Friday, May 27, 2011

Poetry Friday: Riddle Me, Riddle Me, Riddle Me Ree....

I've been preparing my July Residency lecture for the Vermont College of Fine Arts, where I teach in the MFA/Writing for Children and Young Adults program. Here's the description that will appear in the Residency Schedule:

Who Am I? What the Lowly Riddle Reveals: Using the smallest and possibly goofiest gateway possible, this lecture will enter the enigmatic worlds of Ambiguity and Identity via the humble riddle. Riddles develop our ability to think metaphorically, almost always asking us the same thing great literature asks: Who am I and in what ways do I resemble something - or somebody - else? The answers to those questions often elude us, but as we move toward them, we establish both independence and empathy.  This lecture will examine not just the playground manifestations of such a strange form but their elegant precursors, from those in the Anglo-Saxon Exeter Book to postmodern puns. We'll talk about nonsense and playfulness. But mostly, we'll think about the way riddles - like metaphors - function as masks, first obscuring and then teasing out identity.

So for Poetry Friday today, I'm posting a couple of riddles.

What's the difference between a cat and a comma?

A cat has its claws
at the end of its paws,
and a comma has its pause
at the end of a clause.

That's a punning riddle from Iona and Peter Opie's book, The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren 

Here is an original riddle of my own (you'll find the answer down below, before the comments):

Who Am I?

The wind won't blow? That's where I go.
The hot sun stings? I open my wings.
On my back I carry a heron,
my spine is woven through with ribbon. 

Aristotle thought riddles were important enough to discuss them in his Poetics: "For the essence of a riddle is to express true facts under impossible combinations.....the greatest thing by far is to have a command of is the mark of genius, for to make good metaphors implies an eye for resemblances."

You can find riddles by many wonderful poets - just look at the work of Emily Dickinson, Richard Wilbur, Sylvia Plath, W.H. Auden...and the new Children's Poet Laureate, J. Patrick Lewis, who has a whole book of them! ("Her hair's / The stairs.")

Riddles are also common to stories of a hero's journey. There's the classic riddle put to Oedipus bythe Sphinx - "What goes on four legs in the morning, on two legs at noon, and on three legs in the evening? -  and Tolkein's riddle from The Hobbit -  "A box without hinges, key or lid / Yet golden treasure inside is hid" (answers below.) and of course, there's Lewis Carroll - "Why is a raven like a writing desk?" - who knew a thing or two about playing around with words.

The solution to my riddle? A fan.

To J. Patrick Lewis's riddle? Rapunzel.

The answer to Tolkein's riddle? An egg.

To the Sphinx's riddle? A man, who crawls on all fours as a baby, walks on two legs as an adult, and walks with a cane in old age.

The answer to Carroll's riddle? Who knows? But remember what Nancy Willard says: "Sometimes questions are more important than answers."
Head over to Heidi Mordhorst's blog - my juicy little universe - for today's Poetry Friday Round-Up.


  1. i always liked the gratification of riddles with their playful taunts, followed by their obvious-but-unsuspected answers. very much like what we look for in a good story with a resolution that is like an answer to the riddle that is the main character's conflict.

    and then there are the playful ones. "Why is a raven like a writing-desk?"

    looking forward to the lecture this july (i'm a GA again).

  2. Your lecture sounds wonderful. Thanks for sharing these playful poems with us. I love the first two lines of your riddle in particular.

  3. How cute the first riddle is! And I love the way your riddle made me stop, ponder, and imagine. So true that questions can be more important than answers!

  4. Oh, David - hooray - so glad to hear you are GA-ing again!

  5. What fun! - Reminds me of your "Sphinx" in IMAGINARY MENAGERIE. Thanks for sharing, and your class sounds terrific.

  6. "...the enigmatic worlds of Ambiguity and Identity..." WOW! Riddles were just riddles until I saw them through your eyes/words! Would LOVE to hear your lecture!!!

  7. A raven is like a writing desk because you use a quill pen on a writing desk. Therefore, a raven and a writing desk both have black feathers.

  8. I like that answer, Douglas! The famous puzzle-master Sam Loyd came up with one I also like - "Poe wrote on both."