Nine-Line Stanzas

Person walking down stairs, black and white photo
Farhad Sadykov/Flickr

Last Tuesday, I suggested writing an “impromptu,” which I defined as “a nine-line stanza that can serve as the prologue to something else that either has or has not yet been written.” The stanza should have “the feel or tone of an improvisation” with a “unifying formal element.”

As of 5:11 p.m. on Sunday, the comments field had 155 entries, featuring both stanzas and reactions to stanzas—many of them noteworthy. Eric Fretz favored us with a high-sounding stanza that demonstrated the power of syntax independent of sense:

When in the Courtyard of Humane Evictions it becomes
negligent for one perception to dissolve the polymer bangles
which have connected them with another and to assume
among the prairies of the east, the sequined and
equine statue which the layers of necrosis and of
necrosis’s goldmine entomb them, a decent request to the
oracles of manikins’ remarks that they should declare
the caveats which impel them to the serenade.
Let facets be submitted to a candied word:

Fearing that the language here was too “labored,” Eric also weighed in with “a stab at a quick 9×9 Impromptu.” His self-imposed requirement to include nine single-syllable words per line served him well:

My first line came when I heard the trees
gasp to and fro—and back to the wind.
I had no theme till I saw the stars
and the fake lines that tie them to shapes;
then I knew the law and rule and call
that kept me at this for all these years.
And now in my old age I’d tell you
why and how to read it, but you know:
It’s in each blank page of this stacked pile.

More than one of us complimented the author on the fine last line, and I would call attention as well to “the stars / and the fake lines that tie them to shapes,” where “fake” supplies the line’s surplus meaning.

For “Preparing to Blow Out the Candles,” Herbert McDunnough took “The new year’s walk, restoring” for his epigraph, which he attributed to T. S. Eliot:

The look back has not gained us fruit. The
First time’s no more sweet than the second
Tragedy’s glad to share what belongs to tragedy
To blind young eyes with what it forever sees
Not holding back, not limiting itself to buy one
Get one free. It keeps coming, one keeps getting
One’s caught again in traps of why, in lust of what
Own and other’s ends mixed up. My one
Wish—unwise?—to not want what the other wants.

The wonderful things about the writing here is that you can read the poem in a state of puzzled wonderment and then go back and notice that it is a double acrostic spelling out “The first tragedy’s to not get one’s own wish” and “The second tragedy sees one getting what one wants.” Reading it prompted me to spot a concealed acrostic running diagonally down the page: “The time’s glad eyes limiting one in lust. One wants.”

Identifying “Directive” as the late Frost poem whose first line (“Back out of all this now too much for us”) consists of 10 monosyllables, Herbert made this astute comment:

“Rarely do we encounter a more counter-intuitively compelling first line, one that tempts us with an irresistible power to do exactly the opposite. The ‘Back out’ of the first line is immediately empowered, in a similarly counter-intuitive way, by the ‘Back in’ of the second line. Another beautiful quality the first line possesses comes from the assonance in the first and third stressed words: ‘out’ and ‘now.’”

Patricia Wallace added that Frost was “wicked with his monosyllables” and that the opening line of “Directive” commits itself to your memory without any effort on your part:

“The power of a ‘now’ that is ‘too much for us’ seems especially resonant. As is the line break of ‘made simple by the loss / of detail.’ I so appreciate the welling up of wisdom in your sonnet, done so lightly yet powerfully.”

Timothy Sandefur’s Auden-esque “Prologue to the 2020 edition of the Book of Fate” demonstrates the power of organized monosyllables:

Look your name up in the back
and it has all of next year’s facts:
stocks and sports; all the stats;
wars and crimes—and all of that
is just the start. The second half
tells how your hopes play out in black
and white. Viewed in pre-/post- fact,
they do seem dull. No choice at last.
Buy it, though. It sells out fast

Brilliant last line.

Stephen Shaw came up with two “Obits,” one for the film director Franco Zeffirelli, the other for actress Sylvia Miles. Both make imaginative use of the “obit” as an ad-hoc verse form. Here is “June 15: Obit: Franco Zeffirelli”:

Factoid gleaned from a scroll: By one account
Zeffirelli was named by his mother when
the fatherless in Italy were given last names
starting with a different letter each year.
Born Year Z, his Mom chose Zeffiretti,
meaning little breezes, heard in Così Fan Tutte.
It was said that a typo rendered it Zeffirelli.
Why is it then that in that opera zeffiretti is never sung?
O, Franco, where ever did you come from?

