Tom Turpin
Professor of
Purdue University


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Flies in the face of fashion

What's Buggin You Now?





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Flies Show Up Everywhere -- Even in Poetry

Flies are very common insects. So common that almost everyone recognizes a fly when they see one. We may know flies, but we don't necessarily like them. Our dislike is based on several things. Some species develop in dead animals and garbage. A few flies carry disease organisms. There are also biting flies.

It is this general hate of flies that has allowed them to creep into a surprising number of poems. Some of the world's best-known poets have waxed eloquently about these two-winged insects.

Even ancient writers saw fit to include flies in their works. For instance Homer. In his Epics, Homer described the Greek host at Troy "as numerous as flies near the farmer's milk in spring time."

William Shakespeare tossed a few flies into his works. Among his well-chosen words, he used the term "worm" for fly maggots on dead bodies, such as "Shall worms, inheritors of this excess, eat up thy charge? Is this thy body's end?" Also, "The prey of worms, my body being dead."

Shakespeare noticed the mating habits of flies and, in "King Lear," writes "the small gilded fly does lecher in my sight." He also used the example of amorous flies in criticizing Romeo: "more courtship lives in carrion flies than Romeo."

William Olyds wrote a short poem entitled "The Fly." In the poem, Olyds suggests that both humans and flies should make the most of their lives because, relatively speaking, both are short! A third William associated with Old English literature, as in William Blake, also wrote a "The Fly" poem. In his poem, Blake compares humans to flies and wonders if life is more meaningful to humans than to flies.

Emily Dickinson followed the theme of flies and death with one of her more famous poems, "I Heard a Fly Buzz When I Died." In this case, a fly interfered with her long-anticipated death by buzzing around the room. The fly was a blue bottle fly, a species that lays eggs on dead animals!

Probably the most complete look at people's distaste for flies in poetry is Karl Shapiro's "The Fly." In this poem, Shapiro gets right to the heart of the matter with his first line, "O hideous little bat, the size of snot."

The poet mentions many of the things that we dislike about flies, such as living in compost piles, making buzzing sounds and leaving fly specks where they rest. In addition, Shapiro points out that flies antagonize horses and carry disease. But humans fight back with insecticides and sticky traps. Yet our real delight is when we are able to swat a fly into an unsightly little splat! Shapiro also notes that flies buzz in the key of "F." Which is probably more than most of us want to know about flies.

Even children's poet Jack Prelutsky gets on the poems-about-flies bandwagon. His untitled poem goes: "Curious fly, Vinegar jug. Slippery edge, Pickled bug."

Ogden Nash also has a poem, "The Fly," which, as you have no doubt noted, is a very popular title for fly poems. Nash says, "God in his wisdom created the fly, and then forgot to tell us why." Could it be that the answer is so that we have something to swat?



Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox