By David Lehman
January 24, 2017
This week I asked for a “quick meditation” on a line by G. K. Chesterton that W. H. Auden quotes in his A Certain World, his commonplace book: “There is more simplicity in the man who eats caviar on impulse than in the man who eats grape-nuts on principle.” It’s a quote I like for rhetorical reasons: the elegance of the antithesis, the apparent triumph of whim over sense. I suggested that a good title for anyone’s efforts might be “Simplicity.”
Almost immediately I doubted the wisdom of my choice. Was this quotation really likely to spur a good poem? To my surprise and delight, we received some outstanding entries—many more than I can reasonably acknowledge in this column.
There is a three-way tie for first place. In reverse alphabetical order, the winners are Elizabeth Solsburg, Christine Rhein, and Ricky Ray:
There is simplicity in the quick slit down the silver belly,
the silver spoon scooping wild Atlantic tidal salt
down the throat of the simple man who dreams
he is flinging himself upstream in ecstasy,
like this fish whose future generations he’s swallowed
in a quick impulse of greed.
There is complexity in knowing the provenance
of every seed baked into grape-nuts or granola
and sown in the man who contemplates
the impact of his breakfast on the loamy
fields, the air, the water’s clean fall
down the river where salmon spawn
in silver flashes among the churning foam,
and then solemnly lifts his grain-filled spoon.
As in winter sun lighting my study,
the window inviting me to work.
As in bare trees, a cradled nest,
deer tracks and mice tunnels
all over the snow. As in hunger
and sounds from the kitchen,
my husband chopping, stirring.
As in no caviar, no steak for dinner,
but no cereal either. As in the rich
wafts of minestrone, plentiful
greens. As in our cluttered
root cellar and that dusty
bottle of Chianti, the impulse
to stop saving it for some perfect
future night. As in the firewood
already waiting by the hearth,
and the heat of my own making,
fingers typing on. As in the ticking
clock, and the push and pull
of syllables I love to say aloud,
hearing them anew. As in my being
lost inside the jumble, all the tracks
and tunnels, the root cellar
of some wafting future work.
As in the impulse to stop typing,
my love inviting me to dinner,
the stirring hunger cradled bare.
Pizza with Mammoth Chesterton
“There is more simplicity in”
and already thought betrays itself:
as if simple could be called out
by one who sees it without being it,
one who is simple never saying it
while looking from hand to fork
and living the decision of which.
After, the absence of napkins
pulls his fingers to his socks,
which his dog sniffs and licks
lovingly while he calls her Goldilocks.
Kudos to all. As one who holds with Paul Valéry that poems are never finished, but rather are abandoned, may I make an editing suggestion for all three winners?
Elizabeth: please consider omitting “solemnly” from your last line. The adverb, one of the lazier parts of speech, is often needless. Look how robust the last line would be without it, all monosyllables: “and then lifts his grain-filled spoon.” Oh, and your penultimate line is worthy of Yeats.
Christine: If you end the poem with “fingers typing on,” a short line, you will have brought the poem to a natural conclusion and ended with a mysterious abruptness. By reducing the poem from 27 to 18 lines you would gain a lot of impact. Oh, and I admired your beautiful use of anaphora.
Ricky: Please consider a less fanciful title. “Simplicity,” maybe? No need to direct readers, most of them doubtlessly unfamiliar with the quote, to Chesterton. Oh, and I love the line ending “of which” and the triple “it” in lines four and five.
Honorable mention: Berwyn Moore for her take on the Chesterton quote, Charise Hoge for her brilliant brevity, linda marie hilton for her ingenuity (“the numbers in the family e to the power i are transcendental numbers, which belong both to the set of irrationals and complex, and overall the reals”), and Paul Michelsen for his terse prose paraphrase of the quote under the inspired title “Simple City: “There is more caviar in a biped quickly meditating on the glory of mobility while shuffling up the street than in a bored tapdancer phoning in a technically-perfect performance.”
To all, my thanks.
For next week, how about another quick meditation, this time on this aphorism from G. C. Lichtenberg: “There is a great difference between still believing something and believing it again.” You may use the line as an epigraph (or not). You may entitle your effort “The Difference” (or not).
Deadline: Sunday January 29, midnight, any time zone.
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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