How can one not like Diana Ferraro’s title (“Total Local Improv”) and her exclamatory opening lines:

Me too! she said and it was a big lie.
Fake news! he said but of course he was wrong.
We twist, we share, we mix, we toss, we deal.
Where is the truth? How to know? How to guess?
To see, read and get the best and the worst
Not the worn-out half way nor the mid term.
With a cool head and a warm heart we try.
We don’t know. Will we one day at least find
That the point is to know we just don’t know?

I believe the poem would be stronger without the last two lines. Some poems do not need to come to a conclusion.

That some prompts serve as a pretext to play with words and let the chips fall where they may is all to the good. Consider Josie Cannella’s “Imp Romp, Two In Prom, Too”:

Off like a prom dress
straight to a hot mess.
Feeling a bit less
hope Baby says, “Yes!”
Maybe just cravey:
labia’s gravy,
Davy Jones wavy.
Baby grows savvy—
third base coach says No

Clay Sparkman was moved to ask whether we are “allowed to have this much fun in poetry.” To which the answer is a resounding yes, especially if what you produce is, in Patricia Wallace’s words, “devilishly clever and fun.”

Pamela Joyce S’s “Textbook” has a memorable opening line: “I’m prompt u.” She has good fun with it, but I prefer her “Fleeting,” which consists of nine nine-syllable lines:

A thought for a line pops into mind,
a familiar stranger arriving
at the screen door just before supper
in another era, politely
declining sincere invitations,
making vague apologies before
dissolving into nothing, leaving
me alone with plates of sawdust and
loss, bereft of thought, no pennies left.

Louis Altman’s critical reaction to the poem would make any author’s day:

“Disjointed poem in a lovely way, each line scans usually wholly different from above and below. As if several haiku cousins gathering for a family dinner. This is a minimalist treatise on creative writing, that only a sincere, dedicated poet with a deft hand can conjure; a beautiful image of falling tantalizing short of capturing a creative inspiration. The word loss falls so gently in this poem—its texture, placement in the poem and meaning fit so perfectly in this brilliant and wistful work. And the nine-syllable rule mirrors the loss—falling just short of pentameter that’s burned into our muscle memory, at every line it creates a subtle ache of lack of absence, as if someone is about to tell you something and stops just short at the last moment. What a pleasure to read!”

Donald LaBranche’s “Setting the Table” prompted a similarly warm comment from Charise Hoge. Donald’s poem:

Even before things get started, the dog’s eyes open—
a stranger approaches the open gate from the north side.
Things to watch: the barn-plank floor, swept and polished.
The iron skillet put to heat with lard. Grandmother’s shotgun
safe above the mantle. The children just beginning to argue.
I’ve been waiting all day against a stone wall, like
an angel’s cut of bourbon soaked into an oak barrel.
I could be the stranger, the reason for the shotgun.
Or I could be the fatback ready for the pan.

I love “like / an angel’s cut of bourbon soaked into an oak barrel.” Charise Hoge’s comment:

“Those last two lines really sell the poem (as in, I buy it, I’m caught up in the mini-story that’s happening), and this is a great example of a prologue to something else.”

Do I have room for three more? Millicent Caliban’s “Tetris Impromptu” is one of them:

Survival of the spirit demands
never-ending negotiations.
Stasis is unstable; entropy
reigns eternal. The mad king rages,
willfully destroying what was done,
leaving you with shards to shape anew.
Collect them in your apron, arrange
them in your mind, manipulate them
edge to edge, until they seem to fit.

Patricia Smith’s “Revolution” shows that the news on the radio can prove a good source for a poem:

I heard it on BBC’s Marketplace Morning Report—
tit-for-tat tariffs
lovely alliteration for a financial update story
perhaps news would be more
palatable with similes or metaphors
onomatopoeia, oxymoron or other literary
devices and what about
enjambment to keep the listener’s ears on
edge wondering what’s next…

And clutch-hitter Angela Ball gives us “No More Prelude”:

I can’t
get ludic. Only sedulous.
Nothing passes as true
but the past. Entity that eludes
embraces. Exceptions? Just
the other day a lute
was salvaged, dripping
the Renaissance.
But you? Never.

To which Louis Altman responded:

“‘But you? Never.’ Three great words. Brilliant. I like the loose association of that wonderful coup de grace with all the elements that precede, open-ended, so rich with possible interpretations”

You may enjoy a piece I wrote for The American Scholar. It’s called “How to Be a Big-League Critic” and is available online.

Thank you, everyone. Watch this space next Tuesday.

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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