Next Line, Please

Title Precedes Text

By David Lehman | November 13, 2018

If one of our goals is diversity among unity (or vice-versa), we need a constant that allows for an infinite number of variables. One common element might be the title, and I have long thought it possible—and sometimes desirable—to begin with a title rather than end with one.

Two titles strike me as readymades: “Occupational Hazards” and “Barroom Brawl.”

I like the former because it is part of our discourse, a phrase that can suit many purposes or occasions; the latter because it, too, is a familiar phrase and may conjure up a very concrete scene. I keep thinking of a cartoon in The New Yorker style, in which the patrons of the bar keep their gaze fixed on the fight on the TV set while two of their fellow patrons duke it out a few feet away.

If you find either of these titles an attractive starting point, please write a poem 10 to 15 lines long. A second constraint might prove useful. For example, you may write a 10-line poem divided into two five-line stanzas, both of which have identical last lines.

Or—and I love this as a stunt—a 12-line poem in which the numbers from one to nine appear in English or homophonic form. You are encouraged to take liberties. The word for “five” in French sounds like “sank”; “four” is “fear” in German; “nine” is “nein” in that language; the word “one” is included in “wonderful.” It’s a wonderful paradox that constraints act as liberators of the imagination.

Note: I compiled a list of “Thirty-Two Titles for Bad Poems” for the magazine 32 Poems, which devotes its back cover to lists of thirty-two items. Mine appeared as the back cover of their Spring/Summer 2017 issue. Some of the titles are truly terrible, but friends have told me that several seem worth pursuing. Check it out here.

Send in what you have by Saturday, November 17, 2018, midnight any time zone.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

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