February 3, 2023

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A question from Emily Dickinson [by David Lehman]

I have a great fondness for two-line poems.

Robert Frost’s poem “The Span of Life” is a perfect couplet depicting the life of a dog as in a diptych depicting youth and old age:

The Lifespan

The old dog barks backwards without getting up.
I can remember when he was a puppy.

– Robert Frost (1874-1963)

Many of the best two-line poems accomplish some sort of verbal feat. The form is an invitation to the maker of epitaphs, including the disrespectful. From John Dryden: “Here lies my wife. Here leave her. / Now she is at rest, and so am I.”

Stacey reminds me of Howard Nemerov’s masterpiece of conciseness:

Bacon & Eggs

The chicken helps
But the pig gives everything.

Some two-line poems seem like object lessons in montage techniques, Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro” being the best-known example.

Rarer is the two-line poem that asks a question, a rhetorical question in a sense but not in the sense that it makes a self-evident assertion, as when Yeats closes with “Among School Children” (not a two-line poem) asking “How can we recognize the dancer from the dance?”

Emilt Dickinson’s No. 1095, without a title to help guide us, qualifies as such a question:

For whom mornings stand for nights,
What must the midnights – be!

The poem ends with an exclamation rather than a question mark, and meaning is amazement. But I contend that the relationship should be completed. If tomorrows are nights, then what is midnight? And what causes the poet to utter the exclamation? Think about it. – DL

-Emily Dickinson, (1830-1886)