

    No one has yet mentioned Robert Penn Warren’s sequence “Homage to Emerson, On Night Flight to New York,” one of his better poems not least of all because it contains opaque but memorable lines like: … “At 38,000 feet Emerson// Is dead right.”

  • On November 3, 2007 at 1:57 pm KateBB wrote:

    How serendipitous. Umbrella has published two such poems, Maryann Corbett’s “Composed Somewhere Higher Than Westminster Bridge,” which has a “conversation” with Wordsworth:
    http://www.umbrellajournal.com/winter2006/poetry/MaryannCorbett.html
    And John Grey’s Report to Gate 20, a witty harangue:
    http://www.umbrellajournal.com/fall2007/poetry/JohnGrey.html

  • On November 5, 2007 at 8:11 am rachel hadas wrote:

    I have a couple of plane poiem, but they are oddly muted, unmemorable – and for that matter few of the poems suggested in all the helpful comments are well known. I ahd thought of Merrill’s “Flying from Byzantium” too but wondered if it was really ABOUT flying – and the same might be said of my two poems, which I append but which nobody should bother to read unless they want to! Both are unpublished – maybe for good reason?
    In-Flight Movie
    As if this cramped tree-top, this swift savannah
    were not enough to make the message clear
    over seven numbing hours, we strangers
    trapped in transit, hunched together here
    in Economy with less than no
    room separating thigh from thigh or knee
    from knee or even bent elbow from waist
    are being shown a documentary
    about primates. Hierarchic, fierce:
    cavortings, hunting parties, playtime. Group
    groomings and hootings gradually die down
    as various families settle into sleep.
    Across the aisle a father smooths a blanket
    over the child sprawled sleeping in his lap -
    one of those airline coverlets which more often
    serve as symbolic surrogate for sleep.
    The rest of us occasionally glance up
    (no soundtrack needed – each supplies their own)
    to verify the kinship, or to greet
    the silent cousins capering onscreen.
    and
    Deplaning
    Toleave the city, the apartment; stray
    from the well-worn track where no one speaks
    for half a day, a day, a week, two weeks,
    bestows – perspective, I was going to say,
    as if absence were coterminous
    with distance. As if I were on a plane
    rising above the daily, the mundane.
    As if flying cut me wholly loose.
    Thinking clearly is so hard to do!
    Do I mean pondering my situation
    resembles flying? Or that aviation
    opens a window for a better view?
    Up in the air, this is all I can see:
    little earthy patches, green and brown;
    meandering rivers gleaming in the sun;
    then fields of billowing cloud, then simply sky.
    A bump; and we return to gravity.
    I unbuckle simile, deplane,
    trudge out into terrestrial life again,
    that hazy realm where every boundary -
    so sharp seen from the vantage of the air -
    melts into mist. Cloaked like conspirators,
    responsibilities, routines, and chores
    beckon afresh, and choices disappear.
    -Rachel Hadas

  • On November 9, 2007 at 12:52 am Alicia (A.E.) wrote:

    I apologize for not getting back on these–Numbers Trouble seems to have overtaken me–but I have enjoyed these additions to my paltry pair, especially the Walcott. There are, it seems, a lot of airport and tarmac poems (Kumin’s “Our Ground Time Here Will be Brief”, and a fine poem in Sapphics by Marilyn Hacker whose name escapes me–she calls her daughter “Cleis” in it–appropriate for a Sapphic poem of course–and it ends with the daughter slinging a backpack over her shoulder…) I don’t think I would include military flights in my list. “Falling” is clearly in its own special category.
    It does occur to me that many poems have a sort of aerial perspective that suggest airplanes. I never read the wonderful end of Auden’s “The Fall of Rome”:
    Altogether elsewhere, vast
    Herds of reindeer move across
    Miles and miles of golden moss,
    Silently and very fast.
    Without actually seeing this in my mind’s eye as though from an aerial shot in a wildlife documentary.


Posted in Uncategorized on Saturday, October 27th, 2007 by A.E. Stallings.