Photo Credit: Stacey Harwood
By way of introduction to this month’s Featured Selection of new poems by David Lehman, we offer an extensive interview with our own Associate Editor for Special Projects, the estimable Nancy Mitchell, followed by the work itself and some more detailed biographical material.
NM: David thanks so much for agreeing to chat with us on the eve of the publication of your new book Poems in the Manner Of, which Scribner will publish in spring 2017. You know, I don’t think I’m aware of any living poet who so thoroughly inhabits poetry and its milieu, as you seem to do. An award-winning, well and widely-published poet, the founding editor of the respected annual Best American Poetry, an erudite, brilliant scholar, essayist and critic, you are, as I once heard Nikki Giovanni call herself, “a cultural icon.” And if that wasn’t enough to intimidate this rube from the eastern shore of Maryland, you, in the words of your editors, represent “the contemporary New York sensibility at its most splendidly cosmopolitan.” You are of the true literati, dashing and debonair! Don’t disclaim—I’ve seen your photos! I have to confess that I was, in the words of a self-styled redneck friend “fixin’ to get scared” as I prepared for our interview. But, what assuaged my fears were your wonderful poems, many of them sparked by other poets/poems. For example, the lovely “Aubade” chimes with Wallace Stevens’ “Sunday Morning” with “…a peeled orange, /espresso cups and saucers” long before we get to the direct reference “… The Necessary Angel by/Wallace Stevens, a little violet /paperback opened to page 58:” I mean, who could read those lines without plucking that violet paperback from the shelf and re-reading it well into the night?
DL: Thank you for the great compliments. I’m glad you liked “Aubade.” Having always wanted to capture the feeling of love in the morning, the love you feel after making love and enjoying the deep sleep of contentment, I thought of the universal “her” getting out of the bathtub, as in a Degas, and I ran with that image.
NM: And I, in turn, ran to search archives of visual images to find my mind’s-eye match. It was great fun, especially the website Western Art: 600 Years of Women Getting Out of Bathtubs! Amazing stuff! As I turned to The Necessary Angel immediately after I read “Aubade” and before the other poems in this selection, I couldn’t help but read and think about them through Stevens’ lens. That said, it’s fascinating how the first five lines of “Aubade” demonstrate what Stevens writes is “poetry’s nature to resolve the interdependence of imagination and reality as equals” via the taxonomic shift from the abstract “universal woman” to the specific “you”:
I could stare for hours
at her, the woman stepping
out of her bath, breasts
bare, towel around her waist
before I knew it was you,
DL: Her beauty in his eyes transforms the ordinary breakfast table-top into a still life, and life itself becomes an aesthetic adventure.
NM: Yes! Her “beauty transforms” as does “her voice that made / The sky acutest at its vanishing” in “The Idea of Order at Key West.” So…the “life itself” as you say above, becomes, as Stevens writes, “the life that is lived in the scene it composes; and so reality is not that external scene but the life that is lived in it.” A sort a world within the world.
DL: Under such circumstances it may seem that “the morality of the poet is the morality of the right sensation,” as Stevens writes.
NM: And so, by extension, this is the prevailing moral principle of the scene/life/world the poet has created, right? A moral principle based on the truth, which Stevens writes “cannot be arrived at by reason alone, a truth that the poet recognizes by sensation.” Wow.
DL: It is an idea of truth that goes hand in hand with a love of metaphor, the conviction that poetry involves a profusion of metaphors and that writing a poem involves is a “motive for metaphor.”
NM: In “Six (Unpublished) Daily Poems from November 1997,” there are slant nods to Stevens, particularly to his long poem “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction.” In “November 19” there is, again, that natural move from the abstraction in the opening lines of the poem to the concrete, and now that I think about it, a move toward the specifically personal as well. “November 6” begins with a Blaise Pascal quote “the heart has its reasons of which knows nothing,” then playfully retorts with delightful concrete images of intimate minutiae from a private life: torn theatre stubs, a scarf, and black leather gloves. It fulfills, as do all your poems, Stevens’s requirement that poetry “has the strength of reality or none at all.” It’s obvious that Stevens is / was very important to you, your life, and work.
DL: I love Stevens’ poetry. He was my favorite modern poet when I was in college and in the years immediately after, years that are decisive in the growth of a young poet.
NM: I love Stevens’s poetry as well. “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” never ceases to be a divine mystery—thirteen perfect Zen koans. I turn to it again and again and am never any closer to divining its persistent power. Can you talk about what specifically you first loved about Stevens’ poetry, how he shaped your growth as a poet?
