Next Line, Please

The Two-Line Poem

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By David Lehman

March 24, 2015


 

When I edited The Oxford Book of American Poetry, I discovered a whole genre of two-line poems—poems that make their point quickly and efficiently, with maximum clarity and economy and usually more than a soupçon of wit.

Let’s write two-line poems for next week. The trick is, you need to write approximately 10 of them to get one or two that are really terrific. So I encourage everyone to submit as many as five, optimally one on each of five successive days.

The most famous anthology piece is doubtlessly Ezra Pound’s succinct plea for Imagism, “In a Station of the Metro”: “The apparition of these faces in a crowd; / Petals on a wet, black bough.” Each word is essential.  The title situates us in the specific place; the first line gives us a close-up; the second line accomplishes the metaphorical transformation. Note that for Pound the urban modernist, the value remains on nature.

The funniest two-line poem is by my old friend, the late A. R. Ammons. It consists of nine words distributed evenly among the title and two lines. Here it is:

Their Sex Life

One failure on
Top of another

The double meaning of “failure” is sweet, and then the lining clinches the deal. The word “Top,” capitalized (a very rare thing in Ammons’s oeuvre), is the masterstroke.

The two-line poem can be an invitation to acerbic observation, as when Dorothy Parker, in “News Item,” notes that “Men seldom make passes / At girls who wear glasses.” How times have changed!

There is also the temptation to create an epigram. J. V. Cunningham was one of the best at this. Here is his “Epitaph for Anyone”: “An old dissembler who lived out his lie / Lies here as if he did not fear to die.” The poem’s wit depends not only on the crucial pun that ends line one and starts line two but on the quality of lie and self-deception that the poet brilliantly captures.

I would also commend Charles Reznikoff’s poem “The Old Man,” a perfect illustration of Objectivism:  “The fish has too many bones, / and the watermelon too many seeds.” The title is unpromising, yet the poem makes it come to life simply by giving us the man’s point of view. Not an extraneous word, yet the voice of complaint is eloquent and convincing.

I encourage all to write as many two line poems as you can; discard the early efforts; try different styles and approaches and points of view. Have fun with it. All the examples given here, plus others, are to be found in The Oxford Book of American Poetry.

Deadline: midnight, Saturday, March 28!


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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