Next Line, Please

“Homage to Auden”

By David Lehman | June 2, 2015


Once again I find myself undecided when faced with three or four of the best compositions submitted in response to an Auden-centric prompt. To refresh memories, I suggested retaining the end words of either Auden’s “Gare du Midi” or his “Epitaph on a Tyrant,” scrapping the rest of the lines, and filling in the space with your own words.

I decided to divide first place honors between Paul Michelsen’s “Northeast of Eden” and LaWanda Walters’s “Ingrown.”

Paul Michelsen’s “Northeast of Eden” is a tour de force. In addition to using “Gare du Midi” as the end words of his poem, Paul uses as his opening words the end words of “Epitaph on a Tyrant.” Because the latter is only six lines long, and the new poem has to consist of eight lines in order to conform to the line length of “Gare du Midi,” Paul cleverly adds the two key words of the other poem’s title (“Epitaph” and “Tyrant”) for the openings of his lines seven and eight. The maneuver of the dash and change of tense in line two suggest the poet has been reading Wallace Stevens. Here is “Northeast of Eden”:

After things soured beyond hope my mind wandered South
Understand I have not—will not ever forget your face
Hand to the Heavens, the smithereens of my heart not contrived
Fleets take aim against me and the words that move my mouth
Laughter lunges forward like a reflex such as pity
Streets of tears turn confetti back to anonymous briefcase
Epitaph for the long lost soul of a lover and her city
Perfection existed somewhere once, the repo team arrived.

LaWanda Walters’s “Ingrown” begins strongly—using “like” to signify a simile (a direction can resemble “a person’s face”) and as a vernacular equivalent of “for example” (“a direction—like South”). Our attention is sustained by an unfamiliar but interesting term—“Wardian case,” named after the London doctor who invented it, refers to a type of sealed container for plants—and by a reference to a song from the 1960s. It adds to the poem’s flavor that the last name of Gene Pitney—who sang “A Town Without Pity”—rhymes with “pity” and includes the word anagrammatically.

How odd that a direction—like South—
takes on meaning like a person’s face.
After I had my half-Jewish children I contrived
ways never to return. Something about the mouth
of my grandfather I had seen sometimes. “A Town Without Pity”
sang Gene Pitney when I was twelve. A Wardian case
keeps curiosities, strange plants alive. We eluded that city,
hungry as a gingerbread house for my children to arrive.

Honorable mention goes to Berwyn Moore for her superb paraphrase of “Epitaph on a Tyrant.” Her poem is entitled “Epitaph on a Housekeeper”:

Cleanliness, of a sort, was what she was after,
And the ditties she composed were tough to understand;
She spotted pretension like dust on a gloved hand,
And was hardly enthralled by Armani or fleets
Of Fraser yachts; when she cried, politicians erupted in laughter,
And when she died, schoolboys flicked their butts in the streets.

Cheryl Whitehead’s “Bound for Glory” also deserves commendation. The first five lines in particular are beautifully economical.

What became of the South
and its ruddy red face
where strange institutions contrived
a pretty mouth
that spoke without warmth? Pity
the place that let its blues tromp off, with guitar case
slung over its shoulder, to some Northern city.
“The train done brought me,” the bluesman yelped when he arrived.

It has now been 13 months since we initiated “Next Line, Please.” I am glad that participants feel that it has been a success—inspiring in several ways. I agree, not only because I am committed to the use of prompts and exercises as a way of generating poems, but also because we are making creative use of the new electronic media. The back-and-forth among contributors reinforces the conviction that the lonely work of the poet is easier to bear when you have friends who can subordinate their natural competitiveness to the ideals of mutual support and constructive criticism.

As I listen to my favorite singer sing “South
of the Border,” a smile dances on my face,
and I vow to do my best to contrive
a stimulating prompt that will loosen the mouths
of our players next week. We shall banish self-pity;
better than a case
of pale ale, in country or city,
is the pleasure of being there when we’ve arrived.

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