DL: There were many surface things – the amazing titles, the irreverence of ending a poem with the phrase “The the.” What he called a “jovial hullabaloo of the heavens.” And the way he deployed the negative in, for example, “The Snow Man”: “For the listener, who listens in the snow, / And, nothing himself, beholds / Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.” In his poems Stevens saw the hidden possibilities of the and nothing and not. When he declares that something is not something else, he is making a distinction between the two things but he is also linking them, and not becomes a superior way of saying like.
NM: I can see how such inventiveness would be exciting to a young poet wanting to kick against the restraints of more traditional poetry. What else about his poetry did you find compelling?
DL: Stevens is an aesthete and that view of life, as it informs his poems and essays, will hold a real attraction for a young person who thinks he or she has a poetic vocation. Stevens makes you entertain the notion that a great poem or “supreme fiction” may suffice as a substitute for the absent deity. “Sunday Morning” may be the most beautiful blank verse of any American poet.
NM: I agree. I don’t think there is a more solid or ravishing argument for “the morality of the poet is the morality of the right sensation” than these lines from stanza two:
Divinity must live within herself:
Passions of rain, or moods in falling snow;
Grievings in loneliness, or unsubdued
Elations when the forest blooms; gusty
Emotions on wet roads on autumn nights;
DL: Sublime. My own favorite stanzas are four and five.
NM: I wonder what Stevens would think of the relentless avalanche of real or fake news via social media, if, in the early fifties he wrote, “For more than ten years now, there has been an extraordinary pressure of news—”? I don’t know about you, but there have been times in the last few months that I have felt the pressure of “events on the consciousness to the exclusion of any power of contemplation.” Yet, Stevens believed the true measure of a poet’s power lay in his ability to balance the brute pressure of paralyzing reality with the imagination, in “his power to abstract himself, and to withdraw with him into his abstraction the reality on which the lovers of the truth insist. He must be able to abstract himself and also to abstract reality which he does by placing it in his imagination.” What are your thoughts on this, particularly of late?
DL: “The pressure of reality.” Stevens’s phrase established itself in my mind a long time ago, and I am still enough of a romantic to believe that the imagination can press back against that pressure. As you say, the avalanche is relentless. In some ways much news is fake news, but the paranoia level is higher these days because the Internet multiplies the avenues, conceals the perpetrators, loosens the restraints. There are a lot of mischief-makers and propagandists out there, and the 24/7 need for news stories on cable TV keeps the hysteria level high. Keats wrote “the Imagination is a monastery and I am its monk.” That is a lot to expect of your imagination and yourself. But the possibility shelters you from the corrosiveness of public discourse.
NM: I’ve been reading Agnes Martin’s writing in preparation for her exhibit at the Guggenheim, and I thought that although Stevens might agree with her “The function of art work is the stimulation of sensibilities, the renewal of memories of moments of perfection,” he might be taken aback by her “It is not in the role of an artist to worry about life – to feel responsible for creating a better world. ” Stevens was adamant about the poet’s role in the world, of which he writes, “in short, is to help people to live their lives. I repeat that his role is the help people live their lives.” What do you think the poet’s role is in the world?
DL: Stevens was also, I believe, pretty adamant in rejecting any political or social obligation aside from the responsibilities of citizenship that apply to all, artists and non-artists alike. I believe that the way poets can best “help people live their lives” is by writing great poems, reading them, sharing them, teaching them. Poetry is an act of generosity. The poet makes sacrifices to serve the muse on the one side and the reader, real or imagined, on the other. I am wary of politics as content; poetry has a way of turning into propaganda when subjected to the fierce but fickle pressures of the political.
NM: Your poems are certainly generous in every sense of the word. They acknowledge the poems/poets/writers which have, in many cases generated them, and these poems in turn generate an outward response in the reader. Although your poems have abstract reality via the imagination they aren’t a closed system. They are inclusive in that they invite the reader into an intimate life rich with personal details that ground the reader in the present, reference a history and move us into a future. Your poetry is a world that moves through the world. What would Stevens think, or rather what are your thoughts on Agnes Martin’s “I paint with my back to the world?”
DL: Didn’t Gertrude Stein say she liked having the window behind her writing desk? I like having the window in front of me – but with blinds to defend myself from the light, when it gets too intense, in the late afternoon. In the hour before I write, I like sipping a cup of unsweetened black coffee standing on a terrace facing westward across a lake. But I have also painted in front of windows: a window looking west from a Riverside Drive apartment in New York, a window across the street from one of the footbridges across the Jesus Green in Cambridge, a window across an airshaft full of windows behind which stood or sat an assortment of writers, composers, dancers, singers, actors, kid violinists, quarreling couples, and doctoral candidates at Columbia. Looking out the window you get enough material for a hundred poems.
