Next Line, Please

“In my end is my beginning”

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By David Lehman

May 26, 2015


 

 

“In my end is my beginning,” T. S. Eliot wrote in Four Quartets. He meant something specific about circularity and the spiritual journey he was undertaking, but the line has more than one application, and I find it works to designate certain tactics or challenges that poets may employ to jump-start their imaginations. One such is to begin with a last line and then write the poem that leads up to it. Another—and the one I propose we use for this week’s competition—is to retain the end words of an admirable poem, scrap the rest, and fill in the blank space with one’s own poem.

Here is “Gare du Midi” by W. H. Auden. Only eight lines long, it implies a whole narrative with a sinister flavor suitable to Western Europe bracing for the gathering storm of World War II. The poem rhymes, but the rhymes are staggered—“contrived” in line three, for example, does not meet its mate until the last line of the poem. This allows the poem not only to evade expectation but almost to approach prose before fulfilling its obligations as verse.

A nondescript express in from the South,
Crowds round the ticket barrier, a face
To welcome which the mayor has not contrived
Bugles or braid: something about the mouth
Distracts the stray look with alarm and pity.
Snow is falling, Clutching a little case,
He walks out briskly to infect a city
Whose terrible future may have just arrived.

Now remove the title, and retain only the end-words:

South,
face
contrived
mouth
pity.
case,
city
arrived.

Option two: For those who would be happier if confronted not with an entire poem but just its end-words, here are the end-words of another poem from the Auden canon:

after,
understand
hand,
fleets;
laughter
streets.

It is not necessary to retain Auden’s punctuation. But be sure to give a title to your effort.

Incidentally … suggestions for future contests (another haiku perhaps? a poem based on a comparison? a cryptogram?) are always welcome, and you should know that I love it when people comment on the poems of others and on the exercise itself.

Deadline: Midnight, Saturday, May 30.


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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