A volume of collected work is an opportunity to reflect on the trajectory of a poet’s life and career, and David Lehman’s essential new book, New and Selected Poems (Scribner, 2013), reveals threads of both American and European sensibilities, an array of influences. On the one hand, there’s a way in which Lehman’s work is quintessentially American. At David Lehman’s appearance at the New School poetry forum last Wednesday, moderator Laura Cronk commented that Lehman is “in all ways an American poet,” one who writes truly American love poems such as the effervescent “When a Woman Loves a Man,” which we had the pleasure of hearing him read. The title echoes the song “When a Man Loves a Woman”—just one instance of how popular American music often weaves its way into his work. A couple of examples that come to mind from the collection is a recent poem “Sixteen Tons” and a poem from 2002, “Radio” which references a song played by jazz pianist Teddy Wilson.
Another thing that strikes me as particularly American is the current of humor running through his work. Standing at the podium in a natty ‘40s style suit, hair brushed back neatly, Lehman had the audience laughing out loud all through his reading of “One Size Fits All: A Critical Essay,” a comment on the form of the critical essay made entirely through a careful sequence of transition words, and “Rejection Slip,” in which the speaker praises the benefits he is reaping from the pain of rejection, with no small jolt of comedy injected into the verse.
Cronk also commented on the trope of “intelligence work” that threads through the volume, joking that perhaps Lehman really was passing in his identity “as one of our foremost critical writers; as American poetry’s most important anthologist and most generous champion; as a beloved teacher; and most importantly as one of our very finest poets.” The poem that most directly references this trope is a section of “Yeshiva Boys” subtitled “Intelligence” in which Lehman writes: “I had a very good cover as a fellowship student/ in comparative literature at Cambridge, and few guessed/ the true nature of my employment…,” though there is in a sense in many of the poems, as in much of 1990’s Operation Memory, of Lehman stepping outside of American culture in order to view it from a different angle. There is a certain melding of European and American perspectives. As Cronk put it, “David Lehman is an American in every best sense, an 'Escape Artist' able to step outside of an American sensibility to reenter it more fully.” Lehman added to this notion of the escape artist that John Ashbery had once remarked that “we need all the escapism we can get”—that perhaps we need to retreat from the consciousness of certain ills into the contemplation of certain ideals and beauty.
Like Ashbery, Lehman spent a considerable period in Europe as a young man. The three poems Lehman began with were in fact translations, one from Henri Michaux: “In the Queen’s Chambers.” Lehman discovered this poem when, as a grad student at Cambridge,he was also spending a lot of time in Paris. Michaux was for Lehman a “happy-go-lucky Kafka.” A translation of Guillaume Apollinaire’s “Zone” was first finished in 1978, resided in a desk drawer, was revised and revised, and finally come back to life. It was published in The Virginia Quarterly Review last year, which then awarded Lehman the Emily Clark Balch Prize for Poetry. Apollinaire was a big influence on Frank O’Hara, who in turn was a major influence for Lehman.Lehman commented that: “it took chutzpah to associate myself with such greatness.” Finally, a translation of Goethe’s “Nightsong” was rooted in a childhood memory for Lehman: “my father used to recite this with a strange gleam in his eye.” His father had had to learn these and other poems of Goethe and Schiller as a boy in Germany.
In the end, this inclusiveness and generosity of vision may be the most American impulse a poet could have. Lehman’s work spans the Atlantic, but even that is still not the full extent of his reach. Lehman’s incredible range of methods and music is also on view in this collection, and this includes his two books of daily poems, The Daily Mirror and The Evening Sun, a practice Lehman kept up for five years and heartily recommends. And as he told us from the podium, in all the many forms and structures and material to be found within this collection, “it does seem to me that the same person wrote all these poems.” In other words, there is a remarkable unity of vision in this volume from “the most alive of all living poets,” as Cronk remarked.
As maybe is fitting for a retrospective bringing together over seven volumes of work, Lehman ended the evening with the poignant frisson of these lines from “The Story of My Life:”
And so, now that I have it, what do I do with the happiness of this moment?
I, who never took a writing workshop but have taught many,
think of how I would handle the assignment for next week’s class.
I write about a boy, not me but like me, in green tennis shirt
and khaki shorts, a blue baseball cap and well-worn brown moccasins,
and the boy want nothing more than to sit in the sun
but always arrives too late: the diagonal line dividing the yard
into equal areas of sun and shade
vanishes as soon as he gets there.
That’s all. I write it in the third person, call it “Story of My Life.”
-- Nora Brooks