Next Line, Please

The Tragic Acrostic

By David Lehman | November 28, 2017
Aaron Burden/Unsplash
Aaron Burden/Unsplash

I thought it would be difficult, but the “Next Line, Please” team was equal to the task of composing an acrostic spelling out “Antigone.”

Christine Rhein’s “Antigone” won my heart:

As in any one heart, compelled,
Not by duty, but by grief,
To defy a hateful law, its tonnage.
Imagine being locked away.
Gone for good, the saying goes.
Oh, giant nation, the Thou-Shalt-
Nots all knotted, the anti-anti-lies,
Every tone, atonement tolling.

Christine checks off all the boxes: she includes such Antigone-based anagrams as “giant” and “anti” and makes beautiful use of “one” and “gone.” When Christine expressed her doubt about “giant nation” in line six—should she flip the words?—Millicent Caliban, the critic of the week, rode to the rescue: “I like ‘giant nation’ and love your last line!”

Eric Fretz assembled his acrostic from Kierkegaard, whose fascinating and very original take on “Antigone” occurs in Either / Or. Eric also sneaks in an echo of what Cassius says to Brutus in Julius Caesar:

Autonomy arose, announced, as
Night faded like the dying gods.
Towards “existence precedes essence” and beyond, our sister/daughter does
Inflict this suffering upon herself, and like her heart, she nods,
Gone away from herself, and towards her father’s guilt.
One move, like Sophocles to Socrates, the fated to the free.
Not in the stars, but in ourselves, our love is built,
Engendered, like a tree house round the hanging tree.

Again, “gone” and “one” make their presence felt. Millicent Caliban wrote: “Beautiful!” You’ve set the bar very high for the rest of us.

Elizabeth Solsburg wrote up her version of “The Secret of Antigone”:

And there is nothing left of time;
now is what remains to us—
the whole of existence
in the pause between pen and page.
God is in the punctuation;
one small change,
nuanced by a falling drop of ink—
eternity created or gone.

Lines five and six knocked me out, and I said so, prompting this riff from Michael C. Rush:

God is in the punctuation:
colons are sacrificed, semi-colons reborn as commas,
commas abandoned for fast, unfettered speech
that preaches a heaven of chaos …

“Antigone’s Secret” by Angela Ball paraphrases Sophocles with a twist, using four terms that are less than familiar to most readers, starting with the perfectly chosen agon and moving on to titrate, expiklarate, and peripetaea.

Agon in human form, mere woman, she won respect from
Nemesis Creon, cherished a stain none may
Titrate: her father’s fate, his adamantine
Ignorance. She lived expiklarate, bearing a king’s
Guilt, defied the State to give her brother rites.
Oh teach us, impeccable bride, peripetaea
No tyrant may confine, radiant
Escape. A cave guards your sorrow, stays mum.

A spirited discussion of the Greek words—especially expiklarate, which none of us could find in a dictionary—broke out between Michael C. Rush and Paul Michelsen, both of whom felt (as do I) that the obscure words work to the benefit of the poem.

Charise Hoge, winner of the Lou Gehrig Award for most consecutive NLP games played, made the story of Antigone an allegory of autumn.

Autumn will be gone,
Nascent winter descends on
Trees that spent their leaves
In allegories. And she—
Goddess with no connections—
Overlorded, to consequence of nation.
Notwithstanding stark of landscape,
Even the lockdown conveys the gate.

I love “Goddess with no connections” and wonder about “Overlorded” in the next line, perhaps because I can never see that word without thinking of Operation Overlord, the code name for D-Day.

For magnificent brevity it would be hard to top Emily Winakur:

Almost a woman,
No longer a girl—
Tell me,
If you dare, why you chose
Gods over men;
Over living

This week, more than most, lent itself to the concept of an anthology. Here are four other efforts I would include:

Diana Ferraro

Awkward comparisons to a role model spark,
Not the half-sister, less the incest’s daughter.
Thebes speaks loud, who hasn’t a country
In which rules need to be spelled, once and again?
Guards and drums may hail the chief
Or people bend at his feet, in awe, shame, or fear,
Not this woman, righteous sister, tempered lover.
Enemy of evil, she bequeaths her deadly how-to.


Terence Lennon

Are none as clear eyed and sure as you?
None, not even kin, headstrong and brave enough
to stand against nation and age?
In what land should the passion of a single
goat stand against the herd?
Once done, all suffer
no one shall be spared the wrath of
endings, savage and eternally silent.


Ravindra Rao

And the brutal man arrived with shovel,
Not bothering to hide his intention
To plant a body. He stunk of allium and
Ill will, his lower mind seeking to supplant the
Gods. And can we not gauge it a success?
Once the pious have all hanged themselves,
Now remain the proud, alone at last with their sacred


Bryan Johnson

Artemisia Gentileschi’s “Self-Portrait as Antigone” (1640)

Antigone in deep-time bloom, bone-white
Night-shining, hankering for
Termination dust, Antigone would brittle
Inside the bleached inside of god.
Go, now, like a husk of glass, put every socket
On Creon’s wax, put your hand in his wings and go
Now, before it stings the little white
Elegy straight through, steaming in the sun.

I, too, enjoyed the challenge and produced this acrostic:

David Lehman

As David to Goliath is Antigone to Creon.
Not arms but a wrist, a will implacable,
Trumps the boss. The antithesis is between
“I” and “you,” kid brother or little sister versus
Grim boastful giant, the executor of the State.
Oedipus has to do what he does;
Not you; you choose your fate
Every time, and a prince dies for love of thee.

To which Millicent Caliban quite properly said, “I thought we weren’t supposed to bring contemporary politics into our poems!” My aim (I explained) had been to compare the biblical David and the Greek heroine and then to modulate to Antigone and Oedipus. But I needed a verb beginning with T at the start of line three, and the temptation was too strong to resist. Millicent let me off the hook, citing the fine print of my poetic license, which I had luckily remembered to renew.

Poems by Donald LaBranche, Clay Sparkman, and Rick Ray also gave pleasure. My thanks to everyone.

For next week, I propose writing a poem that includes—whether as a point of departure, a last line, or something in-between—one of these lines lifted from movies I love:

(1) “I’m going to break that marriage up”—Teresa Wright in The Best Years of our Lives

(2) “I’ll have what she’s having”—spoken by director Rob Reiner’s mother in When Harry Met Sally in Katz’s Deli (NYC)

(3) “How the hell do I know why there were Nazis? I don’t know how the can opener works.”—from Hannah and Her Sisters

As for me, I plan to write a sonnet-length homage to John Ashbery, beginning with the line: “I had tried every pillow out there and none of them worked.”

Deadline: Saturday, December 2, 2017, midnight any time zone.

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