Next Line, Please

A Break with Tradition

By David Lehman | February 2, 2016


This week we break with tradition and award the laurels to Elizabeth Solsburg for a two-line entry:

Here is the street where frightened children prowl
About their buried innocence, and race

The lines play on two lines from a poem by Stephen Vincent Benét (1898–1943), a poet and writer with an impressive reputation in his own lifetime who went out of fashion and is too little read today. “Race” scrambles “care” in the previous line.  Benét’s lines:

Here is the strait where eyeless fishes swim
About their buried idol, drowned so cold

Benét is the author of “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” a story (and play) that used to be universally read. Benét, who wrote the poem that concludes with the line “Bury my heart at Wounded Knee,” served as judge of the Yale Series of Younger Poets for a decade and helped that series achieve its preeminence among first-book competitions.

I like the way Ms. Solsburg retains the structure of Benét’s lines while making strategic changes in nouns (“street” for “strait” and “innocence” for “idol”) , an adjective (“frightened” for “eyeless”), and a verb (“prowled” for “swim”). It is a good method with the added virtue that it acknowledges its ancestry rather than trying to conceal it. It may be that the paradox of our endeavor here is that we are consciously breaking with the tradition that feeds our effort.

Be that as it may, it is good to call attention to Benét—and to another such unsung poet, Robinson Jeffers (1887–1962), the source of a couple of Patricia Smith’s entries. This one wins second place:

Will mood or gun shorten the years, waiting for death anew?

Here is Jeffers’s line: “Will shorten the week of waiting for death, there is game without talons.”

(Note to Patricia: I’d modify the line to get rid of the dangling participle and make it even more emphatically an echo of Jeffers’s “Hurt Hawks”:  “Will mood or gun shorten the week of waiting for death?” What say you?)

Third place goes to Berwyn Moore for

We hold them as we may, a force in the mind’s womb.

“A force,” she points out, is an anagram of “care of.” This witty scramble is worthy of the poet whose line it is based on. “To hold you as I may, in my mind’s womb” is from “Where I’ve Been All My Life” by the late Carolyn Kizer (1925–2014). Carol, a wonderful poet, was also an effective advocate of the art. In 1966, she was appointed director of literary programs for the then-brand-new National Endowment for the Arts.

This, then, is where we are now: 

Guns fret not at their chamber’s narrow doom. (DL)
Snug in our amber mood, we take too little care of what they do. (Angela Ball)
Here is the street where frightened children prowl (Elizabeth Solsburg)
About their buried innocence, and race (Elizabeth Solsburg)

For next week … we need a line that completes the clause that begins “and race.” The line must lift, and play with, a line lifted from a poem by an earlier poet. The line may— for the internal logic of our poem—include an anagram of a word from the previous line. It may also rhyme with any of four words: “doom,” “do” (or “they do”), “prowl,” and “race.” That seems like a lot to accomplish except when you consider that the ingenuity needed to fulfill these conditions may produce, almost without the writer knowing it, an arresting image, thought, line.

Thank you, everyone. I follow the site closely and am grateful not only for the entries but also for the comments.

Deadline: Sunday, February 7, Noon, any time zone.

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