The Key That Confirms the Lock


There were four finalists for this week’s winning entry. Here they are:

Patricia Smith
If marriage is a cage, we can force the lock, but he
clutches the key, a jailer too stubborn to learn

Helen P.
If marriage is a cage, we can force the lock, but he
is not a dove. He is a hawk and hawks can learn

Paul Michelsen
If marriage is a cage, we can force the lock, but he
forgot where the getaway car is parked. He’ll never learn

Michael C. Rush
If marriage is a cage, we can force the lock, but he
Who thinks marriage a cage will soon learn

I love Michael C. Rush’s unexpected repetition of the “if” clause of the previous line. Paul Michelsen’s line is funny and charming and conducts us with fabulous swiftness from the metaphor of the locked cage to the realm of cops and robbers and getaway cars. An excellent example of iambic hexameter, Helen’s line keeps the cage and adds the birds—doves and hawks, birds that we have, since at least the time of the Vietnam War, charged with political significance. Patricia Smith adds the key, the jailer (who may be well our protagonist), and the possibility that the jailer may be a prisoner in disguise.

Well, any of the four would serve us well, but that’s not a practical solution, so I’ll make the tough call. I pick Patricia Smith for first prize, Paul Michelsen for first runner-up, Helen P. for second runner-up, and Michael C. Rush for honorable mention.

Our next line—line three of stanza two—must end with turn or to turn as we complete an A-B-B-A stanza, the rhymed stanza that Tennyson used with perfection in “In Memoriam.” Note the average length of our lines and try to follow suit. Bear in mind that “learn” here can be intransitive—i.e., it does not need an object—or transitive. So our next line can specify what it is that he “learns” or it can assume that line 6 has come to a full end. Either “too stubborn to learn/ how to sit still for sixty minutes and then turn” or “too stubborn to learn / and too proud to stand up, back off, and turn” would work, to offer two examples that come to mind.

Deadline: Sunday, November 22, at noon.

Here’s where we are now:

Our dreams as disparate as our days uniform, Michael C. Rush
We crave a lovely scandal with someone well-known; Angela Ball
Midnight champagne, penthouse lit by thunderstorm, Christine Rhein
In this version of darkness, we are never alone. Elizabeth Solsburg

If marriage is a cage, we can force the lock, but he Christine Rhein
Clutches the key, a jailer too stubborn to learn Patricia Smith

Thanks, everyone.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

David Lehman, a contributing editor of the Scholar, is a poet, critic, and the general editor of The Best American Poetry annual anthology and author of the book One Hundred Autobiographies. He currently writes our Talking Pictures column.


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