Molly Arden Posts Off: Doing Lunch

Molly Arden Posts Off: Doing Lunch

Maxwell Ryan
May 21, 2005
Untitled Document

(Editor's note: It's been a pleasure and a privilege to have Molly Arden guest post for us. Thanks, Molly!)

Alas the final ghost, alas the final host, alas the final post. I've enjoyed this the most. 

A few posts ago I mentioned the Sestina.  It's a complicated poetic form that some find daunting while others take to as Lord Byron took to ottava rima (eight-line stanzas with an abababcc rhyme scheme) in his comic masterpiece, "Don Juan." 

A sestina consists of 39-lines divided into six stanzas of six lines each plus a closing three-line envoi. It is normally unrhymed. Instead of rhymes, the six end-words of the first stanza are repeated in the following stanzas in a predetermined order. In the envoi, one end-word is buried in each line, and one is at the end of each line. Lines can be of any length.

Got that? 

To see what I mean, visit McSweeney's, which has been posting sestinas on a regular basis for the past eighteen months or so. 

John Ashbery says that writing a sestina is like riding a bicycle downhill. After a while, the pedals do all the work. Sure.  Easy for him to say.

Among my favorite contemporary practitioners of the form is James Cummins, whose first book The Whole Truth (North Point Press) is made up entirely of sestinas about Perry Mason. His subsequent books, Portrait in a Spoon  (U of South Carolina), and Then & Now (Swallow Press), include many sestinas, though I love his other poems too. 

When I read Cummins poetry, I imagine that even when a poem is tender or sad, he's having a good time.  When the writer is having fun, it's a safe bet that his reader will as well.  Cummins' subjects are wide-ranging, from domestic relationships, parents and children, friendship, and "Po Biz."   

Cummins lives and works in Cincinnati, Ohio, which makes me want to sing, "Why,  Oh Why, Oh  Why, Oh: Why won't Jim Cummins leave Ohio?" This sounds really good sung to the music of Leonard Bernstein's "Wonderful Town," which is Bernstein's fourth greatest musical after "West Side Story," "On the Town," and "Candide."

The first e-mail in the form of a sestina correctly saying how many Broadway musicals Bernstein wrote in toto will win a prize. I'm going to do my best to make the prize an autographed copy of Cummins's latest book.

Before I go, I just want to compliment Shannon Holman on her inspiring and inspired poet laureate posts. She assembles terrific centos too.

A sestina is too long to reproduce here so I'll leave you with this short poem from Cummins' Then & Now:

Doing Lunch

You have lunch with a friend.
You put on a false face for him,
because he is your friend.
You want to spare him your maunderings,
your lies and malfeasance.
But this is just what your friend desires,
because he is your friend.
He wants your face to fall open
in front of him and twitch
like a rabbit hit on the fly.
He says he wants the latest word
from the border region between
narcissism and an inner life.  And laughs.
Shamelessly, you tell him everything,
because he is your friend.

-- James Cummins


(Molly Arden)

Photo credit: dritchie via Flickr



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