A Sonnet Is Ample Space

An image from the Hubble telescope showing a 50-light-year-wide view of the Carina Nebula, where a maelstrom of star birth—and death—is taking place (Flickr/hubble-heritage)
An image from the Hubble telescope showing a 50-light-year-wide view of the Carina Nebula, where a maelstrom of star birth—and death—is taking place (Flickr/hubble-heritage)

At the time of this writing, there are 158 entries in the comments field of this week’s prompt: to begin a poem with a variant of a sentence spoken by Michael Corleone in The Godfather II: “If history can teach us anything …”

Many of the entries are poems; but there are also critical or appreciative remarks and suggested revisions. These are particularly valuable, for despite the image of the poet as a solitary figure, writers need readers, engaged readers most of all. One source of NLP pride is the civility of our discourse and the genuineness of our engagement with the art of verse.

Here are some of the week’s highlights.

Emily Winakur wowed us with “Cross-Discipline”:

If history can teach us anything,
it’s that a sonnet is ample space for
the creation of a planet. Already,
line four, atoms are spinning dizzily,
like toddlers hyped up on birthday cake.
By line six, the dinosaurs have marched,
leaving giant footprints in riverbeds.
Line eight, the earth is cooling down—
wait, it’s heating up again. Enter man-
kind, or at least our rodent forebears.
Of course we cause the turn of the earth,
the turn of everything: we invented
wheels. A star goes dark in Cassiopeia.
Did I say creation? I meant the opposite.

Michael C. Rush wrote, “Whoa, Emily. This may be as close to a perfect poem as I’ve ever seen posted here. Brava!” Whitson Cogburn seconded the motion: “This is a poem that David Lehman can hold up proudly and say, ‘See what I mean?’” And Donald LaBranche added, “You’ve raised the bar of excellence pretty high.” I agree with the gentlemen and was particularly taken with the artful self-references in lines four, six, and eight in furtherance of the wonderful conceit: “that a sonnet is ample space for / the creation of a planet.”

Millicent Caliban does a remarkable job of summarizing some unpleasant historical truths that we tend to overlook when romanticizing past eras populated by knights and damsels in distress. I admire the turn after line eight—a textbook example of using the logic of a sonnet to advance a double argument:

If history has taught us anything,
it is that life was dirty, cold and dark.
Diseases raged unchecked and danger lurked.
To travel far was risky, without comfort.
To be a woman meant a narrow scope—
a self-determined life was scarce a dream.
Hierarchies were strict and unrelenting;
your gender, race or tribe determined all.
Yet people put more trust in simple faith;
believed that God had so ordained their lot.
Some strove to conquer ignorance with learning
and, when they could, indulged in acts of love.
They understood the sacredness of Nature
and did not waste her bounty in their rage.

Randall Brett’s “Student Debt” juxtaposes memories of train rides in boyhood to events in South Africa. There are ambiguities here, all to the good, and the final lines pack a wallop:

If history can teach us anything,
if the djinn of memory riding beside me
on the Regional from New York to Providence
is roused angrily from its nap
by the calling out of place names:
Saybrook, Old Lyme, New London, Westerly

What pass for the colonies of your childhood—
while you text me from LA about the First and Second
Boer Wars, the Voortrekkers, the Battle of Blood
River, the map marked “all dead,”
your studies from the spellbook of time—

How you are happy in every past,
but ours.

“Intercourse” is the eye-catching title of Josie Cannella’s passionately earnest poem:

If history has taught us anything
perhaps it’s that we need to talk things out.
Some diplomatic negotiating
mends rips in social fabric, sans a doubt.
Whether a border has been wrongly crossed
or toes have accident’ly been stepped on,
without a conversation, all is lost
and hope for peaceful resolutions, gone.

Some suffer rips and wrinkles. They don’t care
to grapple with the ugly likelihood
that those who’ve wronged them simply do not share
their moral obligation to make good.
Disquieted, they quiet down their pain,
let anger gall, and plan revenge to gain.

Beth Dufford addresses the study of history and proposes a corrective to the tendency to slide from act to fiction and myth:

If history can teach us anything
it is the power of editing.
History: finding things out
much later, including things
that have been omitted—
who led that battle vs.
who fought that battle vs.
who believed in the thing
they were fighting for.

Anything history can teach us
risks obfuscation by things
half-remembered, half-told & half reassembled,
remains in danger of morphing into myth,
the collective, misty-eyed version of a truth.

Sometimes simplicity is sublime. Eric Fretz wins the brevity award for his two-stanza poem:

If history can teach us anything
It’s that we never know what’s coming next.

Sometimes decades pass and nothing happens
And sometimes ages are transformed in weeks.

The award for the week’s most remarkable conclusion goes to Angela Ball for “Learning from History”:

If history can teach us anything
It’s that we can’t figure out what do
in or with it. Put up statues?
Lots of towns did
in the 1890s: freshly manufactured
Civil War infantrymen
ordered from catalogue,
“specify US or CS.” One
prototype, alternate
belt-buckle initials. Hails
of trumpet notes and daisies.
Then what?

If history can teach us anything
it’s to regard it. How? Truce
of facts, shotgun marriage
of cause and effect,
misapplied paint, a plague
replacing a problem,
eternity’s business route, pact
or prison, who decides? 1937,
that brink year, learned this
from an oceanic movie: History
is made at night.

Michael C. Rush displays his flair for wordplay in “Let them eat fake!”

If history can teach us anything
to explore
all that came before
reading subtleties like subtitles
dodging the indignities
of ethical ambiguities

the rules behind the rules
regret for the result
of insufficient commitment
the redemption
of coupons of hope,
always expired
if history, if teach, if anything

I’ve reached my word count but do not want to exit without quoting some other memorable lines. From Louis Altman‘s “Predestiny”:

If Emily Dickinson can stick
Out her thumb and hitchhike with Death
Then you can give me the time of day.

From Pamela Joyce S‘s “Back Issue”:

And years pass, vaguely, almost unnoticed,
two becoming five, five a monument
to forgiveness, but you’ve forgotten.
Everything. And history repeats—
because it can, because it does not teach.

From Timothy Sandefur:

Oedipus preached his new regime.
“If history can teach us, anything
is possible,” replied the smiling Sphinx.

My thanks to all who wrote poems or commented on them. I will do my best to come up with a good prompt for next Tuesday.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

David Lehman, a contributing editor of the Scholar, is a poet, critic, and the general editor of The Best American Poetry annual anthology and author of the book One Hundred Autobiographies. He currently writes our Talking Pictures column.


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