Next Line, Please

The Inimitable

By David Lehman | May 2, 2017


To imitate a great poet remains the most fundamental exercise a poet can perform. Some poets are notoriously harder to imitate than others. It is possible to imitate T. S. Eliot, though difficult to avoid parody. But imitating Keats is at a higher level of difficulty.

Nevertheless, for this week I asked readers to write a line—or a four-line stanza—in the manner of the poet who gave us such touchstones as ‘With beaded bubbles winking on the brim’ (to describe wine) and ‘the murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves’ in ‘Ode to a Nightingale.’” I drew attention to the finale of “Ode on Melancholy,” saying it “may be the finest single stanza in English poetry since [John Milton’s] ‘Lycidas’”:

She dwells with Beauty—Beauty that must die;
And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips
Bidding adieu; and aching Pleasure nigh,
Turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips:
Ay, in the very temple of Delight
Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine,
Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue
Can burst Joy’s grape against his palate fine;
His soul shalt taste the sadness of her might,
And be among her cloudy trophies hung.

I acknowledged that it would be madness to expect to be able to duplicate such sensual intelligence and mastery. “But take lines 1-2, 3-4, or 7-8 and see what you can do in translating these observations about Beauty, Pleasure, and Melancholy into your own idiom.”

Emily Winakur wins with this lighthearted ode on poetry:

Poetry is larceny, from start to end:
the sleight of hand at work, slipping
seconds from under bosses’ body parts;
picking pockets for other people’s words;
the deceit of being loving while assembling
in your mind as though from a forest grotto
or beach cave stash, the poem.
And then you’ll try to pawn it as your own.

The sustaining of the poetry-as-larceny conceit is impressive, but what I liked most was the attention the writer gave to the individual line (“picking pockets for other people’s words”) and the quality line-breaks (“assembling / in your mind as though from a forest grotto / or beach cave stash, the poem”). One of the funnier lines I’ve encountered in a while is “slipping / seconds from under bosses’ body parts.”

byron got his share of attention for

John Keats, who was killed off by one critique,
Just as he really promised something great,
If not intelligible,—without Greek
Contrived to talk about the Gods of late,
Much as they might have been supposed to speak.
Poor fellow! His was an untoward fate:—
‘Tis strange the mind, that very fiery particle,
Should let itself be snuffed out by an Article.

Which “he” wrote back in 1823—it is stanza 60 of canto 11 of Don Juan.

I was taken by these attempts at “translating” lines from a Keats ode:

Christine Rhein

His fur shall fill the hollow of her spoon,
And flit amid her shuffling slipper skids

Jane Keats

fingertips of gloved goodbyes, and the nearness of her flame
burning October’s rust-colored leaves on a rustic road

Michael C. Rush

Cast out, banished beyond the border, forbidden
Congress with the inner circle, the Illuminati, the blessed
Escort of the blissful best-loved, forgotten, unforgiven

Hidden in the banal world, fallen, yet panting pantsless
in the grass amidst the amorous nymphs of indiscretion

Lee McAden Robinson


When you call to tell me what the doctor said
you’re in your garden, daylight almost gone,
With moonflowers—deadly beauties, each white head
whose lips the bee-mouth sipped, who’ll close at dawn.

Many of us were moved by Diana Ferraro’s full-throated elegy:

Oh Keats!

It was still the time of fountain pens
I was fifteen and the ink blue black.
You waited there, printed on the page
of my red English literature book,
your sensuous lips calling for longer,
more feminine eyelashes
and a coquettish mole on your right cheek.

More than half a century later
I look at you, again, the same book,
your picture fatally redrawn,
forever the mock of a poet,
a sensitive one, of course,
earning the disrespect of
a young female for whom males
had to be male or scorned.
It was that time of fountain pens,
before gays proved to be the only ones
to guess who I was,
what I wanted,
before time had passed and I was asked,
of all things, to mimic your genius,
to steal your language,
to hopelessly envy your grace.

Dead at twenty-six. What did I know of
all you had done, only ten years older than I?
Had we met at the time of my fountain pen
your lips might have hushed mine,
your eyes danced a compassionate waltz,
and your quill, a true goose feather plunging
on the same ocean of dark ink,
would have scribbled a few more lines
about Beauty—
you saw it with those same eyes,
about Pleasure—
your mouth still gives you away,
about Melancholy—
death was treading on your same steps.

See, your words would have lasted longer
than the phony eyelashes and the irreverent mole,
longer than any type of pencil or pen,
longer than us. Than anyone, I would say.

One of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s greatest poems begins with a first line that even today, more than 200 years later, must still strike readers as casual: “Well, they are gone, and here I must remain.” For next week, write a poem (or the opening stanza of a poem) beginning with Coleridge’s line: “Well, they are gone, and here I must remain.”

Deadline: Saturday, May 6, 2017, midnight any time zone.

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