Next Line, Please

Companionable Poems

By David Lehman | June 26, 2018
Flickr/lyre

It is not a tautology to say that the origin of poems is poetry. Every new poem exists in relationship to the poetry that preceded its existence. This is one of the main points of T. S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” and it is a point implicitly made by Coleridge when he speaks of the “primary imagination” as a repetition of a previous act of creation. You could go further and identify poems by specifying an earlier poem that heralded their existence. You could argue that Shelley’s “Adonais” exists in relation to Milton’s “Lycidas”—or that Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” has a special avian relationship with Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale.” Reading one poem in relation to another is a traditional form of pedagogy. But the exercise also has benefits for the practicing poet.

The “ghostly companion”—re-write a poem by the ghost of your choosing—has proved to be one of the most popular recent NLP prompts. It has been a while since so many entries came in—there were 276 notes in the comments field by the early morning hours of June 25. While some were responses to poems, more than a few of us picked more than one companionable ghost and submitted multiple entries. There is no way I can do justice to the excellent entries in one column. So I’ll talk about some today, save a few for next week, and add that several efforts compare favorably with the poems in Conversation Pieces: Poems That Talk to Other Poems (2007), an excellent anthology edited by Kurt Brown and Harold Schecter.

When I briefed Andrei Codrescu, who created the “ghostly companion” prompt, on our doings, he promptly decided to joined the fray. Foiled by Disqus, he sent me his “ghost companion’s workout of a poem I like,” and here it is:

Looking Up

Under the grove the tunnel sings to itself waiting for you to say
I’ll do what the raids suggest, Dad, and that other livid window
the door will not have track with or the broom beside it.
But the tide pushes an awful lot of monsters including the meteor
on television with whom there was no intercourse.
And I think that’s my true fate. It had been raining.

It had not been raining. Dog heads on the railing.
As far as the eye will care to go. Far enough is plenty.

No one could begin to clean this particular mess.
There are no maids on Friday. There isn’t even beef.
Lightning lay down zigzags on the procession.
Thunder lay down in the heart. Don’t take it personally.

“My friend, I am the first transistor in this peeling yellow barn.”

“My child, I love any vast electrical disturbance.”
“My people what are you doing before the closed chambers?”
Disturbance! Couldn’t the old men just give it up? By night
it charged over the plains bursting its wineskin on the Midwest.
It drove from Dallas and Oregon. Always wither,
Why not now? The electrical age isn’t over but its ambulances
race with the electrocuted to the offshore oil well
from cloud to cloud with old men’s beards and rages.
The flood in the invulnerable age. Minuscule flag of observer.

Based on line two, and then the end of stanza one and the opening of stanza two, I made the educated guess that Andrei’s chosen ghost on this occasion is John Ashbery. I could be wrong, of course, but my hunch is that Andrei had more than one Ashbery poem in mind. Or is it “Fragment” from The Double Dream of Spring that triggered his effort?

Angela Ball’sPossibly Unnecessary Exploratory Questions” reminds us that, as Emerson wrote, we climb to the sublime on the “stairway of surprise”:

Was it you
who drove the lone cab
of the eighteen-wheeler
that resembled a bare-chested man
in suspenders

who summoned the nest of snakes
bursting heedless
from night’s encyclopedia
all dry to the questioning
touch

who crossed the equator
like a T
while I pulled my dress
over my head

Patricia Wallace said the poem is “so completely surprising right from the start, pitching into the bare-chested man/in suspenders, and opening everything up. Then that great ending!” Berwyn Moore said she loved “the way the question accumulates in intensity through each stanza, leading to the surprising—and perfect—closure.”

Pamela Joyce tells us that her “Covenant” takes its point of departure from Louise Gluck’s “Elms.” Here is “Covenant”:

All night I try to extinguish
sparks from the fire. Adrift in our ark
I fear the parting or pairing of us—
the charred bits and ashes we would
pause to ponder, overlooking
the dry rot at the helm
that’s been your egress, that equates
the foment of coke and oxy
with love. And I have understood
three times that burnt offering—
the singed dove returning to your storm.

Line three was initially “I fear the parting of pairing of us.” I thought I may have detected a typo, “of” for “or,” and in my view, “I fear the parting or pairing of us” is the superior line. Pamela replied that it was not a typo. She meant “fearing the parting (split, tearing apart) of the pair,” and she “did sort of like the way the ‘of’ tripped the tongue between parting and pairing.” Nevertheless she promised to think more about it, recognizing that “both [pairing and parting] could be feared.” Then, “Okay, only took me four hours of thinking and reciting. Thank you, ‘or’ is better. Moreover, it actually works better for meaning. I need to remember to leave orange behind. Consider it changed.”

Keith Barrett’s poem is a variation on the conceit of its antecedent:


My Errata

For angel read angle
deed read died
freed read creed
creed read cried.

For think read thank
please read pleas
police read policy
fast read feast.

For cough read tough
tough read touch
closes loses
loses loves.

For ghost read host
saint read ain’t
Shakespeare shake spear
pain read paint.

For Eastern read Easter
Christ read Chris
holiday read holy day
that read this.

For sleep read steep
fake read wake
relaxes relapses
emergency emerge and see.

For depart read deep art
apart meant apartment
together to get her
manufacture man you fracture.

For candles read scandal
fishin’ line finish line
manages man ages
comedy come die

When I wrote, “I bet your model is [Paul] Muldoon’s “Errata,” Keith replied “Bingo! I was drawn to Muldoon as a ghost companion because he has an “a” in his first name, just as I have one in my last.”

As “NLP” is not just a challenge or a contest but is also a digital workshop, I felt free to suggest “dropping stanzas three and four, using ‘ghost / host’ instead of ‘sleep/steep’ and ‘saint/aint’ instead of ‘fake/wake.’” Keith revised the poem incorporating some of these suggestions, and the result is a gain in profundity—as well as proof that Muldoon’s poem introduces a form that can serve more than once.

My Errata

For angel read angle
deed read died
freed read creed
creed read cried.

For think read thank
please read pleas
police read policy
fast read feast.

For ghost read host
Christ read Chris
emergency emerge and see
that read this.

For Eastern read Easter
saint read ain’t
tasty mint testament
vomit omit.

For depart read deep art
apart meant apartment
together to get her
manufacture man you fracture.

For candles read scandal
fishin’ line finish line
manages man ages
comedy come die.

Millicent Caliban’s compliment is one that must have made Keith Barrett’s day: “I read the Muldoon version just now and must confess I like both of yours better: less politics and more intellectual free play.” If I were to write an “Errata,” one line I’d use is “Peace Corpse for Peace Corps.”

Beth Dufford won kudos for “The Predictability of January,” and I can’t be alone in looking forward to finding out how the poem came about:

None of the complexity of cell division and
subdivision and re-division is visible—
an inconceivably large star
traversing our perception by way of
shadows cast on a companion moon.
Having measured ourselves against
a rash of indifferent seasons, we stand,
muttering about the cold.

I must postpone talking about other favorites, including poems by Jane Keats, Donald LaBranche, Elizabeth Solzburg, and Emily Winakur. Next week I shall quote and talk about these poems and announce a new prompt.

Until then, I sign off with great thanks to all.

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