TCS: A Roar of Wings – Poems for National Aviation Day

. . . Good Morning!


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“If you were born without wings, do
nothing to prevent them from growing.”

– Coco Chanel 


Today is National Aviation Day in the U.S. This date was chosen because it is also Orville Wright’s birthday.

The dream of flight – for how many millennia have humans watched birds in flight, and longed to have that magic for their own? Flying has probably been a symbol of Freedom since cave-dwellers watched vultures with fearful awe and envy. How many of us have studied the single picture of the Wright Brother’s fragile plane skimming just above the sand, and imagined the joy and wonder of that moment?

Yet today, a mere 116 years after the flight at Kittyhawk, travel by air for most of us has become a necessary evil. If you are a passenger on a commercial airliner, crammed into a seat with no room to move, trapped between a non-stop gabster, and an inconsiderate boor who tries to claim part of your meager space as well as blocking the aisle or the window, with a small child rhythmically kicking the back of your seat, and a shrieking infant across the aisle, the magic of flight has been overridden by a desperate desire to escape, not ‘the surly bonds of earth’ but  the confines of your skyborne straight-jacket.

Perhaps it is true that the overwhelming majority of humans are not meant to fly. Only those at the helm of an air or space craft can still claim the freedom of the skies.

So Aviators and Astronauts, today we salute you!


No poetic tribute to Aviation has been more repeated than High Flight. It is the official poem of the Royal Canadian Air Force, and has to be recited from memory by forth class cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy. Phrases from “High Flight” appear on the tombstones of many flyers.

High Flight

by John Gillespie Magee Jr

Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth, 
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings; 
Sunward I’ve climbed and joined the tumbling mirth of sun-split clouds – 
and done a hundred things You have not dreamed of – 
wheeled and soared and swung high in the sunlit silence. 
Hovering there I’ve chased the shouting wind along 
and flung my eager craft through footless halls of air.

Up, up the long delirious burning blue 
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace, 
where never lark, or even eagle, flew; 
and, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod 
the high untrespassed sanctity of space, 
put out my hand and touched the face of God.

John Gillespie Magee Jr. was an American pilot with the Royal Canadian Air Force during the Second World War. He came to Britain to fly in a Spitfire squadron, and was killed at the age of nineteen on the eleventh of December, 1941, during a training flight from the airfield near Scopwick in Lincolnshire.


Robinson Jeffers’ poems are frequently observations of the natural world which surrounded Tor House and Hawk Tower, his home and writer’s retreat in Carmel-by-the-Sea, on a rocky cliff above the Pacific Ocean. In his later work, he often sounded a warning about a coming retribution for humanity’s abusive plundering of the treasures of our planet.

Flight of Swans

by Robinson Jeffers

One who sees giant Orion, the torches of winter midnight,
Enormously walking above the ocean in the west of heaven;
And watches the track of this age of time at its peak of flight
Waver like a spent rocket, wavering toward new discoveries,
Mortal examinations of darkness, soundings of depth;
And watches the long coast mountain vibrate from bronze to green,
Bronze to green, year after year, and all the streams
Dry and flooded, dry and flooded, in the racing seasons;
And knows that exactly this and not another is the world,
The ideal is phantoms for bait, the spirit is a flicker on a grave;
May serve, with a certain detachment, the fugitive human race,
Or his own people, or his own household; but hardly himself;
And will not wind himself into hopes nor sicken with despairs.
He has found the peace and adored the God; he handles in autumn
The germs of far-future spring.

 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  Sad sons of the stormy fall,
No escape, you have to inflict and endure; surely it is time for you
To learn to touch the diamond within to the diamond outside,
Thinning your humanity a little between the invulnerable diamonds,
Knowing that your angry choices and hopes and terrors are in vain,
But life and death not in vain; and the world is like a flight of swans. 

“Flight of Swans” from The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers, © renewed 1966 by Jeffers Literary Properties – Stanford University Press

Robinson Jeffers (1887-1962) and his new wife Una first came to Carmel, California, in 1914, and bought land there in 1919. Jeffers reached the height of his popularity in the early 1930s, but his star began to wane in the 1940s when he spoke out against America’s imperial ambitions and against the nation’s involvement in WWII. He espoused a philosophy of inhumanity, that people were detrimental to the Earth, and spurned by an uncaring God, they would eventually become extinct, leaving the planet to heal in a return to Nature. This was not popular in the 1950s, but his work was re-discovered in the late 1960s by budding environmentalists, who rallied in the 1970s to save his beloved Tor House and Hawk Tower from developers. The property is now affiliated with the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Photo by ani male


Rudyard Kipling is so closely connected to the British Empire’s colonialism, that it has overshadowed his gift for story-telling, and the vivid imagery of his poetry. But in this poem, he takes the side of the geese, not their hunters.

The Flight

by Rudyard Kipling

When the grey geese heard the Fool’s tread
Too near to where they lay,
They lifted neither voice nor head,
But took themselves away.

No water broke, no pinion whirred-
There went no warning call.
The steely, sheltering rushes stirred
A little–that was all.

