Next Line, Please

Games Poets Play

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By David Lehman

July 4, 2017


Last week, you were asked to provide a terrific prompt, and you came through. Though I usually begin my column with my favorite entry, I would reverse the process here, simply to spotlight the worthy contenders.

I liked the exquisite complexity and specificity of Berwyn Moore’s suggestion that we use “as a springboard, title, or epigraph for a 12-line poem,” Flannery O’Connor’s line: “I can, with one eye squinted, take it all as a blessing.” Berwyn adds extra tasks: “The poem should include a tool (e.g., screwdriver, pen, fork), an animal (e.g., muskrat, iguana, cockatoo), and a color. You might also consider including the name of the street you lived on when you were five, the first time you experienced (or witnessed) bullying, or the time you took a wrong turn in a city or a forest. Allow your mind to wander in wild, uncharted territory.”

Millicent Caliban, after reminding us that 20 years have gone by since Harry Potter’s first appearance, proposed that we “write a poem that is not about Harry Potter, Hogwarts, etc., but that deals with any of the mythic elements that J. K. Rowling so deftly incorporated. I mean those timeless concerns of the literary imagination: Who are my ‘real’ parents? Am I living in the ‘wrong’ family? Is there a (possibly magical or enchanted) place where I would really belong and could flourish? Is there another plane of reality with its own set of rules that offers an alternative to oppressive ordinariness? What might it mean to be capable of magic? Part of the challenge would be to keep the poem short and focused on just one of these aspects, say up to 12 lines (or 14 in case of a sonnet) and to avoid words and names invented by Rowling.”

Mindful that Emily Dickinson’s fragments have served us well, Courtney Thrash presented this beguiling line: “But are not all Facts Dreams as soon as we put them behind us—” We were instructed to “resurrect a fact in as few words as possible.”

Linda Marie Hilton contended that a piece of music—“the lovely classical piece by American Howard Hansen entitled Bold Island Suite” or the Kern-Hammerstein masterpiece “Ol’ Man River”—would make a great springboard. Justin Knapp voiced his enthusiasm: “I love the idea of using music as a prompt. I have a creative writing prompt that I learned from a great teacher from the Kennedy Center. I use it every year, and my students love it. [They] select four pieces of instrumental music; each one represents a part of the plot line: exposition, rising action, climax, and denouement. They brainstorm on sensory images in small groups for each section and write from a few images they select. The neatest part is when they realize the sensory images they come up with are the same between groups. Instrumental music does communicate something specific!”

Paul Michelsen proffered this idea: “Imagine a day in the life of a person behind bars, whether it’s the first day in, the middle of a long sentence, or one’s very last day (even if it’s the eating of the last meal before heading to the gas chamber or some other method of execution).”

Clay Sparkman filed a brief for civil discourse: Remember when ‘debate’ used to be a matter of honor? When the primary objective was respect, reason, and the desire to listen, understand, and not so much spin-away as reason-back? I don’t either. But I do remember a time when it was surely more that way (than as it seems now). Recall the great Vidal v. Buckley debates? I feel that any great debate-style discourse must (1) place emphasis on the process as superior to being right, and (2) acknowledge that there really is no ‘being right.’ There is no absolute truth, so how can one really ever be right? I like it very much when Yehuda Amichai says, ‘From the place where we are right, flowers will never grow.’ You are to write a poem that debates itself for eight stanzas over any subject. The debate need not be overt. The choice of narrative voice is yours. Four stanzas will exchange discourse with four interlaced stanzas, and then you are left with a ninth stanza for resolution. The first eight stanzas shall be 2-3 lines each. The final stanza may be 0-5 lines. Play nice!”

Byron gave us the rhyme scheme of a stanza in his namesake’s masterpiece, Don Juan: “Write an eight-line stanza rhyming price—bring—twice—thing—vice—king—charity—rarity.”

After listening to a TV commercial in which a mustachioed fellow said he “personally guarantees” your satisfaction with his product, I thought one might use “I personally guarantee” as either an opening or recurrent phrase in “a possibly two-faced poem.”

Any of these—and others—would serve us well. But in the end, I opted for Angela Ball’s “How about Game On—a poem that employs any game in any manner, in 12 lines or fewer. Examples? Eliot’s ‘A Game of Chess’ from The Waste Land. The wager between God and Satan in the story of Job. Anglo-Saxon riddle poems.”

Let’s play Angela’s game. Write a poem that involves a game either as subject matter or in the very design of the poem. 12 lines or fewer.

Deadline: July 8, midnight any time zone.

Have a great Fourth of July everyone.


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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