Next Line, Please

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By David Lehman

March 13, 2018


 

Alfred Hitchcock among others has propounded the differences between suspense and surprise. There was plenty of both this week—inevitably, perhaps, because of the nature of the prompt. I began with an aphorism (“Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd”: Voltaire), introduced a modification (e.g., “Doubt isn’t any fun, but certainty is madness”), and suggested the use of one of three phrases: “professor of doubt,” “connoisseur of chaos,” or “minister of loneliness.” The second of these I lifted from Wallace Stevens; the third from an article by Stewart Dakers that appeared in The Guardian on January 23. The subject of Dakers’s article was the appointment of Tracey Crouch, M.P., to fill the newly created post of “minister of loneliness” in the United Kingdom. At this point I felt like dropping everything else and going with “the minister of loneliness” as the week’s prompt.

Suspense we always have because we never know in advance who will respond most avidly to a given prompt, but what took me by surprise is the number of imaginative responses not only to “minister of loneliness”—to my mind the door to wonderful possibilities—but also to the challenging subject of doubt and certainty.

First-place honors this week must be divided among three first-class entries. Patricia Wallace’s brilliant “Toothache” manages to incorporate all the elements of the prompt in a poem that would, in a smart universe, go viral:

No doubt about it. I have a toothache
even if I can’t locate the source of the pain
(that iffy tooth the dentist’s been eyeing?).
It isn’t any fun, this toothache. It’s making me
crazy, thinking about how certain is the possibility
of a root canal or worse? Of course, it’s trivial,
my toothache, beside the impenetrable mysteries:
life, death, etc., where there’s no avoiding
the knotty family relations between certainty and
doubt. According to the Minister of Loneliness,
my brave if cryptic guide in these matters,
“doubting itself presupposes certainty.” Some doubts,
it follows, are properly ignored. Why waste my time
doubting the chessboard, or my two hands
or the stars in the wintry night sky? It’s too exhausting.
In the remotest cold, the Minister of Loneliness tries
to unravel these knots. Some call him mad. Even he
thinks his work could be merely “a synopsis of trivialities.”
He’d rather be listening to Beethoven, who howled
and screamed as he composed, making from the chaos
of sound a symphony, not of separate notes
but their connections, like stars in a constellation.

George Kaplan, who may or may not exist, bears the same name as the nonexistent spy Cary Grant is mistaken for in North by Northwest, and it is a pleasant surprise, and testimony to his versatility, that he found time for us between dinners on trains with Eva Marie Saint and escapades at James Mason’s mansion. Here are two of his five-line efforts:

Ambivalence I do not
love, I do not hate, but
it’s certain to me that
certainty is the very
essence of Bedlam.

Professor of misgivings, master of
absurdity, sad clown of the
university, minister of
loneliness, doubt is a pothole, certainty
an abyss.

George also turned in “Nehushtan”:

Doubt sucks, but certainty blows.
The winds of dogma
press hard upon the bladders of
the Minister of Loneliness,
the Bishop of Bereavement,
the Deacon of Depression,
and all the Patron Saints of Paranoia,
as the Archbishops of Anxiety
clamor to clean up their mess.
Meanwhile, Pope Ophidiophobia I
juggles a trinity of snakeskin boots
then plays quoits using ouroboros
with Cardinal Cotard.

Aren’t these good? I know you’re on the run, George Kaplan, but please favor us with more when you fake your way out of danger on Mount Rushmore.

Cheryl Whithead hit the ball out of the park in three well-wrought stanzas relying on a simple b-c-b rhyme scheme and sneaking in a literary allusion in her second stanza:

The minister of loneliness
stands on the serrated dune.
He flashes his god-like palms
& grins at the faded moon.

The minister of loneliness
suspects the sheltering sky
will one day pack her suitcase
& leave him gaunt & dry.

The minister of loneliness
makes light of the thundering pain
& he often mistranslates
the inscrutable force of rain.

Christine Rhein gives us, in “Job Duties, Minister of Loneliness,” a description of what happens when the bureaucracy gets hold of you.

Interview citizens in depth via email survey.
Ensure progress across all loneliness studies.
Oversee team of analysts working from home.
Track isolation data and report it on Twitter.
Demonstrate constant improvement of tweets.
Invite Facebook users to post coping strategies.
Work through lunch and days off as required.
Maintain Lonelinessisarealproblem(dot)org.

