Toasts and ResolutionsPrint
By David Lehman
January 2, 2018
Happy New Year, everyone. Let’s begin by clinking glasses with Emily Winakur, who proposes “a huge toast to all the NLP poets, and David of course, for making 2017 the year I started writing again. I am so grateful to each and every one of you.” If we have inspired poets to put pen to paper, break a dry spell, or overcome a block, we can look back with pride on the accomplishment—and notch a victory for the force of four C’s: the blend of collaboration, competition, challenge, and community that “Next Line, Please” has come to represent.
Our last prompt was a call for poems exhibiting the technique of “double alliteration.” It would be hard to better the effort of Robert Albrecht, who turns the “j” and “e” of “Journey East” into a chanson embodying advice to a “young friend”:
Journey east, my young friend,
Before jeunesse escapes you.
Away from judging eyes,
And jabbing elbows,
Journey east with intention
To the country of Jowett’s enchantment,
Where the sermons of Jonathan Edwards
Still judiciously echo.
Journey east with humility,
And put a just end
To this jealous enmity
For those juntos eclectic
Who’ve since journeyed east.
Emily Winakur characterizes the poem as “an unexpected mantra,” and I agree. In line two of stanza two, I took “Jewett” to be a typo for “Jowett,” Benjamin Jowett of Balliol College, Oxford, an eminent Victorian who translated Plato. If I am wrong, please correct me, Mr. Albrecht. In the meantime, kudos on incorporating Spanish (“juntos” for “together”) and French (“jeunesse” for “youth”) to such good effect.
Mandana “was aiming for something crafted, if not momentous, especially for such talented company” but could come up only with “this tiny little dab of silliness”:
The tsuris of stalled
tsetses—O stuck tsunami
of staccato tsks.
If brevity is a virtue, all this “dab” lacks is a title. The association of “tsuris,” “tsetses,” and “tsunami,” mixing a Yiddish word for troubles, a bloodsucking fly, and a tidal wave, is brilliant, whether the subject be “Toil, Sweat, and Tears,” “Stormtrooper Trauma,” or “Sarajevo Trust.”
Of Eric Fretz’s several noteworthy attempts to apply the technique to the task of summarizing a literary personality, I have a particular fondness for “H.D.”:
Her days held
Down her dreams,
Heralded daughter of
Herr Doctor Doolittle.
Her disastrous engagement
To the half-declining English
Pound was just the start.
Her dead brother,
Her stillborn child.
Her doubts on Freud’s couch.
In London till
H.D., Hellenic Dryad,
Has dear Eurydice,
At Orpheus above.
There is reason to believe that the writer who called herself HD (Hilda Doolittle) was herself enthralled with her initials. A book of her late poems is called Hermetic Definition. Barbara Guest titled her biography of H.D. Herself Defined.
This is what happens when, guided by Eric, we catch up with William Carlos Williams at “the west corridor / water cooler.” In the best lines of the poem, W. C. W.
withdrew all convention,
wildly cavorted, and even
when calm, wrote couplets
which changed writing, captured
women, clouds, Paterson, plums,
petals, noses, and
How could I not respond enthusiastically to Berwyn Moore’s masterly “MS,” which she dedicates to me, explaining that she had “read some of David’s ‘abbreviation poems’ a few years ago and was inspired to try my own.”
MS stood for Mary Shelley, or magnetic storm,
for mackerel sky in Mississippi, or malfeasance
at Microsoft. The mother ship sank. Mother
Superior scoffed. The mystery shopper slunk
among suede mules and mauve sheets. Megastars
slung mud. Miscreants smudged murals. Such
mindless moosetwits, as if a maelstrom of slurs
and mean tones mangled Mahler’s 6th symphony.
Metrosexuals mimic Mona Lisa’s smile, moan
at muscle shirts. Students muddle manuscripts.
Sorry for Ms. M’s multiple sclerosis. Miniskirts
seduce money-spinners as mothers spit, mongrels
snarl, mendicants swoon, men shrug. So mind your
manky spirit. Mourn your shoddy moral sense.
Terrific. I am particularly grateful to Berwyn for “abbreviation poems,” which is a perfect way to sum them up.