NM: What a contrast to Martin’s fear that life would drain her of inspiration for her work; you write with your heart open to the world. I wonder if you know how your Poem-A-Day plan encouraged so many writers to overcome some of the initial paralysis in starting a poem? Can you tell us more, particularly as “Six (Unpublished) Daily Poems from November 1997” featured here come from this time?
DL: I recommend writing a poem daily and seeing how long you can keep it up. It does wonders for your productivity, and because you’re writing so much, you allow yourself to take all sorts of chances. It was thrilling to me when, after about two months, I realized that the momentum of the project was sustaining itself. It meant I had created a kind of diary. It was making me happy and also loosening me up. My previous book had a lot of third-person, past-tense poems. Now I was writing in the first person, in the present tense, and the gain in immediacy was terrific. Anything could trigger a poem – a thought, a painting, a piece of music on the radio, an overheard bit of dialogue. I wrote at different times of day, in different places. It quickly became a habit I didn’t want to break.
NM: Well, I’m certainly encouraged to give it a try! Were the poems in your new book written during the poem a day plan?
DL: Poems in the Manner Of, my new book, was begun in April 2002. It took me fourteen years. It was not written on the poem a day plan. As that project came to an end, this one—Poems in the Manner Of—rose up to take its place. The book was written to honor the poets and writers of the past who had a big influence on me. The poems are acts of homage – there are translations, imitations, appropriations, parodies. My models (or maybe I should say subjects) include Catullus, Li Po, Lady Murasaki, Wordsworth, Keats, Baudelaire, Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Gertrude Stein, Kafka, Mayakovsky, Apollinaire, Neruda, Henri Michaux, Virginia Woolf, Auden, Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, Sylvia Plath. I love multiple-choice as a form, and one poem takes the form of twenty-five multiple-choice questions on the Papa of Psychoanalysis.
NM: Poems in the Manner Of sounds absolutely terrific and I can’t wait to read it! Our readers will get a sneak preview with the delightful “Poem in the Manner of Sylvia Plath” which is among these featured poems. David, thank you; it’s been a real pleasure. Now, readers, these wonderful poems:
Poem in the Manner of Sylvia Plath
Every woman adores a dunce,
Every woman has done it once.
Her pantyhose get in a twist.
She went to bed with her therapist.
Meanwhile you stare back at her,
You feel her eyes on you in the mirror:
You are not cruel but cannot lie,
You who look so sadly like Adlai
If only Adlai were a jujitsu Jew.
Will he tell you what to do do do?
Your pretty heart broken in two.
Every woman adores a Republican
And loves her Daddy if she can.
Ask her after she’s been kissed
Before she gets her panties in a twist.
Every woman adores a Fascist.
I Married a Jerk
When I lived in Newark
and commuted to New York,
I worked on a magazine
called New Work
and wrote a poem “in
the female manner” to
which I gave the title
“I Married a Jerk”
because any woman
married to me would be
able to make that claim.
Elliott Gould would play
me in the movie and she,
who married me after
I moved into her one-
bedroom UWS apartment,
looked like Candice Bergen.
She put up with my bad habits,
the hours I wasted watching
baseball games, and my
alpha male temper tantrums.
And I got to watch her sit
in front of the mirror
naked in the morning
applying makeup. I think
she thinks of me once in
a while, and when I think
of her, I’m getting off
a plane, heading to her
place, with Dionne Warwick
singing “I Say a Little
Prayer for You.”
On the Fourth of July
As Steve McQueen
in The Great Escape
on the Fourth of July
in the German POW camp
lifts his glass
of rotgut and says
so say I —
and the century
ends but politics
is forever, God
may linger like
a linguistic ghost
with other entities,
patriotism among them,
consigned to credulous fools —
nevertheless let’s sing
the Marseillaise with
Paul Henreid in
Rick’s Café Americain
What I propose is not
is not dead yet in
the English department,
Not maximalism, which was
a still-born alternative
Nor Maxism, which rests on
adulation of Max
But maximism, the love
Or Maximism, the advocacy of
pleasure on the model
of a meal at Maxim’s
in Paris in, say, 1950.
Is that clear?
I could stare for hours
at her, the woman stepping
out of her bath, breasts
bare, towel around her waist,
before I knew she was you
in that one-bedroom in
the Village sunny and cold
that Friday we woke up
slowly & our breakfast table
arranged itself into
a still life with irises
in a vase and a peeled orange,
espresso cups and saucers
and The Necessary Angel by
Wallace Stevens, a little violet
paperback opened to page 58:
“the morality of the poet is
the morality of the right sensation.”
