Next Line, Please

Let’s Be Misunderstood

By David Lehman | September 23, 2014


“I would write on the lintels of the door-post, Whim.”—Emerson, “Self-Reliance”

Write what you think; walk what you write. [Berwyn Moore]

A fly’s blue buzz once helped a poet die. [Willard Spiegelman]

Let’s be misunderstood, you and me and I. [Amanda J. Bradley]

As vertically we spell out Ralph Waldo Emerson’s middle name, we are constructing a five-line poem dedicated to his glorification of caprice in his essay “Self-Reliance.” When I constructed this little problem, I thought it might prove a spur to creativity. I think I underestimated the difficulty of the task but am glad to report that our contestants are meeting the challenge with ingenuity and good humor.

For line three, I chose Amanda J. Bradley’s “Let’s be misunderstood, you and me and I.” I like the way the line extends the imperative mood and the spirit of defiance. It is true to the principles of Emerson, who instructs us to be nonconformists and to anticipate being misunderstood. The rhyme is important, imposing a strong unifying element on a group of lines that hung together a bit shakily before now. Finally, there is a seemingly schizophrenic echo (“you and me and I”) of the opening of T. S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (“Let us go then, you and I”). So our poem has now implicated Eliot as well as Emily Dickinson, with the thematic value of suggesting that Emerson is at the root of American poets of different centuries and contrasting styles.

My second favorite was Angela Ball’s affectionate reference to Walt Whitman’s elegy for Abraham Lincoln:  “Lilacs in a dooryard loos’d a soul’s chant.” It is a glorious line, and the move from Dickinson to Whitman is deftly handled. The poet capitalizes on the fact that “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” originates as a creative caprice at the doorpost of a dwelling.

Undoubtedly the most whimsical line was the pseudonymous Jane Keats’s “Let freedom ring-a-ding-ding,” combining a patriotic hymn with a phrase Frank Sinatra favored.

Both Paul Michelsen (“Let uncommon inconsistency turn goblins into swans”) and Michael Wallace (“Leave behind consistency and conformity, embrace whim”) proposed lines that beautifully develop an epigram in Emerson’s essay: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

Now we need a line opening with “D.” If formal requirements quicken thought rather that inhibit it, I would recommend using an iambic meter, four strong beats (tetrameter) or five (pentameter), and rhyming with either “write” or “die.” All that, and the need to be Emersonian, too. A line of verse, as Yeats wrote in “Adam’s Curse,” “will take us hours maybe; / Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought, / Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.”

Good luck to all—and sincere thanks for taking part in this experiment. Deadline: midnight, Sunday, September 28.

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