Completely Subjective: Alan Bernheimer’s “20 Questions”

“20 Questions” by Alan Bernheimer was originally published in the SHINY and the Forward and then later on published in The Best American Poetry volume for 2004. Alan was born in NYC which is why the first question came to him on 9/11/2001. The entire poem was spakred on September 11, 2001 when someone said that poems could not be used to respond to such a large event, which led him to think of another 19 questions to which he didn’t have the answer to. In addition to writing 20 questions he purposefully left out the question marks that would make the questions complete.
The entire poem is rather easy to understand because it is a series of 20 questions that can be simple to understand, however, there are some lines of the poem which can be harder to grasp due to just how open and vague the questions are. For example “Are you in this for overalls” doesn’t make sense to me because what are you in, why do you want the overalls? Each question can then make you think of a million more follow up questions. However there are easier ones like, “What is the statute of limitations”, well the short and literal answer for that is that is a statute designating a limit to when legal action can be taken on different types of crime. Those are two very different types of questions but both appear in the poem.
To show more examples of how this poem can be complex and simple I have decided to answer five of the questions from Mr. Bernheimer’s poem.
“What can be said of the unspeakable that has not already been unsaid”
I think that when the unspeakable happens there’s this common knowledge that things should not be said. No one has ever come out and established these boundaries however, we all feel them. In addition to that, once the unspeakable has happened there is nothing to be said that’s why it is the unspeakable.
“Is outliving enemies a hollow victory”
I believe that outliving an enemy is a hollow victory because no matter what has happened between you and your enemy outliving is a win because you get to enjoy life longer than they got to. Although to some it could seem like nothing but to the person outliving their enemy it could mean so much.
“Does something for everyone mean nothing for anyone”
When something becomes so popular it begins to lose its purpose. For example when “That’s What I Like” by Bruno Mars comes on the radio it has lost its special effect on people because everyone listens to it and no longer means what the artist intended. Instead it just becomes blank lyrics everyone knows. Then song is for everyone but means nothing to anyone. So when something is for everyone it does destroy the meaning behind it.
“Would you be kind enough”
I think that Mr. Bernheimer is asking if people can be kind to not only other people but the entire planet and everything on it. Anything from people and animals, to the grass we grow. I believe that we can be kind enough to our planet if we chose to. Every person can chose how they live their life but hopefully they chose to live their lives kindly.
“Do fine feathers make fine birds”
In my opinion, fine feathers do not make a fine bird. If you put this in perspective of our town you would say that students at Darien High School have “fine feathers” however, not everyone turns into an amazing person. There have been DHS graduates who have committed horrible crimes. That makes someone with “fine feathers” who didn’t make a “fine bird”.
This poem is very interesting because it makes you think more and more as the poem goes on. The questions become more complex and more open ended. I think that is what makes this poem so great, it is different from any poem I have ever read. This poem isn’t just 20 questions, it’s a million questions if you look close enough.



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