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Poetic Metamorphosis

By David Lehman | April 30, 2019

Our work this week was meant to support or refute the thesis that yielding the initiative to the words themselves can transform a mediocre love poem into something worth reading. To start, you take a first draft and subject it to various linguistic operations: change the poem’s tense and point of view; turn affirmatives into negatives; run the lines backward; substitute arbitrary new nouns for the existing nouns in the poem. Chance modifies volition as a determining element, and the poem escapes into creative space. That’s the theory.

The results are in, and the thesis stands confirmed. At the time of writing, there are 210 entries in the comments field, which include poems, as well as reactions to poems and suggestions for revisions. As I haven’t got the space to quote more than a handful of the poems Team NLP produced, I’ll begin by issuing a general salute to the troops.

Pride of place goes to Michael C. Rush for “Not Love,” which opens with a paraphrase of a key clause in Shakespeare’s great Sonnet 116 (“Love is not love / Which alters when it alteration finds”):

Love is not love that loves not.
It’s suffering that’s ignited by the Promethean spark.
Shadows dance with one another to prolong
occlusion but loathe the light.

A dog that will not stop barking all night
doesn’t sing a love song.
You say you love or have loved
but you are wrong. You’re wrong.

The electron doesn’t love the proton,
though everything begins in its compulsive spin.
Let me write the word, love,
again and again.

I am among those who love the metaphoric use of electrons and protons.

In “Popular Mechanics,” Patricia Wallace does wonderful things with the second word of her excellent title:

It goes back to mechanics:
the car you borrowed from a friend that night.
We did it then in cars. Not mechanically.

The gear box rattled between us
as we shifted and accelerated,
fine-tuning all the parts, working out the mechanics.

And once electrically fusing in a taxi
looping and relooping the city. Who cared
If the meter did not stop its mechanical ticking?

The driver stared straight ahead, unfazed
by the steamy mechanics. The light advanced
green, advanced red. “Why don’t you dance?” he said.

In writing “The Tryst,” Heather Newman changed “love poem” to “tryst poem,” and everything followed from there:

This is a tryst poem. It does not
pretend to be a love poem.
It’s a meeting of the body
in spite of the mind.
It is transparent,
a flimsy negligee,
a caress of the shoulder,
a minibar charge.
It knows its end
from the beginning,
justifies itself
when misunderstood.
A tryst poem plays rhyme games
like baby do the twist, resist my kiss,
oh please persist, get my gist.
It skips blank space.
Impetuous and explosive,
it tends to self-publish.
And if it happens to lounge
carelessly in a French bistro
on a busy corner in Manhattan
you can bet the joie de vivre
of your tête-à-tête
will turn quel dommage
much like the end
of a French noir film.

I wonder whether “The Tryst” would be stronger still if Heather were to cut lines four through 11, from “It is transparent” to “when misunderstood.” Wait, that’s a nice juxtaposition, isn’t it? “It is transparent / when misunderstood.” Worth keeping, I think. Readers, feel free to weigh in—the back-and-forth among us has a tremendously generative effect.

For “This Moon Called Ambivalence,” Shari Ayers chose an epigraph from Sappho:

The sun that is strong, the gods that are wise, / The loving heart, / Deeds and knowledge and beauty and joy,— / But before all else was desire.
~ Sappho, XII

After all else, her disdain for me
After rhyme and crash of heart
After denial of self, of verse, of meter

After rolling the dice at night’s struggle
Her despair will be my feet, my ears,
My swaying hips and the not-whole of me

After arising in the moonlight
She will reject my touch, my gaze,
My superfluous flame at her side

There are times when applause is the best criticism. Shari’s poem was praised by Jesse Garon (“Fantastic”) and Eric Fretz (“you really got the negative part of this week’s prompt”). If I have a reservation, it is with Shari’s choice of title. Given the epigraph and the opening line, why not call it “Before All Else”?

Linda Marie Hilton’s “Knott Tea” capitalizes on the creative homonyms for “not.” The transformation of “comma” into “coma” in the poem’s dedication delivers a lovely little shock:

Dedicated to the Oxford Coma

You may, Knott, take off your striped shirt,
Your bronzed thewy chest to well sport,
Naught but muscle with which to flirt
With what kind gaze? Am I that sort?

You may, Knott, bring me some red wine,
With which to start to tie one on,
Naught but cups to caress so fine,
Begin the beguine so love with dawn.

