Next Line, Please

Estimated Wait Time

(Chris Blakeley/Flickr)

By David Lehman

January 9, 2018


As I write this, Millicent Caliban—officially “a poetry saint,” in Emily Winakur’s opinion—is tabulating the results of the year-end poll to determine the 10 best poems to have been written under these auspices in 2017. We will have to wait a little longer for the results. Watch the comments field of this column: when all ballots have been tallied, Millicent will list the titles and poets garnering the most votes. And I will incorporate the news in this space next week, asking the authors to re-post the top 10 poems.

Millicent reported that 17 poets nominated a total of 83 poems for consideration. (Each poet was entitled to nominate as many as five of her or his own works.) While the top-10 lists are still coming in, I think it safe to say that no two ballots were identical. On one thing the voters seemed to agree: the task of evaluation is no piece of cake.

What makes things so difficult is the high quality of the work. “I would have voted for many more if we weren’t limited to 10,” Elizabeth Solsburg said, stating what I took to be a consensus view given the many ballots that included multiple titles as worthy of honorable mention. Ricky Ray, as paraphrased by Paul Michelsen, noted, “On another day, the poems that made the honorable mention list could’ve just as easily made the top 10 list and the 10 I chose as the best could’ve found themselves on the honorable mention list.” Sometimes arbitrary but sensible rules make things a trifle easier for the maker of anthologies: the practice of listing no more than one poem per poet, for instance.

Meanwhile, we can celebrate with the pleasure of Angela Ball’s weekly cento, “At the End of a Marvelous Year,” made up of lines or fragments from poems in last week’s column:

Heterosexual desire hunkered down
in London. Jeunesse escaped,
journeying east. Startled tsks
stuck, hermetic, heroically
defiant. Some part of us
changed to plums, cloud slurs,
dilapidated louvers—swooning,
shrugging, running by the riverbank,
sighing creative messages, the way
an old master commands canvas
to take on vision.

Complimented on her sequence of centos, Angela—like manager Casey Stengel accepting congratulations on a Yankees championship—said she “couldn’t have done it without the players.” (The poem “owes everything to the contributors” were her exact words.) Paul responded: “Ah, but you’ve chosen well. It’s what you always tell me when you’ve paid a compliment to a cento of mine and I’ve given credit to the poets whose lines made it up. David is right to call this (and you) brilliant. Your centos are always seamless, and, to me, the mark of a great cento is that it reads like a poem in the voice of the one who has composed it rather than sounding like a chorus.” And I bet that is the first time anyone has likened Angela to Stengel.

On the subject of New Year’s (or any) resolutions, Diana Ferraro scored with “Surrender,” an abdication of will in favor of the “joy of basking in the / unexpected”:

Resolutions take resolve,
thus I prefer to evolve
in more natural, unthought ways
while time wanders on its
unsteady path,
bringing a not requested
broken fifth toe,
an eye going blind,
and the punctual failures
of age.

The joy of basking in the
unexpected, relieved of
all tasks, all chores.

Not waiting, surprised
by the late bloom of the perfect,
undreamed flower,
child of an unknown
resolution in the past.

Charise Hoge doesn’t so much reject resolutions as redefine the very concept in “Long Story Short”:

Some resolutions rise
like fireworks … showy,
bright, dissipating.
What of the resolve
to be precisely here—
New Year’s Eve on a
terrace overlooking
the Pacific, my father’s
clasp around my shoulders,
his quiet ardor apparent
as an undertow? This Mississippi
man whose fluent Spanish has
a southern twang, who began
in a shotgun house and found
Panama a homeland. I see his
naps, ask for tales of escapades:
Bolivia, Venezuela, Singapore,
a diverted landing in Tashkent
to live in an airport for three days.
He’s 112 pounds, as if accumulation
of risk has cut to the firebrand marrow.
Shuffling in flip-flops, with
his sagas fastened to his frame.

Charise’s title is one that begs to be used, and used by more than one poet—like “Cheap Tricks” (a title Courtney Thrash has used), “Estimated Wait Time” or “Short-Term Memory.” That last is the title of a poem by John Ashbery, who was attracted to new idioms: two of his books are entitled Your Name Here and Quick Question. Ashbery also liked lifting the title of a great book and writing a poem to it. When I asked him why he chose “Civilization and Its Discontents” as the title for one poem and “The Problem of Anxiety” as the title for another, he compared himself to a “cuckoo that likes making its home in other birds’ nests.”

For next week, write a poem using any of these pre-fabricated phrases as your title or as a phrase in your opening line:

“Quick Question”
“Cheap Tricks”
“Long Story Short”
“Estimated Wait Time”
“Headline Risk”
“I personally guarantee”
“The Take-Away”

Or take the title of a favorite novel, epic poem, or work of philosophy, and run with it.

Deadline: Saturday, January 13, 2018, midnight 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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