What You Will Miss the MostPrint
By David Lehman
May 22, 2018
Last week’s presentation of Next Line, Please: Prompts to Inspire Poets and Writers at Book Culture in New York’s Upper West Side had a formidable obstacle to overcome. An hour before the reading, a torrential downpour commenced, and it deterred some from attending. But the audience was, as Spencer Tracy says of Katherine Hepburn in one of their films, “cherce,” and we even sold some books and recruited some new players.
Lord Byron begins Don Juan, his comic masterpiece, with the lines “I want a hero, an uncommon want, / When every year and month sends forth a new one.” Byron rhymes “new one” and “true one” with “Don Juan,” which is how we know how he expected us to pronounce the title of his singular work.
Would “I want a hero” prove a good opening line today? On the evidence, I’d say yes.
The alliterative first line of Ravindra Rao’s “Study of Lines” is followed immediately by a finely turned simile, which in turn gives birth to the metaphor—“the language of my spine”—that brings the poem home:
I made a hero out of heartbreak
like a painter fixated on the eye
of a storm that passed years ago. Ache
is the language of my spine,
hunched over your scant, naked
poetry, in which every line
presages the current snow.
How could I not know?
Patricia Wallace feminizes Byron’s opening, rhyming “me too” with “be true” and “virtue”:
I want a heroine, a common want
when every day brings forth a new “me too”
and many men we thought that we could count
on turned out to be too good to be true.
I want a clone of Hurston and Arendt
and Eliot’s Dorothea with much less virtue,
Virginia Woolf with meds, no need of stones,
writing in her old age five novels in Rome.
I want a Villette who never has to be pretty,
a Faye who frequently interrupts a man,
an Amazonian warrior without Daddy
issues. A Black Pantheress, a female Zuckerman.
For sizzling book discussions, I want Komachi’s
X-rated poems. And why not a muscled Anna
throwing Vronsky under the train? When she’s called pushy,
the heroines who have her back all wear pink pussy.
The enjambment of “Daddy” and “issues” and the final rhyme are but a pair of the poetic pleasures in this strong, satirical statement of a theme.
Donald LaBranche specifies that the hero of his choice blend poetry and algebra, and from this striking premise the poem takes off:
A hero from the border lands between poetry and algebra:
some stone-hearted, scat singing daughter of a catbird
from a long-suffering, secretive brood of Quebecois
should be just the ticket. And she’s on the way, so I’ve heard.
Third row back from the front of the train, bringing a coup d’état
to restore what passes for order out of this crazy. And afterward
will surely come hearings on her provenance, talk radio doubt
about a hero in the first place. Then, time for the mob to run her out.
Besides being an intrinsic pleasure, the ingenious rhyme scheme—algebra, Quebecois, coup d’etat—seems to guide the poem to its destination of “hearings,” “talk radio doubt,” and mob rule.
Angela Ball treats the prompt as an invitation to describe the most famous poet of his day in “Byron Volunteers”:
Trust me, you need a hero: Lord of misrule,
Swimming from Sestos to Abydos,
Surviving intact for amorous duels,
Singer not backup but solo,
Peerless peer, pursued
By women pretty as antelopes,
Being compact of virile atoms, rescuer
Of maidens stricken by syncope,
Ocean signature, mountain
Announcement, I’m he.
A hero is his own orthography.
Who is the hero “superior to all” in Diana Ferraro’s poem? “Myself” is her title:
I want a hero superior to all, someone like myself,
A man with no frozen morals or old stony codes,
Free to ramble, to preach and come back in a bookshelf
To disown his own speech and his faith in his odes,
To do as he pleases for the best of causes, the cause of himself.
High in spirits, tall in size and lean in width—blue blood forebodes—
Well-dressed in the fashion to be, disguised, or undressed like at birth,
With skills, informed and precise, ready to save the world and its worth,
If worth is acknowledged and the world in despair stoops to bleat
And to beg. That man who will act and only then live,
Unless a bus, out of control, runs over him
In any crowded, too busy street.
The simplicity of language and rhyme in Terence Lennon’s “By Whose Call A Hero” is perfectly apt for his chosen subject:
I want a hero crude and brash
to swell my chest and firm my spine.
A soul the color and feel of ash,
imbued with instincts more malign
than those we treat as trash,
the foe we see as swine.
That he be a boor riven with blight
matters not if I feel right.
Like Michael C. Rush, I responded favorably to Eric Fretz’s stanza but had reservations about his closing rhyme:
I want a hero who doesn’t catch cold
And die of pneumonia in Greece. Who’ll grow
Old, yet in verse and politics be bold
And still “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.”
So as we’ve many times now all been told
Poetry changes nothing, yes, it’s so,
But neither does joining the armed struggle;
I want my hero here to lie and snuggle.
In “The Endangered Hero,” an arresting title, Clay Sparkman mixes his diction, from the poetical (“ere,” “I shall not abide”) to the demotic. Here is his opening stanza:
I want a hero, yet my zeal
shall ne’er be satisfied
as I scan the horizons.
These are not my heroes!
Superheroes, athletes, and
preachers, I shall not abide.
I needn’t seek great authors,
each fucked up behind a pose.
The stanza ends on a negative, and the reader is prepared for a pivot to a stanza proposing an alternative. If Clay is receptive to an editing suggestion, I wonder what would happen if he ditched his second stanza and substituted a new one, limiting it to eight lines, with the same directness with which the poem begins.
Speaking of compelling titles, I wish I had room to do more than just mention Cheryl Whitehead’s “Bach in the Parking Lot.” My own effort yielded two good rhymes—”heroine” and “zero in,” and the closing couplet: “Alas, the news is noise: all heat, no light. / You ask: does might make right? I say: it might.” I’m grateful to Emily Winakur for making this point. More than a few of us seized on the pun Millicent Caliban proposed: “I want a hero for my lunch.” Depending on how the final word in of line two is pronounced, John Reid’s “I need a hero / Just an eggplant parmigiana / Hold the kryptonite” would serve as a pizza parlor haiku.
Thank you to these poets and the unnamed others who made this week’s comments field a most enjoyable read—and complicated the task of choosing among the entries.
The poet Anna Kamienska, noted for her aphorisms, has two that I would like to toss out for next week’s challenge:
“Sleep is what I’ll miss most when I die.”
“I walk around disguised as an overweight old lady.”
Your job is use either of these lines as a springboard, an epigraph, or an opening line. Feel free to substitute your own noun for “sleep” in the first of these lines—and your own choice of disguise in the second. Twelve lines should do the trick.
Deadline: Saturday evening, May 25, midnight any time zone.
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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