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Hazards, Brawls, and the Value of Bad Titles

By David Lehman | November 20, 2018
Flickr/Richard Matthews

The 205 entries in the comments field this week include poems, reactions to poems, and revisions prompted by these reactions. This veritable profusion of excellent entries proves many things:

  • That the title of a poem can precede text with salutary results
  • That certain prefabricated phrases (e.g. “Occupational Hazards,” “Barroom Brawl”) are readymades for poetry
  • That a constraint with an internal logic can occasion a feat of wizardry
  • That one such constraint worth adopting is what I shall call the “one to 10” option, in which you need to include these 10 numbers (either by homonym or in translation) in a fixed number of lines
  • That even bad titles, such as the examples I compiled in “Thirty-Two Bad Titles for Poems,” can prove useful to the poet
  • That the community we have formed is one that we can be proud of

Here’s what Christine Rhein did with “Occupational Hazards,” moving from one to 12 and back in a recapitulation of a work day:

One coffee after another. Two bosses. Three days
to corporate reorg, worldwide meetings, four
or five hundred PowerPoint slides you need
to start drafting. That smile—6 p.m., at your desk—
Boss A stopping by while buttoning his coat:
“remember, it’s all about moving the goalposts.”
At 7, Boss B: “remember, it’s all about moving
up the ladder … we’re counting on you to work
your magic.” Eight times nine columns, rows,
ways a spreadsheet can be skewed. Ten o’clock =
dinner deleted. 11:30 = bedtime = your pillows
propping the laptop + its steady overheating +
your nightstand printer running out of black.
Twelve years and counting. One life. One life.

There’s so much to like here: the immediacy of the opening, the business jargon (“reorg”), the two bosses moving in clashing directions, the poignant ending. Kudos.

Pamela Joyce S did fine things with a couple of titles on my “bad titles” list. “Why ‘Nothing’ Matters” ends with a paradox implicit in the very word “nothing”: “I love nothing, / And nothing will change that.” Even better is “Everyone Was Chill,” a title that still makes me laugh. Pamela used the “one to 10” option and took desirable liberties with some of the numbers (“Wonderland,” “create,” “benign,” “tension”):

Welcome to Wonderland, where your sublimation
is our pleasure. We too desire your secret dreams,
always très discreet, like damselflies dining in
delphinium. Those damn selfies for Tinder will
never be reviled by five angels of redemption,
nor deep-sixed to protect the innocent. We at
Wonderland understand the seven virtues and sins,
the sheer weight of them and how you long to create
something of nothing, transform dangerous to benign,
illicit to inspired, explicit tension to tender lines.
Please explore our Psychomachia room where you
will find a willing muse, music, art, and words to mine.

In the comments field, I wrote “Sublime.” One tiny change I’d request: in line three, replace the English “discreet” with the French “discret,” or the “très” will lose its value.

Pamela also borrowed “The Revolt of the Pronouns,” a title from my proscribed (or prescribed) list, as the title for a “golden shovel.” Its end words spell out a sentence from Ben Lerner’s Lichtenberg Figures: “We must recall our lines of verse like faulty tires.”

Another title on the “bad” list sparked Steve Belin-Oka’s surprising apicultural adventure, “Self-Portrait in a Side-View Mirror”:

This dying bee—a wonder it’s lived
until this late in the year, last week’s snow

an insulin shock dose to the raving leaves,
which lift and swirl in whirlpools

of wind. The November sun’s mad buzz
through the gauze of clouds. I watch

a hawk veer west, clasp a dove
in its talons. Say as a child I believed

sugar water in eyedroppers would save
vulnerable creatures. Now I know

malarial sepsis will hatch in the blood
of the weak. Despite pity, despite quinine.

Courtney Thrash’s “Occupational Hazards” proved popular among NLP regulars, some of whom felt that dropping everything to “Be Advised” might be advisable.

Wanted: A Mother
Salary: None
Hours: Undefined
Benefits: Untold
Be advised:
When he pulls on pants that crumpled around his ankles last autumn like youth trying
on age, all stretched and blousy, but now the hems just skim odd knobs suspended over
feet that already fit into your socks,
your heart will break and mend and break again in a moment.

When you look into eyes flickering like seer’s orbs with fire and hope and fear,
and understand that they are looking back into yours,
your life will leave your lungs, and you must relearn to breathe.

