I highlight and lump all this together because there are many poems bearing similar traits that merely fetishize aspects of an author’s erudition or experience. These aren’t much more than products of autoerotic graphomania. And there is an actual sort of person who embodies this nonsense; he is usually seated next to you on the eight-hour flight to wherever, smelling of cough lozenges, or you took his middling course on Romanticism in college. David Lehman does not write those poems, and as far as I can tell from his work, he isn’t that kind of person.
Instead, his New and Selected Poems displays an unassuming prowess. Lehman’s formal competencies allow him to shape poems in many different ways, though he seldom strays far from a contemplative or narrative mode. I found a couple of the new expository poems—“Why I Love ‘You’” and “The Count”—pretty dull, but they’re impressive in what they reveal about Lehman’s range. His breadth of knowledge is also formidable, but there is always a charm or graciousness in the delivery. One of the new poems, “Story of My Life,” begins:
There must be dozens of poems with the title “Story of My Life.”
Maybe even hundreds.
It’s a natural, a meme—which is pronounced to rhyme with team, by the way,
Though I keep thinking it should be même, as in the French word for “same.”
It is spelled m-e-m-e and examples include self-replicating phrases,
“knock knock” jokes, an almost au courant idiom like “same old same old,”
or a beer jingle, Emile Waldteufel’s “Estudiantina” waltz (op. 191) adopted to the needs
of a Brooklyn-based brewery named after a Wagner opera, Rheingold
This is Lehman writing in his more prosaic mode (though the assonance between “jokes,” “old,” and “Rheingold” create a nice lyrical aftertaste), applying a casual tone to concepts that bridge scholarly and popular thinking. The manner in which he establishes rapport with the reader is affecting, if a little sly. In the third line, the speaker seems to be admonishing the reader for mispronunciation until we get to the next line and see he is actually correcting himself. So any initial feelings of being condescended to are overpowered by the sympathy we experience watching the speaker enact his self-critique. Vulnerability has its powers, too. Though of course the “misstep” from meme to même only proves the vigor of the mind before us, one comfortable mingling with cultural theory, beer commercials, and orchestral works from the nineteenth century. The correlation between the poem’s title and the word “meme” also sets up a nice oblique joke when the latter word is spelled out in line five. Break it in half and add a couple of exclamation marks and you get “Me! Me!,” as if the speaker were a precocious overachiever with his arm perpetually raised among his classmates, yearning for the teacher’s attention.
It’s worthwhile considering that a figure like Lehman exists during an age where internet memes are a dominant mode of expression. You could call him a quintessential “man of letters.” An ivy league graduate, readers unfamiliar with his own poetry will likely know his name from The Best American Poetry, a popular series he established and for which he serves as editor. New and Selected Poems is his eighth book of poetry, not counting two collaborative volumes undertaken with Judith Hall and James Cummins respectively. His six nonfiction books include an estimation of Paul de Man, an analysis of detective stories, and an overview of the influence Jewish songwriters have had on American music, among other topics. He is in fact the sort of writer whose correspondence you’d expect to be eventually gathered into a Collected Letters volume by a diligent editor. I wonder what my generation and posterity will have to offer on this front. The Collected Tweets of X or The Collected Facebook Posts of X? Could there be anything more depressing? Yes, but only three or four.
Readers allergic to picking up a dictionary, reference book, or performing any sort of basic self-educating action will have a hard time with much of Lehman’s poetry. His speaker embraces the world’s full expanse—its simplicities and complexities, its joys and devastations. He is a cosmopolitan conversant in psychology, literature, philosophy, and economics, but with whom you’d feel comfortable swapping lewd jokes over one-dollar beers before arguing about the merits of the Hegelian dialectic. Let’s just say he’s a rarity. Here’s a choice moment from his poem “Yeshiva Boys”:
A lot of sentences began, “You Americans.”
You Americans are like California babes
With a clitoris where the mind should be.
Or cozy up to this poem, “April 24 (‘Same Difference’),” which I quote here in full:
It occurred to me
today that there’s
no difference between
“thank you” and “fuck you”
so from now on
whenever someone says
“thank you” to you
think of it as “fuck you”
OK but what about
the next time someone
says “fuck you” to you
does that mean “thank you”?
No, I’m afraid it doesn’t work that way
That also means “fuck you”
all roads lead to the Rome of “fuck you”
I do but you don’t have to be so
fucking in-my-face about it
Well, fuck you
No, fuck you
The poem is funny, but its rhetorical unfolding reveals how Lehman wields a light touch that can land a heavy blow. What seems to begin as a poem of observation turns into an ironized conversation (with the self, with the reader?) before terminating with an affront. Also notice how Lehman seems to play fast and loose with punctuation, affecting the poem’s pace, so that certain moments feel almost rushed, amping up the intensity (e.g., the lack of a period at the end of line eight, right as the first instance of counterargument emerges). The smug parenthetical “he smirked” raises the stakes as well. By the poem’s end, where the absence of periods is repeated in last three lines, we’re in high gear and can therefore experience the full impact of the most beloved spondee in the English language.
There is a thematic thread, deserving more attention than I can give here, that resurfaces in different ways from book to book. The opening lines from “Wedding Song” read:
Poetry is a criticism of life
As a jailbreak is a criticism of prison.
These are terrific lines. The sentiment is repeated in the title of the section housing the most recent work, The Escape Artist: New Poems. Poems from all periods are often inhabited by voices on the run, spying, in disguise, or in transit. Again from “Yeshiva Boys”:
Yet I feel as if my real life is somewhere else, I left it
back in 1938, it happened already and yet it’s still going on
From “The Magician”:
He spent months
preparing for each transition, switching identities
with wigs and false noses.
You don’t know who these people are, or what
They’ll do to you if you’re caught, but you can’t
Back out now
From “In Freud’s House”:
It seemed that humanity as a whole, in its development
through the ages, fell into states analogous to neuroses,
and every individual was the enemy of civilization,
and every civilization was built on coercion,
and every dream was a jail cell with a ladder and a window.
One can make an obvious connection between the themes of escape and furtive existence and Lehman’s interest in historical forces of upheaval. But he also seems to acknowledge a generative effect that results from these conditions—the impulse to create new life, new art—while at the same time lamenting the horrors and misery from which such creation arise.
All the customary praise-phrases can be applied to New and Selected Poems—“a poet at the height of his powers,” “this book confirms his place as a contemporary master,” etc. While the works in the “Early and Uncollected Poems” section aren’t Lehman’s best, they demonstrate how good he has been for such a long stretch of time (the earliest poem was written in 1967). The lean and elegant “Yours the Moon” is a standout among the new poems. The selections from Yeshiva Boys and The Daily Mirror: A Journal in Poetry generate real heat, but you’ll find many intriguing poems throughout the whole collection. Lehman is an escape artist that takes you with him out into the unpredictable streets, into the strange air, where we all want to be.
PETER B. HYLAND’s first poetry collection, Out Loud, was published by Sheep Meadow Press in the fall of 2013. He is also the author of the chapbook Elegy to the Idea of a Child (Trilobite Press), and his poems have appeared in American Literary Review, Conduit, Green Mountains Review, New England Review, Ploughshares, and other journals and magazines.