Here is the poem:

Prayer, by Galway Kinnell

Whatever happens. Whatever
what is is is what
I want. Only that. But that.

I came across this poem as an interesting example of English grammar and how it is actually possible to have three "is" in a row. Can anyone explain the poem's syntax, especially the sentence:

Whatever what is is is what I want.


Whatever happens. Whatever

what is is is what

I want. Only that. But that.

Whatever "what is" is, is what I want.

(Second cup of coffee to the rescue.)

Although is appears three times in a row, it is copular only once, in is what I want.

In "What is", is means exists.

And the second is (Whatever what is is) means happens to be.

Whatever that which exists happens to be is what I want.

  • Just to simplify the final translation, would it be accurately summed up as "I want things to be the way they are", or rather "I wish to own everything in existence"? – Flater Oct 8 '18 at 7:13
  • 1
    @Flater: Since we cannot own what "happens", surely it is the former, not "own". – Tᴚoɯɐuo Oct 8 '18 at 11:48

Grammatically, this can be summed up neatly by some ungrammatical use of parentheses:

(Whatever (what is) is) is what I want.

Each phrase in parentheses is a noun phrase and can be substituted by any other noun, e.g.,

(Whatever (infinity) is) is what I want.

Another way to disambiguate is to rephrase with a demonstrative:

(Whatever (what is) is), that is what I want.

The author of the poem italicizes what is in the original to indicate that it should be regarded as a noun phrase. It could just as well have been quoted:

Whatever "what is" is is what I want.

Or to rephrase with the subject of the main clause in parentheses:

(Whatever "what is" is) is what I want.

Hope this helps.


Whatever what is is is what I want.

Let's replace some parts of the sentence with equivalent parts of speech

Chicken is what I want.

This is a rather unusual sentence structure, but it is grammatical.

But say I didn't know what "Chicken" is. "Whatever 'chicken' is" then becomes the noun describing the item you want.

Whatever 'chicken' is, is what I want.

But in this case, the mystery item is not identified as 'chicken', but instead it is called 'what is'

Whatever 'what is' is, is what I want.

Put altogether it makes a lovely garden path sentence.


Whatever what is, is is what I want.

That sentence is not in the poem. The actual sentence, which the question quoted correctly in context, was

what is is is what
I want.

Without the division into lines of poetry, but retaining the italics: "Whatever what is is is what I want."

I believe the intended effect of putting words what is in italics in this poem is similar to the effect that could have been achieved by putting quotes around the words "what is": it allows this two-word phrase to be treated as a noun. Unlike the effect of italics or quotes in this paragraph, however, the noun in question is not the phrase itself, but rather is the thing described by those words.

I might unpack the elements of that sentence in the poem as follows:

That which exists and occurs in this universe is what is. Whatever that is, that is what I want.

I hope you agree that the two words what is were a much more fitting way to express the same thing I tried to express in the first eleven words in the previous paragraph.


I believe this can be understood by adding some missing punctuation.

what is, is

This is roughly expressing the idea that things are what they are. In other words, que sera, sera or whatever will be, will be.

What is is may also be a restatement of happens from the first line.


Whatever happens. Whatever
(what is, is) is what
I want. Only that. But that.

If this interpretation is correct, then I believe the author is trying to express that they want to have the ability to accept things as they happen.

This is somewhat reminiscent of the Serenity Prayer (Wikipedia), which starts as follows:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

  • I think you are right about the meaning, and thanks for the correction of punctuation. The answer is great for the semantics so I hope you don't erase it, but I'm looking for more explanation of the syntax involved. – Jay A. Little Oct 7 '18 at 11:35
  • With the comma, set off from the rest of the sentence by the parentheses, you have made the three words into a statement that could stand on its own as a sentence: "What is, is." But whereas I usually know how to parse a phrase of the form "whatever X is," I'm at a loss as to what to make of it when X is replaced by a standalone sentence (minus the final punctuation mark) in parentheses. – David K Oct 7 '18 at 20:34
  • @DavidK "Whatever (happens) is what I want." "Whatever (what is, is) is what I want." – Jason Bassford Oct 7 '18 at 20:41
  • "What is, is," is a complete sentence. "Happens" is not. I don't see those two wordings as even remotely the same. Or at least, I don't see the sentence structure as the same, although the meaning is fairly close. – David K Oct 7 '18 at 21:35
  • @DavidK. Yes, but "Whatever is, is." is not actually a sentence in question. That's just a sentence fragment that's part of what's being analyzed here. My use of parentheses and commas is purely explanatory. (As is the use of italics and bold text in the other answer.) I could dispense with them altogether and say that I interpret whatever what is is is what I want as being (poetically) the same as whatever happens is what I want. But without styling is is is in some fashion, it's extremely difficult to interpret the meaning. – Jason Bassford Oct 7 '18 at 21:50

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