By Angela Ball
September 1, 2015
This week’s first-place honors go to Patricia Smith’s deft “poemization” of O. Henry’s “The Ransom of Red Chief”:
Bill and I hatched a plan
to finance our upcoming land scam in Illinois:
kidnap ten-year-old, red-haired son of
Ebenezer Dorset, Summit, Alabama.
Dorset to pay $2,000 ransom.
We snatched the kid, took him to our hideout.
Turns out he’s a holy terror and loves our hideout.
Calls himself “Red Chief.”
Christens Bill “Old Hank, the Trapper”
and me “Snake-eye, the Spy.”
Threatens us with scalping and broiling.
Our plan backfires when old Dorset
demands $250 before he’ll take his son back.
Bill and I finally drag Red Chief, kicking and screaming, back home,
pay the old man his $250 and take off running
before the kid can escape his father’s ten-minute grip.
The lines are subtly linked with partial, often internal rhymes: “Ransom” aptly recalls “scam.” As the stated plan goes awry, the final stanza loses composure, and the tenuous rhyme of “grip” with “Dorset” holds on just long enough for discomfort: a masterful job. For an entertaining film version, let me recommend 1952’s O. Henry’s Full House, directed by Henry Hathaway and Howard Hawks.
In second place, we have one of Paul Michelsen’s several fine efforts. This one “poemizes” Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find”:
The Tennessee Waltz
Cotton field graveyard for half a dozen awaiting resurrection.
Children ignore the dead with their heads in the clouds.
Cows and cars crash in the sky and it rains blood, oil, and milk
At Red Sammy’s diner, Mom paid a dime to play “The Tennessee Waltz”
“You can’t win,” Red Sammy said. And if the future proved him right
they wouldn’t be a tall surprised. And Red Sammy also said this:
A good man is hard to find.
They’d seen it all wrong. It wasn’t a cow, but a cat made the car roll over,
And it wasn’t milk fell from the sky, but a cat o’ nine tails made of
Snow-white pleather that God dropped, butterfingers that He sometimes is.
Behold, the easier kind of man to find, The Misfit—Grandmother prayed
or told everyone else to, anyway—Pray, pray, pray, she said—her way of
keep the worst from taking place. Empty words as if a cat walked across
the keys on a toy piano. Say it like you mean it next time, if a next time ever
Sidekicks escorted the family into the woods while The Misfit
stayed put with grandmother whose hair looked like clouds.
They had a talk. She had, oh, about sixty words or so left to say
It was as though the last few bit him hard
And then he left her sitting like a child looking up
Smiling at the big blank sky.
There is much to admire: for example, the astonishing second line, with its children ignoring “the dead with their heads in the clouds,” and its echoing image of the grandmother, “sitting like a child looking up / Smiling at the big blank sky”; the surprisingly perfect image of the “cat o’ nine tails made of / Snow-white pleather that God dropped butterfingers that He sometimes is,” and the cat walking “across / the keys on a toy piano.” Don’t cats often do this, the piano invisible?
For next week, let’s try writing a “hand of lies.” Kenneth Koch, in his groundbreaking book on teaching poetry to children, Wishes, Lies, and Dreams, has the brilliant notion of not only allowing lies, but encouraging them. Our new poems will tell five lines of lies, giving them syllable counts as follows:
Line one: seven syllables
Line two: nine syllables
Line three: 11 syllables
Line four: nine syllables
Line five: seven syllables
The hope is that the rigor of syllabics and the resultant shape will act as foil for our anarchy of untruths.
Submit your five-line stanzas no later than Midnight Eastern Time on Saturday, September 5, 2015.
Angela Ball is a professor of English at the University of Southern Mississippi. She is the author of five poetry collections, including, most recently, Night Clerk at the Hotel of Both Worlds.
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