Winning Stanza Refuses to Cave


My compliments. Virtually every entry had something going for it, and I loved the enthusiastic way people threw caution to the wind in playing with the sestina form.

For best opening stanza I choose this by Diane Seuss for the coherence of the narrative and the spectacular reiteration of “cave” as a synonym for “capitulate”:

Finally the veins give out and they stick in a port
for the blood draws. Veins cave before the spirit.
Spirit caves before the voice stops the sing-song
of moan and groan that tolls all night like a book
of hymns without words. After a while even fear
caves, like a dress without a body or an address.

—Diane Seuss

Diane Seuss has given us a setting and situation (medical), with an air of resignation that gets abruptly corrected when “even fear / caves, like a dress without a body.” That is a lovely simile and a brilliant turn for the stanza to take.

There’s a four-way tie for second-place: the honors get divvied among LaWanda Walters, Patricia Smith, Angela Ball, and Spider Milkshake. [Their stanzas appear at the bottom of this post.]

OK, our next six-line stanza must end in this pattern:

dress (as a word or a suffix)
song (or sing)

Note that the 6-1-5-2-4-3 progression ensures that the last word in each stanza will be identical with the word ending the first line of the next stanza. This generates a certain amount of continuity and momentum. It underscores, too, that repetition, far from being a fault, is a key musical element in poetry.

The trick will be how to use the material Diane gave us and to amalgamate something new to the mix. One tip: try sneaking in the word “cave” whether in the verb or noun sense.

Thanks to all. Deadline: Midnight January 26, 2015

The texts of the runners-up:

After dessert, the men retire to take their port
and cigars in the library, the women sing
and play the Brodmann piano. But their spirits
are low, there is something they all fear.
A moonstone, a woman in a white dress—
there are hints of things to come in books.

—LaWanda Walters


Sestina’s stuffy form I fear
a challenge to poetic spirit.
Examples from the Oxford book–
though their praises I might sing–
my words n’er shall sestina dress
without assist from tawny port.

—Patricia Smith


Peaks have yellow flowers for their dress.
At the verge of a torn-off road, spirits
waive the right of way. Rene Magritte’s book
says, “Painting makes poetry visible.” His port
is the one that opens the storm. “Fear
sees what is hidden, finds a throat, sings.”

—Angela Ball


Our wonderment is the sun on our tribal dress,
winding through our skull as wind in the pages of a book
designed to part the waves in our spirit
and deliver us to safe port.
Does it wonder us to find these pages sing
yet lie, promising comfort, delivering fear?

—Spider Milkshake


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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