Help Us Write a Sonnet: Line FivePrint
By David Lehman
June 3, 2014
How like a prison is my cubicle
And yet how far my mind can freely roam
From gaol to Jerusalem, Hell to home.
Freedom ends or starts with a funeral.
Say what must die inside that I may not
The fifth line of our poem in progress comes from “MQ”: “Say what must die inside that I may not,” a line that sustains the funereal motif in the previous line, introduces a fruitful dichotomy between “inside” and out, rhymes internally (“say what” and “may not”), and ends with a clause that may be either transitive or intransitive—you may insert a period after “not” or extend the thought into the next line. All this in perfect iambic pentameter, a quality also found in runner-up Joe Lawlor’s “How deeply mourned, I wonder, would I be.” Lawlor’s line has further virtues: it echoes the poem’s opening and leads us to a conditional while leaving its terms blank.
Third place honors are shared by Beth Gylys’s “So why not indulge in the Bacchanal?” and Jonathan Galassi’s “And then it’s suddenly a madrigal.” I like both and hope they will be re-submitted for future use. The same rhyming principle seemed at work in a line produced by a ninth-grade honors class taught by Sarah Downey: “Am I content, or am I miserable?”
I would like to thank Lloyd Schwartz, who voiced the view that our sonnet conforms to Petrarchan principles and that therefore Hazel Nolan’s “I take my morning constitutional” would fit here. Equal thanks go to her for disputing that view, producing alternative lines, and characterizing our efforts to date as “very poemy,” very poetical. We could use a shot of “levity” or “concreteness.” It’s a good point, and it helps explain my attraction to Lewis Saul’s candidate for line five: “Yours, Hers, His, Mine? Cue Mozart’s Requiem.” From a self-described “Guest,” this came in: “It’s skirt suits, pant suits, pumps, bare legs or hose”—a wonderful line, but again I had the feeling that this was not the ideal place for it.
Where does that leave us? We are in poetical precincts, and sooner or later we will have to heed the imperative to leave our cloud, lower the tone, admit some levity, and add some specificity of locale and identity. But perhaps that time has not yet come. In any case, the “not” that hangs invitingly at the edge of space should act as a stimulant to the imagination. What part of the individual must vanish, be forfeited or sacrificed, for the self to endure? Has the thought come to a full stop, or will the next line ambush us? One question can be postponed. Will we have a stanza break—a line space—before line five? Possibly, even probably, but there’s no need to make such specifications until we have gone further along.
A final word in defense of any formal or metrical liberties we may take. Exemplary works by such poets as Ted Berrigan and Bernadette Mayer call themselves sonnets and deserve the distinction even if the only sonnet convention they consistently observe is that the poem consists of 14 lines. What we are writing is, by these standards, traditional and very literary, but will in the end, I feel certain, prove itself experimental, and not only because the method of composition is unusual if not unprecedented.
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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