Next Line, Please

The Unmasking

By David Lehman | January 12, 2016


For the title of our sonnet, I chose “Jailbreak,” Millicent Caliban’s suggestion, because in one word it summarizes the most compelling action in our poem. Second place: Berwyn Moore’s “The Novelist,” for reasons given below. Third place: Michael C. Rush’s “The Key,” because it is the crucial noun in our second stanza.

Best commentary: A tie between Angela Ball’s “black box” argument and Millicent Caliban’s brilliant line-by-line analysis. From Angela: “We are confined by a dark universe that keeps us in solitary. A black box, if you will, from which we attempt to write (and paint, dance, play) ourselves free.” According to Millicent, “Stanza two implies that marriage can be the antithesis of erotic romance when it becomes a ‘cage’ or prison. The ‘jailer’ is the restrictive convention of monogamy. If we remain in a loveless marriage, we are buried alive; that is, ‘terms of interment’ (rather than ‘endearment.’)”

Here is the revelation I promised, an unmasking. All along our sonnet has conformed to the line endings of a sonnet by W. H. Auden:

Encased in talent like a uniform,
The rank of every poet is well known;
They can amaze us like a thunderstorm,
Or die so young, or live for years alone.

They can dash forward like hussars: but he
Must struggle out of his boyish gift and learn
How to be plain and awkward, how to be
One after whom none think it worth to turn.

For, to achieve his lightest wish, he must
Become the whole of boredom, subject to
Vulgar complaints like love, among the Just

Be just, among the Filthy filthy too,
And in his own weak person, if he can,
Must suffer dully all the wrongs of Man.

(Note: There is an anomaly. I erred when it came to assigning the end-words for lines seven and eight; I flipped the proper order. Therefore, the second stanza of our sonnet does not conform strictly to this pattern.)

Auden’s sonnet is entitled “The Novelist.” Berwyn Moore deserves hearty congratulations for suggesting the same title, whether she arrived at it by uncanny intuition, on the basis of our poem, or because she knows her Auden. Mega kudos. It is, in any case, a wonderfully apt title.

This, then, is what we wrote:

Jailbreak  Millicent Caliban

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

Look at the way they look at us. As though we’re too          Brandon Crist
Precipitous with a plot, as if we can                              Charise Hoge
Dig up the words to write the wrongs of man. Lehman, Solsburg,

I’m amending line 14 to reflect suggestions from Elizabeth Solsburg and Paul Michelsen. (The line originally was “Trust ourselves to write the wrongs of man.” I want also to acknowledge Charise Hoge for pointing out that a third sense of “plot”—as in a burial plot­—enhances line 13. This argues in favor of the idiomatic “dig up” in line 14.

Some thoughts about the poem … and a peek at next week

The last four words of our poem echo Auden’s, so in more ways than one we’re acknowledging a literary debt and inviting readers to read the two poems side by side—or as scholars say, intertextually. And here’s the paradox: An important element of our experiment is that, by proceeding line by line, we wrote our poem entirely without conscious reference to Auden’s poem. Nevertheless, the two poems are connected—formally and perhaps in other ways as well.

This is the sort of exercise that Auden himself enjoyed. He believed that word games can be a more reliable source of inspiration than conscious intention. A second theory our experiment tests is whether anomaly, paradox, error, and accident (all of which have come into play) can prove beneficial to a poem.

Like others I feel that one subject of our poem is fiction: the dreams in line one, the fantasy of a scandal, the double hypotheticals in stanzas two and four, the imperative in stanza three. The whole poem is taking place in a universe of extreme contingency: our characters live in metaphor. We unmask ourselves, in the poem’s closing couplet, as writers struggling to create amid uncertainty and doubt.

Patricia Smith surmises that an unnamed “she” floats around here somewhere, and Millicent Caliban argues that the “our” and “we” in stanza one may be “the speaker referring to herself in the plural.” I find myself nodding my head in agreement. I can also imagine that the jailer in stanza two may refer not only to “the restrictive convention of monogamy” but also to the husband in a loveless or oppressive marriage.

In using unidentified pronouns, we’re doing something John Ashbery likes to do in the belief that all pronouns are or can be aspects of the single self, as all the characters in a dream are versions of oneself. The two unadorned declarative statements made in the poem may hold the key: “We crave a lovely scandal” and “We must / Appease our lust.”  But here the “we” has broadened out to speak for all poets who resort to fantasy to escape from sad actuality.

For next week: (1) Since we seem to be in the realm of the hypothetical as well as the virtual, I say: if we liked the poem enough to publish it, we would need a pseudonym. Suggestions, anyone? Ownership is joint. (2) I will come up with a new project for us, but I’d love to hear from people about forms or exercises you would favor.

Great thanks to all for a most stimulating discussion.

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