Spotlight: David Lehman (part 1 of 3)

david lehman

Author Photo: Brian Adams

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Interview by John Deming

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Continue to Part 2 >>

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lehman selected coverI interviewed David Lehman for about three hours in his office on a Friday night in October, 2009, two years after I finished studying with him and others at The New School. It was around that time that he published two new books–Yeshiva Boys, a collection of new poems, and A Fine Romance, a book of prose about the great Jewish songwriters in America. I was compelled by both books, and I also found it interesting that his book of poems had some thematic overlap with his book of prose–a pattern we’ve seen in him before, when he published The Last Avant Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets around the same time that he published The Daily Mirror, a book of daily poems that took on some of the improvisational whim that surfaces in some prominent works by New York School poets, especially Frank O’Hara (“just go on your nerve”). 

Now, four and half years later, we have succeeded at transcribing and editing the conversation. Lehman is a well known poet, and perhaps equally well known for his editorial work–the annual Best American Poetry series is a staple, but he has also edited The Oxford Book of American PoetryGreat American Prose PoemsThe Best American Erotic PoemsEcstatic Occasions, Expedient Forms, and other books. He is also the author of several books of prose, including Sign of the Times: Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul de Man and The Last Avant Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets. He has drawn considerable attention to poetry and its many modern manifestations over the years. With all of this work to his credit, it is conceivable that his own poetry is not always afforded the attention it deserves, a notion suggested by the poet Bill Knott. Knott, who died earlier this year, had his own history of frustration with the Best American Poetry series, but on April 2, 2012 blogged the following of Lehman: 

…I must confess my admiration for his superlative service to poetry and for his unique accomplishments…He is so well-known for his civic leadership in the poetry community, his role as the public persona aegis of BAP’s success, and for being the face of USA poetry as it were, that his own distinguished and marvelous verse is perhaps sometimes lost in the shadow of that spotlight fame, and doesn’t get the recognition and acclaim it deserves…He should put out a big Selected Poems, and it should win the Pulitzer on the strength of its own merits alone.

At last, an extraordinary New and Selected was published last year by Scribner. And while it effectively showcases some of the best that this poet has contributed, my favorite collection is still his latest full length collection of new poems, Yeshiva Boys, which we discussed at length that night in his office. The title poem is a modern classic, and the book delves deeply into philosophy, religion, politics, music and cultural history; our interview does much of the same. We also discussed A Fine Romance, as it was also new at the time and operated very much on the same wavelength. Knott proceeded to write, “parenthetically I must say that everyone I ever met who knew David Lehman personally, everyone I have ever heard speak of him, all of them were unanimous in praise of his generosity and kindness and warm affable demeanor.” That he would discuss these matters with me so late into the evening on a Friday is a testament to this. The interview will be divided into three sections; here is the first. 

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JD:  In A Fine Romance, you couple the history of American song and the history of American Judaism. You tell personal stories about people you knew or know who were involved in the war and the Holocaust. I’m wondering if you could describe why you felt the personal and historical context necessary in a book focused on songwriters.

DL: The personal reason is that while investigating my own feelings and passion for the songwriters and their work — the music and the lyrics — I felt a very immediate and strong identification with them, not only because of my admiration for their art, but because my own history recapitulates theirs to some extent. Most of them were either the children of refugees or themselves refugees in this country.

So it was important to demonstrate what was going on globally, too?

It’s not an accident that the people who wrote these songs were born in Eastern Europe or on the Lower East Side of New York to parents who spoke a foreign language and had come to the U.S. for refuge. There were two major waves of immigration. There were those who got out early when the going was good, in the middle of the century, primarily from Germany. This was true of the families of Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein, Lorenz Hart, Dorothy Fields. And then there were those who came mostly from Eastern Europe much later and very often in desperate straits: [Irving] Berlin, Harold Arlen, the Gershwins, Yip Harburg, Sammy Cahn — a long list of people who came (or whose parents came) from Eastern Europe after 1881, when the assassination of a liberal czar led to terrible anti-Semitic decrees and the constant threat of homicidal pogroms.

