Next Line, Please

Young Lycidas

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By David Lehman

August 23, 2016


 

The prompt for this week—to rewrite two to six lines of Milton’s “Lycidas”—turned out to be one of the most stimulating we’ve had in a long time. What wonderful submissions we’ve received. “Put it in the books,” as Mets’ radio announcer Howie Rose says after a New York victory. This is one for the books.

I am happy to reveal that from now until the onset of winter, each week’s winner will receive a complimentary copy of The Best American Poetry 2016, edited by Edward Hirsch.

First place is divided between two different entries:

Millicent Caliban’s

So what’s the point in striving every week
To pen some verses fit for “Next Line, Please”
While straining every sinew of the mind?
Why not seek pastimes of more common kind,
Abandon art, with YouTube take some ease,
Watch shady porn or kittens tangling skeins?

Which is, as she says, “(De)based on”
Alas! what boots it with uncessant care
To tend the homely, slighted shepherd’s trade,
And strictly meditate the thankless Muse?
Were it not better done, as others use,
To sport with Amaryllis in the shade,
Or with the tangles of Neæra’s hair?

 

This happens to be my own favorite quotation from “Lycidas,” and the very passage that I undertook to translate into a modern idiom (see below). I admire Millicent’s balance of contemporary reference (YouTube, “shady porn”) with the noble accents of the master (“While straining every sinew of the mind”). Nicely done.

Co-winner is Berwyn Moore’s

So spirals the seeds of the sunflower,
its buttery lattice a mathematical marvel.
Though Helianthos fades at summer’s end,
in time our friend will bow his studded head again.

 

After lines 168-171 of Milton’s poem:

So sinks the day-star in the ocean bed,
And yet anon repairs his drooping head,
And tricks his beams, and with new-spangled ore
Flames in the forehead of the morning sky:

 

Berwyn says her entry was “inspired by the Fibonacci sequence.” I like and use the Fiboinacci formula but don’t quite see how it applies here. This looks more like an “n + 7” exercise formulated by OuLiPo, the French association of writers and mathematicians devoted to creating new strict literary forms. (I hope Berwyn will elaborate on her method here.) In any case, there is something lovely in the alliteration of Berwyn’s first line, and the poignancy of (“Though Helianthos fades at summer’s end”) reminds me of my favorite line in Shakespeare’s sonnet # 18, “And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.”

First runner up is Paul Michelsen’s eloquent

Another Perfect Day

The sweetest friends make the most bitter ends
Not the first or last perfect day death ruined
Not too young, but too young for our liking
Our preferences no match with those of wild nature.
Once we sang together, now I sing alone,
but tomorrow’s silence here will lead to somewhere
else a chorus.

Inspired by the following lines:

Bitter constraint and sad occasion dear
Compels me to disturb your season due;
For Lycidas is dead, dead ere his prime,
Young Lycidas, and hath not left his peer.
Who would not sing for Lycidas? he knew
Himself to sing, and build the lofty rhyme.

Here is my own effort to capture the pith and meaning of the lines both Millicent Caliban and I chose:

Why study poetry, major in English, climb the stair—
Way to failure as you struggle with an obsolete art,
And woo a fickle muse, forsaking wealth and fame?
Wouldn’t it make better sense to enter the frame
Of the picture, kiss the girl and capture her heart
And glory in every last curl and wave of her hair?

I do not want to leave unmentioned Anna Rowe’s strong entry, based on the same lines that inspired Paul Michelsen. Anna’s entry referenced Ryan Lochte:

Young Lochte, with records left to transcend.
Must we all tweet for Lochte? His testimony
Was drunk, but his races are sober.

This prompted Millicent Caliban’s comment: “Who would not tweet for Lycidas?”

Charise Hoge’s translation ofFor Lycidas, your sorrow, is not dead,” into “Wing it after the burn out, some Phoenix-like dawn” deservedly drew ooohs and aahs.

Laura Orem’s four-line summary of “Lycidas” starts with an arresting first line: “Dude, you were alive and now you’re dead.”

I would also praise submissions by Next Line, Please regulars Christine Rhein, Patricia Smith, and Elizabeth Solsburg and would like to extend a warm welcome to Kate Saffin  and Courtney.


For next week, consider the poem of apology William Carlos Williams wrote under the title, “This Just To Say”: “I have eaten / the plums / that were in / the icebox // and which / you were probably / saving / for breakfast // Forgive me / they were delicious / so sweet / and so cold.”

Kenneth Koch wrote a hilarious parody: “Last evening we went dancing and I broke your leg. / Forgive me. I was clumsy, and / I wanted you here in the wards, where I am the doctor!”

Your assignment: write a poem that expresses an insincere, or false, or otherwise remarkable apology. You may use the words “Forgive me,” but that is strictly optional.

Deadline: Saturday night, August 27, 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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