The best laid plans of mice and men
January 25, 2014 10:55 AM   Subscribe

Can anyone point me to any good poems that deal with uncertainty? I've been reading a little about Keats' negative capability, and wishing I had more to sink my teeth into.

Prose or quotes, too, if they're good, though I'd prefer poetry. Thank you so much!
posted by citizenface to Writing & Language (12 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
I've been rereading T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets and I think it qualifies.
posted by mlle valentine at 11:14 AM on January 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

Tennyson's In Memoriam.
posted by Erasmouse at 11:17 AM on January 25, 2014


While I was walking up the stair
I met a man who wasn't there.
He wasn't there again today.
I wish to hell he'd go away!
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 11:22 AM on January 25, 2014

Here's one I wrote:

If "if" is
"if not" is
if not,
"if" isn't.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 12:01 PM on January 25, 2014

I Didn't Go To Church Today

I didn't go to church today,
I trust the Lord to understand.
The surf was swirling blue and white,
The children swirling on the sand.
He knows, He knows how brief my stay,
How brief this spell of summer weather,
He knows when I am said and done
We'll have plenty of time together.

--Ogden Nash
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 12:48 PM on January 25, 2014

Is it too obvious to suggest reading Keats's poems themselves?
posted by jesourie at 12:51 PM on January 25, 2014

Robert Browning's "A Toccata of Galuppi's" and "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came."

Matthew Arnold in his glummer moods, like "Dover Beach."

John Clare's "I Am!" and "An Invite to Eternity."

On preview: I'd assumed you already looked at Keats, but if you haven't, "Ode on a Grecian Urn," "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer," "On Seeing the Elgin Marbles," and "Ode to a Nightingale" are all good places to start.
posted by thomas j wise at 12:58 PM on January 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

For (finding a way to love) the uncertainty of emotion and experience, I love Rumi's "The Guest House":

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

-- Jelaluddin Rumi,
translation by Coleman Barks
posted by elephantsvanish at 1:45 PM on January 25, 2014 [5 favorites]

William Stafford's Level Light:

Sometimes the light when evening fails
stains all haystacked country and hills,
runs the cornrows and clasps the barn
with that kind of color escaped from corn
that brings to autumn the winter word–
a level shaft that tells the world:

It is too late now for earlier ways;
now there are only some other ways,
and only one way to find them—fail.

In one stride night then takes the hill.
posted by theweasel at 3:57 PM on January 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

we who are
your closest friends
feel the time
has come to tell you
that every Thursday
we have been meeting
as a group
to devise ways
to keep you
in perpetual uncertainty
discontent and
by neither loving you
as much as you want
nor cutting you adrift

your analyst is
in on it
plus your boyfriend
and your ex-husband
and we have pledged
to disappoint you
as long as you need us

in announcing our
we realize we have
placed in your hands
a possible antidote
against uncertainty
indeed against ourselves
but since our Thursday nights
have brought us
to a community of purpose
rare in itself
with you as
the natural center
we feel hopeful you
will continue to make
demands for affection
if not as a consequence
of your
disastrous personality

then for the good of the collective

-- Philip Lopate
posted by Mchelly at 6:02 PM on January 25, 2014 [4 favorites]

I definitely agree with Eliot's Four Quartets. The beginning of Burnt Norton alone should be enough to show you:
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind.
But if you need more, this bit is from East Coker and if it doesn't express uncertainty, I'm not sure what does.
You say I am repeating
Something I have said before. I shall say it again.
Shall I say it again? In order to arrive there,
To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.
In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not.
It is absolutely indescribably made of awesome. Really. Or perhaps it's just me.
posted by Athanassiel at 10:32 PM on January 25, 2014

Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken". To me this is a poem about being faced with uncertainty, making the best possible decision at the time, and then looking back with bittersweet regret. It helped me grudgingly make peace with my own sadness over roads not taken, by highlighting the necessity of accepting uncertainty (and subsequently being okay with never knowing "what could have been") - since uncertainty and regret are integral to the decision-making process that moves one forward in life.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.
posted by partly squamous and partly rugose at 10:49 AM on January 27, 2014

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