Lally's fans have come to expect certain pleasures from this gregarious, theatrical, funny, sometimes pugnacious master of the contemporary American idiom. The new book opens with a brilliant and very characteristic effort, "Before You Were Born." The recurrence of that phrase (or variants thereof) structures the poem. The assertive speaker refuses "to give up / the life of a poet and get a job, / but I already did that / before you were a gob of spit / hanging from the lip of / Charles Bukowski who had a / nice secure job at the post office back then." There's a double surprise here -- first the "gob of spit," then the invocation of Bukowski as either a role model or an anti-hero. It's funny but there is sadness, too, in the opposition of the speaker to a "you" who is younger and -- if only by implication -- less original, less daring, and more glibly "avant-garde."
Lally's poems flow from his refusal to give up "the life of a poet" and his determination to annotate it. But it is not only this cri de coeur, important though it is, that aligns him with the New York School. A hallmark of the New York aesthetic is the interior monologue projected outward into a theatrical soliloquy. Frank O'Hara was the master of this maneuver -- all conversational grace and ease.
One of Lally's major strengths is his skill as a conversationalist in verse. He is totally engaging -- chatty, direct, boastful as Whitman but ironically self-aware in the manner of O'Hara. To clinch the deal, or to illustrate it cunningly, I would give you the final part of "The Geese Don't Fly South" -- the part that may be said to begin with the line "Thank God for Turner Classic Movies" and to continue for sixty-eight more lines in which these subjects come up: the armed services, heroes, Hollywood, family trees, Hurricane Katrina, the novels of Walter Scott, and the war journalism of Martha Gellhorn -- but rather than quote it, let me encourage you to acquire the book, and I will just say here that there is a second New York School quality that Swing Theory exemplifies, and that is the reconciliation of the colloquial with the use of verse forms to restrain and give focus to the imagination.
Lally has a particular affinity for the sonnet and the sonnet sequence. In Swing Theory you will find "The Jimmy Schuyler Sonnets" (a group of five), "The 2008 Sonnets" (eleven), and "The San Francisco Sonnets (1962)" (five). From the last named, consider this nugget: "She said if I read Herman / Hesse's Steppenwolf it would change my life." The statement will catapult you back to the mind-set of the early 1960s whether you had the experience in real time or not.
Jerome Sala is on the mark when he speaks of the "jazzy rhythms and pre-hip-hop improvisatory rhyme with pure attitude" that you find in Lally's work. It turns out, as Sala observes, that Lally was ahead of the curve with his poems so congenial to the performative impulse. That vibrancy is just one thing Swing Theory has going for it. -- David Lehman