(photo of David Lehman (c) W.T. Pfefferle)
Up on the /kin/ site, David Lehman's Self-Interview plus poems:
What are you working on?
A sequence of thirty sonnets entitled “Ithaca.” I have lived in Ithaca, New York, part time or full time, for more than thirty years. In the Odyssey, Ithaca is the hero’s homeland, his origin and his goal, to which he returns following the Trojan War and all the subsequent perils, hazards, and temptations Odysseus endures.
Are you drawn to the Homeric epic for reasons beyond this coincidence of names?
It is as Virginia Woolf writes, explaining her attraction to Greek tragedy: the spirit of the ancient Greeks "has nothing in common with the slow reserve, the low half-tones, the brooding introspective melancholy of people accustomed to living more than half the year indoors." And I love the Odyssey.
Why the sonnet form? And why thirty of them?
There’s a reason the sonnet is historically the greatest lyric form in English tradition. It’s extraordinary what you can do within that precise fourteen-line structure. Twelve lines are too few, sixteen too many, and the unequal distribution of the sonnet’s fourteen lines into two asymmetrical stanzas allows you to make the rhetorical shift or pivot that is crucial to your argument or theme. The sonnet sequence gets you to do at least two things at once, because each sonnet must stand on its own and as a unit in a larger whole. In 1987, I finished “Mythologies,” a sequence of thirty sonnets, each consisting of seven couplets, and it went on to win a prize at The Paris Review and to anchor my book Operation Memory. I had the model of “Mythologies” in mind when I began work on “Ithaca” two years ago. Each was undertaken at a crossroad in my life.
What is the biggest problem you face as a poet?
Can you put that in a more intellectually respectable way?
I used to think death was an extension of the reality principle. Then I began to question that assumption. I felt that reality and necessity were two different things. I recalled that Freud’s thinking on the question evolved to the point that he introduced the idea of a death impulse, a drive toward death. Death is the end of life whether you define end as finish or as aim.
For nearly five full years you wrote a poem each or almost each day. Do you still do that?
Maybe I will try that again sometime in a more limited way. Recently I conducted an experiment in the opposite direction: for thirty days I maintained radio silence, refusing to write poems even if lines occurred to me.
In your New and Selected Poems you have new translations from Guillaume Apollinaire and Henri Michaux. Are you making more translations?
I’ve done about twelve or fourteen of Baudelaire’s prose poems and I mean to keep going. A couple of years ago, I translated one of Baudelaire’s most famous prose poems, “Enivrez-vous” (“Get Drunk”), just because I needed it for a dinner toast and was dissatisfied with all the many translations I had read. Alan Ziegler liked my effort and chose it for his new anthology of poems and prose in short forms, Short. Around this time, my friends Jim Periconi and Cheryl Hurley organized a Baudelaire soiree and invited me to take part. I said yes and went to the shelf and picked out Baudelaire’s Petits Poemes en prose, an old favorite of mine. (Way back when, I wrote my doctoral dissertation on the prose poem.) The best translations I could find were done a hundred years ago by Arthur Symons and are a bit creaky. So I thought I’d try my hand at it. I started with “Le Mauvais vitrier” (“The Bad Glazier”). Believe me, it is a major challenge to render a work like that into clean contemporary idiomatic prose that manages nevertheless to convey a flavor of Paris in the 1850s. I got totally involved in it, worked on it for weeks, draft after draft. The next few came with less struggle, but by its nature translation is approximative; there are no definitive translations, which means that every time you look over one of your attempts, you feel like making an adjustment.
You are on record saying that you turn to “Tintern Abbey” when your own spirits flag. What about the same poet’s “Immortality Ode”? Do you agree with Wordsworth that for the inevitable loss of “the radiance which was once so bright,” there is adequate compensation “in what remains behind; / In the primal sympathy / Which having been must ever be; / In the soothing thoughts that spring / Out of human suffering; / In the faith that looks through death, / In years that bring the philosophic mind”?