David Lehman
October 2001

 

David Lehman was born and grew up in New York City, the son of Jewish refugees. He went to Stuyvesant High School, Columbia University, and Cambridge University on a Kellett Fellowship. At Clare College, Cambridge, he couldn't help being aware that a previous Kellett Fellow spending two years at Clare had been John Berryman. Back in the United States in the early 1970s everything for a while seemed ugly: the shoes, men's hair, the job market, tuxedos in garish colors. Lehman wrote a dissertation (on the prose poem) earning a Columbia PhD while teaching at Hamilton College. A post-doctoral fellowship year at Cornell in 1980 helped persuade Lehman that academe was not for him. He set himself up as a free-lance writer, reviewed books regularly for Newsweek and other publications, eventually became a vice president of the National Book Critics Circle. An Alternative to Speech, a first book of poems, came out in 1986. In 1988 he launched The Best American Poetry and has served ever since as the series editor of this annual anthology. Among his nonfiction books, his critique of deconstruction and the Paul de Man scandal, Signs of the Times (1991) caused the greatest furor. His most recent book is The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets (1998). Lehman is co-director (with Star Black) of the poetry reading series at the KGB Bar in the East Village in New York. He is also general editor of the University of Michigan Press's Poets on Poetry Series. He lives in New York City, travels a lot, sojourns twice a year at the low-residency writing program at Bennington College in Vermont, and spends as much of the summer as he can manage in Ithaca, New York.

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A Note on the Poems:

While I prefer commenting on specific poems to more theoretical formulations, the answer I gave to a question Rhonda Pettit asked in a 1997 interview seems germane. The question had to do with the relations between journalism and poetry. My response concluded with these thoughts:

"Poetry has the executive privilege of the imagination. It can afford to be uncompromising, since it has nothing to lose. Journalism, on the other hand, is full of concessions to one's editor, to one's audience, and is accountable to fact, to truth in a fairly narrow sense. If I am writing a poem inspired by an event in my life or in the public record, I sometimes change things around, like the sex of the characters, or the city they live in, just to revel in the discrepancy. You know, the paradox of all writing is suggested in the conclusion of Beckett's Molly: "Then I went back into the house and wrote, It is midnight, The rain is beating on the windows. It was not midnight. It was not raining.'"

Now to the poems:

I like unusual forms whether received, imported, adapted, or invented. I'm particularly fond of the sestina as a surprisingly supple medium for conveying a narrative or argument. "Operation Memory," like all sestinas, consists of six six-line sestinas and a concluding triplet. In a sestina six end-words recurring in a predetermined order conclude all 39 lines in the poem. In "Operation Memory" I substituted a variable for one of the end-words: a series of numbers in descending order. The sequence of numbers itself makes a point, going from a hundred to fifty to eighteen to ten to one, pausing over the year 1970, the date of the poem's action, and concluding with 38, the author's age. I wrote the poem on my birthday. The title comes from the military code names that beguile students of World War II: Operation Torch, Operation Overlord, Operation Barbarossa. Vietnam hangs over the poem like the haze and headache following a night of smoke and drunken abandon in Saigon. "With Tenure" is meant to be two things at once. It is a tirade against the academic institution of tenure and by extension against the academic way of life in general, I suppose. It is equally a parody of one of the best-known of Ezra Pound's Cantos, the so-called Usura canto, in which Pound rants against the banking custom of charging interest on loans. I like the way these two purposes intersect. By putting the tirade against tenure in the mouth of Pound, a greatly discredited speaker at least in some quarters, I like to think I have also parodied the deconstructionist's delight, the aporia, the situation that results when the reader can't decide which of several interpretive readings is true. Is the poem against tenure or against those who would rant against it? "Who She Was" (which also alludes to Pound) contains a reference to Frank Sinatra. For more on the incident in question, see Ava Gardner's auobiography. "The Daily Mirror: A Journal in Poetry" resulted from my decision to write a poem a day as an experiment. The book collects 150 of these daily poems selected from a two-year period. Of the ten I offer here, eight are from 1996 (when I began the experiment), the other two from 1997. I am fascinated with the idea of building a long poem out of increments, an assemblage of parts, each of which is itself a completed poem. The Daily Mirror is a long poem consisting of 150 individual poems, and within the completed sequence there are various sub-sequences by subject matter (jazz, Sinatra, movies, Wall Street, T.S. Eliot), mood (high-spirited or elegiac, comic or noir) and style. I have now finished a second book composed in the same manner, this one entitled The Evening Sun, forthcoming from Scribner in April 2002.

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