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Spectator competition winners: Twists on Keats

16 July 2017

9:45 AM

16 July 2017

9:45 AM

The latest challenge asked for a sonnet that takes as its opening line Keats’s ‘Why did I laugh tonight? No voice will tell:’ (This was a sonnet Keats chose not to publish but transcribed into a long letter he wrote over a period in early 1819 to George and Georgiana Keats, his brother and sister-in-law.)

The invitation drew a pleasingly large, inventive and witty entry which saw you deploy a range of sonnet patterns (there are some 30 variations of the form in The Oxford Book of English Verse).

In an especially closely contested week, Julia Munrow, J. Garth Taylor, Chris O’Carroll, Susan McLean, Virginia Price Evans, Paul Freeman, Alanna Blake, Roger Rengold and Mike Morrison earn a special mention. And it was with regret that I disqualified W.J. Webster on account of an uncharacteristic slip. (His otherwise excellent entry began, ‘Why did I laugh last night…’.)

The prizewinners, printed below, are rewarded with a well deserved £25 apiece and the bonus fiver belongs to John Whitworth.

John Whitworth
Why did I laugh tonight? No voice will tell.
Too long we’ve journeyed, sifting, drifting
      through
The eddies of the seriously unwell,
To the wide river rolling, rolling to

The wide blue sea. Our life, dear friends is sad,
As anyone with eyes to see, can see,
Alas! Our world is going to the bad,
No joyous shot at how things ought to be,


Sun on the water and a sky so blue,
Trees on a shoreline, mountains in a mist,
Scatheless, transcendent, overarching, true.
O wandering poet, lonesome and unkissed,

You’ve drifted much too long and far too far.
It isn’t what you do, it’s what you are.

Basil Ransome-Davies
Why did I laugh tonight? No voice will tell.
No records, clues or witnesses remain,
Only a poisoned candle’s fading smell.
The truth is locked up in my guilty brain.
So that’s one reason — my impunity.
I am above suspicion for all time,
A murderer unpunished, safe and free.
Virtue rewards itself, and so does crime.
But in my laughter lurked a darker note,
Premonitory as a rising wind
Of stormy retribution. I, who gloat
At having so ingeniously sinned,
Now feel confession, like a mortal curse,
Pressed on me by the Imp of the Perverse.

Derek Robinson
Why did I laugh tonight? No voice will tell,
And I’ve forgotten what it might have been.
My head aches, and my tongue is parched as
      hell;
I overdid the blushful Hippocrene.

Why did I laugh? Did someone crack a joke,
Some smutty tale of ‘still unravish’d brides’?
No, I’m a gentlemanly sort of bloke,
And that would hardly make me split my
      sides.

Why did I laugh? (I feel my stomach churn.)
Did someone jeer at poor old Basil’s pot,
Or ask me ‘How much does a Grecian earn?’
Those beaded bubbles really hit the spot,

And now — oh, God, I think I’m going to
      barf.
Why did I drink so much? Why did I laugh?

Nick Milne
Why did I laugh tonight? No voice will tell:
With that false sound did I my heart ensconce
Within that selfsame armour where doth dwell
The ghost that all my silences still haunts.
What beats and pulses here is only stone;
What smiles and shines is mis’ry to maintain.
Why do I even bother to atone?
What purpose is there in this dull refrain?
With ev’ry hour must I myself police
And strive against the saying of my dreads;
I cannot ever yield and grant release
To what should find no home in other heads.
Why did I laugh tonight? It was decreed —
Lest consequence from all my cause proceed.

Robert Schechter
Why did I laugh tonight? No voice will tell.
The coffee I was drinking came back up
And journeyed through my nostrils till it fell
Miraculously back into its cup,
And though my nasal passages were scarred
The silliness of how the coffee spewed
Induced more laughter, only twice as hard.
I never laughed with such great magnitude!

What started this? I can’t recall the joke.
Did it involve a priest? A duck? A fly?
I only know it almost made me choke.
But if I should remember by and by,
I fondly hope that it won’t happen when
I’m drinking coffee from my cup again.

Iggy McGovern
Why did I laugh tonight? No voice will tell
Nor Daily Mail hack render my response
Yet I had been this evening to Hell
In a proverbial handcart. Whereas once
I had the numbers to go it alone
Yet something drove me to this foolish pain
Perhaps God’s punishment for my re-moan
Or simply that I was too bloody vain.
I thought they would renew (and more) the
      lease
On Number 10 but Corbynitis spreads
Like wildfire through the masses without
      cease
And now my reputation lies in shreds
I am dead woman walking, yes indeed
So many suspects in St Mary Mead.

Your next challenge is to submit a poem about a domestic object. Please email, wherever possible, entries of up to 16 lines to lucy@spectator.co.uk by midday on 26 July.

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