Next Line, Please

The Best of Everything

By David Lehman | September 11, 2018
Flickr/nilspix

I write these words hours before the start of the Jewish New Year, a time for taking stock, which I do annually on this occasion. A poem of mine written on and about Rosh Hashanah may interest some readers. (You can read it here.)

This column appears on a solemn day for any American and perhaps particularly for a New Yorker. I lived in downtown Manhattan on September 11, 2001, and I’m moved to tears when I think of the sacrifices made in the face of an implacable hatred of our culture and institutions.

Seventeen years have gone by since then, and some of the fear aroused that day has transmogrified into a different kind of ugliness. I’m saddened that our public discourse is so corrosive, so full of hyperbole, untruths, tantrums, fear-mongering, mob shaming, and meanness of spirit. The bad behavior of loudmouths—“on both sides of the aisle,” as it were—reinforces my conviction that the success of this column depends on our willful suspension of politics and political prejudice. I take pleasure in our collective pride in having established a way of talking to one another, rather than shouting and cursing.

Which is not to deny a place in poetry for shouting and cursing. In art, negative emotions or acts may be redeemed—that is what Keats had in mind when he observed that King Lear contains the most horrific scenes and yet we watch in amazement and awe, aware that there is such a thing as tragic grandeur. If “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” it is only through and because of the power of art.

Now back to our peculiar kind of verbal gamesmanship, which I am convinced is the equivalent in poetry of five-finger exercises in piano music.

Awards this week go to the best and to the briefest of entries on the theme of “the best.” Keith Barrett wins the brevity award for his untitled four-word double rhyme:

Best quest
Grail tale

(It is conceivable that Keith intends “Best Quest” to be the title of a one-line poem, which would work equally well. What say you, Keith?)

In two words, Keith reduces “Vow,” the title of a second entry, to its quintessence:

I
Do

Among the other fine poems triggered by the prompt, I give pride of place to Ravindra Rao’s “Perfectionism”:

I was the best high school debater
In the country until someone better
Changed the game. Then I became the best
At regret, until someone sobbed distinctively
On the news and it went viral et cet.
For years I was the best drifter, in
& out of house parties like whispers
Until the gin bred a new type of human
Even better at thin tendencies, with
Even a stronger liver. For years the river
Was my best friend, babbling me secrets
About where it’s from, what it’s seen. Its source
Is in the high-up mountain of forms:
A burial mound that reaches to the sun.

I would draw attention to the end-words of the first three lines (“debater,” “better,” “best”); the tripartite division of the subject (the best debater, the best drifter, the best friend); and the rhetorical strength of the poem’s final sentence. Nicely done.

Clay Sparkman’s “The Best Murderous Dictator of All Time Is Idi Amin” lives up to its arresting title:

Of course, if one is content to look at mere
kill-counts, then I suppose Stalin rules.
Yet, once into the quarter-mil club, that
number is just a number. How much blood
can we comprehend? That’s where style
becomes the ultimate measure. Idi was like
Satchmo with an accordion. He laughed,
he sang, he danced, and he boozed—
a cut up and a clown. Idi played the joker.
He courted your heart all night long. And
when he shared his final joke at the touch
of dawn, you still loved him—he said so—
even in that final moment, touching cold steel, as piss ran down your shaking legs.

The image of Idi Amin as “Satchmo with an accordion” is striking.

Virginia Valenzuela’s “Untitled” presents a moment of pure pleasure, a cocktail on an urban terrace:

First day of September and some leaves
are already falling—
not red, not orange, not yellow, nor beautiful
but coarse, crinkly, and brown—
and already the air feels cooler, the breeze crisper
or was that just the placebo’s whisper?

Yes, this is best:
a cosmopolitan on the balcony
the leaves of the trees obscuring the sun
and your dog at our feet, warming his chest,
wagging his tail for anything, and anyone

I admire the decision to divide the poem into two stanzas. The bridge from the question mark to “Yes” works perfectly. Keith Barrett suggests that Virginia “consider making the title ‘September 1’ or ‘First Day of September,’ and making the first line ‘Some leaves are already falling.’” Michael C. Rush seconded the motion.

Of the late entries, I have a special fondness for the succession of three-line stanzas proffered by J. Randall Brett under the title “Rank”:

Was it good? Better? A zest
for rack-and-stack-and-roll out of bed,
where I am the lesser evil

Of the 100 best men you court
then wash off slick
in wedding shower fantasies.

Am I your better half? Your
dreamboat, dream date, dream on
bestiary

Of who makes the cut,
who takes the cake,
who breaks rank

Into choice, prime rib piecemeal –
your zagat-baby fivestar lover,
the best you ever had.

There’s so much here to admire: “zest” to end line one, “bestiary” to end stanza three, the riff on “your better half,” the redeemed clichés in stanza five, the beefsteak metaphor.

What Angela Ball does with a prompt is invariably notable, and “Works of Perfection” is no exception. This prose poem is “after John Ashbery,” who died one year ago in early September:

painting a still life in which the eye rests everywhere and nowhere; brushing pigments atop canvas to represent quiescent objects in a manner that renders them absorbingly transient (Pierre Bonnard)

in breaks from acting and glamour, designing a wireless system to make radio signals hop between frequencies, keeping enemies from jamming communication; setting aside pulchritude and inventing unprecedented technology to protect ships from machinations of totalitarian aggressors (Hedy Lamarr)

braining your victim with a roast that you later serve to detectives; inflicting blunt force trauma with a comestible suitable for service to law-enforcement personnel (character by Roald Dahl)

growing henchmen within large webs that soon release them to steal every house, tent, and park bench; cultivating bellicose males in a diaphanous medium from which they emerge and co-opt every conceivable dwelling place on behalf of a nameless master (no one)

Honorable mention: Patricia Wallace’s “The Best Way to Study Silence” and two poems about teachers, Millicent Caliban’s “The Best Teachers” and “My Best Teacher (for RW)” by Pamela Joyce S. I would urge Pamela to cut or replace “sacred trust” and “who always demanded more, but never crossed the line”—phrases deprived of meaning by overuse.

Copies of The Best American Poetry 2018 go to Keith Barrett and Ravindra Rao. Next week, a new prompt will go up and with it, a new opportunity to win a prize book.

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