Next Line, Please

The Judgment of Paris

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By David Lehman

May 17, 2016


 

 

The prompt this week was to write a poem entitled “The Judgment of Paris,” with this epigraph from Edith Hamilton: “Hera promised to make him Lord of Europe and Asia; Athena, that he would lead the Trojans to victory against the Greeks and lay Greece in ruins; Aphrodite, that the fairest woman in all the world should be his. Paris, a weakling and something of a coward, chose the last. He gave Aphrodite the golden apple.”

Angela Ball takes her cue from “the fairest woman in all the world,” the “face that launched a thousand ships” (Christopher Marlowe)—the woman that Paris abducted from her husband, Menelaus, king of Sparta, providing all the justification that the Trojan War needed.

Helen

Paris is no prize.
A woman wants a man
who can defend her
come what may—not
a preening aesthete.
Obedient, I swan
with him through
night clubs and salons—
arm candy with a priceless
pedigree. While battles
blaze—and I, my face
at least—get blamed. Why
in Olympus’s name
do Gods ensnare soft
mortals in their games?
Perhaps because
we’re easily replaced.

—Angela Ball

I would like also to praise the indefatigable inventiveness of Paul Michelsen, perhaps especially in his poem “The Judgment of Parrots.”

My own effort, written before I saw any of the others, was essentially a paraphrase of Edith Hamilton:

The Judgment of Paris

Hera offers him the presidency.
Athena says he can be a hero.
Aphrodite offers him Helen—
Beauty and the consummation
Of desire.

Freud offers an explanation.
Aphrodite is death.
Athena is victory.
Hera is power.
Paris chooses death without knowing it.

He should have chosen the lead casket
As Lear should have chosen Cordelia
As you should choose the third sister in any series.
But he, being a coward,
Chooses Helen, and dies.

—David Lehman

For next week, why don’t we have a contest for the best prompt? Criteria will include appeal, practical effectiveness, originality, “high-concept” clarity and succinctness. I am inviting you all to tell me how to do my job, at least for one week, and I hope you will also feel free to comment on the nominees. Poetry is sometimes thought to be an aristocratic art. Do democracy and poetry go together?

Deadline: Sunday, May 22, 6 P.M.


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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