How long did you research for this book?

I had the idea in 2005, wrote up a proposal in January ’06, and got the go-ahead sometime that year. By the summer of 2006 I was deep into my research, by which I mean I was reading books, biographies and musical histories, listening to interpretations of the songs, and committing lyrics to memory. But of course in a certain sense I, a lover of this music, had been preparing myself for many years.

In the process of writing it, did things ever feel chaotic? The book contains biographies of the individual songwriters, but it’s also your own personal history here and there, and it’s also historical. Was it hard at all to find the balance between all of these things and still try make it feel like a focused unit? 

It’s very difficult. My first thought was, maybe I should write a book about Richard Rodgers, because he fascinates me, or maybe about Harold Arlen, because I have a special feeling about him and his music. Then I thought, why don’t I write a book about the lyricists, because they are often the most neglected ones, and I’m more of an authority on lyrics and poetry than on music. And instead of doing any of these things, I wound up writing a book about the whole phenomenon and about my romance with the songs, their creators, and the singers who brought them to life. There is always a series of problems that you have to solve in writing a nonfiction book, and I didn’t solve them quickly. You asked if there was ever chaos. Yes. I worked from different outlines, and if I showed you what the outline looked like when I started writing, which would’ve been in November 2006, it bears little resemblance to the finished book.

It’s a principle Ashbery mentions in “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” - art doesn’t necessarily end up the way the artist intended.

The book came as a big surprise to me. I had an idea, and the idea was a good starting point, and somehow before I knew it, it kept growing, and what was intended to be one chapter of a multi-chapter book grew to the length of a manuscript that then had to be sub-divided, edited, cut, revised, rearranged. The book has about 60,000 words; I wrote 80,000.

I imagine that during the process you were listening to a lot of music. Did you find anything that you hadn’t heard before?

Yes. There were lots of songs I had never heard before and a lot of composers or lyricists whose importance I had previously underestimated.  That process of discovery and revaluation continues. One great thing about writing about a subject that is really dear to your heart is that you won’t exhaust the impulse that led you to write the book in the first place. It will feed on that which consumes it.

You find new things in the process, too; you find something new and all of a sudden you have more to write about, more work to do.

For example, I knew that Gus Kahn was a very good lyricist and that he had written the lyrics for “It Had to Be You” and “Love Me Or Leave Me” and “Making Whoopee” and “Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby” and a whole bunch of other songs. But I didn’t know all that much about his life, or about how others saw him, or what the Hollywood docu-pic of his life would be like. And I didn’t realize that he’d written the lyrics for “I’m Through With Love,” which Marilyn Monroe sings in Some Like It Hot, and even though I’d seen Some Like It Hot more than once, I hadn’t realized what a wonderful song that is, especially as she delivers it. She’s a much better singer than people realize. She brought something special to a lyric.

Style– 

She has great style. She acts the songs. She does great things with Irving Berlin songs such as “Heat Wave” and “Lazy” and “After You Get What You Want, You Don’t Want It.”  Her vibrato is delightful. And she often seems to have a knowing, ironic distance from the material at the same time as she exaggerates the sexual content or innuendo. You’re never surprised when it turns out that the best version of a song is Sinatra’s, but I was surprised to find that no other version of “I’m Through with Love” moves me as much as Marilyn Monroe’s.

How do you listen to music now? Between vinyl, CDs, MP3s, all of that.

I have CD’s. I also have some albums, as we used to call them, in vinyl, and little tapes – cassettes. And then you can copy the tracks to the computer and listen to playlists you create. I’ve made a lot of playlists like that, and the sound quality from the computer is remarkably good. I also have a Bose system, and that’s considered first rate, though I find the mechanism for the compact discs gets very dirty in a New York apartment with the result that the recording sometimes skips.

We discussed bringing personal history into A Fine Romance. In [Yeshiva Boys], some of the promotional material insinuates–and by reading it, maybe someone can tell–this comes from some of your own experiences. I’m wondering to what extent there is a tension between the urge to tell your own story and the urge to create imaginative poetry that speaks to more universal truths.

