The Commuter Challenge

6 September 2006

The September 2006 Challenge

by CC @ 14:06

Write a response, sequel, retelling, or companion poem to some famous poem. It should be in a similar format, and ideally it should be about the same length, unless you’re responding to something like Faust or Beowulf. (In this case, though, it might be preferable just to respond to a famous passage, rather than the whole poem.) Use your own judgement as to what constitutes “famous”.

The Results

Brian Raiter

The original poem

Invictus, by William Ernest Henley (1825)

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

The response

Response to Invictus

Though I say “master” of my fate,
Fate does not what I ask it to,
Yet I must answer for its freight.
The title “steward” is more true.
So many forces guide my soul,
And I am one, but only one.
When circumstances take their toll,
I am, I know, riding shot-gun.
When through the darkness I must fly,
No matter how prolonged the length,
I still will carry my head high
Without knowing how comes this strength.
Though at captaincy I have aimed,
It is not my hand on the till:
In spite of mastery proclaimed,
My soul remains unconquered still.
Ryan Finholm

The original poem

One Step Backward Taken, by Robert Frost

Not only sands and gravels
Were once more on their travels,
But gulping muddy gallons
Great boulders off their balance
Bumped heads together dully
And started down the gully
Whole capes caked off in slices.
I felt my standpoint shaken
In the universal crisis.
But with one step backward taken
I saved myself from going.
A world torn loose went by me.
Then the rain stopped and the blowing
And the sun came out to dry me.

The response

On Stepping Backward

You felt your standpoint shaking,
An upset in the making.
You checked the shifting rubble,
Forecasted dicey trouble
And feared your stance was brittle,
So you stepped back a little:
Retreat in lieu of daring.
True, few rhymes will outlast yours,
But the simple truth is glaring;
Many nobler thoughts surpassed yours.
With milder views in your head
And glory’s reach forsaken,
Now I see the dulled figurehead
Best known for the path not taken.
Don Coffin

The original poem

From Leaves of Grass, 1900 edition, by Walt Whitman

We two boys together clinging,
One the other never leaving,
Up and down the roads going – North and South excursions making,
Power enjoying – elbows stretching – fingers clutching,
Arm’d and fearless – eating, drinking, sleeping, loving,
No law less than ourselves owning – sailing, soldiering, thieving, threatening,
Misers, menials, priests alarming – air breathing, water drinking, on the turf or the sea-beach dancing,
Cities wrenching, ease scorning, statutes mocking, feebleness chasing,
Fulfilling our foray.

The response

From Smoking Grass, 2006 edition

We two men together heaving,
One the other hair back holding,
In and out the bowl spewing – Bars and Clubs booze imbibing,
Tequila chugging – vodka quaffing – vision blurring,
Horn’d and randy – flirting, macking, groping, slurring,
No clue where our night is heading – stumbling, shuffling, downward falling,
Junkies, club kids, hustlers avoiding – cig inhaling, water needing, aspirin and coffee taking,
Tempers flaring, patience thinning, appendage mocking, tail chasing,
Surviving our night out.
Andy Hamlin

The original poem

A haiku, by Basho

Straw sandal
stuck to the bottom of a pond,
sleet falling.

The response

Doc Marten
Lying sideways under a bed
Springs squeaking


  1. A lot of good, fun entries. I think it’s odd how mine and Brian’s were pretty much complete opposites; I was criticizing Frost for his celebration of retreat and safety over courage and adventure, while I read Brian’s as a repudiation of self-determination (or at least of excessive self-determination). Despite my love of such anti-romantic poets as Edna St. Vincent Millay and Thom Gunn, I still think that poetry is a good place for grander notions. Don’s poem was oddly familiar. I found Andy’s to be quite elegant, even if it is just a somewhat hidden dirty joke.

    by RyanF — 30 January 2008 @ 01:04

  2. I actually had the basic idea for this poem a couple of years earlier. It came from reading about how current neurological research suggests that the conscious mind is responsible for less of our actions than we believe. I won’t try to present my poorly-understood summary, but it made me think of the famous closing stanza of Invictus. So this was naturally the first thing that came to mind when Ryan suggested this as a challenge.

    The original poem has a very bumpy meter, and it took me a while to realize that the organizing principle is strictly eight syllables per line, with iambic tetrameter only a general tendency. This goes against my general preference for a clear meter, but I took the “similar format” requirement seriously.

    I spent a lot of time fitting my thoughts into the final stanza’s 32 syllables, for that was the only stanza that I knew what it should say from the start. (“Invictus”, by the way, is Latin for “unconquered”.) The other three stanzas were harder for me to fill, and it took me a while to come up with ways to expand on the subject.

    While researching the original poem for inspiration, I learned that the poem is seem as (and possibly was intended as) a rebuttal to the more traditional poetic expression of assigning control of one’s fate to God. (Indeed, I found on the web more than one response-to-Invictus poem that ended with “God is the master of my fate / God is the captain of my soul.”) Realizing that, I found myself much more sympathetic to the original. But by then it was much too late to change poems. And sympathy or no, Henley does overstate the case. “Master of my fate”? What sane person would assert that? Nobody is master of fate; that’s why we call it fate.

    by breadbox — 12 February 2008 @ 03:56

  3. p.s. : I’d also like to mention that I copied the syllable count directly from the original Robert Frost poem, even though I find it annoying and distracting. I would have preferred to keep the syllables per line consistent throughout the poem, but Frost made his 7, 7, 7, 7, 7, 7, 7, 7, 8, 8, 7, 7, 8, 8… so I did the same. Frost might’ve meant for the read syllables to all be seven per line, with something like “In th’universal crisis,” and “T’with one step backward taken,” but then I think he should have written it that way. And if that’s how Frost’s is meant to be read, then the reader can mush together my lines 9-10 and 13-14 similarly.

    by RyanF — 18 March 2008 @ 11:29