Poems in the Manner of…
By David Lehman
Simon & Schuster, 2017.
David Lehman’s new book, Poems in the Manner Of … is a waltz through the history of poetry and a self-portrait in the fun house mirrors of style. “In the manner of” here means sound-alikes, inspired-bys, collages, fresh translations, and other deep visits with a poet, or a poetic age. Because of the way time whittles, if you are a reader of poetry throughout history, mostly in English, you likely have a similar inner literature. Today we are living in a dazzling era of new poetry, a sky full of fireworks from many directions. Stepping into this book the night sky goes dark and quiet and we recognize the constellations. It’s a compelling and thought-provoking encounter with poetry I already love, plus tantalizing additions. Headnotes for each poem give a hint of background, share confidences, crack wise. The book’s introduction explains that there is a didactic aim in this, “If I have done my job, aspiring poets will look at this book and attempt their own poems ‘in the manner of…’ the poets they most admire.”
It’s busy, and full of wit and winks, but there are poems that give the book a heart (and other organs), such as, “For I Will Consider Your Dog Molly.” The form is, of course, borrowed from Christopher Smart’s poem on his cat Jeoffry, but only lightly, as there is a real dog behind it, but not until later. Lehman’s poem is about Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and loss. “For I communed with my dead father,” he tells us, “and there was a loud crying inside me.” The holiday ritual of forgiveness includes going to a body of water and the poet brings his friend Glen and Glen’s dog, Molly. Ritual over, Molly is let off leash, darts in the bushes, and comes out with a rat, dead in one bite. She gives the rat to the poet and strides off proudly. Smart’s syntax snaps perfectly here: “For I’d as lief pray with your dog Molly as with any man.” What we can know about life is lovely and grotesque, off leash.
There are new translations of Apollinaire’s “Zone” and Mayakovski’s “Brooklyn Bridge,” two poems that see the world from on high, looking down from the Eiffel Tower and the borough-spanning bridge. Both have their genial acerbic wit restored in a swarm of brilliant choices. Lehman’s headnote to “Zone” tells us about the word play of the poem’s last lines, “soleil cue coupe,” which has the sun come up like a head with a cut neck, and how a host of past translators, including Beckett, took it into English. How do you evoke Apollinaire’s alliterative and bloody original? Lehman offers the delightfully gruesome, “Let the sun beheaded be”.
Two poems are centos, poems made out of lines of previous poems. In the Greek world centos draw from Homer’s lines, in the Latin world, from Virgil. Lehman draws his from the English canon. Consider the last three lines of the gorgeous and clever “Cento: The True Romantics”:
And whom I love, I love indeed,
And all I loved, I love alone,
Ignorant and wanton as the dawn.
In order, that’s Coleridge, Poe, and Yeats. The new poem comes off as pleased with itself and its history of love, but it is made from poems of high anxiety. The Coleridge is the final line of one of the great night terrors poems of all time, “The Pains of Sleep.” Poe’s line is from “Alone,” where he confides that, from boyhood, he’s never liked the same things other people like. Here the four loves chime together like wedding bells. The last line is from the Yeats poem “The Dawn,” in which he calls knowledge useless, and in despair wishes to be free of it, wishes he were as mindless as the dawn. In Lehman’s use, “ignorant and wanton as the dawn” is adverbial, a way of loving, not a tragic endpoint. He doesn’t tell us any of this in the headnote, though it’s the sort of thing he might, and that’s part of the fun of this book; I knew some of what I just told you, but some of it I found out because I couldn’t help but look things up. The book gives you just enough information to track down more.
In the prose introduction, Lehman mentions both “parody” and “homage,” and some of the poems feel like both, as doing an impression of someone often is; we tease as we praise. In “Poem in the Manner of Ezra Pound,” the joke is on everyone. “Hamlet was not written with tenure,” it reads, and it’s pretty funny. Whether or not a reader gets the jokes will often vary with how much of the poetry canon they know, but if you read the book you are bound to know more by the end.
One of my favorite phrases in the book is in the headnote to a translation of Goethe’s “Nightsong.” Lehman writes that his own father, an exile from Hitler’s Germany, used to recite it, in German, by heart, “with an uncanny gleam in his eyes.” The final lines are:
Not a sound: even the small
Birds in the woods are quiet.
Just wait: soon you
Will be quiet, too.
The eerie-but-charming mood sustains, mixing the truer-than-truth with the truth that’s weirder-than-fiction, that is, literature and personal history. A lot of writers, myself included, come to a place where we can’t help but write about the poems that formed our inner landscape of letters. My own, Who Said, is all in poems. Poetic memoirs do it mostly in prose. Lehman’s headnotes offer an elegant middle solution. For those of us already in this conversation, Lehman’s book is a marvelous contribution, not to be missed. Also, he may have invented an ideal textbook for the age of search engines: a slim volume that excites a thousand searches.