Help Us Write a Sonnet: Line TwelvePrint
By David Lehman
July 15, 2014
How like a prison is my cubicle,
And yet how far my mind can freely roam
From gaol to Jerusalem, Hell to home.
Freedom ends or starts with a funeral.
Say what must die inside that I may not
Cast down this die and cross the Rubicon,
Thence to the true hell: the heat of Tucson
Where drug lords blaze loads of coke, meth, and pot.
Freedom starts, or ends, with a funeral.
I once watched men with Uzis guard the Pope:
No hope, no hope, no hope, no hope, no hope.
What buzz can cheer this gloomy canticle?
It is Bastille Day as I write and reflect on our efforts to master the paradox of freedom in imprisonment—the key to the sonnet’s prison-door lock.
Line twelve is provided by Sandra M. Gilbert: “What buzz can cheer this gloomy canticle?” It ends the third quatrain with a question, perfectly setting up our concluding couplet. The choice of “buzz” is inspired. Utterly contemporary, the word can refer to a state of intoxication, to noise, to the chatter of the chattering classes, and in each of these senses it fits our lines. It may be argued that the balance between “cheer” and “gloom” in our poem has tilted to the latter, but our “canticle” (if we are capable) is correctible—with the right pithy closing couplet.
Runner-up honors go to Katie Whitney for her assertive hexameter: “The wide world webbed, a pharmakon for all.” The alliteration in the first half of the line is countered by the clever and erudite use of ”pharmakon” in the second half. Unless they are familiar with the writings of Jacques Derrida, most readers will need to look up this strange but beguiling term from the Greek, which has two contradictory meanings: it can denote either a poison or its antidote. The philosophical ramifications of the term are so fascinating, and so beautifully applicable here, as to beat down arguments against “deliberate obscurantism”—a charge that sooner or later gets leveled at an avant-garde experiment like ours. But I like looking things up.
As a sucker for ingenious punmanship, I admired MQ’s “Like every online Job, I’m terminal,” where Job is either a biblical character or a way of making a living, depending on whether the J is capitalized—and where “terminal” means either “end” or “computer station.”
Honorable mention goes to Joe Lawlor’s “Our dread of God, our love of death is all,” which was submitted before and remains a strong temptation. The end words in many of the submissions impressed me especially: Joy Jacobson’s “I craft my poems, indecipherable” and “though it’s a dry heat, it’s still insufferable”; Paul Michelson’s “Unless one is in the inner circle”; Diana’s “Capital death, a Roman numeral”; Lewis Saul’s “Yet Caesar’s skanky whores seem so real”; Beth Gylys’s “I seek escape, the dreamer’s arsenal.”
Line 12 is the first in the poem to end decisively on a question mark (though we have had implicit questions concealed in previous statements) and line 13 must begin to answer it—and to set up the last and arguably most important line of all. Iambic pentameter, if you please, and let’s end the line on a strong rhyme word.
How like a prison is my cubicle, (DL)
And yet how far my mind can freely roam (Leo Braudy)
From gaol to Jerusalem, Hell to home. (Brian Anderson and his 12th grade composition class)
Freedom ends or starts with a funeral. (Frank Bidart)
Say what must die inside that I may not (MQ)
Cast down this die and cross the Rubicon, (Anna E. Moss)
Thence to the true hell: the heat of Tucson (Lewis Saul)
Where drug lords blaze loads of coke, meth, and pot. (Diana)
Freedom starts, or ends, with a funeral.
I once watched men with Uzis guard the Pope: (James the Lesser)
No hope, no hope, no hope, no hope, no hope. (Jamie)
What buzz can cheer this gloomy canticle? (Sandra M. Gilbert)
Please leave your suggestion for the next line in a comment below.
David Lehman is the series editor for The Best American Poetry annual anthology. He has published eight books of poetry, the most recent of which is New and Selected Poems.
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