Sunday, May 2, 2010

Poetry Prompt #3 - Ubi Sunt

Ubi sunt is a phrase taken from the Latin Ubi sunt qui ante nos fuerunt
(“Where are those who were before us?”).

Ubi sunt began in Medieval Latin, to suggest the mutability of all things and how transitory life is. In poetry, ubi sunt often took the form of a series of questions that ask where the beautiful, the strong, and the good have gone.
In general, ubi sunt is a poetic theme in which the poet asks, “Where are they?” Examples are found in Shakespeare (i.e., in Hamlet – “Alas, poor Yorick”), in Nashe’s “Beauty is But a Flower,” and in Rossetti’s translation of François Villon’s “The Ballad of Dead Ladies.”
An example of 20th century music that incorporates the ubi sunt motif is Pete Seeger’s 1960s folk song, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” Ubi sunt is also seen in Tolkien’s poem in The Two Towers: “Where now the horse and the rider?” (based on the 10th century poem “The Wanderer”).
Begin by making a list of questions about things that are gone. Reflect on your list; if it’s very long, pare it down to a specific theme or content area. Then work the list into a poem. Experiment with stanzas, and plan how many lines in each, or use a stichic (one stanza) format. Add a simile or metaphor. Think about the sound of your poem (the music in it!), and incorporate some alliteration, assonance, or internal rhyme. Work for a sense of immediacy. Watch out for “ing” endings and too many adjectives. Keep your language fresh – avoid clichés. Remember that sometimes less really is more – try to limit your poem to no more than 25 lines.
Here’s an example of ubi sunt that I wrote for Tiferet Journal (Issue 4, Page 28).

By Adele Kenny

Are they there in that place where
stars and human hearts begin? Were
there God-shaped hills to guide them
toward light? A sympathetic angel to
lead the way? Was it as simple as
opening their eyes, unstartled,
unblinking, in a luminous room?
Do they remember the moon’s half-
face and full, the deep sky trestled
with clouds or marked with stars?
Do they still know the river, windbud
and thorn, and the way skin feels?
Have they been transfigured or risen
faceless, their hands too vague, too
shapeless, to hold? And if there is
music, does any refrain tug memory
toward the tattered screen door, the
way its hinges creaked as it shut,
softly, behind them?

Copyright © 2006 by TIFERET: A Journal of Spiritual Literature.
Reprinted by permission.


  1. Beautiful poem :-)))

  2. Thank you, Anonymous!

    Thanks, too, for the link to the wonderful animated video on YouTube.