The title poem –which is twelve parts long, and takes about twenty pages of print–took about twenty years to write. The first version was written in 1988 and was revised a lot a year later. I spent the summer in Italy in 2006 and was reading heavily for A Fine Romance. It was then that I did a new version of “Yeshiva Boys” and gave it its title and decided to make it the cornerstone of a book.

Have you explored Judaism much in your previous work?

In a book of mine called Valentine Place that came out in 1996 there is a poem called “A Little History,” which is very much about this subject. The title is a little ironic: “A Little History”–you can hear that with a Jewish accent, like a Yiddishism, but also like an echo of “a little learning is a dangerous thing.” “Here’s a little bit of history for you.” In my earlier book, Operation Memory, a number of poems“The Survivors,” “The Answering Stranger,” and others–are haunted by history, which was always an interest of mine as a reader, particularly the history of Europe in the 20th century, which had made such a decisive impact on my parents’ lives. I wouldn’t be who I am if not for this historical cataclysm that uprooted all these people and brought my parents to these shores, where they met.

Would you describe your own history relative to Judaism?

Well, my father was an orthodox Jew. He kept all the commandments, of which there are 613, and was very devout. But he wasn’t an intolerant zealot, and he was very decent to me, though I was nowhere near as pious as he would have liked. He sent me to a Yeshiva, where you study Hebrew and the Talmud and the Bible during the morning hours and secular subjects in the afternoon. I went to yeshiva through the eighth grade. So I had a very thorough Jewish and Hebrew education until I went to high school, which was the beginning of a break, in the sense that more and more I began to assimilate into the greater American culture and to embrace the secular at the expense of the religious. You can have some sort of balance, but it’s very hard to observe religious law and be fully secularized. You would have to make huge sacrifices. The religious law would prohibit you from doing any work on the Sabbath, which has already begun as we speak. It’s Friday evening, I shouldn’t be here in the office–it’s not Kosher–I’m not supposed to be carrying a briefcase tonight, I’m supposed to be in temple. Also, there are very strict laws about what you can eat, and I keep some of those laws to this day, but almost as a kind of vestigial reminder.

Do you believe in God?

Yes, I do.

I’m interested in [the poem “L’Shana Tova”] specifically. I was wondering if you would read it out loud, and then answer a question about it.

“L’Shana Tova” means Happy New Year, a good new year, in Hebrew. It’s what people say to each other on Rosh Ha’Shanah. Rosh Hashanah literally means “the head of the year.” “Rosh” is the Hebrew word for “head.”

[Lehman reads the poem]

L’Shana Tova

I hear the ram’s horn.
Do you? Do you remember
father, son, mountain?

L’shana tova
old friend, mentor, fellow Jew,
you from New Jersey,

I from Manhattan,
and we met not in temple
but Columbia

and do you recall
when I visited Cambridge
I left you a note

with the Clare porter.
The world is charged (I wrote) with
the grandeur of you!

And then you came home
and I took your place over
there: at Clare College

Peter Ackroyd came
and asked me if I would speak
to the group on John

Ashbery whose new
book The Double Dream of Spring
had just been published.

How could I say no?
They told me you had spoken
on Frank O’Hara

and Aaron Fogel
had spoken on Kenneth Koch.
It was a good omen

I thought but then what
happened was rain rain rain and
more rain. And no mail

because of a strike
in England. There was always
a strike in England.

No mail, no phone calls
to America where my
father lay dying.

The gardeners burned
the leaves and I crossed the Cam
on Clare College bridge

daily, and daily
I went to Heffers and bought
books by Hölderlin,

Mann, Gide, Henry James.
I imitated Rilke.
The sonnet for you

ran in Poetry.
More rain. Cold toilet. Bad smell.
And I couldn’t find

an English poet
younger than Larkin to like.
No mail. Pub hours.