Only the osiers understood,
And the drowned meadows spied
What else than wreckage of a flood
Stole outward on that tide.

But the far beaches saw their ranks
Gather and greet and grow
By myriads on the naked banks
Watching their sign to go;

Till, with a roar of wings that churned
The shivering shoals to foam,
Flight after flight took air and turned –
To find a safer home;

And far below their steadfast wedge,
They heard (and hastened on)
Men thresh and clamour through the sedge
Aghast that they were gone!

And, when men prayed them come anew 
And nest where they were bred,
“Nay, fools foretell what knaves will do,”
Was all the grey geese said. 

“The Flight” from The Collected Poems of Rudyard Kipling, published in 1994 by Wordsworth Editions

Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936), was one of the best-known late Victorian authors and poets, and won the 1907 Nobel Prize for Literature. Though his reputation has since suffered as his political views are increasingly seen as racist and imperialist, his books for children and young adults have never gone out of print, and some of his poems continue to be much-quoted.


The technical challenges of a sestina have made it a form little-used by modern poets, but here Denise Duhamel takes it up to muse about a remarkable number of pen-related thoughts, perhaps to distract herself from flight anxiety.

Delta Flight 659

by Denise Duhamel

. . . . . . . . . . . —to Sean Penn

I’m writing this on a plane, Sean Penn,
with my black Pilot Razor ballpoint pen.
Ever since 9/11, I’m a nervous flyer. I leave my Pentium
Processor in Florida so TSA can’t x-ray my stanzas, penetrate
my persona. Maybe this should be in iambic pentameter,
rather than this mock sestina, each line ending in a Penn

variant. I convinced myself the ticket to Baghdad was too expensive.
I contemplated going as a human shield. I read, in open-
mouthed shock, that your trip there was a $56,000 expenditure.
Is that true? I watched you on Larry King Live—his suspenders
and tie, your open collar. You saw the war’s impending
mess. My husband gambled on my penumbra

of doubt. So you station yourself at a food silo in Iraq. What happens
to me if you get blown up? He begged me to stay home, be his Penelope.
I sit alone in coach, but last night I sat with four poets, depending
on one another as readers, in a Pittsburgh café. I tried to be your pen
pal in 1987, not because of your pensive
bad boy looks, but because of a poem you’d penned

that appeared in an issue of Frank. I still see the poet in you, Sean Penn.
You probably think fans like me are your penance
for your popularity, your star bulging into a pentagon
filled with witchy wanna-bes and penniless
poets who waddle toward your icy peninsula
of glamour like so many menacing penguins.

But honest, I come in peace, Sean Penn,
writing on my plane ride home. I want no part of your penthouse
or the snowy slopes of your Aspen.
I won’t stalk you like the swirling grime cloud over Pig Pen.
I have no script or stupendous
novel I want you to option. I even like your wife, Robin Wright Penn.

I only want to keep myself busy on this flight, to tell you of four penny-
loafered poets in Pennsylvania
who, last night, chomping on primavera penne
pasta, pondered poetry, celebrity, Iraq, the penitentiary
of free speech. And how I reminded everyone that Sean Penn
once wrote a poem. I peer out the window, caress my lucky pendant:

Look, Sean Penn, the clouds are drawn with charcoal pencils.
The sky is opening like a child’s first stab at penmanship.
The sun begins to ripen orange, then deepen.

“Delta Flight 659” from Ka-Ching!, © 2009 by Denise Duhamel – University of Pittsburgh Press

 Denise Duhamel (1961 – ) was born in Woonsocket, Rhode Island. She has an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. She is known for her wry and witty view of humanity. Among her published collections of poetry are Smile!, Blowout, Ka-Ching!, Queen for a Day: Selected and New Poems, and How the Sky Fell


Sara Teasdale is better-known for her elegant but often mournful lyric poetry, but this brief poem is in a different vein.

Swallow Flight

by Sara Teasdale

I love my hour of wind and light,
I love men’s faces and their eyes,
I love my spirit’s veering flight
Like swallows under evening skies.


“Swallow Flight” from The Collected Works of Sara Teasdale, originally copyrighted © by Sara Teasdale in 1915 – Pantianos Classics

Sara Teasdale (1884-1933), lyric poet, winner of the 1918 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for her collection Love Songs. She wrote seven books of poetry, including Helen of Troy, Flame and Shadow, and Dark of the Moon. She committed suicide, overdosing on sleeping pills, in 1933.


So many young men lost their lives in the “Great War,” and here, William Butler Yeats imagines the thoughts of one pilot squarely facing his likely death.

 An Irish Airman Foresees His Death

by William Butler Yeats, 1919

I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate,
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.

Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public men, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.

“An Irish Airman Foresees His Death” from The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats – Scribner Revised Edition 1996

William Butler Yeats (1865–1939) is admired as one of the greatest poets of the 20th Century. He is a key figure in the Irish Literary Revival (also ironically called the Celtic Twilight), and a co-founder of the Irish National Theatre Society and the Abbey Theatre with Lady Augusta Gregory


Robert Graves is best remembered for his historical novel I, Claudius. He also published many collections of poetry.  Flying Crooked is one of his charming verses in a lighter vein.

