Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1951:
POETRY AND AIRPLANES

by John H. Lienhard

Today, poetry, flight, and childhood's end. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

On the eve of WW-II, poet Selden Rodman wrote about the Poetry of Flight -- all the way from Ovid on Icarus to Anne Morrow Lindbergh on flying across Alaska. Milton writes about birds; Leonardo about the dream of flying. And, during that interval between world wars, the airplane itself became the subject of some fine poetry.

This was a time of terrible tension between the specter of war and the glorious freedom of flight. Muriel Rukeyser evokes Icarus when she writes about a pilot in her poem The Structure of the Plane,

Centuries fall behind his brain, the motor
pushes in a four-beat rhythm, his blood moves,
he dares look at the levels mounting in clouds
the dropping fields of the sky the diminishment of earth;

Yet, earlier in that same poem, she writes about,

the stiff bland soldiers predestined to their death
the bombs piled neatly like children's marbles piled
sperm to breed corpses eugenically by youth
out of seductive death.

Sydney Alexander captures that same vision of slaughter and hedonistic innocent youth in his poem, The Plane,

we who breathe in the intervals of bombs ...
what rising gusts of our youth shall send us spinning
in flickers of sun-spokes there in the highest reaches
airwashed and clean as songs of birds unpinioned!
Less heavy, more fun, is Auden's Airman's Alphabet, Some samples:
F is for Flying
Habit of hawks
and unholy hunting
and ghostly journey
P for Propeller
Wooden wind-oar
and twisted whirler
and lifter of load

But he too returns to the youth's role in the new empire of air

Y is for Youth
Daydream of devils
and dear to the damned
and always to us.

Since skywriting was a great wonder of my own childhood I read William Rose Benét's poem on Sky Writers with joy and even with glee. He says,

The mouths gaped; the eyes bulged; head after head
Twisted skyward; the lips moved and read ...
And I saw the mountains fallen, the world's foundations fled,
And the sky rolled up like a scroll for a judgement on the dead

Perhaps most accurate, and saddest, of the poems is Rilke's A Sonnet to Orpheus. The invention of flight, says Rilke, is presently incomplete. O not till the time when flight/ no longer will mount for its own sake, he writes. Not till a pure Whither/ outweighs boyish pride.

But you and I have reached that point. No boyish pride, no love of flight for its own sake, as we file into a great jet-powered aluminum tube, only to come out the other side in Chicago. Saint Exupéry saw that coming in a lovely essay, The Tool. He nails it when he says,
Every machine will gradually take on this patina and lose its identity in its function.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


S. Rodman, The Poetry of Flight. New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1941.

Skywriting
Skywriting: the sky rolled up like a scroll -- a no-man's-land between form and function. (Photo by John Lienhard)


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2004 by John H. Lienhard.