Next Line, Please

The Beautiful and Sublime

By David Lehman | March 21, 2017


The success we have been having when starting with a good epigraph prompted this week’s prompt. To get a good epigraph, you need to start with a good quotation. With the not-so-hidden agenda of promoting the poetry of Charles Bukowski, who is popular but critically undervalued, I picked a couple of lines from the author whose books, according to booksellers, are more shoplifted than any other.

I believe we proved both points—that a well-chosen quotation is a reliable springboard for a good writer, and that Bukowski’s poetic quality is clear not only when you quote him at length but in minute particulars.

“What matters most is how well you walk through the fire”—one of the Bukowski lines I proffered—prompted a rhetorical tour de force from Christine Rhein and a poignant note to a younger self from Elizabeth Solsburg:

Christine Rhein

What Matters Most

(beginning with Bukowski)

What matters most is how well you walk
through the fire, how hard you pretend
the pain away when someone’s watching,
and, when not—like every morning now,
every night—how slow and small you step,
staring at the flames, at all the sputters,
those burning words you can’t unhear,
the ones you spoke, the ones you didn’t.

Elizabeth Solsburg

To the young woman in the university hallway

What matters most is how well you walk through the fire.
—Charles Bukowski

I can read your face the way you read that book you carry.
I remember twenty
with its implicit belief
that I would walk through fire unscathed.
But my dear,
I am here to tell you there is no escape—
it is coming toward you even now,
burning its delicate lines
around your eyes and dimming your light
so slowly that you will be surprised
the day people on the street pass you by unseen.
I will not lie and say there is no grief,
but here is a secret just between you and me—
once you are invisible—it is almost like being free.

Right up there with these two, though in a different mode altogether, is a cento assembled by Michael C. Rush:


What matters most is how well you walk through the fire.
—Charles Bukowski

From the ashes a fire shall be woken.
Sweet fire the sire of muse.
That fire is genius.
What the hand dare seize the fire?
So cold no fire can warm me.
Some say the world will end in fire.
And your heart, as it was then, will be on fire.
When you are old and gray and full of sleep and nodding by the fire.

Michael helpfully noted that the lines were lifted from (1) Tolkien, (2) Hopkins, (3) Longfellow, (4) Blake, (5) Dickinson, (6) Frost, (7) Akhmatova, (8) Yeats

Michael submitted a second compelling poem, “What Matters Most,” in which the fiery opening line is repeated subsequently with fewer words each time until “What matters. / What. The. Fire.”

Diana Ferraro went with the same epigraph:

“What matters most is how well you walk through the fire.”
—Charles Bukowski

Word Warrior

Lagging behind, the fainting spark
Last swallow in the dead of fall
Heated vows, ashes on the trail
Your naked feet over smouldering coals
The sizzling flesh burning all truth
Blazing thoughts going nowhere.
Unafraid, spent, no more there
You lie down on the scorching ice.

As did Berwyn Moore:


“What matters most is how well you walk through the fire.”
—Charles Bukowski

I had not been thinking of death when they stung—
three wasps hiding in the folds of my shirt, twelve
welts rising. I remembered Saint Agnes, dragged
to the fire at twelve, her accusers stymied by the hair
growing to shroud her nakedness. Let me hobble
this rickety bridge of time and space, breathless,
and blunder on miracles of hair and love, little birds,
a flutter of eyelashes on my wrist—utter profusion.

(Some references are to W. C. Williams’s essay “The Poem as a Field of Action.”)

Of the poems that played with the second Bukowski epigraph I proposed, I liked best Courtney Thrash’s “Unresolved”:

“Sometimes you climb out of bed in the morning and you think, I’m not
going to make it, but you laugh inside—remembering all the times you’ve
felt that way.”
—Charles Bukowski

All the times you’ve knelt that way
by your bed—the times you’ve dealt
that way with the dread: resignation,
desperation, when the mercies
should be fresh
and new
like the dew you resent
for its transience.

Thank you, all. I wish I had the space to cite other fine entries.

For next week, I want to propose the subject of “the beautiful and the sublime,” as differentiated by Immanuel Kant, who wrote, “Understanding is sublime, wit is beautiful. Courage is sublime and great, artfulness is little but beautiful … Friendship has mainly the character of the sublime, love between the sexes, that of the beautiful … Tragedy is sublime, comedy is beautiful.”  My suggestion: take any of these statements and illustrate it—or, if you wish, refute it.  The eight-line limit has worked well—all but one of the poems this week conforms to it—so let’s keep that in effect.

Deadline: Midnight, Saturday, March 25.

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