We Need a New Word


Last Tuesday, I called for a short list poem (12 lines max) that includes three of the following words: “listless,” “invent,” “Tory,” and “catalogue.” Christine Rhein’s “Listless” issues a request for a new word commensurate with the intensity of the “ever-darker dread” with which many people are filled:

We need to invent a new word
for malaise, for a country gripped
by ever-darker dread. A word not yet
catalogued, free of any glossy
syllables that sound old world,
new age, high tech, ready for us
to buy them. We just need a little
something, tender and blunt (think
like a child), a wondrous word
able to change everything
as soon as we dare say it.

Hayden Finch’s “Listless” enacts itself by existing alone on a blank slate:


This high-concept, one-word poem charmed me, as did the list Hayden put together of “Publications to Consider Unsubscribing From.”

Modern Inventor
E=MC Squared Catalogue
Sordid Tales from the Labora-
The Believer
The Art of the Bunt
Beaver Hunt
Red Herring
eNVy: A State of Mind
Luddite Illustrated*

Hayden explains that Luddite Illustrated releases an “annual swimsuit edition,” and if I understand him correctly, he would forward this magazine to “Basil at Fraternity Village General Store” rather than canceling the subscription outright.

Millicent Caliban’s “After My Wife Left Me” is an inventive catalogue of possible recipes for a newly widowed imaginative individual with a yen for gustatory pleasure:

I find myself shopping listless.
I am a creature of impulse,
inventing imaginary
meals for gustaTory delight:
plump anchovies in aspic,
fresh chanterelles with shallots and cream,
spicy sautéed quinoa with kale,
orzo fennel orange salad,
pureed chestnuts with chocolate.
My catalogue of recipes
mixes memory with desire.
How does a poet learn to cook?

I suggested revising the penultimate line: specifying, say, “an ounce of memory, two cups of desire” as a way to spice up the arguably too familiar quote from the first stanza of “The Waste Land.” Millicent gave it some thought but decided to keep the line as is, to maintain consistency throughout the poem.

In Elizabeth Solsburg’s poem we receive the delightful promise of a “catalogue of peace”:

Is music invented that actually soothes the savage breast?
Perhaps something like Liszt, less
like the daily cacophony from the composer of this mess
we are trying to mute.
Let’s choose notes
from a catalogue of peace,
like we chose seeds
to plant in the garden
where we hope to sit in summer—
smelling these embryonic flowers,
listening to the night symphony of crickets

Poems of political relevance all too often date into a remote provinciality. But Diana Ferraro’s “List of Listless Political Doings” avoids the usual traps. There is a delightful capriciousness that builds to a strong climax with “Being a Tory, / acting like a Whig.”

Running as a candidate,
wishing not to win.
Promising a new world,
firing the best speech-ghost.
Sleeping until noon,
missing anchors’ morning call,
Being a Tory,
acting like a Whig.
Pretending to be quaint,
buying clothes from a catalogue.
Inventing random thoughts,
selling them as an ideologue.

If it were up to me, I’d cut everything except the first eight lines, introducing stanza breaks as follows:

Running as a candidate,
wishing not to win.
Promising a new world,
firing the best speech-ghost.
Sleeping until noon,
missing anchors’ morning call,
Being a Tory,
acting like a Whig.

I realize that by doing so—and changing the title to “Mandate” or “Platform”—we would lose the very words that prompted the poem. But we would also be illustrating the indubitable fact that in the process of writing a poem, one’s initial assumptions and aims may go by the wayside.

Koahakumele reports that an unnamed article in The American Scholar prompted his poem, “How Is This Not in the Canonic Catalogue?”

Upon listening to Steve Reich’s Four Organs:
The music themes over and over, repetitive
thumps and hums and tuneless organ-ic
chords from eight hands, restlessly
pounding at one’s head like a listless Tory debate.

Relentless, the seeming sameness wears away indifference,
apathy changing to measured, cool unconcern, then to
growing anticipation, expectations pulverized with each individually
played, carefully measured, throbbing beat/note/chord pummeling
expectations into fresh dust from which new clay is formed.

Beautiful music conspiring to invent a melody where none exists;
To create a song resonate voices within would chant in vain.

Cheryl Whitehead solved the “list” problem by turning to “The Belgian Surrealist,” possibly René Magritte, whose penchant for bowler hats and giant green apples she conjures:

Clouds drift inside
his painted houses.
The listless men
in bowler hats
resemble Chaplin.
Strum through
the catalogue
& Son of Man
may speak in passing,
or perhaps you’ll
ask him why
his face is haunted
by a leafy, lev-
itating apple.
Turn the page,
dear art enthusiast.
The North Sea’s
scent remains.

It’s hard to beat the first line of Ravindra Rao’s “We are Are Always Preparing for the End”:

Listless, I invent a list. Seven
dying doves for Christmas, the good Klaus
will deliver. Every dove

is a dying dove. Every love,
too, though we don’t mention that.
Some say love is nothing more

than a catalogue of fading memories,
that lovers are always stuck in September.
I am not claiming to agree, but please

don’t wake me up when
the soundtrack ends. I am busy dreaming
a list of possible futures.

Of his own “Poem in Three Parts,” David Lehman believes that part three is the one that should survive:

With Franz Liszt in the background,
I feel listless in the way you feel
When you’ve earned your fatigue—
Boxing, then swimming, then walking
home, closing my eyes and
history is my invention.

I have exhausted my word count for the week without even getting to mention all the fine work that came in. Next week, I promise to return with a new challenge, one designed to inspire and arouse. I say that with a certain audacity, for I have not yet thought it up.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

David Lehman, a contributing editor of the Scholar, is a poet, critic, and the general editor of The Best American Poetry annual anthology and author of the book One Hundred Autobiographies. He currently writes our Talking Pictures column.


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