Good, Worse, BestPrint
By David Lehman
October 10, 2017
By deadline, we had 204 comments. Some responded to entries, often with useful suggestions, but that still means that nearly a score of poems worth rereading came in. I won’t have space to post them all but am gratified and heartened by the creative response to the prompt: pick a poem from The Best American Poetry 2017, or any anthology at hand, and write a poem better than the best poem in the book or worse than the worst one.
One rationale for the prompt is that it is possible to write a good poem while trying to write a bad poem, because our values are in flux and because a certain degree of “badness,” taken to an extreme, can result in something good. (If this notion recalls Susan Sontag’s essay on “camp,” that is not altogether unintentional. And as this sentence may demonstrate, I’ve been reading Marianne Moore, whose gift for understatement is underrated.) The prompt reminds us also that we are entitled not to like or approve of anything, even an acknowledged masterwork. John Ashbery to James Schuyler: “I don’t think Ulysses is any good, do you?” Schuyler: “It’s a masterpiece, I guess, but freedom of thought is even better.”
When I observed that some people’s least-favorite poem might be someone else’s favorite, Michael C. Rush commented that this helps explain his attraction to poetry altogether. Of Michael’s contributions this week, I was quite taken with “Failure Story,” his inversion of Terence Winch’s “Success Story” from Andrei Codrescu’s excellent anthology Up Late:
My clothes keep me decent but
do me no favors. They fit well enough
but not well. The best dog I ever had
got old and died. Family & friends
have kept me sheltered until now. Here,
there, anywhere works. I love food.
My friends eat me. They forget me,
so I remind them how I tasted. Everyone
loves someone else. The sun sees everything.
Trees whisper about everything the sun sees.
I have many talents but can’t make money.
Great art lives inside my head. My life
is my answer when they ask “What life?”
I have been too serious about my happiness.
I’d recommend omitting the word “story” from the title—or perhaps ditching the title in favor of one that erases its source.
Emily Winakur tells us that “Another Language” was “inspired (primarily in tone) by ‘Certain Things’ by David Brendan Hopes in BAP 2017”:
How do you know when it’s time to leave?
If only I could ask my great-grandparents,
my husband’s, when it was, exactly,
they started packing and discarding;
how they knew the things that had changed
were the intolerable ones. The way horses
know to gallop in circles before an earthquake?
Maybe it happened like a startle in the night,
a sharp inhalation. Fuck packing, perhaps
they said, there’s nothing here worth dying for,
as they planted foot in front of foot
for a border. When did they mourn
the familiar smells, name the color
of the local earth? How did they explain
never and forever to their children?
Did they spell it, hold the small hands
and mold the script on scraps of paper
tucked into a pocket, knowing
by the time they really understood,
it would be in another language?
Elizabeth Solsburg based her “Siblings” on “Dorianne Laux’s poem ‘Lapse,’ for which she took the first line from Gwendolyn Brooks’s poem, “A Sunset of the City”:
I am not deceived; I do not think it is still summer.
I know will we never play again
on the beach, the way we did as children
when you spent hours
building your dreams
out of fragile sand,
and I, even then,
built metaphors from the waves
that always came
to wash them away.
Poets with sisters responded warmly to Elizabeth’s act of appreciation. While the prompt can produce an homage, as here, it can as easily lead to a travesty, as Paul Michelsen proves in “One Chocolate Milk Sonnet, To Go” based on “three dark proverb sonnets” by an author I shall leave unnamed:
It was never just the bow wow we bowed to
It was also the sow that furrowed our brow
It was never just the Dow we kow-towed to
It was also the brown cow—How (you like me) now?
Remember: every open hand
Began as a closed fist
You can lead water
To a horse, but
You can’t get it drunk
You can flim-flam
The con man, but
You can’t fake the funk
Sooner or later we all kick the pail
That was there all along
I liked the “closed fist”—which in its simile form (“my heart shut like a fist”) was once fresh but now makes the index of forbidden poetical terms (“cupped” as a verb, “cradles,” “scrim,” etc.).
Clay Sparkman assures us that “My (Bad Boy) Husband” is “worse than Rebecca [Hazelton’s] poem [“My Husband” in BAP 2015]”:
My husband in the house.
My loving husband and his habitrail from TV to fridge.
My husband as the damned lawn touches the sky—watching football and eating Taco Bell.
The way my husband reeks Jim Beam and stale beer, to his butt stained man-boy white briefs.
His violent movements, howling at the refs, lit again, and ready to devour the tired old porn videos.
My husband, “PTA is for bitches,” he says. “Warming milk is what mothers are made for.”
