Black and white "walk" sign
Ian Sane/Flickr

Impromptu (on His Birthday)

On this June day I was born and I’m glad
I get to post a new prompt, but first must
Pause to say how much I like to write
Lines like lines one, two, four, six, eight, and nine
Of the impromptu poem this is, since
Each of these lines has just ten words, no more,
Like the first line of one of Frost’s great poems,
And then to catch up I must share the piece
I vowed to share last week, and here it is:


If history has taught us anything it’s that
Anyone can be bought, anyone can be sold,
Anyone can be called, anyone can be killed.
For every angry minute you lose
sixty seconds of happiness. Ceaseless
as the cricket, all night till dawn flow her tears.
You can’t think well unless you’ve dined well.
You can’t keep a secret unless you hide it from yourself.
You can bray all night before you shake down the stars.
Nevertheless there is pleasure in the pathless woods.
Love, built of beauty, dies when beauty dies.
There are two tragedies in life,
And whatever they are, you will endure them,
Like a heart that breaks but continues to live.

If you can tell that some of the lines of my sonnet are stolen, you’re right. My defense is T. S. Eliot’s: “Immature poets imitate, mature poets steal.”

I was going to propose something else, but the word “impromptu” prompts me to shelve that prompt in favor of the one that occurred to me while writing the verses that open this week’s column.

Write an “impromptu,” which I define as a nine-line stanza that can serve as the prologue to something else that either has or has not yet been written. Your stanza should have the feel or tone of an improvisation, and a unifying formal element such as the pointed use of one-syllable words, rhymes, anagrams, or acrostic patterns. Who knows, maybe we will have created a new form, you and I, when the results are in.

Extra credit if you can guess which of “Frost’s great poems” begins with 10 monosyllables to great effect, and what’s so great about it.

Deadline: Saturday, June 15, 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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