Next Line, Please

Building on Byron and Keats

By David Lehman | April 25, 2017


For this week, we the NLP regulars, irregulars, visitors, and initiates worked at poems of gastronomy – poems about dishes, delicacies, drinks, and dinner guided by this quotation from Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own: “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.” We also operated under the motto provided by Lord Byron from Canto XII of Don Juan: “All human history attests / That happiness for man — the hungry sinner! — / Since Eve ate apples, much depends on dinner.

My favorite entry, Millicent Caliban’s “Input Output” may prove controversial, for reasons I’ll explain a minute, but it is inarguable that she caught the spirit of the exercise by translating poems into delightful feasts. Millicent revised the poem during the week, posting the “official version” and appending the “old last line … below in parentheses.”

Starving poets may swoon, but they do not write well.
When the gut is appeased, the spirit can roam free.
For a haiku: hamachi ngiri, maguro tataki, tobiko, sake.
For a sonnet: a surfeit of sack, a 3-course lunch, followed by a tiramisu,
To begin an epic poem: free flowing mead, an ox turning slowly on a spit.
A cento? Combine a variety of leftovers from delicious meals before.
Neglect intellect: sample the sensual buffet.
Roll the delicate flavors around on your tongue,
Allow the bouquet to suffuse from nose to skull.
After all, poetry is a matter of taste.

(Remember: poetry must begin in delight.)

The first line is a spot-on aphorism, the second line a nice variant on the Bertolt Brecht phrase that W. H. Auden loved quoting: “grub first, then ethics.” But lines three to seven steal the show. The Japanese haiku is lovely and smart and in exact counterpoint to the sonnet’s “surfeit of sack.” (If you didn’t know that “sack” was what Falstaff liked most to drink in Shakespeare, now you do.) The gastronomic equivalent of a cento is perfect.

The controversy? Was Millicent’s last line worthy of what preceded it? Millicent changed her original last line on consultation with Charise Hoge, who wondered whether the last line was necessary or could be improved.

Their exchanges bore fruit. The “matter of taste” had the advantage of the paronomasia of taste. (It has been years since I last used paronomasia, this impressive term for puns and doubles-entendres, but I dined last night with a scholar who devoted his thesis to this category of rhetoric in the Old Testament.) But the change wasn’t universally acclaimed.

Angela Ball liked the new version but admired the original last line’s echo of Robert Frost: “a poem begins in delight and ends in wisdom.” Perhaps for this reason,  or perhaps because the word “begin” points to an unnamed end, Jane Keats also spoke in favor of the original.

David Lehman found himself wondering whether the words “After all” and “Remember” were needed in any case. He went back and forth wondering whether the best version would be (1) “Poetry must begin in delight” or (2) a deletion of the line altogether. He wonders what others think. But of one other thing he is sure: Millicent can create a better title. The poem deserves it.

What does one gain by referring to oneself in the third person? I’m not sure, but
I do know I would award silver medal accolades to Angela Ball for “Alimental Ode”:

Olde Thyme Donuts,
prime place
for hot raised,
you’ve been razed.
Gone the swivel
stool I sat on, gazing
into books, scribbling pages.
May Hades taste
your dark cup; may
a donut’s molten glaze
halo winter Persephone’s

Michael C. Rush spoke for others when he commented that “the linebreak between ‘swivel’ and ‘stool’ whipped my head (or at least eyes) back and made me feel like I’d swivelled! Nice effect.”

Third place is divided between Ricky Ray’s “When I’m Not Being Vegan”

Give me marrow, heart,
liver, kidney, gizzard, chitlins,
skin, brain, eye, tongue,
tripe, tail, trotters, sweetbreads,
elder, lights, haggis, spleen,
anything but the usual
low-grade slab of muscle,
or maybe just a little
panfried bit of you.

and Diana Ferraro’s “Slim”

Potatoes, like revenge,
are best served cold.
Starch loses stardom
as a slight taste of tangy dirt
peaks within the heavenly
finger food,
crucified on a toothpick
under a crown of mayo.

I characterized Diana’s last two lines as “splendidly excruciating.” I wish the first lines were discarded, however, if only because the line about revenge is so often used. Maybe the title could be the name of a dish featuring the humble potato?

Honorable mention goes to Bryan Johnson for “Best Western”

The beef-fat candle’s
desire-path, happy
to be limping the bison road’s
sunlit Cumberland
tang, the open westering
hinge. I knew where
I was, sopping the fat,
flinting the forest and
mapping its march,
way-marking my way

and Jane Keats for a pair of poems strong on wordplay, “Picnic,” with its reference to Manet’s painting Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe:

Let’s have another glass
of wine
let’s have another glass
another time
in the grass
she naked
and the two men in evening clothes
in the woods
by Edouard Manet.

And this untitled and somewhat flirtatious ode to the powers of the martini:

I make my man his martinis
It is what I do to please
It is what I do to tease
I use the exact amount of gin
The exact amount of sin
and twenty per-cent vermouth
in the name of truth
and three olives on a toothpick.

For next week, I am hoping we’ll try something that reflects my own deep investment in Matthew Arnold’s idea of “touchstones”—the idea that we use the great lines of poets past as models for our own best efforts. My new book of poems is entitled Poems in the Manner Of, and here is how my poem “in the manner of John Keats” begins. Line one echoes the opening of Keats’s sonnet on reading Chapman’s Homer:

Much have I trampled in meads of grass,
And many pretty pistils seen,
Round many wakeful tulips been
Where bashful buds appoint the blushing lass.

I would like readers to write a line—or a four-line stanza—in the manner of the Keats who gave us such touchstones as “With beaded bubble winking on the brim” (to describe wine) and “the murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves” in “Ode to a Nightingale.”  The finale of “Ode on Melancholy” may be the finest single stanza in English poetry since “Lycidas”:

She dwells with Beauty—Beauty that must die;
And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips
Bidding adieu; and aching Pleasure nigh,
Turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips:
Ay, in the very temple of Delight
Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine,
Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue
Can burst Joy’s grape against his palate fine;
His soul shalt taste the sadness of her might,
And be among her cloudy trophies hung.

I know, I know: it would be madness to expect to be able to duplicate such sensual intelligence and mastery of sound, meter, and rhyme. But take lines 1-2, 3-4 or 7-8 and see what you can do in translating these observations about Beauty, Pleasure, and Melancholy into your own idiom.

Deadline: Saturday, April 29, 2017, midnight any time zone.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Comments powered by Disqus