The Spirit of CollaborationPrint
By David Lehman
March 28, 2017
We have decided to extend this week’s contest until Saturday, April 8, at midnight, so keep your verses coming!
Something extraordinary happened this week. We witnessed the evolution of one poem in its entirety and significant line changes in two others as the result of back-and-forth exchanges among participants. Maybe “partners” is the better word, or “collaborators,” if that didn’t have a bad political smell. But the spirit of literary collaboration goes back centuries, so perhaps we can recuperate the word. This week I’d sooner report on developments on this front than anything else, though I will certainly quote some of the best efforts that came in response to the prompt, which was to take an antithesis proposed by Immanuel Kant (such as “understanding is sublime, wit is beautiful”) and make it the basis of a poem. I should fess up to having written a poem precisely in line with this prompt as a self-assignment. The result, “On the Beautiful and Sublime,” was published in a London magazine and appears in my New and Selected Poems (Scribner, 2013).
Courtney Thrash wrote the poem that got talked about the most. Out of 140 total comments, “Southern Hospitality” garnered 30. Paul Michelsen, Ricky Ray, Michael C. Rush, Charise Hoge tangled with the poem fruitfully and in detail. Here is Courtney’s initial offering:
“Friendship has mainly the character of the sublime.”
“Understanding is sublime.”
In the South, we bake pies—for widows,
new mothers, no reason—while old demons watch.
In the South, it’s taboo to complain or
put words to the pain that waters down
batter with tears in the mixing bowl.
Cut into the apple betty and apologize:
“It’s usually got more body.” She sets out
two of her Granny’s old saucers while coffee
brews and you plate a slice of your soul.
“I don’t need you to say that you like it. Just tell me
you know,” you pretend that you say, but
In the South, the pie is always delicious,
and we chew with our mouths closed.
There was much conversation about “apple betty” in particular and the mores of the South. At a certain point, Courtney was moved to wonder whether she needed to ask for Kant’s forgiveness “and also, perhaps, Mr. Lehman’s for exceeding the line limit,” which I had specified as eight. Paul Michelsen acknowledged that “rules are made to be broken” but wondered whether it wouldn’t be a good idea “to be totally brutal and make the cuts necessary to bring [the poem] down to eight [lines].”
Paul declared that he had turned the poem into a prose poem. Charise Hoge volunteered that she had “played around with cutting [the poem] to eight lines too (in my head).”
Taking the hint, Courtney Thrash rewrote the poem to make it conform to the eight-line specification:
In the South, we bake pies while old demons watch.
It’s taboo to put words to the pain that drips
into mixing bowls and waters down batter. Cut into
the apple betty and apologize: “It’s usually got more body.”
She sets out two of Granny’s old saucers while the
coffee brews and you plate up a slice of your soul.
“Tell me you taste it,” you pretend that you say.
“It’s delicious, anyway,” she says with a smile.
Ricky Ray had a go with it:
In the South, we bake for widows, new mothers,
no reason—old demons critiquing technique.
Here, it’s taboo to complain or put words to the pain
that waters down batter with tears. Cut it and cringe:
“Usually has more body.” Set out Granny’s saucers
and plate a slice of your soul. “Tell me you taste it,”
you pretend to say, but In the South, the pie’s
always delicious; we chew with our mouths closed.
So did Michael C. Rush:
In the South, we bake pies—
for widows, new mothers, no reason.
To complain or put words to the pain
waters down batter with tears in the bowl.
Cut into the apple betty:
“It’s usually got more body.”
A slice of your soul, always delicious.
We chew with our mouths closed.
Then, with thanks to Paul for his encouragement, Courtney turned the poem into a prose poem:
In the South, we bake pies—for widows, new mothers, no reason—while old demons watch. It’s taboo to complain or put words to the pain that waters down batter with tears in vintage mixing bowls. Cut into the apple betty and apologize: “It’s usually got more body.” She sets out two of Granny’s old saucers while the coffee brews and you plate up a slice of your soul. “I don’t need you to say that you like it. Just tell me you know,” you pretend that you say, but in the South the pie is always delicious, and we chew with our mouths closed.
The grace note was provided by Christine Rhein (“A stunning poem, Courtney!”), though she did not indicate which version of “Southern Hospitality” she favored. Christine’s own poem “October at the Lake”—which takes its point of departure in Kant’s distinction between tragedy (sublime) and comedy (beautiful)—triggered a discussion when the author wondered whether the arresting first lines were enhanced or diminished by the exclamation point that concluded them:
Funny, the whispers, sighs, those mashed-up refrains
of the sea and the shore—the two of them carrying on!
Charise Hoge and Millicent Caliban voted to eliminate the point; Bryan Johnson argued in favor of keeping it, calling it “a nice little mischievous wink.” What (you ask) do I think? I’m not saying! But, Christine, is it really wise to quote Elizabeth Bishop’s celebrated parenthesis from “One Art” in the last line?
Also because of our community of readers and writers, Diana Ferraro rewrote the last line of her poem, which in its initial form read this way:
The child cries now for help as horror resists to fade.
Spurred on by Michael C. Rush’s statement that he had “trouble parsing the last four words,” and by valuable commentary from Ricky Ray, Linda Marie Hilton, and byron (who felt the line should end with “help”), Diana altered the line to read “The child cries now for help as horror holds on.”
Christa Whitsett Overbeck wowed readers with
On Turner’s Snow Storm—Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth
“Courage is sublime and great, artfulness is little but beautiful”
Composed, the sweep of swirling sky and sea
The aperture of art attends the threat.
How many imagined souls cower in that painterly hull
While I walk the glossy planks of the gallery?
Who is to say what counts as courage, what as art?
To look, to inspire the looking—all these false divisions,
They are but shifting conditions. Blinded by the snow,
The horizon no more divides the morning from the night.
Angela Ball did her best to refute Kant in her poem “Distinctions”:
Friendship has mainly the character of the sublime, love between the sexes, that of the beautiful.
I disagree. To encounter one’s friends
is beautiful, to encounter
the man who sends
you, sublime. To embrace
him is beautiful, to write
a poem for him, sublime.
Poetry is transpiration
of state: images
and the subliminal,
I loved other things, too, such as Linda Marie Hilton’s juxtaposition of Kant and Stéphane Mallarmé and the priceless quote from Mel Brooks that Paul Michselen used as an epigraph: “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.” By the same logic minus the humor, we would get an alignment of the ego, the sublime, and the tragic opposing the other, the beautiful, and the comic—a paradigm worth contemplating.
Diana Ferraro, Paul Michelsen, and Michael C. Rush praised the “high-quality prompts” that helped inspire these poems.” I’m grateful for the acknowledgment, eager to do my part, and certain that congratulations are deserved by all. I concur with the opinion that the quality of the writing, “already impressive, seems to keep improving as we go along.”
For next week, I thought that we might take a compelling phrase from one or another poem written to meet this week’s challenge. I am thinking of Bryan Johnson’s phrase “Beautiful Panic” as one possible title and Millicent Caliban’s “What the Soul Craves” as another. Your poem should include one of the following lines: Ricky Ray’s “the way she moves, it’s beautiful,” Christa Whitsett Overbeck’s “Who is to say what counts as courage,” OR this truncation of a lovely line by Elizabeth Solsburg, “I would pay millions for one day of . . .”
Deadline: Saturday, April 1, 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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