From Minor Errors, Mighty Words May FlowPrint
By David Lehman
September 12, 2017
For our next prompt, I shall adopt Emily Winakur’s proposal, seconded by Paul Michelsen. In August Emily suggested that we write on “the topic of misunderstanding and all it may lead to (good, bad, surprising, etc).” The poem we write should have “as its basis a fundamental mishearing or misreading of language.” She proffers these “examples of mishearing/misreading that might take center stage in a poem: seeing ‘rabbi’ as ‘rabbit’; hearing ‘drive-through nativity’ (curious enough in its own right) as ‘dried fruit nativity’; a spellcheck wanting to substitute ‘banquet’ for Banquo and ‘madcap’ for Macduff in a paper about Macbeth.”
Paul Michelsen quotes my book about the New York School, The Last Avant-Garde: “Misunderstandings, though sometimes lamentable in our daily lives, have a value like that of dreams or jokes for the artist bent on making a virtue out of a necessity. The theme of misunderstanding—sometimes deliberate, sometimes inadvertent, but always implicit in the acts of creation and communication—is one to which [the late John] Ashbery has long been drawn.”
New York School mainstay Kenneth Koch has a poem, “Taking a Walk with You,” which is a catalogue of his misunderstandings. The poet Andrei Codrescu, mindful of Robert Frost’s statement that “poetry is what gets lost in translation,” contends that “poetry is mistranslation”—an assertion that makes complete sense once you consider that every metaphor is on some level a misrepresentation.
The Summer 2017 issue of The American Scholar has a splendid portfolio of poems by Mary Jo Salter, nearly every one of which illustrates the poetic value of mis-hearings. A beautiful poem of hers, in a recent issue of The Hopkins Review, alludes to a famous romantic line in Casablanca. The title of Mary Jo’s poem is “We’ll Always Have Parents.” The substitution of “parents” for “Paris” is all it takes to set the poem in motion.
So … our prompt is to write a poem based on a mistake, a typo, a misunderstanding, a slip of the tongue (about which Freud has so much to say), or an error that results in something better than what was originally intended. To honor compression as a virtue, let’s have a 12-line limit. The lines can be a solid block, or you can divide them into stanzas, rhymed or unrhymed.
Let me improvise an example:
I said “I planned to use his firm,”
but, when I type too fast, use
becomes sue, and so it happened.
As minor discords from foolish errors grow,
the threat of war loomed. Sensibly he wrote
“The time to make peace is now,”
but when he types too fast, now
becomes not, and that sealed our fate.
We agreed to disagree, but it was now no use.
But of course the tone of your poem, its orientation and its objective, may differ wildly from what I’ve written here, which, by the way, needs a title. Any suggestions?
Thanks, everyone. Deadline: Saturday night, September 16, midnight wherever you happen to be.
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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