A Whim of Irony


“I would write on the lintels of the door-post, Whim.” —Emerson, “Self-Reliance”

Write what you think; walk what you write. [Berwyn Moore]

A fly’s blue buzz once helped a poet die [Willard Spiegelman]

I opted for Willard Spiegelman’s line because it was, of all entries, the most surprising, and Emerson, provider of the poem’s epigraph, prized “surprise.” (He said that poets mount to paradise on the “stairway of surprise.”). A second pleasure of the line is that it implicates Emily Dickinson in our work. What does the allusion to her poem “I heard a Fly buzz—when I died” add to our lines? It remains for the next three lines to make sense of the ingredients so far assembled—the Whim on the doorpost, the seemingly earnest directive in the first line, and the blue buzz of mortality in line two.

My second favorite line was proposed by the poet Angela Ball: “And be a cause, a country, and an age.” It extends the opening imperative.

Aaron Fagan’s cogent admonition also tempted me: “American, remember, is not a synonym for everyman.”

For line three, we need to begin with an “L” and connect somehow with an element or two already present

Deadline: Midnight, Sunday, September 21.

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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