A Job of WorkPrint
By David Lehman
September 27, 2016
An Emily Dickinson fragment invariably makes for a creative prompt. I suggested that we play with “A woe of ecstasy” and was reasonably confident that it would spur our readers to heights of mystery and sublime speculation. But I was unprepared for the range and quality of the poems that the phrase provoked. Excellent work came in from some of our regulars (Angela Ball, Millicent Caliban, Elisabeth Solsburg, Berwyn Moore, Paul Michelsen), so I thought I would pick out some of the best poems that arrived from unusual, unexpected, or just plain new places.
Tied for first place are Rebecca Morgan Frank for “Woe Poetica” with its insistent repetition:
A woe of ecstasy– we’re woe-destined
woe-delighted, woe-betrothed, woe-
wedded, woe-enrapped, woe-tied,
woe-wrinkled, woe-fraught, woe-infirmed,
woe-whelmed, woe-wearied, woe-worn, woe-
exhausted, woe-infirmed, woe-revolving,
woe-struck, woe-watched, woe-bested
woe-dejected, woe-sprung, woe-
delighted–Oh! play the woe-trumpet, woe-worn–
woe-words, these woe-hurricanes.
and Hans Ostrom for turning “woe” into “wow” in “He’d Ordered a Wow of Ecstasy”:
A woe of ecstasy it was not supposed to be.
The package was to contain a Wow of Ecstasy,
and version 12.3, at that. To open it, therefore,
was to be surprised by Oy, to see nothing but
a bit of mica in a grain of sand, and once more
to face the math: expectation minus actuality
equals woe, which is oh too close
to zero, as you know.
Worthy of recognition, too, is Michael C. Rush’s allegory
till the Bus has gone—and then
persists while Lust abates
into a Woe of Ecstasy.
and the fresh simplicity of Courtney Thrash’s two-stanza poem:
A woe of ecstasy, the eve
That chills a swelt’ring frame,
While crickets in the grass—still green—
Sing their stirring hymn.
The shivering inaugural breeze
Cracks—clean—the heavy air;
The maple blushes at her tips
And heralds Summer’s heir.
Honorable mention: Deborah Wood, who (in lines preceded by asterisks) lifted phrases from Emily’s poems:
a woe of ecstasy—
a whisper on the wind—
a chill that travels up my spine
which gently speaks of sin
*the heart asks [for] pleasure first*
and later pays the price
*for each ecstatic instant*
that the body doth entice
Kudos, too, go to Charise Hoge and Christine Rhein. Thanks to all for making my job so difficult and therefore so refreshing.
Speaking of jobs, I would like to discourage the idea that poets are good for nothing other than poetry, and I suspect that there are a lot of secret poets out there: people who write poems but earn their living doing something else. For next week, then, why don’t we write poems about our jobs, real or imagined, past or present, anecdotal or aphoristic? Let’s keep in mind that “brevity is the soul of wit,” and that this epigram remains true even though it was spoken by someone who is verbose not to mention prolix not to mention loquacious.
Deadline: Sunday October 2 Midnight any time zone.
And as Paul mentions in an exchange with Michael, there is a very real possibility of a book comprising all our columns to date. So let me know if we have your permission to quote your lines in such a book.
David Lehman is a poet and the general editor of The Best American Poetry series. He teaches at The New School in New York City.
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