‘Answers’ by Elizabeth Jennings is a thirteen-line poem that is separated into four sets of three lines, or tercets, and one final line that stands alone. Jennings chose to structure this piece with a consistent rhyme scheme. It follows the pattern of ABACDCDEDFAGA. Upon close analysis, a reader should take note of the repetition utilized in the end rhymes.
The ‘A’ rhyme begins the piece then reappears at the end, while the ‘D’ rhyme shows up three times in the center of the poem. In regards to meter, the lines follow a pattern of pentamer. This means that each line contains five sets of two beats.
Jennings used a great deal of personification in this text. The abstract “big” and “small” answers which are discussed throughout the poem take on the role of invader and comforter. They each play a part in the speaker’s mind. One resembles that of a companion and the other a foe who brings terrible news.
As the poem progresses the comparison between light and dark and near and far also becomes significant. The speaker presents the reader with images, such as that of nighttime, which accompany descriptions of confinement. There is also a direct reference to the “light” as a good, close place that should only hold “small answers.” By the end of the poem, the “conclusions” are drawing closer to the speaker, infringing on the safe, light area around her.
Summary of Answers
The poem begins with the speaker stating that she prefers the company of “small” answers. These are the everyday conclusions that satisfy and comfort her. They are used as mental protection against the more daunting, and sinister, “big answers.” Up until this point, the small answers have done a good job comforting and protecting the speaker from the big. But she can feel a change starting. The “big answers” and questions bang on the inside of her mind, demanding her attention. They are becoming harder to ignore.
Jennings concludes this piece with her speaker alluding to conclusions on the horizon. Eventually, they are going to reach her and she’s going to have to contend with truths about her life she’s been avoiding for a long time. This is a daunting and sinister prospect, made more intimidating with the image of the breach-able wall.
You can read the full poem here.
Analysis of Answers
I kept my answers small and kept them near;
Big questions bruised my mind but still I let
Small answers be a bulwark to my fear.
In the first lines of this piece, the speaker begins by describing how she understands her own world. It is made up of big answers and small answers. These vary in size due to their importance and the influence they would have on her if she allowed them into her life. She states that the answers she’s most comfortable with are the “small” ones. Those she prefers to keep “near.” As will be discussed further along in the text, they are a comfort to her.
In contrast to the small answers are the “big questions” and big answers. One can assume these likely have to do with more important, generalized aspects of life, such as its overarching meaning. The big questions she has about the world are inescapable. They reside within her mind, bouncing around and bruising her. She might not be able to completely escape them, but she does have some protection— the small answers.
When the speaker is overwhelmed by the urgency of big questions about life, she can turn to the things she close to her. She can find resolutions to the little, more common, and relatable problems of life.
The huge abstractions I kept from the light;
I let the stars assume the whole of night.
In the next tercet, the speaker repeats her preference for small answers over big answers in a different way. This time she references “huge abstractions.” Perhaps she is concerned with judgements of her life, or painful realizations about who she is and what she’s doing with her days. In order to avoid the hardest confrontations, she keeps them “from the light.” They never make it out from the back of her mind.
Again she turns to the small things in the second line. She discusses how comforting the “small answers” are to her. They are as close as a much-loved companion who she “handled and caressed.” The things she is secure about are her comfort blanket. This tercet concludes with the speaker describing how rather than mediating on the meaning of life or other deep questions, the stars “assume the whole of night.” There is no room for anything else.
But the big answers clamoured to be moved
Even when all small answers build up to
In the second half of the poem the speaker states that even though she has done her best to fend off the “big answers,” they’re still present. They are knocking on her mind, waiting to be “moved / Into [her] life.” In reality, there is no way for her to ignore the fundamental truths about herself or those around her.
The answers have a “great audacity.” They do not wear out or give up. Instead, they consistently pester the speaker with their “Shout[ing].” They have a deep desire to be believed and accepted.
Protection of my spirit, still I hear:
And all the great conclusions coming near.
In the final lines, the speaker describes the hopeless battle she’s fighting against the truth. There is some immediate comfort taken from the wall she’s built up around her with the “small answers” but it won’t hold. They only provide temporary relief to her “spirit” before the “Big answers” come calling. These more important pieces of information are acting as invaders, attempting to breach the speaker’s wall of safety.
In the distance, the speaker states, there are “great conclusions.” These are the final resolutions she is going to have to face once the “big answers” eventually breach her walls. They are ominous in the speaker’s eye, as if they represent an impending disaster on the horizon.