Next Line, Please

The Impossible Dream

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By David Lehman

September 26, 2017


 

What is ethically objectionable in life can delight us in art. Jonathan Swift didn’t really believe that the Irish should eat their own children, but it seemed an effective way to alert the reader to the poverty and famine afflicting the emerald isle to the indifference of the British public.  An insincere thank you note, a speech praising “an honorable man” that gets the audience to turn on him—these are excellent models.

Angela Ball went to town with phony gratitude.

Thank you for tattooing me
in my sleep. The knock-out drops
you seem to have provided
were of particular assistance.
The heart pierced by dripping knife
now gracing my left breast
is admirably executed.

Thank you for stealing my identity
and clearing my bank account.
My now-complete destitution
may make possible the religious vocation
I have for years
denied.

Thank you for the carefully selected
words you spray-painted onto my house.
I am sure that the old wood
feels more useful now, providing direction
to people numb all their lives,
who badly need the unspeakable.

Justin Knapp was among those who admired “the line where the narrator embraces a religious vocation.” Stanza three originally ended “I am sure that the old wood / feels more useful now—part of the larger world, /so to speak.” This struck me as unsatisfactory so I suggested something along the lines of “more useful now—like the sides of subway cars, / those modern miracles.” Like synthesis following from the collision of thesis and antithesis, the revised ending came into being. Would a title containing some of the “carefully selected / words” help or hurt matters?

You can hear the voice of Kenneth Koch in the background of Angela’s poem, and Eric Fretz begins his cento, “Oh Thank You,” with the first line of the title poem of Kenneth’s first book:

Oh thank you for giving me the chance
Guiding the creeping cars back into Chicago
But I ride by that margin of the lake in
Just that much farther, beyond the end
Where they have forgotten all that made this country the
Boy of my generation
And my imagination of eternity’s boy,
And he carries me quietly, like a gondola, through the streets
And I can see the ferry leave the shore
But the tide pushes an awful lot of monsters.

Why, I think I would rather be
At work—3:00 in the morning—in the produce market
In the West 59th Street parking lot.

Here are his sources, all from Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry (1960), the most influential American anthology of its time:

1. Kenneth Koch, “Thank You” p. 236
2. Paul Carroll, “Father” p. 88
3. Robert Creeley, “The Way” p. 87
4. Denise Levertov, “Beyond the End” p. 60
5. Paul Blackburn, “Sirventes” p. 72
6. Jack Kerouac, “179th Chorus” p. 170
7. Allen Ginsberg, “Sunflower Sutra” p. 179
8. Frank O’Hara, “In Memory of My Feelings” p. 244
9. Edward Field, “A View of Jersey” p. 225
10. John Ashbery, “A Boy” p. 271
11. Frank O’Hara, “Why I Am Not a Painter” p. 243
12. Michael McClure, “The Breech” p. 334
13. Paul Blackburn, “The Assistance” p. 69

Eric worked hard on the cento, involving the community in a discussion of the content and order of lines 10 to 13. Among the lines considered but rejected was this from the overlooked Lew Welch: “In the mills and refineries of its south side Chicago.” I observed that because of “the ‘boy’ motif in lines 6 and 7,” the reader “would feel that a message was concealed strategically in these lines.”

Clayton Sparkman respectfully aired his reservations. The problem, he wrote, lay in “knowing how precisely each of these 13 attributions apply. I was thinking line by line maybe, but the lineage is a bit confusing. And further, I don’t know if the entire poem is ‘found,’ or just most of it. I feel that with found poems, absolute clarity of detail is quite important. I know that time is running out. But I for one would love to see this reposted as a single post with very precise attributions. Thank you!” The last two words of the comment are, in this context, priceless, whether or not you politely disagree.

Paul Michelsen assembled a cento ending with this haunting stanza culled from poems by Anne Bradstreet, Bernadette Mayer, Kenneth Koch, and Bill Knott:

Thy love is such I can no way repay
Even a tortured lamb served in pieces
Thank you for that, and thank you for preparing me
If you are still alive when you read this.

Emily Winakur wowed a lot of us with “Tough Love on Jackwood,” a poem that excited a great deal of enthusiastic discussion. The poem calls into question the decision to live on a bayou. Here is the penultimate stanza:

Certainly there are other streets in the world
where long-legged marsh birds stalk in the morning,
other streets with names that scan as spondees—my favorite
of all the feet—and we could live on one of those.

When I commented that I love “streets with names that scan as spondees—my favorite / of all the feet,” Emily replied, “Thank you! I knew I could make that idea of explicitly mentioning a poetic foot work for me. Maxine Kumin’s husband always used to tell her when something bad happened, more than a trifle smugly, ‘Well, maybe you’ll get a poem out of it.’” Stephanie Cohen drew attention to what follows “the feet”: “I also love how you close that stanza with ‘and we could live on one of those.’”

In “Too Smart for Me,” Millicent Caliban makes shrewd use of literary diction. Here are the final six lines:

Betimes at dawn we heard the nightingale,
selected to replace the standard lark.
I rose alone to find the coffee brewed,
the lady vanished, but the croissants fresh.
Alas, I know not how to raise the blinds,
nor how to sally forth from this abode.

My own untitled effort goes like this:

Earth I love you
living on your land
you make my heart quake

Oceans I love to hear
you roar in my ear
with the wind of the spirit
of the Lord, whom I fear

in the form of earth, air
water, and where, where
is the fire?

I wish I could quote all the worthy poems that were submitted last week but am consoled by the knowledge that they will remain available in the comments field.

Thank you, everyone.


An implication of Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams is that dreams are like poems. Of such great significance in Genesis or a Keats ballad, dreams demonstrate that each of us is a poet and dramatist in our sleep.  Yet as Marianne Morrow has written, “Nothing is more boring than other people’s dreams at the breakfast table,” and so your task for next week—to convert a dream into a tightly crafted poem no longer than a sonnet—is not an easy one. But the use of a constraint—repetition of key words, or obligatory alliteration, or even “word golf” in which the end words go from “poor” to “rich” one letter at a time—may prove useful, may even replicate the workings of a dream.

Deadline: Saturday, September 30, midnight 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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