Next Line, Please

You Must Get Drunk

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By David Lehman

June 7, 2016


 

 

This week’s prompt was to concoct, in verse, a summer drink—tall, cool, refreshing, and partaking perhaps in the spirit of Charles Baudelaire’s injunction, “you must get drunk.” Here is my translation from the French of his famous prose poem, “Enivrez-vous!” (i.e., “Get Drunk”):

You must get drunk. That’s it: your sole imperative. To protect yourself from the backbreaking, body-bending burdens of time, you must get drunk and stay that way.

But on what? On wine, on poetry, or on virtue, your choice. But get drunk.

And if sometimes, while on the steps of a palace, on the green grass beside a marsh, in the morning solitude of your room, you snap out of it, your drunkenness has worn off, has worn off entirely, then ask the wind, ask an ocean wave, a star, a bird, a clock, every evanescent thing, everything that flies, that groans, that rolls, that sings, that speaks, ask them what time it is; and the wind, the wave, the star, the bird, the clock, will tell you: “It’s time to get drunk! To avoid being the martyred slaves of time, get drunk, get drunk and stay that way. On wine, on poetry, or on virtue, your choice.”

Millicent Caliban’s winning entry gets right into the spirit of thing. She presents poetry—the work of Charlie Baudelaire and Johnny Keats, among others—as an intoxicant. Here is her poem, a review of major English and American poets:

Getting Drunk on Poetry

I recommend a dive run by Charlie Baudelaire.
Getting drunk on poetry is the way to cheat despair.
If Johnny Keats is tending bar, tell him, “Easy on the hemlock.”
For a divine drink, he knows the source is Hippocrene.
If you’d like your unbrewed liquor in a tankard scooped from pearl
With a twist of debauched dew, Emily Dickinson is your girl.
Roll the words on your tongue to start a drumbeat in your brain.
Take a little Wallace Stevens up straight and try looking at a bird.
Walt Whitman goes down smooth with Dylan Thomas as a chaser,
A glass of Milton on the rocks is paradise gained (or maybe lost).
If a shot of Hopkins makes it too intense, just chill with Frost.
The mundane world begins to fade; you can get high on rhyme.
Charlie has it right, you’d best be tipsy all the time.

The lines about Keats are specific to his “Ode to a Nightingale,” and there are smart allusions to works by John Milton and to Robert Frost’s last name, but my favorite couplet is the one concerning Emily Dickinson.

Other entries were impressive in ways worth singling out. Paul Michelsen in “Mixed Drinks” collapses glorious dream into humble reality as he slips out of Hitchcock’s North by Northwest and realizes that his “screwdriver is really only orange juice / This MacGuffin merely a McMuffin.” I also love Paul’s line from a second poem he posted: “Cliché of the day: Throwing it all away.” And by the way, Paul’s winning prompt last week included a reference to the Heimlich maneuver—and a few days later I read in the newspaper that Dr. Heimlich, now a nonagenarian, applied his maneuver to save the life of a dinner companion, a very grateful woman in her 80s.

Charise Hoge puns cleverly in her atmospheric “Flashback.” Consider: “no ifs, ands … cigarette butts / in ashtrays, mixed nuts / marriage on the rocks.” And Angela Ball’s entry, “What Is That Drink They Are Having Over There?” makes the most of its premise:

My girlfriend and I order cocktails
called, “All of Our Troubles,”
flamingo-pink tinctures
mixed from catastrophe—

 To all, my heartfelt thanks. I took a break for Memorial Day but am back in the saddle. For next week: Why it’s good to be alive—in 25 words or less, prose or verse, form or free. Brevity, the soul of wit, will be valued. Deadline: Sunday, June 13, two days after my birthday, at midnight.


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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