Next Line, Please

Poetry Is Mistranslation

By David Lehman | February 13, 2018
Photonic Syntropy/Flickr
Photonic Syntropy/Flickr

Knowing that Valentine’s Day is tomorrow, we wrote poems of love and seduction this week, and the results prove a general rule of thumb: the more fun you have writing the poem, the more fun for the reader.

As I am a graduate of the university on Morningside Heights in Manhattan, it was perhaps inevitable that Ricky Ray’s Columbia-specific poem caught my fancy. Just as the word “owl” is concealed in “knowledge” and exposed in Ricky’s title, “Kn(owl)edge,” so an owl is “hidden in the folds of the skirt / of Alma Mater,” the sculpture gracing the steps of Columbia’s Low Library. A campus superstition lays the groundwork for the narrative in “Kn(owl)edge”:

There’s an owl hidden in the folds of the skirt
of Alma Mater, bronze lady by one Daniel French,
her goddess gaze blinking at neither weather
nor decades nor the fragile beating of my freshman
heart, which the tour guide quickened with a legend:
if you find the owl when first you seek it,
you’ll marry a girl from Barnard. I looked until
I saw it peeking from the shadows. Dated a girl
but we were no match, couldn’t even finish the deed.
Ten years until I saw you enter the room and the owl
whispered in my ear, “that’s her.” Ten years more
and I whisper back, “old friend, right you were.”

Clay Sparkman’s invitation to the reader makes ample use of anaphora, in this case the repetition of “the instant” at the start of lines:

Come: we shall defy physics with our love.

The instant between knowing the car will crash and the crash
The instant we get the humor of a joke, but before we laugh
When pistachio ice cream touches your tongue, before flavor
The instant after just realizing you woke up
The instant you last remembered before you fell asleep
The instant before having an orgasm
The instant before you die

Layer the feelings together, one upon the other.
Stretch the whole thing out to
reach the end of hours.
This is the realm where we shall
live together in our love.

Millicent Caliban commented appreciatively that Clay’s poem is “an alternative attempt ‘to defy physics with love’ that runs parallel” to the conclusion of Andrew Marvell’s peerless “To His Coy Mistress.” Both poems demonstrate that “a) we never do have enough [time] and b) the impulse of love and desire runs counter to the desolation of that realization.”

Consisting of a long line followed by a short one, the couplets in Michael C. Rush’s “The Tumble” serve as an improbable but effective means of telling a story that visits the fens of sadness without wandering into the quicksand of self-pity:

I went through life backwards and upside down,
less acrobat than clown.

I bounced off others once or twice:
yeah, it was nice.

But they went that way when I went this,
with very little time for bliss.

Down, down the wretched hill I rolled:
suddenly, I was old.

Now, below, nothing can lift me back above.
Not even love.

Angela Ball favors us with this “Variation on Gary Snyder’s Siwashing it out once in Siuslaw Forest”:

I slept under a vase
of lilies that dropped

their saffron
onto my back

in a hay mow
above a pony

shaped like an expectant
double bass

next to a Scrabble board
its letters in bed

with the dictionary
as I am now
with you

Ravindra Rao’s “Secret Love” is an elegy for youth and its secrets:

It happened in certain dark spaces:
magnet-hum of your body

warming the silence of mine. All summer
long, in the green of hidden groves,

in dorm rooms tucked behind stairs,
everything was bright, smoldering, airy

like an endless dream. (And to think,
for all that everything, they only caught us

once). If this is an elegy for a certain dark love,
it is also an elegy for youth, and for secrets;

for the moment the bird looks back
on a home that has turned to ash.

Like Ravindra and Michael, Eric Fretz uses the two-line unit to advantage. I enjoyed the playfulness and ingenuity that he brought to the task of writing a series of “10-line love poems.” In number 7, the first couplet consists of a line lifted from Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida and a line containing the poet’s rejoinder, and this sets the pattern:

“Since things in motion sooner catch the eye” (Shakespeare, T&C)
We met, and you were looking at my fly.

Th’ reason I am down here on my knees:
“Th’ uncertain sickly appetite to please.” (Shakespeare, Sonnet 147)

“And we will sit upon the Rocks,” (Marlowe)
And gently stoke each other’s c**ks.

“Knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers” (Tennyson)
Like your wetness on my fingers.

These oaths of love, swallowed like macaroons
“As fast as they are made, forgot as soon.” (Shakespeare, T&C)

Among the worthy submissions were two that I felt could be even stronger with judicious editing. If Diane Laboda cut the last two lines ofLove” and replaced “pretense” with “praise” in line four, this is what she’d get—a poem with as much punch in its ending as in its opening:

If you come to me naked, I will strip you bare
of your skin and mark the depth of your love.

If you balk at my probing I will cast you aside
in the shallows of mediocrity, no longer worthy of praise.

I don’t want narrow words or sibilant sentences that catch
in your throat like wads of distrust. I want melodies.

Like Diane’s poem, Victor Ian Wren’s “Maps to the Stars” reminds me that a common problem bedeviling all of us is knowing where to end our poems. We unconsciously assume that the ending needs to be special, emphatic, conclusive, and so we try too hard. John Ashbery liked to “disappear” at the end of a poem, and it is often the case that one can improve a poem simply by cutting the last line or stanza. I’d suggest shortening the poem’s title and dropping the last two lines to this effect:

You’ve got the finest elbows,
a sparkling soul,
quite-alright knuckles,
exquisite toes.

Your nostrils have flair, your
earlobes possess pizzazz,
that jawline is sublime, Fräulein,
your hands got jazz.


For next week … I am going to go on the assumption that (1) none of us knows Portuguese, and (2) none of us will cheat by resorting to a dictionary, a phrase book, or a computer program. (If you know Portuguese, I will design a different prompt for you.)

Your job is to translate the following poem using only your instinct and the sounds of the words. If a high-minded justification were needed I’d say: Just as necessity is the mother of invention, ignorance begets imagination, and all poetry is a species of mis-translation. But explanations are the booby prize. The proof of a prompt is the poetry, and I look forward to what you do with

Cartão-postal sem fôlego

A natureza não cuida de nada
nem olha pra trás.
Pára-raios e paraísos
e todos os verbos no infinito.
dentro da paisagem
onde as estações passam
nos relógios ao relento.
Pelas janelas do trem
ao tempo
bruscos recortes rápidos
arrancados pela raiz do ar livre:
o que a lua tira da pedra
pedaços de céu e mar
montanhas, ah! além e alheias
folhas rasgadas, deve & haver o quê?
E em qual caderno?

I will not reveal the author of the original, or provide a legitimate translation, until next week. But these things are beside the point. Advice: do not worry overmuch about making sense. Forget about fidelity to the text. See what happens when the words steer the ship.

Deadline: Saturday, February 17, 2018, midnight East Coast Time.


Cornell University Press wants to give a complimentary copy of Next Line, Please: Prompts to Inspire Poets and Writers—forthcoming in March of this year—to any NLP participants whose work was featured between the launch of the column in May 2014 and November 2016, the period covered in the book. To request your copy, please write to

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

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