Ricky Ray takes the double alliteration in an entirely different direction in his well-titled “Toward What”:
To walk down the flaking
concrete steps, watch a mother
shift child from hip to hip
and sigh the way an old master
commands canvas to take on
vision, vermilion, the eventualities
of breastmilk—to place my hand
over the pain in the small of my back
as if I could draw it out
and throw it away—to sniff the air
and wonder which walk to take
(because walking has come
into these legs again)
is quite enough test of the will
to be getting on with.
Courtney Thrash commented she had “read the lines from ‘watch’ to ‘vision’ countless times and they get better each time.”
Meanwhile, “RB” turned not into rhythm and blues but a prose poem in the form of a “bizarre but righteous parable” from Ravindra Rao:
Running by the riverbank, bloated and regretting Arby’s, our bonhomme remembers: the race will be won by the tortoise, never the brash rabbit. A bizarre but righteous parable. He retches his burden into nearby bushes; back to running. Bored but relieved.
Registering his “delight in every r and b,” Paul Michelsen singled out “regretting Arby’s” and “He retches his burden into nearby bushes.”
Donald LaBranche has a wonderful pair of initials to work with in “DL”:
That morning I woke to a Viking wind.
An iron-shafted halberd piercing Nana’s
dilapidated louvers, then goose fleshing
up the full height of floor-to-ceiling windows
like a far northern warrior could set teeth
to quivering in Dublin’s ladies and gentlemen
who would dare recollect his long-ago presence
on their darkly laced Georgian streets. That
spear iced the house: toes, nose, ears, fingers
until I rushed to stoke the morning’s fire
and shivered up a dreamy longing for softer
skies, warmer seas, cold steel put aside.
Christine Rhein reports that circumstances oblige her to absent herself for a while. She “won’t be able to join in the end-of-year review of poems, but my, what a rich, wonderful year it has been, and I would like David to know that the NLP community means a great deal to me.” She “looks forward to participating again sometime down the road,” and she’ll get a warm welcome when she does.
Angela Ball celebrates year’s end with this “High Five”:
Anhydrous hepcats eye
irate hearsay. Piracy
Millicent Caliban volunteered to undertake the task of assembling everyone’s list of their best-loved poems from the past year. Everyone was asked to nominate five of their own poems, and Millicent promised to create a link to a master document giving everyone easy access to the poems. We are asked to vote for our 10 favorites in time for the January 9 column.
Here were Millicent’s instructions:
If you would like to submit your own five best poems, please use the format below and submit as a reply to this comment here in Disqus.
By January 1 midnight if possible.
If you use this format, I can easily find your selected poems and
copy and paste them in full into a master list that you can all access
by a link and use for voting our collective 10 best for 2017 next week.
I hope to post the master list of poems in the Tuesday, Jan. 2 NLP column.
1) Painterly Poems (column title where you first submitted the poem)
Valentine’s Day Dream of a Paleoanthropologist (poem title) OR
Since we came to this hilltop, we sometimes glimpsed you (first line)
This entails a huge amount of work on Millicent’s part, and we are all in her debt. Millicent expressed the feeling of community behind this gesture while making merry with “Merry Christmas” in this musically charming manifestation of “a common mission.”
Seasons Greetings: Much Cheer!
Many causes might compel me
cautiously to make comments
mostly concerning wishes for a
I must consider that many
contributors here may confess
multifarious convictions, maybe
Christian or might be considerably diverse.
Could be Muslim or Confucian?
It matters not! That is how
community manifests itself.
We have a common mission:
convivially meandering minds
making creative messages
in meaningful collaboration.
While one can easily anticipate the arguments against it, the process of nominating and voting on favorite poems has a definite pedagogic value. Long ago and far away, in a senior seminar on the poetry of the Renaissance and seventeenth century, I had a professor who made us list the top 10 poems, in order of excellence, from that week’s poet, whether Wyatt, Greville, Sidney, Donne, Herbert, Marvell, Ben Jonson, et al. Our professor did have an agenda, though not a hidden one; if you understood the criteria, you could make the “right” choice. That logic doesn’t apply here. But in a community that sets store by frankness, intelligence, and sympathy, there must be a lot to learn from such a straw poll.
In next Tuesday’s column I will incorporate updates from Millicent on the year-end review and the results of the polling. I will also come up with a new prompt. It seems to me that reading (and savoring) poems of a certain excellence and then voting on their merits would leave little time for any other challenge this week. If I am wrong about that, well, New Year’s resolutions are a great subject for a poem.
Deadline: Saturday, January 6, 2018, midnight.
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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