Next Line, Please

“A Letter is a Joy of Earth”

By David Lehman | May 21, 2019
দেবর্ষি রায়/Flickr
দেবর্ষি রায়/Flickr

Some fragmented poems are complete as they stand: Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” is the cardinal example, along with some of Emily Dickinson’s enigmatic jottings. Still, a number of her untitled fragments read like wonderful openings to poems that we wish she had finished. Consider #1639:

A Letter is a joy of Earth—
It is denied the Gods—

Our prompt for this week was to treat these lines as the beginning of a new poem worthy of its heritage. I’m pleased that so many of you tried your hand at the task, learned from the experience, and valued it.

The verdict comes as no surprise. No one can beat Dickinson at her own game, if only because it is impossible to imagine what the woman nicknamed “the New England mystic” would have done with the premise she puts forth so succinctly. It takes her only 12 words to set in motion the powerful thought that, despite the self-evident superiority of “the Gods,” there are joys reserved for mortal men and women. One such joy, which Dickinson proposes as either metonymy or metaphor, is the humble letter.

The first noun in this poem, then, may be the most crucial. It can mean correspondence, a synecdoche for any piece of writing, or one of the 26 letters of the alphabet, two of which are words in themselves (“A” and “I,” the first letters of these two lines). Does Dickinson’s “letter” stand for language, which humans use and gods do not need? Is the letter compensatory? Does it point to humanity’s fallen state? Or does mortality yield joys unknown to angels?

While even the best of our efforts do not quite make me feel “as if the top of my head were taken off”—Dickinson’s own standard—the results attest to the skill and ingenuity of Team NLP.

It may be Angela Ball who comes closest to approximating Dickinson’s characteristic sound:

A letter is a joy of earth—
It is denied the Gods—
Its script sails slotted—
Dimly in its berth—

Its sovereign words purse—
Tightly—all the while—
Till appointed hands unfurl—
And deliverance—arrive—

Angela’s choice of end words is inspired. Such terms as “sovereign” and “appointed” come straight out of the Emily lexicon, and the last two lines deliver the dramatic finish and religious grace that we find in Dickinson’s work.

I like the way Emily Winakur’s poem unfolds. The staccato rhythms and the broken thoughts mirror the struggle of the mind to make sense of what it beholds:

A Letter is a joy of Earth—
it is denied the Gods—
Singing stories—Death or Mirth—
announcing—like a Fraud—

that Thing you did. Was it so Great—
if no one knew but for
those Gods hushed and hovering—late—
round heaven’s hearth—Voyeurs

of deeds and sins. To have to Pause—
unknowing—to hold paper
up to Sun—and wonder at the Flaws
and Flights that will appear—

as soon as paper splits and tears
by taper’s candlelight.
Anticipation mixed with fear—
“Madame,” it says, “I write—”

The last line works wonderfully, and “that Thing you did” is a phrase to conjure with, rife with implications.

Charise Hoge’s “Mollusk and Mail” completes Emily’s fragment as Marianne Moore might have done, with the celebration of a lowly creature:

A Letter is a joy of Earth––
It is denied the Gods––
Though Godspeed may prevail
––when it is deemed a snail.

Admire then the Snail––
A coiled envelope that seals
the softness of a living thing
––discerned in words––arriving.

In Emily Winakur’s words, Charise beautifully “intertwines the snail mail concept of modernity with Emily D’s tendency to write about intricate little creatures.”

Beth Dufford tells us she “cheated and used two of Emily’s mysterious couplets to bookend my meager whimperings in between.”

A Letter is a joy of Earth—
It is denied the Gods—
Like warmth before a shadow’s Birth
Eludes the sheltering frog—

Let me use this Day, let it not slip—
Let me imprison it in a locket—
Let me not thirst with this Hock at my lip
Nor beg, with domains in my pocket.

“Cheat” is an anagram for “teach,” and this poem is instructive on the merits of poetic theft. The greatness of the closing lines, from Dickinson’s poem #1772, justifies all. Besides, I like “slip” and “locket” before “Hock,” the white wine (perhaps a Riesling) that Byron celebrated as the cure for a hangover when mixed with soda water.

If I were to make a collage from this week’s poems, I would be sure to include:

The Alphabet—lost in Paradise
Along with the single I

from Diana Ferrraro,

“But Patience lets long Letters lie—”

from Bella Canncard (a pseudonym that Josie Cannella sometimes uses), and

“Tryhards of Asgard, Wannabes in Valhalla.”

from Jim Augustine.

My own efforts reminded me of the difficulty I had when trying to master Dickinson’s style for my book Poems in the Manner Of. I must have written and worked on a dozen poems that aspired to capture Dickinson’s pith and pitch. But though I appropriated her capital letters, dashes, hymnal stanzas, and vantage point from beyond the grave, I failed miserably and contented myself with this, the shortest poem in the book, as my “Poem in the Manner of Emily Dickinson”:


Plus “c. 1886” as the final touch.

My thanks to all who took part. I’ll do my best to come up with a challenging and, I hope, inspiring new prompt for next Tuesday.

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