Beer better than wine.
Awful food. Always hungry.
Had to learn to cook.

And that’s where I went
— to the sea of memory —
in temple today

when I heard the sound
of the shofar and prayed for
the living and dead.

I’m wondering if you pray, and if so, why, and what it means to you – and if not, why not.

Well, I pray sometimes.

Why?

I utter benedictions at certain appropriate moments in the year. First of all, it’s a nice custom. On the afternoon of the first day of Rosh Hashanah, you’re supposed to go cast your sins into the sea, and the tradition is to bring a loaf of stale bread, and to crumble it and throw the bread into the Hudson River – if [New York City] is where you are – and say a prayer, a blessing. You’re casting away your sins, and you’re participating in a certain kind of ritual. My wife and I did that a few weeks ago.

Do you do this every year?

Yes. I wish I could say I’m systematically observant; I’m not, but I sometimes get nostalgic for the days of my boyhood when I kept all the commandments and had a certain amount of fervor about it.

This poem interests me also because of this notion of prayer as a way of accessing memory. This notion of meditation, silence–going into places in your mind for a while. Do you find [prayer] is a moment of pause, to think, or to access other times or experiences, things that are difficult?

Writing this poem was a little like participating in a prayer service. I was revisiting memories that were common to me and the person to whom that poem was written, the poet David Shapiro, a college friend. I was consciously writing a poem, but I felt that it was like a prayer. My mind withdrew to a place that’s like the place you go to when you go to synagogue. And in fact the poem ends in the synagogue. Although literally I’m not there at the time of writing that poem, the poem ends there, and so the poem has achieved, I hope, that religious sense or spirit. I think it’s possible to have a very strong religious impulse even as you entertain doubts about the very possibility of metaphysics and feel ambivalent about attending formal services.

Is prayer a way of assimilating with your memories? Whether it’s with something more formal, like what you were describing, or just with a moment of pause for yourself?

Going to temple, I always like reading the week’s portion from the Torah. Each Saturday there is a portion from the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Torah and also a portion from the Prophets, the later books, and they’re read in different proportions. In synagogue, during the silent prayers, I would read these, both in the Hebrew and in the English, with a great deal of concentration, in part because the narratives are so strong. The poetry is so beautiful. The language, both in Hebrew and in a good translation, is very bracing and compelling and reminds you of who you are and where you come from.

It has some of the qualities of poetry, then. Depending on how you label, you could say it was poetry.

I love the poetry of the Old Testament. One of the things that led me to get involved with the prose poem–as an academic subject, and later as the subject for an anthology –was the conviction that the prose of the King James version of the Hebrew Bible was poetry of a very great order, which I think is incontestable. Just read the first chapters of Genesis, read Job or Jonah or Isaiah or Ecclesiastes, or the Song of Songs, or read the Book of Samuel, which has the story of King David in it.

When you’re looking at pieces of prose, whether intentional “prose poems” or passages from the Bible, what kinds of qualities do you look for? How do you tell the difference between something that’s poetry and not?

James Joyce’s Ulysses, you could say, is a work of very high artistry in prose, with some snippets of verse here and there, and with a whole section in the form of a surreal drama. It’s like no other novel. We call it a novel because we don’t know what else to call it. It’s just a label.

The labeling helps us sometimes, certainly, but ultimately it’s probably reductive, right?

You wouldn’t be doing Joyce’s Ulysses a favor by calling it a prose poem. You won’t be gaining new readers for it. So there’s no practical reason to do that unless you’re making a polemical point about the suitability of prose as a medium for writing poetry. A better example is the Bible. If you’re talking about the books of the Bible, you’re invoking poetry as an honorific. It’s not a marketing decision. You’re using the term prose poem strategically to say you’ve looked at the Bible and you wish to call attention to its literary properties, its aesthetic excellence, its epic quality. There’s nothing to prevent one from saying that Ecclesiastes is a prose poem.

Then it’s labeling for its own sake. “Poetry” as a metaphor.

That’s right. But it’s not going to fit into an anthology of prose poems.