“If history can teach us anything …”

Close-up, macro shot of a bloody knife

The delivery of a great line, as much as its content, can make it stick in the mind. In The Godfather: Part II, when you hear Michael Corleone tell Tom Hagen, “If anything in this life is certain, if history has taught us anything, it is that you can kill anyone,” it makes such an impression that a fragment of the line tends to survive in widely different contexts.

The part of the line that I have encountered in dialogue and in news programs is, “If history can teach us anything.”

I believe this could make an excellent opening line for a poem. Two stanzas, 14 lines or less, with a break between stanzas. Why 14? It seems the natural number of lines for a complete and complex argument or portrayal of an idea. There’s a reason that so many poems, not undertaken as sonnets, turn out to be complete when the 14th line is written. Not right away but afterwards does the poet realize that the finished work has the mathematical argument of a sonnet, involving a turn after line eight.

While I don’t invariably use the week’s prompt as the point of departure for one of my own poems, this is one prompt I can’t wait to take on.

Deadline: Saturday, June 1, midnight any time zone.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

David Lehman, a contributing editor of the Scholar, is a poet, critic, and the general editor of The Best American Poetry annual anthology and author of the book One Hundred Autobiographies. He currently writes our Talking Pictures column.


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