A Valediction, Forbidding Mourning

Gauthier DELECROIX - 郭天/Flickr

Well, it had to happen. This is my last column as your ringleader. I know the news will surprise and perhaps disappoint many of you. It saddens me too, and I’ll miss the party. But it’s time. I’ve directed us since we started “Next Line, Please” back in May 2014, and I’ve always felt it is wiser to part a month early rather than a week late.

My next months are crowded with deadlines and occasions. They always are, but this season more so. One Hundred Autobiographies: A Memoir will be published in October, and I will be expected to promote it and my recently published books of poetry, Playlist and Poems in the Manner Of.

“Next Line, Please”—the brainchild of Robert Wilson, editor of The American Scholar—has been a great success by any criteria, including the quality of the writing; the enthusiasm and commitment of the participants; and the establishment of a community of very smart individuals who enjoy the free exchange of ideas and practical criticism, value civil discourse, and eschew the gratuitous meanness that one so often encounters on the Internet. Cornell University Press thought enough of our project to publish Next Line, Please: Prompts to Inspire Poets and Writers in 2018. Some of our more assiduous NLP regular are at work on an anthology of poems that will highlight some of our all-star performances.

Making up prompts in the hope that they would inspire people was always fun. To list just a few of the things we have done:

— Writing a sonnet line by line, and a sestina stanza by stanza
— Writing seasonal haiku and expanding them into tanka
— Writing limericks, acrostics, centos, improvisations, impromptus, addresses, epistles, rejoinders, and prologues
— Building poems out of anagrams, synonyms and antonyms, and games of what Nabokov called “word golf”
— Completing poem fragments by Emily Dickinson
— Writing poems inspired by aphorisms or messages like this one from Napoleon to Josephine: “Home in three days. Don’t bathe.”

We also wrote two-line poems, poems entitled “The One Thing That Can Save America” (a John Ashbery title), poems beginning with the first line of Coleridge’s “This Lime Tree Bower My Prison,” and poems ending with the last line of Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” We rewrote lines from Milton’s “Lycidas,” refreshed clichés, issued fake apologies, composed false confessions, concealed secrets while telling them, and ended poems with questions in the manner of Shelley and Yeats.

Because of “Next Line, Please,” I wrote poems that I would never have otherwise produced. This three-line poem I called “The Last Word” was inspired by a Father’s Day prompt that involved the jubilant use of newfangled clichés:

“Get a life, you risk-averse couch potato,” my father said.
“I’ve written fourteen books,” I said.
“Less is more,” my father said.

I also wrote “Idiot’s Tale” to fulfill our “word golf” prompt:

When you’re shooting well, you’re unconscious, you’re sick.
No thoughts distract you, your touch is as the silk
of your rich sister’s scarf. Now don’t sulk.
The key to our business is buying in bulk.
Don’t walk the batter. Don’t risk a balk.
Look who’s talking on the commercial-free talk
show you mocked before the idiot’s tale
turned out to be true. But, then, no tale was as tall
as the epic poems that minstrels used to tell.
If anyone asks, just say: well, well, well.

The story of Antigone has long fascinated me, and my acrostic was in her honor:

As David to Goliath is Antigone to Creon.
Not arms but a wrist, a will implacable,
Trumps the boss. The antithesis is between
“I” and “you,” kid brother or little sister versus
Grim boastful giant, or executor of the State.
Oedipus had to do what he did;
Not you; prepared even to be buried alive, you chose your fate
And won, and a heartbroken prince died for the love of you.

I quote / not to gloat, / but to make it known, / that your captain , / a player-captain, / had a few extra-base hits of his own.

One of my favorite poems is John Donne’s “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” and to appropriate the spirit of that poem, I will appeal to his moral compass—and announce that I will be launching a monthly column for The American Scholar on great movies from the 1930s on. When I do, I hope the comments section of those columns is as lively and intellectually stimulating as the one we have generated week by week at NLP.

From the editor: We’re grateful to David Lehman for taking on “Next Line, Please” at its beginning and making it his own. Soon into his five-year run as its maestro, he had brought together a large and loyal audience—loyal to David, loyal to the goal of making poetry together, and loyal to each other. We want to keep this community together, so watch this space for what is coming next for “Next Line, Please.” In the meantime, check out our poetry podcast, Read Me a Poem.

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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