The Pen Name Is Mightier than the Word


This week the prompt was to use your name as the point of departure for a poem. First prize goes to Millicent Caliban for her cri de Coeur:

Nom de plume

A feather name is light.
It flies without the burden of an acknowledged self.
To choose your name is to set free
What else would be concealed within.
Thus can I speak with borrowed voices,
Which will not be confounded with that other
Who lives and breathes the common air;
That one who, once arrived, must claim her baggage.
I am duty-free, without accustomed tags or labels,
Can summon diverse spirits to soar, or maybe sink,
But never will be trapped in any sordid tree.

Millicent Caliban is so evidently a pen name, combining the heroine of a Restoration comedy with the male brute in “The Tempest,” that the subject of the pen-name, or nom de plume, turned out to be ideally set up for her. The poem seems filled with clues and with imagery that suits: to differentiate the free but secret self from the “baggage” of a worldly identity is to be “duty-free, without accustomed tags or labels” (with an extra nice pun on “customs”). I am a little mystified by the sordid tree that completes the poem, though I admire the way it picks up the rhyme of “free” in line the third.

Second place goes to Paul Michelsen for his cento—the last letters of which spell out his last name:

Last, at the end

The birds sing. The bees hum.
I cannot say more than that, can I?
Fade away like a lovely music
Of anybody’s sudden death
The world goes by my cage and never sees me
cared for anyone not at all
And the taste of you burnt my mouth with its sweetness.
“Perhaps you can write to me.”
Proof of whisperings I refuse to abandon.

Three-way tie for third, the distinction to be split among Angela Ball’s meditation on her given name


I often think I’ve
never quite “gelled”—innocence
wings and returns, quizzical,
cocked at some obtuse
angle. In German, I’m
hard-edged with a hint
of opera. Spanish to
English, the heart calls
out “hello” or “why
did you do that?”


and Eduardo Ramos Ruiz’s bilingual anagram poem

Ode de Muse

Arise dorado aura
amid medusoid dreams,
redo doomed odors.

Arouse razored ideas—
Eros’ amorous serum.
Dear Dread, adios!

and Charise Hoge for her “name claim check”:

not the paint of cerise
not the squint of an e
not a calamity of s’s
not a cha cha that arises
—cease filibuster—phoneticize,
begin in shh … end in ease
prescient ahh placed between
r is the trill for knees on bees


For next week … I have long treasured tabloid newspapers for their clever headlines, knowing puns, and funny turns of phrase. In today’s New York Post, for example, columnist Phil Mushnick wants to score off Major League Baseball’s use of replay tape to settle disputed calls—and gets his way, rhetorically at least, when he says that “MLB has reinvented the flat tire.”

I ask you to take a phrase from a newspaper, whether a headline or a sentence in an article, and use it to spring a succinct and witty poem. The phrase can be (but doesn’t have to be) your poem’s epigraph. Or, for example, it can serve as a quotation within your poem.

Deadline: Sunday May 1, 5 P.M.

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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