Next Line, Please

The Top Ten

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(Kuraken/Flickr)

By David Lehman

January 16, 2018


 

Millicent Caliban counted the ballots and reported that the self-selected “NLP jury” picked the top 10 poems on this site in 2017, and 15 made the list:

Angela Ball, “The Difference (for G. C. Lichtenberg)”—7 votes
Ricky Ray, “Forbidden Diamonds”—6 votes
Christine Rhein, “Simplicity”—6 votes
Berwyn Moore, “Picasso’s ‘Woman with a Crow’”—5 votes
Elizabeth Solsburg, “To the young woman in the university hallway”—5 votes
Courtney Thrash, “The Present”—5 votes
Millicent Caliban, “Valentine’s Day Dream…”—4 votes
Millicent Caliban, “Input, Output”—4 votes
Diane Ferraro, “Death Rehearsal”—4 votes
Paul Michelsen, “emptyhanded”—4 votes
Paul Michelsen, “Never Say Forever Again”—4 votes
Berwyn Moore, “MS”—4 votes
Christine Rhein, “What The Soul Craves”—4 votes
Michael C. Rush, “Failure Story”—4 votes
Emily Winakur, “Ruby Red”—4 votes

Millicent added her “reflections on the voting procedure: as many of us have already acknowledged, the excellence of the submitted poems gave us all a sense of frustration and regret in choosing only 10, and, in fact, we ended up with 15” because “nine poems tied for fourth place.” There were other “kinks in the system,” which means “the voting methodology will need rethinking if we repeat this exercise in 2018.” After running the numbers, analyzing, and posting them, Millicent said, “It will be good to get back to writing poetry,” while the rest of us acknowledged our debt to her and our satisfaction in the results.

When last I looked there were 264 comments on last week’s post, many of them poems, or ideas for poems. There were poems inspired by the seven specific titles I suggested: Quick Question,” “Cheap Tricks,” “Long Story Short,” “Estimated Wait Time,” “Headline Risk,” “I personally guarantee,” and “The Take-Away.” There were also centos, the standard kind as well as visuals consisting of photographed stacks of books, the titles of which spell out the poem. The idea of using a pre-fabricated phrase, or somebody else’s title, has justified itself as a prompt, and the only downside is that more good work surfaced than I have room to feature here. My compliments to all.

J. F. McCullers wins plaudits for “January 1, 2018”:

Long story short,
My father didn’t join us
This New Year’s Day.
He didn’t smoke on the porch.
He didn’t eat black-eyed peas.
He didn’t go home full and sleepy.

Instead he sat alone in the sun
On the little bridge
Over the dark creek
Where we opened the urn
And scattered her ashes
Last New Year’s Day.

Angela Ball’s “Estimated Wait Time” provoked a chorus of admiring smiles as well as helpful edits:

Your natural life. OK
for air plants or
frost apples.
Why don’t the rest of us
adopt a monstrous
laissez non-faire?
Last winter, next winter, what
does it matter?
Fallen iguanas aren’t dead
but waiting
at your side, soothed
by the lotus of Muzak.
“Your call will be answered
in the order in which
it was received.”
Samuel Beckett
ahead of you; Saint Augustine
ahead of you; the emperor Constantine
ahead of you; the Hadian,
the Paleozoic, the Precambrian …
“Your call is muy importante
para nosotros. Please remain
on the line.”

Clay Sparkman used all seven suggested titles in “Seven Peccadillos of Poetry,” each in the form of a haiku, the whole “dedicated to our dear leader, David Lehman,” a lovely display of double alliteration. My favorite is “Cheap (Reader) Tricks,” though I would shorten the title to “Cheap Tricks”:

I once asked a friend
“Did you read my new Haiku?”
“I started,” he said.

Paul Michelsen’s “As We Know,” the title taken from John Ashbery’s 1979 collection, certifies his mastery of the cento as a poetic form. The opening line is irresistible:

Groucho Marx is dead. Elvis is dead. My drink is almost gone.
Gentle and just pleasure it is, being human
Such emotions are interruptions in landscape and in logic

Quick question:
Where among these did the spirit reside that restores the land to productive order?

Time was away and somewhere else
Toward some great Catalina of a dream
I’ll stare at the muss to endure all I am
You don’t say, she said.

And I must be run over by the shadow of a streetcar
Grammar in the shadows slanted on the wall

Paul listed his sources as, in order,

“Urban Maudlin” by Everette Maddox
“New Year’s Poem” by Margaret Avison
“Texas” by Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge

Quick Question (title of a John Ashbery collection, 2012)
“A Poem Beginning with a Line by Pindar” by Robert Duncan
“Meeting Point” by Louis MacNeice
“Imaginary Elegies, I-IV” by Jack Spicer
“Squatter in the Foreground” by Kenward Elmslie
“Just Friends” by Robert Creeley

“Conversation with Myself at a Street Corner” by Everette Maddox
“The Complete Introductory Lectures on Poetry” by Bernadette Mayer

The first and penultimate lines quicken my interest in Everette Maddox (1944-1989). An Alabama native, Rhett was one of the cofounders of a notable poetry reading series at the Maple Leaf Bar in New Orleans. Behind the bar his ashes are buried beneath a stone identifying Maddox and saying “He was a mess.”

While I am not certain how Ricky Ray’s “All’s Quiet” relates to the prompt, I’m not the sort of coach who complains when a batter, missing the bunt sign, hits a double:

It’s snowing, and the mind
is most beautiful
when she whispers
her thousand criers
not to sleep
but so far down
into quiet, one can hear
a thought echo
all the way back
to creation, and the universe,
that quivering mouse,
has a chance to slip out
into the cold
to admire
what’s become of itself.

Diane Ferraro works in all seven of the prompt phrases in “Online Cliché”:

I’ll ask you a quick question:
Would you play cheap tricks
on a woman, the way most men do?
No headline risk, of course, in our
anonymous mating business but
I personally guarantee you
I’ve seen more than one man
who believes this is a plain
take-away counter with a short
estimated wait time.
Long story short:
don’t count your chickens,
you’re not yet in.

My hunch is that Diane can find a better title for this, something more germane to “our / anonymous mating business,” a fine phrase. One of my unwritten rules for poets is never to use the word “cliché” in a title.

I was about to write “I could be wrong” to close the previous paragraph when I reminded myself that this universally applicable sentence is seldom meant when said. Emily Winakur writes that “what we often mean by ‘long story short’ is ‘thank you for indulging my hopefully entertaining tangents and the aspects of this narrative that are irrelevant but that I nevertheless want to talk about.” That discrepancy between statement and meaning gave me an idea for next week’s prompt. Write a 10-line poem in two stanzas, both of which end “I could be wrong.” The degree of sincerity versus irony in “I could be wrong” is the key. Or, and why not: a 10-line poem entitled “The Top 10.”

Deadline: Saturday, January 20, 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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