Next Line, Please

The Peace Dividend

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By David Lehman

June 6, 2017


 

 

Hats off: the “Next Line, Please” regulars, an expanding club, exemplify a level of civility and intelligence absent from most sectors of public life, literary commentary included. This is a rare and noteworthy accomplishment—as is the conviction, put into practice, that literary excellence is achievable with the help of others, or at least their attention.

I had proposed that we pick up on a dare implicit in Margaret Atwood’s prose poem “Women’s Novels,” in which she sarcastically says, “I no longer want to read books that don’t end with the word forever.” This is a prose poem I like—I included it in the Great American Prose Poems anthology I edited—in part because of its provocations. Accordingly, I suggested that we write poems ending with “forever” that steer clear of romantic cliché. Beyond that, freedom: “Your poem,” I wrote, “can ignore the source of the prompt, can acknowledge it in some subordinate manner (e.g. Atwood’s line as an epigraph), or can actively discuss Atwood’s assertion.” I added that in my own effort (which I never got around to writing) I expected to use the phrase “for fifteen minutes.”

Angela Ball ran with the conjunction of “forever” and “fifteen minutes” in her winning entry, “Fifteen Minutes of Forever,” a prose poem as far ranging as its witty title allows.

Atwood’s line is the launching pad for the poet’s own speculations and associations about time and “forever.” Angela begins with a bold proposition, then follows it with a series of arresting statements, including the concept of a “smoke point”:

Angela Ball
Fifteen Minutes of Forever

for Margaret Atwood

Women’s novels are soft-core porn for mentioning things that men mention in regular novels. That is because our smoke point is lower than men’s. That is because we have not been at it for all that long. This makes our sexual writing appear crude. When women bayonet an enemy, long-jump into danger, or use the fireman’s carry, they can’t be serious, since it can’t be happening. Not really. Women and their sexual writings are prime examples of “not really.” Women are known to talk with one another far more than non-women do, always about “feelings.” Hearing them talk is apt to make non-women conscious of their near-total alienation from such feelings as are usually discussed. These sentiments produce much healthy laughter, on screen and off. Women resemble parking meters. For that reason they were chosen as Meter Maids. For fifteen minutes, Andy Warhol was a woman. A Niagara of feelings married his consciousness to that of every other woman. That was when he realized that women are avant-garde when viewed by men. Not just any man, but him, specifically. And for no longer than fifteen minutes. Not forever.

More than one commentator applauded “non-women.” I hope that “For fifteen minutes, Andy Warhol was a woman” becomes famous.

Courtney Thrash mixes her diction (“whore out,” “legitimized by a bar code / and a literary prize”). Her “Cheap Tricks” ends with a pun accentuated by a brilliant line-break: “a climax / that will last forever”:

Courtney Thrash
Cheap Tricks

They’ll lock you up for walking streets,
but anyone can whore out words,

sell sex beneath coquettish covers—
art-laced legs thrust out from shelves—

legitimized by a barcode
and a literary prize.

Oh, it pays handsomely—
in increments of fifteen—

with interest and a climax
that will last forever.

Millicent Caliban hits a home run with lines that begin by echoing Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” and end in an “estimated” idea of eternity:

Millicent Caliban

Suspecting the silences
echoing in emptiness is
daunting and diminishes hope
of our receiving a response.
In this great galactic expanse,
are we allowed to be alone?
While there are worlds enough and time,
all we have to do is wait for
them (whoever) to come or call.
We hang on without hold music.
Estimated wait: forever.

Lee McAden Robinson gives us the rise and fall of a “gorgeous heroine with breasts”:

Lee McAden Robinson
Forever

She weeds through the stacks for stories
with happiness guaranteed. No violence.
True love. A gorgeous heroine with breasts
like promises ballooning from her bodice.
A prince with a castle in the country. Dark
smiling eyes. Doesn’t she deserve this respite
from real life?—the chemo, the scars,
the scarf, the husband who vowed for better,
for worse. The divorce. The doctor says
six months, maybe a little more.
She’s run out of time for books
that don’t end in forever.

I’d like to mention some of the other poems that impressed me. Clark Sparkman (“Literally speaking”) chose to confront Margaret Atwood directly in a verse essay. Berwyn Moore’s “Forever” juxtaposes sources ranging from Atwood to Emily Dickinson, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Fitzgerald, and John Berryman. In “Literary Fiction,” LaWanda Walters offers a sonnet hinging on a compelling comparison: “My mother was infamous, / but in the way of Diogenes.”

My thanks to all.


 

As today (June 6) is D-Day plus 73, may I suggest that for next week we write poems that enumerate, describe, or discuss any or many of the pleasures of peace. Kenneth Koch’s poem “The Pleasures of Peace” is a great example. William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens are others who find things to celebrate in merely being alive. A possible title: “In Favor Peace.” Or “The Peace Dividend.” The one requirement: no mention of war or politics.

Deadline, Saturday, June 10, midnight any time zone.


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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