Help Us Write a Sonnet: Line TenPrint
By David Lehman
July 1, 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
Cast down this die and cross the Rubicon
Thence to the true hell: the heat of Tucson
Where drug lords blaze loads of coke, meth, and pot.
Freedom starts, or ends, with a funeral.
I once watched men with Uzis guard the Pope
For line 10, I chose a strong iambic pentameter line that takes the poem in what seems to be an entirely new and totally unexpected direction: James the Lesser’s “I once watched men with Uzis guard the Pope.” I like the element of surprise, and the line gives us a strong narrative “I” and a great monosyllabic rhyme word. It also extends the implicit religious motif in our poem and accentuates the sense of threat animating lines seven and eight. If it is not clear where geographically we are standing, that could be because of the assumption, common to the collective unconscious, that in a dream as in a poem, we can find ourselves in Rome, Jerusalem, Tucson, not to mention allegorical places in a variety of historical eras.
I must admit I am attracted to the jolting juxtaposition and am reminded of the compositional techniques of the two Australian poets who concocted the life work of “Ern Malley” in a couple of afternoons in 1944. By favoring randomness, lifting lines from diverse sources, making false allusions, and (to quote the hoaxers) “deliberately perpetrating bad verse,” they thought they were travestying modernism. To their surprise they created a classic.
There was a three-way tie for second place. MQ’s “So waking, I get high as Paradise” would vault us heavenward via the double meaning of “high.” Frank Bidart’s aphoristic “The story of a soul is one part chance” mixes authority and mystery. Chana Bloch builds on the funereal theme of line nine: “When we can let the dead bury the dead.”
I was tempted, too, by the splendid internal rhymes of Maureen’s “A body in its natural crucible, ash to ash, inscrutable.” At least four other candidates would get votes if the choice were entrusted to a committee: Beth Gylys’s defiant “But I am neither free, nor doped, nor dead”; Lewis Saul’s leap of musical logic, “Ergo a true decrescendo is God”; Diana’s couplet-making “Fire wounds may heal in this hospital”; and Cathy Dee’s attempt to transform the work into a love poem, “Darling, will I ever be free of you?”
It is possible to come to a few tentative conclusions about the creative process underlying our evolving “crowd-sourced” sonnet. It is growing organically, a line at a time, with frequent changes of movement or emphasis but with enough thematic and formal unity to imply an ultimate coherence. Energized by the possibility that we may stumble and fall, we are giving chance a chance; we are also testing the French Surrealists’ theory that a work of literary art can be the product of a collaboration and can have a life independent of the will of its creators. An accurately self-described “grumpy pedant” has pointed out that we are writing neither a Shakespearean nor a Petrarchan sonnet. To which I would reply that by 20th-century standards—in which unrhymed sonnets became a popular form—we observe a number of conventions in rhyme and meter that set us apart from much of the free verse in the literary journals of our time.
I have few preconceptions of what line 11 will look like and own up to anticipatory excitement; I have come to count on the adventurousness and skill of our co-creators. Please feel free to punctuate the end of line ten as you will—with a comma, a period, a dash or colon or semi-colon, or nothing at all.
In my mind the sonnet has begun to divide itself into two four-line stanzas followed by two consisting of three lines each. But that’s subject to revision.
How like a prison is my cubicle, (DL)
And yet how far my mind can freely roam (Leo Braudy)
From gaol to Jerusalem, Hell to home. (Brian Anderson and his 12th grade composition class)
Freedom ends or starts with a funeral. (Frank Bidart)
Say what must die inside that I may not (MQ)
Cast down this die and cross the Rubicon (Anna E. Moss)
Thence to the true hell: the heat of Tucson (Lewis Saul)
Where drug lords blaze loads of coke, meth, and pot. (Diana)
Freedom starts, or ends, with a funeral.
I once watched men with Uzis guard the Pope (James the Lesser)
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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