Flying Crooked

by Robert Graves, 1938

The butterfly, the cabbage white,
(His honest idiocy of flight)
Will never now, it is too late,
Master the art of flying straight,
Yet has — who knows so well as I? — 
A just sense of how not to fly:
He lurches here and here by guess
And God and hope and hopelessness.
Even the aerobatic swift
Has not his flying-crooked gift.

“Flying Crooked” from Collected Poems 1965 © by Robert Graves – Cassell & Co

Robert Graves (1895-1985) British historical novelist, poet, critic, and classicist; best known for his novel, I, Claudius, which was adapted with its sequel, Claudius the God, by the BBC into the award-winning television series, I, Claudius. Graves is also notable for his translations of Classical Latin and Ancient Greek, and as a prolific poet who published nearly three dozen collections of poetry during his lifetime.

Cabbage White Butterfly –  Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey


Bianca Stone deals in both words and visual art, and clearly her visual skill carries over into her poetry. Flight perfectly expresses a passenger’s moment of panic when the plane suddenly reminds her that flight is not a natural human function, and mortality is ever-present.


by Bianca Stone

Someone told Mom it takes six months to realize
. . . . . . someone is no longer on the planet.
On a commuter plane from Portland to Seattle
it was exactly six months later,
. . . . . . on the tiniest plane in the world.

I broke out in hives
. . . . . . like a nun blushing all over for God—
a sweeping bloodshot victory
. . . . . . eating everything
while the other feelings starve—

the plane shook, and I grabbed the leg of the woman sitting
. .  next to me.
. . . . . . She looked taken aback, then returned to her real-
. .  estate magazine
without a word
. . . . . . while silvery tears rolled down my face onto a
     book called VALIS,
  . . . . .  which was open onto the first page.

Strangers shake in the breeze of my cannonball looks—
. . . . . . . . out the round window I could see below me
            Washington State
. . . . . . . . and the same repeated genus of spruce.

I happened to have a pamphlet with me, Important Trees of
. . . Eastern Forests

from 1968. I opened to the swamp cottonwood, which grows
. . . in Mom’s front yard.

Whenever I fly
I feel that I’m being forced to accept my own death.
And now, simultaneously,
 . . . . I was being forced to accept the death of someone else.

I knew that once I accepted it, I could accept the free sample
 . . . . . of local Washington beer in plastic party cups the
     flight attendants came around with
. . . . . like a blessed and bitter medicinal syrup
pulled from a prehistoric wheat.

“Flight” from The Möbius Strip Club of Grief, © 2018 by Biance Stone – Tin House Books

Bianca Stone (1983 – ) is a poet and visual artist. She is the author of The Mobius Strip Club of Grief (2018), Someone Else’s Wedding Vows (2014), and is also the illustrator of Antigonick (2012), a collaboration with Anne Carson. Stone is the co-editor with her husband, poet Ben Pease, of the small poetry press Monk Books, and is the executive director of the Ruth Stone Foundation in Vermont and New York City. She is Ruth Stone’s granddaughter.


I’m ending with this poem for the sheer fun of it. Kenn Nesbitt muses on how swine might become air-borne.

When Pigs Fly

by Kenn Nesbitt

I’ve heard it said that pigs will fly
and someday soon they’ll rule the sky.
That may sound strange but, if it’s right,
I don’t suppose they’ll fly a kite.
I’ll bet, instead, they’ll have to train
so they can learn to fly a plane,
or join the Navy where they’ll get
to learn to fly a fighter jet.

Or maybe they’ll grow piggy wings,
or put on shoes with giant springs,
or fly in huge hot-air balloons,
or seaplanes with those big pontoons,
or biplanes like a flying ace,
or shuttles into outer space,
or rocket ships for trips to Mars,
or flying saucers to the stars.

However pigs decide to fly,
as long as they are way up high
and busy buzzing all around
instead of grunting on the ground,
I think it’s safe to say I’ll love
to see them soaring up above.
I’m sure I won’t be shocked or shaken.
Still, I’ll prob’ly miss the bacon.

“When Pigs Fly” from The Tighty Whitey Spider: And More Wacky Animal Poems I Totally Made Up,  © 2010 by Kenn Nesbitt – Jabberwocky/Sourcebooks

Kenn Nesbitt (1962 – ) was born in Berkeley, California. He is an American children’s
poet who has published many collections of poetry, including Kiss, Kiss Good Night, Revenge of the Lunch Ladies, and The Aliens Have Landed at Our School!  In 2013, he was named Children’s Poet Laureate by the Poetry Foundation.


About wordcloud9

Nona Blyth Cloud has lived and worked in the Los Angeles area for over 50 years, spending much of that time commuting on the 405 Freeway. After Hollywood failed to appreciate her genius for acting and directing, she began a second career managing non-profits, from which she has retired. Nona has now resumed writing whatever comes into her head, instead of reports and pleas for funding. She lives in a small house overrun by books with her wonderful husband.
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