Next Line, Please

“Once more unto the breach, dear friends”

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By David Lehman

August 8, 2017


The prompt: to add a stanza of two seven-syllable lines to last week’s haiku, turning it into a tanka and extending the renga we began a month ago. For newcomers to this column, I had better explain these terms and summarize what we’ve been doing. The renga, a Japanese form, consists of alternating three-line and two-line stanzas with a strict syllabic count. It is a form perfectly suited for two or more poets writing in collaboration. Each stanza, whether the haiku (17 syllables divided in lines of five, seven, and five syllables) or the two-line tail, is meant ideally to complete one poem while beginning another. The pattern—haiku + two-line tail + haiku—can be extended indefinitely.

More complicated than the mere composition of a two-line stanza, the prompt requires the writer to choose among competing stanzas to precede his or her effort. The only stanza common to all is the opening one. In what follows I have done my best to annotate the lines, giving credit where it is due.

Top honors go to Diana Ferraro, whose “red sky” can signify either delight or fright depending on whether it is morning or night. (“Red sky at night, sailors’ delight; red sky at morning, sailors, take warning.”)

Work? No. Why? July. [Lee McAden Robinson]
Oceans imitate shell sounds [Paul Michelsen]
All summer I watch [Jeff Johnson]

the waves endlessly enact
ritual resurrections. [Millicent Caliban]

The weather geeks say [Angela Ball]
One thousand, and I shall have [Clay Sparkman]
Loved, undecided, [Diana Ferraro]

Both yourself and your sour ghost
Until our red sky fades away.

Kat Leonard-Peck is first runner-up:

Work? No. Why? July.
Oceans imitate shell sounds
All summer I watch

oysters bubble in the sand,
hoping for the hiding tide. [Elizabeth Solsburg]

We, caught on the strand,
soles polished by unmade glass,
waiting for lightning, [Elizabeth Solsburg]

ride whale roads wine-dark Jonah,
writ ghost of violet tides. 

Millicent Caliban lauded Kat’s “Lovely echoes of Anglo-Saxon poetry and Homer.” I agree, and I applaud Millicent’s own version of the renga, in which Jonah edges to the center of the stage:

Work? No. Why? July.
Oceans imitate shell sounds
All summer I watch

frantic little jackhammers—
seabirds, me, digging through sand, [Christine Rhein]

crumble and carcass:
shipwreck, Jonah’s whale, salt-sting.
Sigh. Oblivion. [Berwyn Moore]

Jonah’s ghost beckons me to
follow the blue rushing tide.

Jeff Johnson’s effort can stand on its own—the last line strikes a note of finality—though I’d be eager to read Jeff’s next haiku if he decides to extend it.

Work? No. Why? July.
Oceans imitate shell sounds
All summer I watch

the waves beaching themselves in
consummate redundancy. [Jeff Johnson]

Such dependable
expungement: castles leveled,
footprints of hosts gone, [Jeff Johnson]

the moon-blued sand prepared for
a gasping, whale-spat Jonah.

Berwyn Moore brilliantly follows up on her own third stanza:

Work? No. Why? July.
Oceans imitate shell sounds
All summer I watch

frantic little jackhammers—
seabirds, me, digging through sand,  [Christine Rhein]

crumble and carcass:
shipwreck, Jonah’s whale, salt-sting.
Sigh. Oblivion.  [Berwyn Moore]

Blue sea and sky yield to gray.
Ghosts go by, quiet as lust.

Berwyn tells us that her “last line includes a phrase from Toni Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eye.”

I have singled out five versions of our renga among the many others worthy of note that exigencies of space prevent me from quoting. My thanks—and congratulations—to all who have contributed to this group effort at poetic multiplication. For next week, why don’t we go back to the well one more time? I ask everyone to pick one of these five, add a haiku, and a title, and bring our renga to a close.

 Deadline: Saturday, August 12, midnight anywhere you are.

 


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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