Provocative Poems on Authorship

Love, art, science, fidelity, authorship, gender—these are some of the big issues that a stalwart group of readers known as the B.S. Great Books Group (of Greater Chicagoland) has been exploring via Shared Inquiry discussions of the selections in the Great Books anthology Counterparts, where two texts on a topic are paired to encourage deeper exploration of an idea or set of related issues.

The group, aka the Balmoral Salon, has been meeting monthly since the early 1990s and was first convened by beloved former Great Books staffer Gary Schoepfel and friends. For the past year, of course, the current crew has been meeting virtually, which has some distinct advantages with regard to travel times, as members of the group are dispersed across Chicagoland, from the north to the far south.

At times, with the shorter readings in Counterparts, we may discuss both texts in a single evening, but because the selection by Michel Foucault was both long and complex, we divided the topic of authorship into two sessions. Foucault’s theoretical piece “What Is an Author?” started us on the topic in March. Then in April, for the month of the Bard’s birth, “To the Memory of My Beloved, the Author Mr. William Shakespeare” by Ben Jonson remained.

April is also National Poetry Month, and as we were fortunate to have a member, Lizabeth VonSeipler, who was willing to both lead and help find related texts, we went above and beyond by adding other poems on the subject to the mix. In case you might enjoy doing the same, here are the selections, in the order we used them, with links and some questions for further discussion. Enjoy!

“Authorship” by Rabindranath Tagore


  • Are we meant to think that the poet is the child or the father in the poem?
  • Does the child rebuke the father or the mother?
  • Is the child learning about work, or is the father learning about play?
  • How does our knowledge of a culture or time period affect our view of a text and its author?

“The Author to Her Book” by Anne Bradstreet


  • Why does the speaker compare her book to a child sent “out of door”?
  • How is a creative work similar to and different from a child?
  • Does it matter if a text has not been approved by its author?

“To the Memory of My Beloved, the Author Mr. William Shakespeare” by Ben Jonson

We added questions about the authorship of productions and performances, such as in theater and films—which also brought up ghostwriters and editors.

“One Girl” by Sappho


  • How does translating a text change its authorship?
  • Does it matter if little or conflicting information is known about an author?
  • Does an author’s reputation affect the meaning of a poem?

“Impromptu, to Lady Winchelsea” by Alexander Pope


  • Whom do you consider the author of a work that responds to or builds on someone else’s work?
  • Do you think gender plays a significant role in authorship?

“Old English riddle” by Anonymous


  • Is this riddle a poem?
  • Is there something different about a text with no author?
  • Why might it seem less important to know the author if something is very old?

Senior Academic Consultant Denise Ahlquist has enjoyed leading thousands of Shared Inquiry discussions with participants ranging from ages 4 to 99, across the United States and abroad. A veteran educator and “road warrior,” she has introduced thousands of other teachers and learners to the Shared Inquiry method and supported them in a wide variety of K–12 environments.