Next Line, Please

Read Emily’s Mind

By David Lehman | May 7, 2019
Garry Knight/Flickr
Garry Knight/Flickr

Fragments are underrated. Among aspiring poets, who wouldn’t be tempted to finish what an admirable precursor began and abandoned?

If the best prompts are also the most challenging, it would be hard to outdo an Emily Dickinson fragment. You can only guess at what she might have written, though you can be sure it would be wilder than anything you might compose. Nevertheless, this is a challenge you gladly undertake, knowing that the characteristics of her poetry—strict economy, idiosyncratic punctuation with lots of dashes, and a flair for riddles—are worth stealing.

Here is Dickinson’s poem No. 1639:

A Letter is a joy of Earth –
It is denied the Gods –

Turn this into a quatrain or, better yet, two. Before writing, consider the capitalized words and the metaphoric possibilities they raise. You may use a rhyme word (“birth” for “earth,” “odds” for “Gods”), an off-rhyme, or an anagram (“heart” for “earth,” “dogs” for “Gods”).

There will be no column on Tuesday, May 14, because your faithful quizmaster is off to Los Angeles to give a poetry reading at UCLA, attend two Dodgers games, and visit with friends.

Deadline: Saturday, May 18, 2019, midnight any time zone.

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