Next Line, Please

Walt Whitman’s Manly Diet

By David Lehman | May 3, 2016


The prompt this week was to write a poem triggered by a newspaper headline or phrase in an article. The entries were good and very ambitious. The winner: Angela Ball for what she does with a phrase that leaped out at her from the day’s reading of the New York Times. Here is the winning entry:

“Walt Whitman Promoted a Paleo Diet”
—The New York Times

Walt, I know which way
your beard is pointing
tonight—toward meat!
Dripping joints of every
description, legs, sides,
stomachs—a manly diet.
But, Walt, every atom
of you as good belongs
to me! Atoms of
blueberries, blackberries,
kumquats, arugula, apples,
the seeds of sunflowers,
bread, effulgent at dawn and
rumbling (if you hold it to an ear)
of ovens. No wonder
you speak of “the sound
of the belch’d words
of my voice.” That is indigestion!
Walt, I know I am just a “tripper
and asker,” a “puller and hauler,”
but is it really too late
to change your mind? I call
to the thousand responses
of your heart. Death, strong
and delicious word,
is not so appealing in the form
of bloody flesh on a plate!
This gentle call is for you, my love,
for you. It comes from the twenty-ninth
bather. Surely you must know
who is here.

This is a fine poem by any standard, and I am delighted that a “Next Line, Please” prompt quickened it into existence. The poem is quite learned though it wears that learning lightly. Quotations from “Song of Myself” and “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” are woven into the lines, which sound Whitmanic in the best possible sense of that neologism. The exclamation points, the list of foods, the direct address to the great granddaddy of American poetry, the declaration of love—all contribute to the effect, which puts the poem in the select company of wondrous works that talk to Whitman. (Offhand, for example, I think of poems by Lorca, Pessoa, Hart Crane, Allen Ginsberg, Lnn Emanuel.)

Thank you to all who wrote or commented. “Next Line, Please” is, it seems to me, not only a pastime but an experiment in the creative mind and an investigation into the roots of poetic inspiration.

For next week, let’s write poems about paintings. Go to the local museum, ponder a painting, and write a brief poem about it. Use as your model, if you like, Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts” in which he writes about Brueghel’s “Icarus.” If you do not have ready access to a good art museum or gallery, exploit the worldwide web’s cache of reproductions of wondrous pictures by Raphael, Titian, Tintoretto, Rembrandt, Velázquez, Vermeer, Goya, Manet, Monet, Cézanne, Picasso, and Matisse (to limit myself to a dozen); choose one and make it the subject of your consideration. Please indicate the painter and title of painting with your entry or entries.

Deadline: Sunday, May 8, 5 P.M.

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