Next Line, Please

Finish What Dickinson Started

By David Lehman | November 11, 2014


The puzzle: Finish this poem by adding either two or four lines:

Soft as the massacre of Suns

By Evening’s Sabres slain

The explanation: Emily Dickinson, one of the glories of American poetry, wrote brief, enigmatic poems as short as two lines, with idiosyncratic punctuation that makes heavy use of the dash. The dash is an intermediate mark—not as final as a period, more striking than a comma—and her reliance on it gives some of her poems a snappy, telegraphic power consistent with her brevity and her determination to “tell all the truth but tell it slant.” Let’s take a look at a Dickinson poem. Here is #1222 in the Dickinson canon:

The Riddle we can guess

We speedily despise—

Not anything is stale so long

As Yesterday’s surprise—

An easily solved riddle doesn’t interest us, because we value the sustained act of solving, which requires a formidable riddle. By similar logic, an excellent tennis or chess player longs for an opponent of equal ability. But what is most compelling about the poem is the meaning created by the juxtaposition of the two halves of the rhyme, specifically the idea that yesterday’s news, which went from “surprise” to “stale” overnight, is like a question we answered without much effort.

Dickinson’s fragmentary style sometimes leaves us guessing. For example, here is #1066 in its entirety:

Fame’s Boys and Girls, who never die

And are too seldom born—

While this can be read as a complete work, the poet Mitch Sisskind acted on the assumption that it represents the beginning of a poem that Dickinson intended to finish but never did. When The Best American Poetry blog ran an “Emily Starts, You Finish” contest in 2008, Sisskind added these two lines:

Their epitaphs—memorialized—

Cut in water—frozen in stone.

Let’s make Dickinson’s #1127 the prompt for this week’s competition:

Soft as the massacre of Suns

By Evening’s Sabres slain

You now have the chance to add lines—either two or four—to bring this poem to completion. What do you write? Remember that Dickinson loved dashes and capital letters, that she was mysterious, and that she valued not only speed but also surprise. Deadline: midnight, Saturday, November 15.

Please leave your lines in a comment below.

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