After Labor DayPrint
By David Lehman
September 6, 2016
The prompt this week was to write an “occasional” poem, the occasion being Labor Day. The poets were asked to write a poem with “Labor Day” as the title. The suggested length was “seven lines or less,” though everyone knows I tend toward elasticity rather than strictness in enforcing such rules. I also suggested that the poem could take the shape of “an acrostic (“l-i-b-e-r-t-y”), an aphorism, a poem that puns on the multiple meanings of the word ‘labor,’ an adieu to summer, an ode to the movie ‘Picnic’ from the point of view of either William Holden or Kim Novak.” I specified a one rhyme minimum.
Among other welcome newcomers, I would single out Joel Carrera for “After Labor Day,” which gets the gold medal this week. Note the neat rhymes (noise / buoys), the internal rhymes (“pairs” and “chairs” in line one), the sibilance (every line except one ends with “s”).
After Labor Day
On Tuesday, scattered pairs of retirees rest on chairs.
Here, a gray dredger, all smoking stacks and clanking noise,
Deepens the lanes out past the nodding buoys.
“No one’s sailing today.” True. White hulls lie beached in the grass.
While the gulls stand, beaks to the breeze and blowing grit.
Around a sandy moat and slumped towers,
The wind gingerly erodes a gyre of childish footprints.
During Olympic coverage, a phrase I detest is that X or Y “has to settle for a silver medal.” It turns a high distinction into a left-handed compliment. When I announce a two-way tie for the silver medal, it ain’t a question of settling.
There’s Paul Michelsen’s very literary and smart poem:
Longfellow told us to learn to labor and to wait,
Labor blossoms or dances, according to Yeats,
Not as sweet, in the deep mid-ocean, as rest upon the shore,
So wrote Tennyson (Alfred, Lord),
Hugo wrote of the visible and the invisible kind,
Whistler wanted payment not for his labor,
But for the knowledge of a lifetime
And this very charming and disarming love song from Christine Rhein:
—a note on the kitchen counter
Meet me at the linden tree. Bring wine
(I’ve got the glasses) and we’ll toast to swaying,
heart-shaped leaves, to roots we planted deep,
thirty years of stubborn tangle. Let us savor
our garden overgrown, the bench gone gray patina,
this golden summer day, my dear, nothing to belabor.
Honorable mention goes to Ephraim K. for his enigmatic lines (“When is Labor Day? / At the start of September / or the end of May?”) and Elizabeth Solsburg’s poem with its play on the movie “Picnic” (“I never expected a picnic for my Labor Day, / for you to ease into my life the way /Bill Holden slid into Kansas on a freight train”). It was a delight to read Angela Ball’s deft blend of Prince Hal and “Picnic” and I admired byron’s acrostic and Millicent Caliban’s frankly “fake apology” that doubles as a humble brag (“My brilliant solution”), not to mention her echo of my favorite line in Shakespeare’s sonnet #18: “And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.”
For next week, let’s begin a list poem—on the model of the great list songs in the American songbook—e.g., “You’re the Top” (Cole Porter), “Thanks for the Memory” (music Ralph Rainger, lyrics Leo Robin), “Can’t Get Started” (music Vernon Duke, lyrics Ira Gershwin), “They All Laughed” (Gershwin and Gershwin), “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” (Gershwin and Gershwin), “My Favorite Things” (Rodgers and Hammerstein), “(We’ll Have) Manhattan” (Rodgers and Hart), to mention just a few. The formula requires a stanza with a refrain.
You can have a list of compliments (“You’re the top / You’re the Colosseum / You’re the top / You’re the Louvre museum”), memories (“Thanks for the memory / Of sentimental verse, / Nothing in my purse, / And chuckles when the preacher said ‘For better or for worse’”), accomplishments (“I’ve gone around the world in a plane, / Settled revolutions in Spain, / The North Pole I have charted, / But I can’t get started with you”) historical events (“They all laughed at Christopher Columbus / When he said the world was round, / They all laughed when Edison recorded sound”), and attributes (“The way your smile just beams, / The way you sing off-key, / The way you haunt my dreams, / No, no! they can’t take that away from me.”) You get the idea.
Hint: your stanza will be automatically better if it is about a “you” whether real or imaginary If we get a melodious stanza, who knows, this could be the start of something big.
Deadline: Monday, September 12, 3 A.M., any time zone.
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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