Next Line, Please

Double Your Pleasure

By David Lehman | December 19, 2017
(Fabien Barral/Unsplash)

Double alliteration as a poetic form or method was introduced by the poet Aaron Fogel in a poem entitled “BW,” which was published in the journal Western Humanities Review in 1988 and was chosen by Donald Hall for The Best American Poetry 1989. Words and phrases centered on the two letters—“black and white,” “bratwurst,” “Broadway,” “weather bureau,” “Williamsburg Bridge,” and “West End bar,” for example—dot the poem, and it is as though these letters in that combination have a generative force.

Building on this lead, Jim Dolot played on his own initials in writing “Dictionary Jazz,” which is included in Ecstatic Occasions, Expedient Forms (1996). The poem begins, “Jack Derrida / Identifies himself / To the police / Of Jewish dreams / As John Doe” and has this memorable riff:

Jeanne d’Arc
A jailbird—
A jackdaw—
Her jeremiads
Became his
Jeux d’esprit.

In a comment on the poem, Dolot explains that American English “now may have more two-word stockphrases than in the past. They ring together and they choir and they collide” to “form an interhissing and plaintive pseudoset.” He instructs the experimentalist—and, as Wallace Stevens asserted, “all poetry is experimental poetry”—to take phrases in common parlance (e.g., pilot light, low blood pressure), add “nonstandard permutations” (e.g., pool lusts, lioness puzzles), combine with monosyllables  or single words (e.g., lap, leap, pale), then “choose a meter and some story” and “let this ‘artificial’ lexicon help you tell it.”

I liked what I read so much that I instantly applied the method in such poems as “PC” and “SF” (in my book When a Woman Loves a Man). Here is the opening of the former: “Politically-correct / personal computers / point and click.” The need to conform to the rules led to this observation: “Poverty’s a crime, / and capital punishment / par for the course, / in this penal code.”

For next time, please write a poem or poems—with a 16-line limit—that plays on two letters. You may use your initials, or letter-pairings in wide use (such as Uncle Sam, us, upset, untied slates, unusual surface, screwed up, und so weiter). I think NLP regulars will go to town with this prompt.

Why the 16-line limit? Because forms require boundaries and it is these rules and regulations, by seeming to limit the poet, that may actually liberate his or her imagination. You may divide your 16 lines into four symmetrical units, or two eight-line stanzas, or eight couplets, or any other way. I vote for brevity and believe that many 16-line poems would do better if reduced by 50%. This applies to my own work, too, of course.

It is gratifying to read the comments field and come in touch with all that energy, enthusiasm, and good feeling. It is refreshing to have a space where our imaginations can feel free to let go, without fear of giving or taking offense, and where we can share the refreshment that comes with inspiration. The pleasure is all the greater because, in NLP practice, the contract between readers and writers is reciprocal. Thank you, everyone.

Deadline: Friday, December 29, 2017, midnight any time zone. Because of the holidays, we won’t have a column next week, and my editor comments that this will give us “double time to throw down.” The extra time also means that NLP regulars can get started on choosing their five favorite poems from our collective doings in 2017.

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