Next Line, Please

The Fake Apology

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By David Lehman

August 30, 2016


 

This week we wrote non-apologies in the model of William Carlos Williams’s “This Is Just To Say,” a kind of Post-it-note poem in which the husband apologizes to the wife for eating the plums she had saved for her breakfast.

The responses persuade me that the insincere utterance provides fertile ground for poets. Our tendency to lie, distort or revise follows from the inability of the language to discriminate between truth and falsehood: Language is not self-verifying. Fiction is based on just this discrepancy between language and the duplicitous and calculating writer. Is it a discrepancy—or a struggle? Writers often describe their writing as a kind of wrestling match with language, as T. S. Eliot does in “Four Quartets.”

My favorite fake apologies are a pair submitted by Marissa D’Espain:

Congratulations!
I saw your
new book
at a bookstore

and:

Oh no! I forgot
To have your baby. Now
it’s too late. Sorry!

Byron (a reader, not the English poet) helpfully illuminates the appeal of the two in this comment: “The subtlety of the first, the concealed hostility of the second.” The first depends on the distinction between seeing a book and buying it. The compliment, therefore, is qualified. But the second is even better. It sounds sarcastic, but it seems more complicated than that.

Elizabeth Solsburg gets my vote for the silver medal:

Sam …

I cut your hair while you were asleep.
Forgive me if the short strands
make you feel unmanly and weak.
But it had grown so long
that there was no room
in our bed for me

Lines two and three were particularly effective. I also enjoyed this comment from Byron: “Maybe Uncle Sam?”

Millicent Caliban balances humor with truth in a poem that deserves to be published:

We hacked your passwords,
Deleted your documents,
Posted private photos,
And tweeted in your name.

We listened to your calls,
Read all your texts and mails,
Monitored your Facebook likes,
And profiles of friends.

All that we gleaned
Was passed on to the NSA.
We are so sorry, but you did
Click: “I agree”

 

I love the movement of Christine Rhein’s “Forgive Me,” a poem that begins with an echo of William Carlos Williams (“so much depends / upon”) and ends “my apology, / your “well, maybe.” Paul Michelsen reveals his talent for the dramatic monologue in “Hello, Your Honor” and his flair for humor in “My Dearest Love.”

I am also crazy about Charise Hoge’s wonderful repetition of “list”: Forgive me for listing with the wind / and not listening to instructions / I return the itemized list of how to dwell favorably / beneath the swell of your miniature canopy.” Charise also scored with “Butting In”: “Sorry, this seat is taken. / You must have mistaken / my husband’s lap for a free ride. / Have you no reservations? / Let me help you decide.” Dorothy Parker would admire this light verse.

The last five lines of Angela Ball’s “This Is Just to Say” are brilliant, right down to the end note, the mention of the overpriced drug in the news.

This may explain the loud arrival of bees
to which you are highly allergic.
Forgive me, I’m no tragedienne.
I have Munchausen by Proxy
and your last EpiPen.

I hope you won’t mind my quoting my own effort. It would not have won this week’s first prize.

I borrowed the bottle
of Macallan 18 that you
bought for New Year’s

because I knew
you wouldn’t mind,
a man as noble as you,

with your refined taste
and fabled generosity.
Was I wrong about that?

Sorry, old chap. I was thirsty,
and the stuff is the best
single-malt Scotch I know.

 


For next week, let’s try a brief poem entitled “Labor Day.” Seven lines or less. It can be an acrostic (“l-i-b-e-r-t-y”), an aphorism, a poem that puns on the multiple meanings of the word “labor,” an adieu to summer, an ode to the 1955 movie “Picnic” from the point of view of either William Holden or Kim Novak. One rhyme minimum. The “occasional” poem prompted by a holiday or a birthday is a great little genre.

Thank you, everyone.

Deadline: Sunday, September 4, Midnight in any time zone.


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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