MLC Book Anniversary: Answer Back

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Donald Finkel’s caving helmet

Donald Finkel’s Answer Back


June 1st marks the original publication date of Donald Finkel‘s poetry book Answer Back, which premiered in 1968. Finkel’s book was inspired by his explorations in Mammoth Cave National Park, and each of its sections–“Mummy Valley”, “Wow Shaft”, “The Corkscrew”, “Angel Hair”, and “Blue Arrow Passage”–are named for the caverns and tunnels that spoke to him.

The textual inspiration for Answer Back was as winding and exploratory as the caves Finkel wrote of, incorporating quotes from other poets, mystics, and philosophers, ranging from his contemporary peers to the ancients. The writing itself is equally varied and ambitious in its scope, addressing themes of archaeology, sex, astronomy, religion, and race-relations, all through the lens of a cave-explorer peering through dark chasms of the mind (both literal and poetic).

The MLC is home to the Donald Finkel Papers, which include an early draft of Answer Back that reveals its collaged construction.

The opening piece–“Answer Back”–features material from a diverse pool of philosophers: A. Yarnell, I. Chingh, and Albert Camus.

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Opening section of Donald Finkel’s Answer Back

“Wow Shaft” references a speech from president Lyndon B. Johnson, the bizarre medical notes of Albert T.W. Simeons,  and an aphorism from a late 19th century economist Thorstein Veblen.

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The first page of Finkel’s “Wow Shaft” from Answer Back

“The Corkscrew” includes the words of actor Emmett Grogan, psychologist Timothy Leary, and fellow poet Allen Ginsberg.

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First page of Finkel’s “The Corkscrew” from Answer Back

As with all of his works, Finkel is a bricoleur in his tonality and language as well as subject matter, shifting between moments of reflection, mystery, despair, and sheer silliness: “Socrates was a dirty old man/and a dirty old man was he,/he called for his pipe and he called for his boy/and he called for his LSD.”.

This mode of creation–and its corresponding fascinations with the depth, complexity, and multiplicity of his poetic origins–accompanied Finkel throughout his writing career. Here’s a later 1985 video clip of Finkel reading from a poem–“Pilgrimage”–that delves into the exploratory themes addressed in Answer Back.

For more materials from Answer Back and other gems in the Donald Finkel Papers, visit the MLC’s digital archive at:



All photos are from the Modern Literature Collection’s Donald Finkel Papers.

About the author

Meghan Lamb currently lives with her husband in St. Louis, where she is a fiction MFA candidate with the Washington University Writing Program and a Graduate Assistant with the Modern Literature Collection. She is the author of Silk Flowers (Birds of Lace) and Sacramento (Solar Luxuriance).