Next Line, Please

Galloping Ghosts

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By David Lehman

March 8, 2016


 

The prompt for this week was to take a first line by Emily Dickinson and make it the first line of a new poem in her manner.

Of the three Dickinson lines proffered, the three best entries all began with Dickinson’s “The only ghost I ever saw.” I decided to split the top prize three ways.

Angela Ball, who alters Dickinson’s line somewhat, gives us in her opening lines an antithesis that is perfectly in line with Dickinson’s practice. And the concluding lines, within quote marks, constitute a most apposite riddle: who is speaking?

I only saw a ghost but once—
Or—rather—he saw me–
From high window with basket
And pulley—I lowered gingernuts

To skirls of little caps and bonnets—
Fleeting plumage paused to feed.
And then—the insubstantial voice—“One day—
should you descry the means—
please lower some to me.”

Millicent Caliban gives us these beautiful quatrains. The metrical regularity, the rightness of tone, the pivot on the word “Yet,” and the excellent concluding rhyme are virtues:

The only ghost I ever saw
Paid no regard to me,
Vouchsafed no revelation
Nor bespoke eternity.

Yet instantly I knew him,
Could feel his icy clutch
As if to paralyze my heart
Without the need to touch.

Sarah Paley writes:

The only ghost I ever saw
studied me head to toe
She patted my dark circles—paused—
poked gently at my nose

Are you really here? She pondered
Of course I am. I’m me!
twenty years now I’ve wondered
what was she trying to see?

I admire the rhyme of “ghost” and “paused” and love the way “I’m me” revises Dickinson’s “I’m Nobody.”

Honorable mention goes to Noreen Ellis for her concise and haunting lines:

Hope is a subtle glutton
Faith, a satiated tart
Love, hungry, devours both.

There were so many solid submissions that I am convinced that Emily Dickinson’s fragments will supply the ground for future contests.

Next week there will be a new competition. Stay tuned!

 


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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