Next Line, Please

The Rules of Engagement

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By David Lehman

December 22, 2015


 

For line 11 of our sonnet-in-progress, I was typically undecided until the last possible moment, when I went with Joe Lawlor’s “The rules of engagement. The conflicts of lust. Just.”

The third stanza of our poem is now complete, although syntactically unresolved.

Two mourners arguing terms of interment. We must
Appease our lust, our momentary bliss subject to
The rules of engagement. The conflicts of lust. Just

Though I have lopped off the period at the end of the stanza, you have the option of restoring it. After all, poets revise as they go, and writing a new line may make one want to alter, however subtly, an earlier line. It is all process, all journey, and the amount of minutiae rewards the control freak who likes seeing what language can do.

Joe Lawlor’s line is a crisply delivered summary of the contradictions that energize our poem: do “rules of engagement” equal “conflict of lust”? Is it in the end lust rather than love that drives us from scandal to jail with a possible escape clause? Is that merely one hypothesis or is it worth exploring the overlap between the military sense of the phrase and the amatory application we are making of it? Are we doomed to clash? If the word “Just” leaves us hanging at the edge of space, well, so much the better for the ingenious poet faced with the task of writing the next line.

Second prize goes to Charise Hoge’s “Change, the clamor of amorous nights might just.” The line follows its powerful opening syllable with a musicality difficult to resist: the rhymes of clamor and amorous, nights and might.

I thought highly of such other lines as Charise’s second candidate “The rules of engagement, the roll of the dice. Just”; Millicent Caliban’s “Rules of engagement not dreamt of by the just” and Robert Stulberg’sThe rules of engagement, which, though binding, are not just.”

So this is where we are:

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
To read the graffiti. If need be, he can turn  Paul Michelsen
A bouquet to a wreath. Then we will be Poem Today

Two mourners arguing terms of interment. We must       Angela Ball
Appease our lust, our momentary bliss subject to               Berwyn Moore
The rules of engagement. The conflicts of lust. Just          Joe Lawlor


The next line (line 12) must end with the word “too” rhyming with line 10. It will serve as the opening line of the sonnet’s concluding three-line stanza.

Deadline: Sunday, December 27 at noon.


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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