You may, Knott, encircle my waist,
Bring me close in a sweet slow dance,
Naught between us but sweaty taste,
Scintillating feelings enhanced.

My favorite lines: “Naught but cups to caress so fine, / Begin the beguine so love with dawn.”

“Rococo Zephyr” by Clay Sparkman opens with a striking image (“to puff me a love / zephyr”) and rises to the eloquence of its third stanza:

You hadn’t wanted to puff me a love
zephyr, being too sentimental. And yet,
you could, as love was never really sentimental.

It never went too far. It wasn’t embarrassing
or weird, as you ultimately came to understand.
But I wonder if you wondered: Does he not agree?

If there were too little poise, too little
control, then perhaps it was love after all.
Our kind of love. The kind where

we never panicked, even a little. We simply
decided not to surrender—like choosing to live.
But I wonder if you wondered: Does he not agree?

If I were the editor of a literary magazine, I wouldn’t hesitate to publish Angela Ball’s “Ultramarine,” and I’m curious to know how far removed it is from her first draft:

Copulating underwater
for hours, we will learn how
the element supports
and magnifies touch,
moves us in manta undulations
and octopus spurts,
till the ocean’s lungs
become ours
and we gasp, breathless converts
to H20.

Between orgasms I will admire
your indigo glow and headdress
of diaphanous fins, note
my new pink-orange
sleekness and tripartite

If anyone intrudes, it will be
a forked animal, flippers
back-pedaling, forever aiming
its snoot
at us.

It is hard to resist the charm of Millicent Caliban’s “Mon Amour”:

I saw you on the subway reading Proust.
A man with book is worth a second look:
hardcover, red, and in French. Made me swoon.

You were entranced, hunched over so intense.
The train lurched to a halt, instinctively
you rose. No accident you got off at Bliss Street.

I was not quick enough to follow you,
but if I had? Would I have dared to speak?
My name is Leda, will you be my swan?

I cast my vote for Millicent’s original last line (“If I were Leda, would you be my swan?”) while concurring with the many who loved the opening: “I saw you on the subway reading Proust” shares the honors for the week’s best first line with Aaron Fagan’s “I misread watch for witch and meant to say.” Both lines show that there’s plenty of life left in strong iambic pentameter.

Here is the rest of Aaron’s “Theory of Relativity,” the last 10 lines of which are so fine that I wonder whether it might be smart to jump from line one to line 11:

I misread watch for witch and meant to say.
My eyes are going fast. To be precise,
Hauntology has spooky remote effects.
I thought I would grow up and marry
My brother. His body made a mess
Of my mind. He said we’re disposable
Agents of progress. I thought we’d live
Happily ever after with our mother
And father, because love is the word
You use when you don’t use the word.
Invincible ignorance appeals to the stoned
Glossators nodding off at the scotographs,
Word for word and letter for letter—
Much to say yet nothing so entire to raise
My voice and stir the sense of order bravely
Displayed for no one to know. The world
Returns the pain it receives. Skin was the sin
And distant interstices of nascent stars cease,
To wit, with the spirit of the staircase.
Drifting far from everything near—
An eternity ring set a dollhouse on fire.

I have scarcely enough space to honor:

Emily Winakur, who makes hay with “boob” (“Now she’s down a boob”) in “Object Permanence: A History of Childhood”

Donald LaBranche’s “Elder Love,” with its beautiful epigraph from a great George Herbert poem (“Love bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back, / Guiltie of dust and sinne”)

Beth Dufford’s “The Clock,” with the beautiful consonance of “the mid-afternoon midlife sun / moving less harshly among gray stems, / even for March; stems silently harboring / latent ecstasy unloosed come May”

and Josie Cannella’s “King Neptune and the Moon,” with its wonderful recurring couplet:

He and she and the wide open sea,
King Neptune and the moon, each ruled two of the three.

Donald LaBranche remarked that my own effort has a “noir rhyme scheme”:

Blind was she able
To commit acts of intimacy
On a strict timetable,
If form precedes prophecy.

After drinking their dinner
He recites the elegy
Like an ordinary sinner
In a religious tragedy,

And then, because of the lies
Of a criminal mastermind,
The heroine dies
And the hero goes blind.

The poem bears very little resemblance to the first draft, which began “I used to be nearsighted” and had as its working title “Reading Glasses.”

Tomorrow to fresh woods and pastures new, and next week a new prompt.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

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