Next Line, Please

The Interplay of Voices

By David Lehman | July 10, 2018
Paul Cézanne, The Card Players (1890–92) (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

As with the “ghostly companion” prompt that preceded it, the challenge to write poems “in the manner of” something abstract provoked a plethora of worthy poems. Poets wrote in the manner of the year of their birth (Elizabeth Knapp, Ravindra Rao), a Chopin piano sonata (Michael C. Rush), a hotel room (Christine Rhein), a speech by John F. Kennedy (J. F. (Jeff) McCullers), a travelogue (David Kibner), an episode of Alfred Hitchock Presents (Keith Barrett), the “muse as a real-estate agent” (Steve Bellin-Oka), and the “androgynous” style (Angela Ball), among other inventive choices. By Sunday evening, 284 discrete entries had appeared in the comments field, including drafts of poems, readers’ reactions to them, and poems revised as a result of the interplay of voices. I will quote some of the most notable poems here and reserve commentary on others for next week—when a new prompt will come your way.


Pamela Joyce’s poem “The Imprisoners—After Rodin’s Thought (portrait of Camille Claudel)” wowed me and many other NLP regulars:

This, I know now, is how you wanted me.
Voiceless, visionless, motionless. Less.
Absent hands and agency, perpetually
cool, translucent, smooth—a perfectly formed
measure of your meticulous tools, at the
pleasure of your chisel. And when I refused
the discarded shards and shadows, when I
emerged your virile rival, you turned me
into stone and let the malevolent poet
lock me in a tomb, a passing thought, an
interrupted waltz, a monument to madness.

I shall slip into verse and make the declaration
that discussion of Pamela’s poem was largely celebration.
Was there too much alliteration
in lines four and five? Some registered reservations
over “virile rival.” But none could gainsay the transfiguration
the poem accomplishes, or the elucidation
that it offers, or its moving closing peroration.
To be the object of such intelligent concentration
is itself an occasion for congratulation.

Taking on the difficult subject of suicide (difficult to deal with—or to address in a poem), Emily Winakur presented “Lamentation”:

For the suicides; for they are complete.
For they avoided the locked wards.
For they denied hopelessness when asked directly.
For they solved the psyche’s Gordian knot
with bullets, with ovens, with razors, with ropes.
For they were Narcissus, drowning in their own suffering.
For suffering had not been such as theirs
since the destruction of the ancient temple.
For they most likely loved someone who did it,
who, before dying, imparted miracle-thin
necklaces of DNA that render possible
the reconciling of this act with writing a note
telling you not to blame yourself—
as though you have a self anymore.
For you will be empty of one for some time.
For now you feel what they felt.
For this was, in part, their intent.

Michael C. Rush made a radical suggestion—a brilliant one—in the most tactful way: “If you stopped this after the first six lines, it would be my favorite suicide poem ever.” To which Emily replied: “It didn’t get any shorter, but how about this?”

For the suicides; for they are complete.
For they avoided the locked wards.
For they denied hopelessness when asked directly.
For they solved the psyche’s Gordian knot
with bullets, with ovens, with razors, with ropes.
For they were Narcissus, drowning in their own suffering.
For suffering had not been such as theirs
since the destruction of the ancient temple.
For they most likely loved someone who did it.
For it can be passed down, like a name.
For they believed a note telling you
not to blame yourself would suffice.
As though you have a self anymore.
For now you are an empty house,
wind-torn, shutters banging.
For now you feel what they felt.
For this was, in part, their intent.

Rewarding Emily’s industry, the second version of lines 10-13 is much tighter than it was. Still, I would reiterate the general drift of Michael’s point and argue in favor of cutting the five lines preceding “they felt / their intent.” The impact is maximum – and I love the darkly humorous overstatement “since the destruction of the ancient temple.” So here “Lamentation” is condensed to 12 lines:

For the suicides; for they are complete.
For they avoided the locked wards.
For they denied hopelessness when asked directly.
For they solved the psyche’s Gordian knot
with bullets, with ovens, with razors, with ropes.
For they were Narcissus, drowning in their own suffering.
For suffering had not been such as theirs
since the destruction of the ancient temple.
For they most likely loved someone who did it.
For it can be passed down, like a name.
For now you feel what they felt.
For this was, in part, their intent.

Elizabeth Knapp’s “Poem in the Manner of the Year in Which I Was Born” brilliantly recovers the year in which the hunt was on for “the smoking gun” that would link the president to Watergate:

Little poem, you are too young to remember
the smoking gun, the con man on TV
who looked like a supervillain, or the hominid
skeleton dug up in Africa & given the name
of your childhood dog. You never heard a word
about the IRA bombings, nor did The Texas Chainsaw
Massacre terrorize your sleep. Having no use
for money, you do not understand the concept
of stagflation, nor did you marvel at the satellite
images of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot. How much
you have missed in the span of half a century!
I want to swaddle you in yesterday’s headlines
& send you back down the river, no wiser
than the day you came blaring into the world.

Ravindra Rao offers this “Song in the Manner of 1993”:

1993—the year the world

sighed for me, planted gifts
& curses on my brow like kisses.

Crusted blood on the stone
of divination said english

is to be my mind’s currency,
valid at all but the most

reckless of places. 1993—
its hundred sighs still echo

like thoughts in the hollow of a tree.

I like the poem but would like it even more if he dropped the first three lines and got straight into the heart of the poem, the idea of “english” as “currency.”

David Kibner’s “Travelogue” is proof that the comic in poetry can transcend light verse. The poem begins with a compelling observation that instantly fades into lively literary specifics and the magic of names. The internal rhymes add levity:

The beauty of the places I went to
comes second to the things I did
such as when I
rubbed elbows with Rimbaud
rode Melville’s pelvis
harpooned Djuna Barnes
spanked Apollinaire’s petard
but I must remain mum about
all the things I did
with a sullen William Cullen

I’ve written songs in my head
I will not sing, though I’m
happy to hum

Once again, the beauty of the places
comes second to the things that were done,
whether it was
stroking Shelley’s belly or
fondling Keats’s teats
but you’ll never see the details
spilled out on a broadsheet
of everything, or any part of what was
so main eventfully done
with a defiant William Bryant

Both a “sullen William Cullen” and a “defiant William Bryant” refer to the same poet, the author of “Thanatopsis.” These are fine, and I admire how “Rimbaud” works together with “rubbed elbows.” But if “Melville’s pelvis” passes the test, I draw the line at the Keats and Shelley rhymes, which may strike readers as either puerile or gross. So why not condense the second half of the poem as follows:

I’ve written songs in my head
I will not sing, and though I’m
happy to hum, I must remain mum
about all that was done
with a defiant William Bryant

If there is room for one more, let it be “Cheating” by Diane M. Laboda, which she tells us she wrote “in the manner of” Cezanne’s painting The Card Player:

You cheat at cards, I can tell
by your beat-up hat slouching
on your head and your lived-in jacket.
You can barely afford the cheap wine that sits
between us on the parchment covered table.

You cheat at cards, but I ignore it
because you, my tattered chum,
are my only friend who shows up every day.
You cheat, but I allow this,
the only time you’ll win at something.

You cheat the life that hangs on you
like a mackinaw, the death that
surely awaits you deep in the coal mines
or the infirmary as you hack out your lungs.

This is just terrific. One tiny suggestion: lose “surely” in the last stanza. Any time you delete an adverb is a victory for good writing.

Watch this space next Tuesday to see how such NLP all-stars as Angela Ball and Christine Rhein handled the “in the manner of” prompt. And I’ll do my best to come up with a new poetry idea.

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