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Poetry Challenges

When Bad Lines Happen to Good Poems [by Laurence Goldstein]

(Ed note: David Lehman's Bad Line Contest post of September 2 reminded me of this earlier post by Laurence Goldstein. Follow this link to read the many comments on the post when it ran in 2009, then add your own take. sdl)

EditingIf you were empowered by the gods to travel back into the canon of poetry in English and change or delete one line, which would it be?  On occasions, sometimes years apart, I’ve put this query to literary acquaintances, and the winner of this unscientific survey is. . . Percy Shelley’s plaintive cry, “I fall upon the thorns of life.  I bleed.”  The reason often given, and it’s clear by the swiftness with which this line is proffered that many of my contacts have not heard the question for the first time, is that this line is a blemish on a great poem that has no other bad line, not even a so-so line, but is poetry at its purest and most consummate perfection.  The poem, of course, is “Ode to the West Wind.”  Actually, I have come to like “I fall upon the thorns of life,” which is thoroughly in tone with the fine succeeding lines, “A heavy weight of hours has chained and bowed / One too like thee: tameless, and swift, and proud.”  One has to hear and feel the desperate abandon of the whole passage to appreciate the upsweep of canto 5 when the poet becomes a seer of divine power who, “by the incantation of this verse,” trumpets a prophecy to mankind.

    But “I bleed” is, admittedly, beyond the pale, over the top.  Within the decorum of the poem it reaches too far and the strain of the gasped two words causes an audible snap.  How might we improve the line.  Substitute “, and need” or “, a seed”?  Those are bland enough to not claw at the reader’s taste.  I recall the story of Paul Valéry pausing at a bookstore window and reading two pages of verse from an open book. France’s reigning poetic genius, he tries to improve even one word of the text before him, and fails.  He goes into the bookstore and finds that the book is Racine’s Phèdre.  No, I am not Paul Valéry, and will not presume to tamper with Shelley any longer.

    Another favorite response is (you saw this coming) the last line of the first stanza of Stanley Kunitz’s great poem “Father and Son.”  The speaker pursues the phantom figure of his dead father, who never shared the boy’s childhood (and who, we know, took his life while Stanley was in the womb).  The boy is lost in “the silence unrolling before me as I came, / The night nailed like an orange to my brow.”  The principle is the same as with Shelley:  the high quality of the entire poem casts a brighter light on the offending lapse.  As it happens, a younger and brasher version of myself asked Kunitz about this line on the occasion of his visit to the University of Michigan .  He smiled wanly and gave what I took to be his standard response.  Many people had asked him about the line over the years, but now the poem is so well-known, so often anthologized, even (I reminded him) praised as a precursor to the movement of Confessional Poetry, that it was now too late to change it.  He looked down and said again in a whisper, “Too late.”  Never too late I wanted to reply, but I felt intensely his desire to change the subject.

    There is the problem of failed locutions – Matthew Arnold’s “Who prop, thou ask’st, in these bad

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