Next Line, Please

The One Thing

By David Lehman | November 7, 2017

Sometimes the comments and exchanges among the poets steal the show, and that was my experience this week—a week that saw a record-breaking number of comments (357). The basis for the prompt was John Ashbery’s poem “The One Thing that Can Save America.” Knowing that Ashbery, as is his way, does not name the thing designated in his title, I asked everyone to write a poem with that title or to propose a brief exegesis of his poem.

Millicent Caliban delighted me with her “attempt at decoding” Ashbery’s poem. Here is how her interpretation begins:

I think we are to read the title ironically, not as a hint at a universal “saving” solution but as an indication that “one thing” found by one person at a time might be a salvation. It must be private and individual, not “central” but found on the periphery, hidden in remote “cool” places. The sensibility here is rural, for Ashbery, “our country” is connected most intimately to “the country (orchards).”

I particularly like the way Millicent integrates key phrases of the poem in her analysis:

Expecting a universal solution is like “waiting for a letter that never arrives.” There is little we can do to avoid “danger”; we will all face our “lumps and trials” and only a few will be “exemplary, like a star” . . . . Perhaps what “saves America” is the imagined possibility of remoteness and privacy (“fenced places”) and indulged and reciprocated individuality rather than any form of “group think.”

I commented that if Millicent did the same thing with 10 to 15 equally challenging poems, she would deserve a master’s degree. “Maybe we can create the NLP equivalent,” I added. It didn’t surprise me a bit when our pseudonymous scholar admitted that she does have her MA in English literature, but it did make me feel better about our academic programs in graduate study.

Eric Fretz questioned whether Ashbery’s sensibility is “rural,” as Millicent contends, which impelled me to observe:  “Ashbery loved living in the city, NY in particular, but the country does have a special place in his heart and imagination, I think because of having grown up in Sodus NY. He was a lonely boy but like many lonely boys grew to have a fierce nostalgia for the days when he was a lonely boy.” It gratified me greatly when Michael C. Rush, a valued critic, quoted the last line of my comment and said “There’s the start of a poem, for sure.”

Another animated conversation broke out over this poem by Maureen:

The one thing that can save America

is not another Walmart. You could guess
Amazon—but you’d be wrong. No,
Starbucks didn’t invent it (like those lattes
you concede to liking lately). A daily dose
of it’s always good. Children are truly terrible
at containing it. Beware: it can be contagious.
When its volume gets too high, just try
suppressing it but don’t be surprised
if tears free-flow and you feel transcendent.

After Millicent, Michael, Eric and I exchanged views on the correct punctuation of line six in Maureen’s submission—namely, whether “it’s” should be divided into “it is” —the discussion widened to a consideration of “it.” Does it stand for “the one thing that can save America” or function as a fragment of the meme “it’s always good”? Meanwhile, Eric came up with “It,” a sparkling cento, each line lifted from an Ashbery poem:

Sometimes a word will start it, like
The first person thought of saying it,
Would avoid it, as we had, an imaginary railing
In the cities at the turn of the century. They knew about it;
Besides, who are we not to endorse it
In a million homes all over? The land conspired to hide it;
Drift thoughtfully over the land, not exactly commenting on it,
Until finally you have ripped it open not knowing what it is.
As balloons are to the poet, so to the ground—
It’s almost leaking to say it.

 Angela Ball continued her weekly practice of conjoining lines lifted from the preceding week’s entries:

Mermaid Tea

Omission’s double life:
brilliant-thighed frogs

from eternity.

Transitive, oblique,
obscurely spreading everyone’s
favorite encyclopedia:

ragdolls made of many ages,
singing slightly off key.

I hope that Angela will keep making such collages and will assemble them at some point.

Paul Michelsen came up with this idea:

Wouldn’t it be great if we all come up with our own end-of-the-year list of top ten (or however many) favorite NLP poems submitted in 2017 by our fellow Next Liners? It would be a tribute not only to the poems and the poets, but a fittingly Lehmanesque tip of the chapeau to the one who wears the Captain’s hat/fedora …

Michael C. Rush modified the idea: “Maybe phrase it instead as just listing a few poems that one especially liked/remembered from the year?”

Ravindra Rao posted “The One Thing That Can Save America”:

America, you are a teenager, knee-deep in a Freudian sea. Your friends
are all raucous, lighting bonfires on the beach, & soon the tall one

will dance with the one you find beautiful, but you are so drunk
on stolen wine & Stirner quotes that you will just sit in the water and sulk.

Well, this is only my guess, you zitted youth, flitting between
truths like a honeybee in a field of fake flowers. But let me not imply

that you are incapable of honey: where present, it is molten gold.
Yet the alchemy in your mind has left no room for memory.

America, will you ever grow old?

When Ravindra indicated that he felt the poem needed editing, I agreed and offered to revise it and post my effort this week. He gave his permission, and others liked the idea, so here goes.

Ravindra, I’d change the opening. Get rid of “Freudian.” Too general. Delete “are all raucous” in favor of active verb construction. Cut “just.” Delete the next to last line so that you end with the couplet. Thus,

America, you are fifteen years old. Your friends
are lighting bonfires on the beach, & soon the tall one

will dance with the one you find beautiful, but you are so drunk
on stolen wine & Stirner quotes that you will sit in the water and sulk.

Well, this is only my guess, you zitted youth, flitting between
truths like a honeybee in a field of fake flowers. But let me not imply

that you are incapable of honey: where present, it is molten gold.
America, will you ever grow old?

Do I have space for assorted other poems that find their inspiration in “The One Thing That Can Save America”? This is from byron:

There is one thing that can save America,
but no one will tell you what that thing is.
Even to call it a thing is to take liberties,
and in this indefinable regard it is like
making a living, having babies and bringing
them up, breaking up with your partner,
having a nervous breakdown, recovering,
giving up smoking, resuming a drinking
problem that doesn’t prevent you from
getting things done, and how you get
them done is a mystery even to you.

Clay Sparkman praised byron’s effort as “true to Ashbery in your own very reasonable way,” while Stephanie Cohen praised the last line for capturing “the mystery of our American experiment” while preserving the ambiguity of “how you get [things] done.” The appearance of “breaking up” and “breakdown” in successive lines did not escape notice.

Christine Rhein makes splendid use of the Dickensonian dash in “The One Thing That Can Save America”:

Consider the hollyhocks, summer trumpets
of red, white, violet—plants crowded thick,
standing tall in the sun. See them this November—
flowerless spines—leaves eaten away, gone
overnight, or slowly turned brittle, like seeds
inside stubborn cocoons. Picture the scatter—
seeds released for centuries, and wind-kicked plants
fighting storm, drought, thirsting to root deep,
to weave past the stones and fence posts. Look out
your window—another breaking dawn—at the wither
and decay, at that thinnest plant—somehow
still green—wearing nothing more than an old
and fading bud. But no—amid the frost, the fog—
look again—a blossom, shocking pink. See it sway.

I’ve exceeded my allotted length and to my regret can do no more than mention the wonderful poems from Charise Hoge, Diana Ferraro, Ricky Ray, Angela Ball and Emily Winakur.

Thank you all for your wonderful work.  And apologies to those who submitted work after 6 PM on the 4th; this was a week when I had to write early.

For next week, I suggest it is time for an autumn haiku. The standard rules apply: five syllables in line one, seven in line two, five in line three. Think of the poem as a metonymy for the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness. And if a brilliant one-word poem occurs to you under the heading “The One Other Thing That Can Save America,” let’s hear it.

Deadline: midnight, Saturday, November 11.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

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