David Lehman was the first poet of the 2010 Poetry Forum
season on Tuesday night. He read from
his new collection, Yeshiva Boys, and
was introduced by the poet Mark Bibbins. By way of an introduction Bibbins imitated one
of Lehman’s forms (“
In Yeshiva Boys, Lehman embeds homage to the likes of Henri Michaux and George Steiner, along with vibrant personal memories. “The Trip Not Taken” is truly best read aloud for such astounding rhymes as “Nothing could be finer/ than to be in her vagina/ after listening to George Steiner.” Lehman was met by laughter when reading “Existentialism,” which includes such marvelous lines as “If you wore sunglasses in the subway and listened to Miles Davis, you were probably existential.” The second half of the poem includes a list of great existential moments in history, which will surely be circulated in Philosophy classes this spring. Lehman also read “God: A Sestina,” which also borders on the philosophic and the hilarious. He declares, “Call off the hoax,/ he said. You can’t copyright God,” and “The consensus is his absence/ will go on.”
During the question and answer period Bibbins asked about Lehman’s use of form, the sestina and haiku in particular. Lehman has been writing sestinas for decades and explained, “I’ve always liked the sestina…the [end] words guide you along as you go.” The Q & A progressed much like Lehman’s poems—a question was considered by an oblique, nuanced answer. Fortunately for the audience, this resulted in Lehman’s consideration of the illusory and the real, and references to both Wallace Stevens and Shakespeare. Lehman joked, “This is just to show you it’s possible to speak and sound erudite and completely avoid the question.”
But Lehman did speak candidly about the origin of Yeshiva Boys, indicating that the title poem was twenty years in the making. Interestingly enough, it began with a journal entry in which Lehman tried to remember the names of the boys in his class in grade school. In 2005 he returned to this poem to revise it. Lehman explained that he had not written directly about his experience in Jewish day school, or his parents’ experience surviving the holocaust, but he accessed this material by fusing memoir, fantasy, history and philosophy. Lehman advocated using fictional devices when writing non-fiction, a technique he used in his book, A Fine Romance, and the reverse—using research to inform a poem. The only trouble, Lehman warned, is if you find yourself on the radio and the host asks about your uncle, Harold Arlen, who is only your uncle figuratively. How might Lehman respond? “By inventing things!