Next Line, Please

The Best Is Here to Stay

By David Lehman | August 28, 2018
Flickr/stopbits

A new “Next Line, Please” will appear on Tuesday, September 11.


Last week, I promised a complimentary copy of The Best American Poetry 2018 to the author of the note I thought best in the comments field. I am happy to announce a three-way tie, with a copy of the book going to each winner. Millicent Caliban, summarizing the discussion we had a week ago, adapted Heraclitus to our ends. “It seems it is impossible to read the same poem twice,” Millicent wrote. “It often happens that I somehow read with a different kind of attention when a poem appears again highlighted in David’s intro section to the column.” This observation tallies with my own experience. Reading the critical essays of R. P. Blackmur or Randall Jarrell renews my appreciation of the poems that are quoted.

Patricia Smith’s “NLP Renga” was hard for me to ignore:

David’s creation:
a forum of ideas,
of pointers and tips,

accolades, too. Unburdened
place, where I’m free to write me

And Elizabeth Solsburg wins my heart when she says she has every edition of The Best American Poetry and that “it is one of David’s forewords about NLP that brought me here.”

The “best” is usually a subjective judgment. We have metrics for the best batting average and the best performing stock on the Nasdaq, but there is no objective way to rate the soprano voices of Elisabeth Schwartzkopf, Joan Sutherland, Maria Callas, Renata Tebaldi, and Eileen Farrell. Thus the “best” is an invitation to controversy—and to poetry.

Write a poem about “the best” example you know of any phenomenon—or the best practitioner of any field, art, craft, profession. Any category qualifies. Consider: the greatest string quintet or chess match; the best third baseman ever to don a Yankee uniform or the last line of a novel about war; the most beautiful Vermeer painting or blond actor; the most interesting museum; the monument you like best. You get the idea.

Take liberties: What was the best century in which to be alive? What is the greatest line Shakespeare ever wrote?

I realize that some folks instinctively resist the very concept of good-better-best and would be curious to hear opinions as to why “the best” is a contested term.

Because your quizmaster believes in concision, let’s keep entries to 14 lines or less.

To the authors of (1) the best poem and (2) the briefest, we’ll send a complimentary copy of The Best American Poetry 2018.

Deadline: Saturday, September 1, 2018, midnight any time zone.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

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