David Lehman doesn’t think poetry should be lazy. His collections Evening Sun and Daily Mirror are a testament to this: both were the children of a five-year commitment to writing a poem a day. During an evening reading on April 1, 2014, for the students, faculty, and guests of Keystone College, in La Plume, PA, Lehman imparted to the audience his almost mathematically precise treatment of language and verse, a starkly dry sense of humor, and a great deal of wisdom on writing as a craft.
Early in the evening, Lehman spoke of his experience writing for Newsweek, explaining that once he removed “I” from his work, he was able to write fearlessly and efficiently. In the pieces he shared from his recent New and Selected Poems, the influence of writing without “I” was palpable. Later, I asked Lehman about this characteristic in his work when trends in modern poetry often rely on first-person presence. “Remove ‘I’ from your poems,” Lehman challenged the writers in the room, “and let the world in.” He quoted T.S. Eliot’s concept of poetry not being “the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.” On the same token, if one were to examine The Wasteland as the child of a nervous breakdown, Lehman contended, Eliot’s “most abstract work was autobiographical.” As Eliot himself said, “Only those who have personality […] know what it means to want to escape from these things.”
Complementing the marked lack of egoism in Lehman’s work is his relationship to the influence of culture. Whether by the work of romantic poets like Shelley, Keats, or Byron, current events, or the modern cinematic gift of The Godfather, Lehman is able to express this influence in his work while still capturing a spectrum of human experience and emotion, of love and loss.
As the evening concluded, many students asked Lehman about his development as a young writer. Lehman shared his experience of decisively switching to an English major at Columbia University upon joining the literary magazine. For developing writers, Lehman stressed the importance of not being lazy. “Imitate ten different writers,” he suggested. “Learn to write in ten different forms. Study poetry as one studies organic chemistry. Memorize poems like you would memorize the periodic table.”
As college English programs are vanishing around the nation, the question “Why study English?” has come up frequently in recent news. If one were to make a case for literature and creative writing, there would perhaps be no better candidate than David Lehman as he concluded his evening on Keystone College campus. “Poetry communicates pleasure,” he articulated, for both the writer and audience. “Poetry has no excuse for being. It’s like a dance—it doesn’t ‘accomplish’ anything, but it is worth doing.”
Macaulay Glynn is the editor-in-chief of Keystone College's literary magazine, "The Plume". She plans to graduate next year with a B.A. in Communication Arts and Humanities and hopes to attend graduate school for English and creative writing.