Are the Words of the Prophets Written on Prison Walls?Print
By David Lehman
November 24, 2015
Paul Michelsen, a stalwart contributor to these contests, has submitted two fine possibilities for line seven: “To read the graffiti. If need be, he can turn” and “Just what these clues mean—perhaps he will turn.” Both fit the context; both demonstrate the value of a caesura, and both serve well as transitional lines. Whichever is chosen needs to be completed in line eight, the stanza’s ultimate line.
I will go with the first of these, liking the way the line plays against an iambic base. Arguably the most important moment in the line is “the graffiti,” a sentence-ending phrase that substitutes a dactyl for an iamb and leaves us with the mystery of a text message: what does the graffiti say?
There’s a three-way tie for second-place honors: Charise Hoge’s “There’s a mirror wherever he may turn” puts us in a fun house, as in the thrilling climax of Orson Welles’s movie The Lady from Shanghai in which Rita Hayworth and Everett Sloan shoot at each other’s images.
Millicent Caliban (who someday will disclose how she or he came up with that moniker) offers the deliberately poetical hexameter: “That hope with feathery wing from tyrant’s clutch will turn”—a nod to Emily Dickinson’s depiction of “hope” and a strategic inversion of regular word order (“from tyrant’s clutch will turn”).
Berwyn Moore gets kudos for her robust line of strong iambic pentameter: “The span of sigh and touch, turn and counter-turn.” The last part of that line recalls the patterns of Roman odes—such as Ben Jonson’s Pindaric ode “To the Immortal Memory and Friendship of that Noble Pair, Sir Lucius Clay and Sir Henry Morrison”
Honorable mention goes to Byron for the effort to relate our sonnet to recent events (“The fate of fanatics in St. Denis who turn”) and J.F. McCullers for the elegant balancing act that is “Too proud to plead, and ever too loyal to turn.”
Here, then, is where we are:
Our dreams as disparate as our days uniform, Michael C. Rush
We crave a lovely scandal with someone well-known; Angela Ball
Midnight champagne, penthouse lit by thunderstorm, Christine Rhein
In this version of darkness, we are never alone. Elizabeth Solsburg
If marriage is a cage, we can force the lock, but he Christine Rhein
Clutches the key, a jailer too stubborn to learn Patricia Smith
To read the graffiti. If need be, he can turn Paul Michelsen
Our next line must end with the word be or the words to be. Deadline: Noon, Sunday November 29.
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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