“What’s in a Name?”

Flickr/Philip Cohen
Flickr/Philip Cohen

“I am become a name,” says the hero of Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses,” reminding us of the power of names, the value of having a “good name,” and the sometimes ironic relation of an individual’s name to a person’s fate or character. An atheist can be named Christian; my friend Florence’s favorite city in Italy is Venice; the name of a great tyrant is Saint-Just. On the other hand, Edwin Arlington Robinson’s Richard Cory may be rich to the core, and Foible and Waitwell are the aptly named servants in Congreve’s comedy The Way of the World.

When spoken, a person’s name likely affects him or her more than any other word in a language. It is also possible that one’s name can serve as the subject or the scaffolding of a poem.

The prompt for next week involves that special attribute, your moniker. There are many ways of proceeding.

You might write an acrostic, using either your first name or surname. Then write a poem that touches upon the meaning of your name, its etymology, or some association the name triggers.

For example, let’s say your name is Clay Sparkman. You may write a four-line poem, with the first letters of the lines spelling “Clay”; or an eight-line poem spelling “Sparkman”; or a two-stanza poem spelling out the full name. Having established that formal apparatus, the author could then write about (or merely mention) a clay pipe, the clay tennis courts of Roland-Garros in Paris, or the paintings of Paul Klee. As for Sparkman, I can think of something even better: Prometheus, who stole the fire of heaven, bestowed it on humankind and, as a result, suffered the wrath of the gods.

My own name is something I play with from time to time. My first name means “beloved” in Hebrew, and my last name might lead me to Lac Léman in Switzerland or to the failure of a certain investment firm 10 years ago. Here’s a quick acrostic:

Do I believe in a supreme being?
Against all odds, in the face of all reason, I
Veer from the dogma of our day and
Insist that faith remains
Viable, if not visible, a prelude to a beloved state.

Should I write a second stanza, six lines long, the lines beginning L-E-H-M-A-N?  Let me know what you think.

If you wish to avoid the onomastic element of this prompt, you have my permission to throw out all of the above except Prometheus, a figure who has enchanted Aeschylus, Shelley, André Gide, and Kafka, among many others. A terrific 10-line acrostic poem about Prometheus will get rewarded, as will the best (and best brief) poem invoking your name.

Deadline: Saturday, September 22, 2018, midnight any time zone.

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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