Six (Unpublished) Daily Poems from November 1997
The heart may have its reasons but
the overcoat knows what it knows and
keeps the knowledge up its sleeves
or pocketed with torn theater stubs:
the hat on the rack longs for the head
uneasy on the pillow, the scarf recalls
the skater in the wind of his momentum,
and the black leather gloves retain
the shape of the fingers that clutched
the straps on the bus that connects
the city from one river to the other.
Birth, death, and the field between them
that needs to be ploughed
in North America: soldiers bathing
in North Africa and the women
with their babies back home:
the leaves, few to begin with, clinging
to their branches in the wind: the clouds
crawling into a future of unbearable
moisture: and the swan without a mate
in the pond while the wordless observer waits.
The injury left no scars but
things said or done, or things I didn’t say or do,
weigh me down, and not a day
but something is recalled,
my conscience or my vanity appalled.
So I quoted Yeats without knowing it,
vacillating from the worst hour of the night
to a day of little music and loud noise
when I took my lanky frame for a walk
down University Place, heading for the Knickerbocker,
and Wordsworth’s line came into my head,
“Even such a happy Child of earth am I,”
though “God” had replaced “earth” in my mind
The poem of the day must be
abstract, must give pleasure,
must believe there’s a reason for
all things (manifestly untrue)
and must solve the one:many
problem for a season. Also,
it must allow me to get things
off my chest. What things?
Anger, malice, resentment, envy,
the common lot of the literati.
But lots of other things, too.
Lunch, for example, with you,
dear Mark, at the Grand Ticino
in thirty minutes. A nice day
for a walk or a ride on the bus.
The identity of the third who
walks always beside us.
They were interviewing people on television
What do you like most about Channel One?
“My favorite is the weather,” one man said
“The temperature is ten degrees warmer
in winter and ten degrees cooler in summer
on Channel One.” He has a point, I admit
but what I like best is having a bit part
in a black-and-white film directed by
an old pro, John Huston or Fred Zinnemann,
in which Warren Beatty plays JFK
and Mick Jagger plays Lee Harvey Oswald
since both of them are so vain they think
Carly Simon’s song is about them
Not a year goes by that I don’t think about it,
the greatest unsolved murder of the century,
and how I went home that day from school
and sat alone in the First Avenue subway station
and hoped my mother would tell me
it wasn’t true when I got home
If I could undo the damage I did,
I would: the cars I crashed,
the jaws I broke,
the ants I crushed with my bootsoles,
the plates I smashed, the people
in the car I crashed, the man
who died because I, as governor,
refused to commute his sentence,
the cop who fell to his death because
I had vertigo and couldn’t save him,
the children who died because I sold
tainted penicillin on the black market,
the bat I beat to death with a broom,
the bruises, the scars, the arm in a sling,
the broken nose, the busted marriage.
David Lehman was born in New York City, the son of Holocaust survivors. Educated at Stuyvesant High School and Columbia University, he spent two years as a Kellett Fellow at Clare College, Cambridge, and worked as Lionel Trilling’s research assistant upon his return from England. He is the author of nine books of poetry, including New and Selected Poems (2013), When a Woman Loves a Man (2005), The Daily Mirror (2000), and Valentine Place (1996), all from Scribner. He is the editor of The Oxford Book of American Poetry (Oxford, 2006) and Great American Prose Poems: From Poe to the Present (Scribner, 2003), among other collections. Two prose books appeared in 2015: The State of the Art: A Chronicle of American Poetry, 1988-2014 (Pittsburgh), comprising all the forewords he had written to date for The Best American Poetry, and Sinatra’s Century: One Hundred Notes on the Man and His World (HarperCollins). A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs (Schocken) won the Deems Taylor Award from the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) in 2010. His new book is Poems in the Manner Of, which Scribner will publish in spring 2017. Lehman teaches in the graduate writing program of the New School and lives in New York City and in Ithaca, New York.
Nancy Mitchell is a 2012 Pushcart Prize winner and the author of The Near Surround (Four Way Books, 2002) and Grief Hut (Cervena Barva Press, 2009). Her recent poems appear, or will soon appear, in Poetry Daily, Agni, Washington Square Review, Green Mountains Review, Tar River Poetry, Columbia College Literary Review, and Thrush, among others. She, with Danny Lawless, is the co-editor of and contributor to Plume Interviews I, forthcoming in February 2017. Mitchell teaches at Salisbury University and serves as the Associate Editor of Special Features for Plume. She can be reached at email@example.com