Next Line, Please

From Bouquet to Wreath

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By David Lehman

December 1, 2015


 

The task this week was to write line eight of our poem in progress—the last line of the second stanza as we near the point at which the sonnet shall pivot. The requirement was to end with “be” or “to be,” thus rhyming the new line with line five. Faced with these lines,

If marriage is a cage, we can force the lock, but he
Clutches the key, a jailer too stubborn to learn
To read the graffiti. If need be, he can turn

the writer who goes by the name Poem Today came up with the winning entry:

A bouquet to a wreath. Then we will be

Thanks to the author of line eight, our poem has complicated its base of imagery from cage, lock, jailer, and key. We now have flowers—the symbol of beauty and innocence that marks occasions as happy as nuptials and as fatal as funerals. Has the ceremony of innocence come to grief, with these flowers left behind? The winning line has the virtue of suspending itself in mid-air, so our next six lines can take us on a journey far from the desolation implied in our intellectually rich second stanza.

Second place honors this week go to Vicki Peterson for ending not with a whimper but a bang:

[If need be, he can turn]
The gun on himself, solve every problem and be

The sentence ends with a cliffhanger that would have been fun to resolve if it were possible to go in more than one direction at a time.

Third prize goes to redoubtable Patricia Smith, who gives us

[If need be, he can turn]
Scry into the crystal, foresee what might be

The line contains the beautiful verb “scry,” which—in its meaning of fortunetelling with a crystal ball—I recall encountering only once before: in T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets.

Honorable mention to Emily Sierra Poertner, who suggested

[If need be, he can turn]
Back into who he used to be.

The simplicity of the line is one of its strengths. It relies on monosyllables marking iambic time except for the leading trochee. This subtle balance of the colloquial and the regular is something Robert Frost excelled at. We could use more of it in contemporary poetry.

I got a kick, too, out of byron’s candidate,

[If need be, he can turn]
Out to be an actor reciting “to be or not to be.”


Our next line must end with “must.” I would regard it as a plus if the line clarified the identity of the character known as “he.” Who is he? The husband? The dreamer? The cop on the beat? The vice president in charge of morale? The conductor? The governor? The hero? The hunted man? Alternatively: who are we?

Here’s where we are so far:

Our dreams as disparate as our days uniform, Michael C. Rush
We crave a lovely scandal with someone well-known; Angela Ball
Midnight champagne, penthouse lit by thunderstorm, Christine Rhein
In this version of darkness, we are never alone. Elizabeth Solsburg

If marriage is a cage, we can force the lock, but he Christine Rhein
Clutches the key, a jailer too stubborn to learn Patricia Smith
To read the graffiti. If need be, he can turn  Paul Michelsen
A bouquet to a wreath. Then we will be Poem Today

Deadline: Sunday, December 6, at Noon.


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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