When he mourns another’s pain, raw and honest, you will wonder whether time
is backward and novice is sage. And if the in-between is really the middle of
nowhere.

This is sweet without being sticky—and that’s not easy to do. I, too, would favor cutting the first four lines and would resist the impulse to call it “Mom Version.” Some things don’t need to be spelled out.

Louis Altman merged several drafts and revisions on the road to “No Barroom Brawl”:

Jack Johnson kept his fists in the ring,
The white crowd stomping on his bony epaulets,
And giving him the bloodshot stink eye
While he bartered in branch-crack timing and brutal pirouettes.

But in the slick speakeasies and basement bars
He was as welcome as a black man could be.
Still he led the high life like a king
With outsized grace, aplomb and dignity;

Liquor brought to smoky light some foolhardy souls
Who’d find strange ways to goad the champ,
Their courage sparked by one too many slugs of hooch—
But the four post floor was the place for Jack’s leather stamp.

He punched like a four-valve piston in the cage;
In the larger world he bobbed and weaved against the white man’s
rage.

Because rhyme is unfashionable, it makes sense to turn to this old poetic standby, especially if you can proffer “epaulets” and “pirouettes.”

Of Keith Barrett’s multiple efforts, many of which evinced a brand of cheerful humor, I enjoyed “Ferns,” which consists of a pair of symmetrical stanzas terminating in “Fern”:

Should not have thrown that dart
at the bouncer
And blaming it on Tourette’s
made it even worse
I just lost it when I lost
another girl named Fern

Should not have started that barroom brawl
Maybe you were right: I’ve long denied
my anger issues
Expecting the world to understand
how hard it is every time I lose
another girl named Fern

Here are two more worthy poems that share a title:

Numbers Game (Occupational Hazard)
by Patricia Wallace

On a wan November day the Minister of Loneliness
dutifully sipped her tea, watching the toilet-paper flakes
of snow melt on her window tray. Outside her office
a damp group of lonely petitioners, forcibly coughing and sneezing,
her heart sank at the risk of catching it, an occupational hazard
that means she’s ceased shaking hands. Naturally she has
no remedies; no resources were set in place. She can offer only
pamphlets and Lotto. A headache comes on, a fog of blues
dampens her spirit. No way was it by chance no one warned her
of the constant risk of contagion, the hazard of this occupation.

Another Occupational Hazard
by Koahakumele

Policing criminals can lead to criminal policing:
sometimes idealists lose sight of their desire to help;
sometimes losers idealize the power of their desires.
Brutality and apathy are reverse views of
the same coin, both could be considered
an occupational hazard.

When the officer, rain dripping into his eyes,
told me to put up my hands in a voice modulating
the threat of death from the gun pointed at my head,
I wasn’t certain if he cared one way or the other.
I carefully obeyed, knowing antipathy would be
an occupational hazard

In Patricia’s poem, note the reappearance of “the Minister of Loneliness,” the subject of a prompt last winter. (“I have to say he/she has haunted me since your original prompt,” Patricia notes, adding that she “tried to include the ghosts of numbers as well.”)

Koahakumele’s effort benefitted from Stephanie Cohen’s suggestion that two iterations of the word “so” in an earlier draft be omitted. Walking away with “critic of the week” honors, Stephanie quoted Richard Hugo to the effect that oftentimes it’s smart to “omit a word like ‘so’ that suggests causality,” because the reader can make the connection without such help.

And Stephanie has just the right term for such a poem as Beth Dufford’s “Occupational Hazards.”

Rain
Handshakes
Closing umbrellas
Former attorneys
Medium rare steak
Collective reasoning
Descending staircases
Multisyllabic pronunciations
Articles, sections, paragraphs, clauses

This Stephanie characterized as an example of a “descending staircase.”

I could quote other admirable work, including Stephanie’s “Occupational Hazard,” that of Shari Ayers (“I meant to major in English, but / Must have forgotten”), and Eric Fretz’s “Why I Not an Astronaut,” an affectionate parody of Frank O’Hara.

Space (unlike inspiration) is finite but if you visit this page next Tuesday, there will be another prompt awaiting your attention. Meanwhile, I hope that Christine, Pamela, Steve, Courtney, Louis, and Stephanie will request their prize books—if they haven’t previously received one—by emailing kdaniels@theamericanscholar.org.

Happy Thanksgiving to all.

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