Next Line, Please

A Bold Caravan Departs

By David Lehman | July 24, 2018
Dino Olivieri/Flickr
Dino Olivieri/Flickr

When I asked for 26-word poems that recapitulate the alphabet from A to Z one word at a time, and threw in the added proviso that the resulting poem should summarize the plot of a novel, book, or play, I thought for sure that the challenge would prove extremely difficult. Maybe so, but let no one underestimate the ingenuity of NLP regulars and rookies.

Millicent Caliban, who must have compiled a brilliant record as an English major back in the day, proves that she didn’t neglect the historical context of the English Renaissance. Here is her take on “Queen Elizabeth I”:

Anne beheaded!
Crowned, daughter Elizabeth
fulfills great hopes
in judicious kingdom.
Loyal men never
openly pique queen.
Reign sees tremendous
undertakings; virgin woman
exudes youth’s zealousness.

Millicent also weighed in with the wittily titled “The Road to Pemberley,” in which she summarizes, with pride and without prejudice, Jane Austen’s most famous novel.

One word per line (with two exceptions, to allow the poem to break into six equal quatrains) is a great strategy, and I responded avidly to Stephanie Cohen’s effort, “The Orphan Master’s Son,” though I cannot identify the plot it summarizes—or intimates:


Holes inside


Party people



Inspired by Exercises de Style, Raymond Queneau’s masterpiece, Angela Ball’s
“Exercises in Style: Abecedarian” favors difficult words:

Altercation bus,
cockney dream
epenthesis fastener,
gare homeoptotes.
Interjection jujus
ménage, ninety-nine
official prostheses
quiddity riding synchysis.
Teleological union, veiled
xanthic yoctosecond Zazou.

The highlight of Diana Ferraro’s “Hamlet” is “Hamlet is jinxed”:

Ardent betrayal casts dice!
Elsinore fights ghosts!
Hamlet is jinxed.
Kingdom, law, mother,
new occurrences
pose questions, raise subjects.
Truth unearths violent wisdom.
Xyphoid yarn zips

Beth Duford takes on the same Shakespearean tragedy in “The Rest is Silence”:

Atop birthright’d castle,
Denmark exudes father-
ghost hinting incest.

Jettisoned king-son laments
mother’s nuptials, offers play,
questions reactions.


“Truepenny, unfellowed, voice what
expired yesterday, ‘zounds …”

Michael C. Rush does a terrific job maintaining fidelity to correct syntax while getting all 26 words into one sentence in “Fellowship”:

A bold caravan departs,
emancipating friends,
gawking hobbits in jeopardy,
kind, loyal mates
now openly pursuing
quests regarding Sauron
to upstage virtuous wizard
extinguishing yahoo zealots.

Elizabeth Solsburg’s “Garden of Eden” yields such gems as “devil’s ethereal food” and “repitilian slithering”:

Adam becomes concerned—
devil’s ethereal food grows
here—its jaded
knowledge like memory.
Night opens pretended quiet,
reptilian slithering—
turbulence unimpeded.
Victorious wickedness.
Expelled, yearning.

Donald LaBranche chose the most unconventional book to summarize. Varina by Charles Frazier concerns Varina Davis, the wife of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy:

A book concerning defeat.
Every foray grows hell-bound.
Irascible justice kills legends
marching nightly
overcoming persistence.
Quirky road signs tragically
undergird Varina’s waxing xeric—
yesteryear’s zeitgeist.

I like the opening of Charise Hoge’s “Le Petit Prince”—and the way she incorporates the name of that book’s author, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry:

Art: boa constrictor
devours elephant.
For grown-ups—
hat inferred.
Journey knight-like,
lightyears mystical.
Nonsensical orders,
Rose speaks to us
writer Exupéry’s
yellow-haired zephyr

Commendable submissions came in from Keith Barrett, Steve Belin-Oka (who took on Psycho), Bryan Johnson (who chose Moby-Dick), LB, Pamela Joyce, the always reliable Christine Rhein, Patricia Smith, Clay Sparkman, and others. So how, given space limitations, do I manage to get all—well, most—of them in?

Easy. I construct a variant on the abecedarian form, compiling favorite lines and mixing them into a cento, giving more thought to syntax than to sense on the theory that a meaning will emerge and will turn out to have been implicit all along. The authors of the culled lines are credited in the right margin. Here goes:

Absent belief, —Patricia Smith
As before, —George Collodi
Adam becomes concerned. —Elizabeth Solsburg
Abel: Buried; —Keith Barrett
Cain: Detained. —Keith Barrett

Anne beheaded! – —Millicent Caliban
cockney dream —Angela Ball
devours elephant —Charise Hoge
emancipating friends —Michael C. Rush
for grown-ups — —Charise Hoge
hat inferred —Charise Hoge
ghost, gentlemen, graves. —Ferraro; Caliban; Joyce

Hamlet is jinxed. —Diana Ferraro

Jesus! Krapp’s —Keith Barrett
Jumbo knockout. —Christine Rhein

Keys lend meaning. —Pamela Joyce
Matrimonial negotiations —Millicent Caliban
openly pursue —Michael C. Rush
quest requiring serious thought, —Pamela Joyce
rose-fingered skies. —Bryan Johnson
Quest realized: —LB
reptilian slithering. —Elizabeth Solsburg

Party people
Results. —Stephanie Cohen

Reality —Michael C. Rush
slams the unctuous, viscous wallop, —LB
seeks triumphant union —Millicent Caliban
underground. Violins wail: —Steve Belin-Oka
Vixen-vengeance: —Christine Rhein
victorious wickedness: —Elizabeth Solsburg
vaulting whiteness. —Bryan Johnson
Weltanschauung —Angela Ball
extinguishing yahoo zealots. —Michael C. Rush

Yaqui zen. —Michael C. Rush
Youthful zest. —Millicent Caliban
Yesteryear’s zeitgeist. —Donald LaBranche
Yearning’s zenith. —David Lehman.

I’d love to hear possible titles for what I think of as our Team Poem. And by way of bidding you a good week, may I say,

A brilliant cento
doesn’t exclude favorites,
grand historical ideas,
jokes, kids, love, money.
Naturally our parents
quit, retire, subtract
tears under vehement
whiskey workaholic weeks—
except your zero.

Next Tuesday, I will propose a new prompt. Your ideas are welcome—as are suggestions for improving my little valedictory abecedarius. I think the first six lines are okay, but I have a feeling you could improve the last three.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

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