I write poems mostly about my flying experiences. I am not a particularly good poet. But I keep working at it.
One of my first published poems was “A Lonely Impulse of Delight.” It was first published in the Air Force Times in the spring of 1969, when I was studying for my Master’s degree at the University of Michigan, after I returned from flying in Southeast Asia in 1968. In the fall of that year I read in the Air Force Times that one of my best friends, Dave Risher, a fellow C-130 pilot with whom I had frequently flown in Vietnam, had been killed in a C-130 accident in South Vietnam. He and all of his crew had perished when they hit a hill near Bao Loc, South Vietnam. Earlier in 1968, when I was still flying in Southeast Asia, Dave and I had flown into Bao Loc in clear weather, and in January of 1968 I had coached him on how to land at Khe Sanh. The poem is a (much modified) sonnet.
“A Lonely Impulse of Delight” –W. B. Yeats
(for David Risher, who died in Vietnam)
An airman must be Irish, slightly mad
To take that certain step that cancels all
The firm construction of an earthly stair,
And step to tread the thinner edge of air,
Where nothing yields support except the call
Of spirit in its element; who had
His start, perhaps, beneath an August night,
When, having seen the sign of Scorpio fixed
Among such suns, he seldom looked to earth
Again, unless to gain perspective when
He led his wingman toward the sun and then
Bent back to earth, then up again, to birth
A new maneuver of delight, to mix
The thought of man with sun, whose thought is light.
This poem was directly inspired, as the title suggests, by a line in William Butler Yeats’ poem, “An Irish Airman foresees His Death.” Yeats was writing about an Irish airman who was killed while flying a single-seat fighter aircraft in World War I. How Yeats, who may never have been in a plane in his life, could write so well about the motivation for a pilot to fly, I do not know. Of course, it was only after I learned to fly in the Air Force that I could fully appreciate what “a lonely impulse of delight” in an aircraft might be like.
An Irish Airman Foresees His Death
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.
William Butler Yeats
“A Lonely Impulse of Delight” has been reprinted three times. It was first reprinted in Listen! The War, an anthology compiled by Fred Kiley and Tony Dater, my colleagues at the U. S. Air Force Academy in 1973. It was then reprinted in Flight: A Celebration of 100 Years in Art and Literature, edited by Anne Collins Goodyear, Roger Launius, Anthony Springer, and Bertram Ulrich (Welcome Publishers, 2003). In this book it appeared with Yeats’ “Irish Airman”; our two poems effectively marked the beginning and ending of the section of the book titled “The Airplane at War.” Most recently it was reprinted in On the Wing: American Poems of Air and Space Flight, edited by Karen Yelena Olsen and published by the University of Iowa Press in 2005.