Great last line, Christine. I want also to commend Donald LaBranche’sWhat We Do With Weakness,” which begins with smart wordplay (doubt, certain) before exploring lonesomeness as a condition with certain compensations:

I don’t doubt that at certain times
I was more lonesome than I needed to be
given the company of saints

who accommodated themselves
to my many weaknesses and hung around
to patch the shed roof or sing an old song.

And once, I took a turn at the bedside of a dying man
watching him try to get ice chips down
his parched throat. He spoke my name twice.

Having compensated for his friends’ weaknesses
they repaid him that favor in kind, so he was not
lonesome as daylight slid across the narrow room.

Excellent work. My one question: is the title as it stands better than the one-word blunt “Weakness”?

Rosemary Douglas Lonbard submitted a ferociously intense piece of writing deserving of honorable mention. Here is how the poem concludes:

Voltaire did not employ our term
that what we know is “evidence-based,”
(an unpoetic word), but that approach
must lead our way to know it’s time
to act—a critical call—please, undeterred.

Courtney Thrash in “Professor of Doubt” beautifully explores the relations of “faith and doubt”:

faith and doubt
are not
mutually exclusive
in truth,
one cannot exist
without
the other:

doubt
without faith
is an impossibility,
like heartache
without loving;

faith
without doubt
would be certainty,
were not certainty an illusion,
like loving
without losing

I love it, Courtney. Please consider the possibility that the last two stanzas by themselves give the poem its power—the first stanzas is dispensable, because it sums up what the next two stanzas say.

Every time I concoct a first-time prompt, I am always curious to know how Millicent Caliban will handle it. In this case she chooses rhyme as her organizing principle with the effect that the first four lines, standing alone, make a very neat and repeatable mantra:

As minister of loneliness,
I pledge to leave you each alone:
your soul intact but open to
the word, the world, the web, the phone.

Like Millicent, Diane Ferraro takes on the notion that “Minister of Loneliness” could be a job for an elected government official:

The state is a handsome hunter
chasing after lone souls,
tenacious and full of good-will
commanded by one or all or nil.

The trail is set and on—
taxpayers’s groans and sloth,
three seasons too early to vote—
one minister, her secretary,
the sub-secretary, offices—
facing North and contemporary.
Clerks and drivers, bodyguards,
and the out-of-town staff,
agents in commission, grey suits
and glossy posters in Cooper Black,
“Loneliness Forbidden” or
“Thou Shalt Not Be Alone,” plus
the high maintenance grassy ground
of the cute congregation camp and
its lovely rose blooming arcade,
“Company sets you free.”

The state is a fearless hunter
always fetching any spared prey.
Should solitude as a private affair
claim for a fast welfare
farewell, as soon as today

The middle stanza is so good, it makes me wonder whether the poem would be even stronger without stanzas one and three, keeping “The Minister of Loneliness” as the title.

Under the title “Rant,” I took a whack at this assignment myself:

Let’s face it: you don’t want to hear
my side of things you’re right
you know it you were right
all along and therefore you’re deaf
while I, a captive ear,
live in doubt, am doubt’s minister,
and can tell my lonely peers,
I have been to the abyss
and back and it’s overrated

There were many other entries that deserve to be read and re-read and read aloud and recited at a dinner party, and I wish I had the space to honor them all.


 

Prompt for next week.

Here are six lines quoted in this column:

“He’d rather be listening to Beethoven”—Patricia Wallace

“will one day pack her suitcase”—Cheryl Whithead

“And once, I took a turn at the bedside of a dying man”—Donald LaBranche

“and all the Patron Saints of Paranoia”—George Kaplan

“an illusion, / like loving /without losing”—Courtney Thrash

“I have been to the abyss”—David Lehman

Pick one of these phrases and use it—as the first line, the last line, an epigraph or a pivot line—of a poem dedicated to the poet whose line you lifted. Fourteen lines or less. A possible subject: the ides of March.

Deadline: March 17, midnight any time zone.


 

Cornell University Press has chosen March 15 as the official publication date for Next Line, Please: Prompts to Inspire Poets and Writers. Pub date is determined by a calculation: by March 15, it is assumed that finished books will have reached bookstores. Many bookstores like to showcase local authors. Suggestions made to store managers do not always fall on deaf ears, so do make them aware of the ides of March.


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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