Next Line, Please

The Minister of Loneliness

By David Lehman | March 6, 2018
Mattia Mionetto/Flickr
Mattia Mionetto/Flickr

Of all the virtues, honor is the one most often honored in the breach than in the observance. In the newly published collection of Next Line, Please columns, there was a typo in the head of the honor roll of names whose works were singled out for praise. “Honor roll” was rendered as “honor role.” We will have it fixed in subsequent printings, but while we have it, let’s capitalize on it. It occurred to me that the misspelling could provide impetus for the imagination—and perhaps a few ruminations on the nature of honor—and you, dear writers, did not disappoint.

Of the fate of honor in our culture, Michael C. Rush makes a compelling argument by analogy in the three lines of “Arete”:

Neither predators nor prey have honor.
Nor need it to restrain their worst impulses.
What are we, that need a code to guide us?

In addition to quoting Shakespeare’s Falstaff on the subject—“Honour is a mere scutcheon: and so ends my catechism”—Millicent Caliban took the opportunity to address a character on a television show in “Honor Role.” The last six lines are particularly fine:

Dedicated to Sergeant Phil Esterhaus on Hill Street Blues

Poppy seed, sesame, whole grain or rye—
choose your roll, cut it open, spread with butter.
Add a slice of ham or cheese, or blood red jam.
Sip your coffee strongly brewed to jack you up.
So your day begins, preparing to assume
the role demanded, act like you care, be real:
pater familias, chairman of the bored,
an honorable man must face the fears that loom.
Not every man may choose his role, and yours may be
a sad one. Now it’s time to get behind the wheel.
Let’s roll and remember to be careful out there.

Christine Rhein  makes the point that this week’s prompt has something in common with our deliberate mistranslations of a few weeks ago. The wordplay in her “Honor Role” is splendid:

Give me an H! Give me an O
so close, that rolled-out roll
rolling away, and the honor left
misplaced, misfired, as in haywired,
the role—spot lit, hammed up,
grown rolly poly—I mean
holy cannoli—no proofreading
in my pudding,
yet no honor roll
of shame, no lame, Spellcheck blame
braking badly into song, braking all
my fingers, braking me off
at the pleas—
next line
yes, please—give me a break.

From Charise Hoge came an admiring comment on Christine’s “no proofreading / in my pudding,” jumping the gun on me. Charise herself favored us with “Favor”:

The role of honor
is clothes:
the justice’s robe,
the graduate’s gown.

What of the voice
less dressed—
not to a wardrobe born,
or made?

What of questions
that pull on sleeves
like children pestering
to be seen?

I like Ravindra Rao’s “Honor Role,” and got a kick out of the play with Hamlet in lines two and three. If it were up to me I’d end the poem with “like a lovesick dog.”

The honorable one must look the part,
take up arms against a sea of stubble.
What is nobler in the hind is certainly
not the protrusion of an arrow, not Cupid’s,
not no one’s. In other worlds: do not look
like a lovesick dog, do not let your tail
wag in front of her. Remember: the
honorable worm gets the lady bird.
Approach with a clear face free of fear.

Let me know whether my editing idea appeals to you, Ravi.

Alluding to the collaborative nature of our enterprise, Patricia Smith sounds a grace note in “Role of Honor”:

honor, indeed, when
collaborative role earns
a place on the roll


The evolution of a prompt:

Stimulated by A. Hawthorne Hill’s use of epigraphs (e.g., Balzac’s “Behind every great fortune lies a great crime”), I thought of something Voltaire once said: “Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.” I wager that the line as it stands or in some approximation of it (e.g., “Doubt isn’t any fun, but certainty is madness”) could serve either as an epigraph for a poem or as the poem’s first line.

Optional: use one of the following phrases—“professor of doubt,” “connoisseur of chaos,” or “minister of loneliness.” The second of these I lifted from Wallace Stevens; the third from an article by Stewart Dakers that appeared in The Guardian on January 23. The subject of Dakers’s article was the appointment of Tracey Crouch, M.P., to fill the newly created post of “minister of loneliness.” She will need all the help she can get, Dakers writes, because she is up against powerful vested interests and because, in the academic jargon of our time, “loneliness is a cultural construct, a lifestyle issue.”

If you disregard all else and write a poem called “Minister of Loneliness,” please make it as jovial as possible. Pity is as disagreeable as self-pity, but the phrase is too rich to leave unremarked on.

Deadline: Saturday, March 10, 2018, midnight any time zone.


Cornell University Press has chosen March 15 as the official publication date for Next Line, Please: Prompts to Inspire Poets and Writers. Pub date is determined by a calculation: by March 15, it is assumed that finished books will have reached bookstores. Many bookstores like to showcase local authors. Suggestions made to store managers do not always fall on deaf ears, so do make them aware of the ides of March.

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