My husband washing the mud from his “monster truck-ette,” wife-beater snugly over his shining beer belly.
The stereotyping of my husband, as he stands on the porch in his red hat and yells,
“We’re gonna make America great again! Lock the bitch up, and undo the Africando juju.”
My husband at Walmart, asking “What aisles are the Doritos and Old Spice on, kid?”
My husband burning Eggo waffles, my husband for great wealthy white men!
My husband with a bottle of Ripple, shoes off, a fungal nail fiesta.
My husband, when he used to shave. My husband demanding a massage: “Woman!”
My husband chiding me for not making him feel like more of a man.
My husband, pinching my ass as I stomp away, the baby crying, and my husband … laughing.
I admire Joyce Carol Oates’s “To Marlon Brando in Hell,” which Natasha Trethewey chose for BAP 2017, but I can see why Justin Knapp would feel impelled to turn the tables on her in “To JCO on Earth.” Justin borrows her syntax and lines from her Twitter feed. Here is a brief excerpt:
Because you reduced Brando to a rapist blob of cellulite who danced and played bongos, and as a great writer, you of all people should know characters are more complex than that.
Ricky Ray in “Finituned” imitates Dean Young’s “Infinitives” to good effect. Here is how Ricky’s poem begins:
To open not the eyelid but the eye.
To extinguish the senses one by one
until five becomes six, seven, eleven
and the act of counting becomes discovery
but the species who connect the dots
have been removed from the story
and its moral cannot be recovered.
Once an English major, always an English major—which is a very good thing if you care about our literary heritage as Kat Leonard-Peck does in “Citronella (After Ozymandias),” of which I have space only for the sestet. Note how she lifts Shelley’s rhymes (as Emma Lazarus does, though not systematically, in “The New Colossus”):
Drunk as torchlight, constellations appear,
beetling the brows of mourning kings,
Lampyridae, luminous, wreathed in despair,
rings a match to phosphorus Babylon. Dew drops decay,
the ghost lights flare, while lovers, like Lucifer, battered and bare,
cry antiphon, stranger, we waste away.
Honorable mention: Eric Fretz for “Six False Starts,” the title taken from Jasper Johns, and for playing on the same source that gave rise to Paul Michelsen’s proverbs parody: “Wash the leotard, not the spots.” Eric’s “false starts” prompted Paul Michelsen’s “Six Stalled Farts,” which in Millicent Caliban’s words “exploits the music of the words to transform cliché into provocative statement.” An example: “You can horse around by the water cooler / But you can’t gossip freely.” I must also say that I love encountering, in the midst of a long string, a comment such as Emily Winakur’s: “I agree.”
What have I left out? Quite a lot. But I would like to include “Thirty-Two Titles for Bad Poems,” which was my own take on the prompt and was published recently in the magazine 32 Poems:
1. Epistle to the Guggenheim Foundation
2. Everyone Was Chill
3. Sincere Voyeurism
4. Insincere Voyeurism
5. Why Women Matter
6. At the Grave of Mel Gibson
7. Ode to My Vacuum Cleaner
9. Hate Speech
10. Chugging Ersters to Chincoteague
11. Bad Hair Day
12. 99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall
13. The Voice in the Coffin
14. Iconic Landmarks of Germany
15. Self-Portrait in a Side-View Mirror
16. The Rubber Band That Lost Its Elasticity
17. Of High School and Heartbreak
18. Debbie Downer Doubles Down
19. Why I Am Not an Astronaut
20. Wife Studies
21. A Harmonica for Monica
22. The Love Song of William Jefferson Clinton
23. The Crime of the Ancient Mariner
24. One Fart
25. The Wizardry of Ozymandias
26. An Elegy for the U.S. Constitution
27. Why “Nothing” Matters
28. The Revolt of the Pronouns
29. Parasite Lost
30. Vowel Movements
31. Sullen Weedy Lakes
32. Gone with the Window Washer
Instead of #4, I wish I had opted for “My First Backpack.”
For next week, let’s write apostrophes—poems that address things that can’t talk back. You talk to the subject as if it were a person. You can choose from—but do not limit yourself to—these possible subjects: the Vietnam War, Psychotherapy, Bookstores of Yore, Sushi, Baseball, Ballet, Fedoras, Lingerie, Darkness, Cyberspace, Grant’s Tomb, Coffee, Marijuana. Kenneth Koch’s book New Addresses, which I highly recommend, consists exclusively of apostrophes.
If we keep entries to 12 lines or fewer, the quizmaster will be a happy lad.
Deadline: Saturday, October 14, 2017. Midnight any time zone.
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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