DAVID LEHMAN, GODFATHER AND MAGICIAN
by Dorothy Friedman August c 2006
David Lehman's life and love of poetry are reflected in his work and in the
works of other poets he's nurtured over the years. Whether writing poetry,
choosing guest editors for his yearly anthology, Best American Poetry,
recommending poets for readings, or mentoring poets at The New School
University's Graduate Program, Lehman's life is one of fulfilled artist and
muse. Possibly he is the godfather of us all.
Lehman's oevre includes two non-fiction books, one of which, The Last Avant
Garde, documents the influence of John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, and Frank
O'Hara on modern poetry. He's also published six volumes of poetry, the
latest being When A Man Loves A Woman (Scribner, 2005).
Being an afficionado of film noir, gangster motifs occasionally turn up in
this collection. In fact, he sees a relationship between writing a murder
mystery and writing a poem. In some of my poems "the sun is shining" says
Lehman, but describes others as being "dark as a grainy newsreel,
detailing the misdeeds of fascist world conquerors."
Along with mystery and mayhem, Lehman also has a love of surprises. His
poems, which sometimes use the format of a murder mystery, remind me of a
quote by Emerson who wrote "The poet achieves the sublime by climbing up a
staircase of surprises."
I first met David at Brooklyn college in the mid 70's when he was
pinchhitting for John Ashbery in the newly formed MFA program. I found him
a savant guide into the labrynthine world of poetry. He encouraged his
students to be freewheeling and improvisational, as well as to perfect
their craft with forms, such as villanelles, pantouns, and sestinas. He
compares forms to canvas, brush, and oils, so as to suggest that in
retrospect sestinas and prose poems will be the hallmark of our era.
Keeping this in mind it's not surprising that he's been a huge fan of the
New York School of poery and John Ashbery since college days at Columbia
where he came under the inflluence of the post modern masters (O'Hara,
Ashbery, and Koch). Not unlike the innovators he writes about he also
strives for that balance between design and impulse that Auden, for example
achieves in "September 1, 1939" and Marianne Moore in "What Are Years?"
Examples of this can be seen in the following two poems: "When A Man Loves A
Woman" and "The Gift."
(From "When A Man Loves A Woman")
When she says quixotic she means mercurial
And when she says, "I'll never speak to you again"
she means "Put your arms around me from beind
as I stand disconsolate at the window.
He's supposed to know that
When a man loves a woman he is in New York and she is in Virginia
or he is in Boston, writing, and she is in New York, reading
or she is wearing a sweater and sunglasses in Balboa Park and he
is raking the leaves in Ithaca
or he is driving to East Hampton anad she is standing disconsolate
at the window overlooking the bay
where a regatta of many colored sails is going on
while he is stuck in traffic on the Long Island Expressway
(from "The Gift")
He gave her money. She gave him head.
He gave her tips on "aggressive growth" mutual funds. She gave him
a red rose and a statue of Eros.
He gave her Genesis 2 (21-23). She gave him Genesis 1 (26-28).
He gave her a square peg. She gave him a round hole.
He gave her Long Beach on a late Sunday in September. She gave him
zinnias and Cosmos in the plenitude of July.
He gave her a camisole and a brooch. She gave him a cover and a break.
He gave her Venice, Florida. She gave him Rome, New York.
He gave her a false sense of security. She gave him a true sense
He gave her the finger. She gave him the what for.
He gave her a black eye. She gave him a divorce.
He gave her a steak for her black eye. She gave him his money back.
He gave her what she had never had before. She gave him what he had
had and lost.
He gave her nastiness in children. She gave him prudery in adults.
He gave her Panic Hill. She gave him Mirror Lake.
He gave her an anthology of drum solos. She gave him the rattle of
leaves in the wind.
With similar panache he co-founded the KGB Bar Series on E. 3th Street in
Manhattan with Star Black. "We signed to do it in that reckless way you do
things if you're an impulsive person, without much thought for the
Well the results were nothing sort of spectacular. They featured such
diverse poets as Edwin Torres, James Tate, and Colette Inez, as well as
younger poets like Bob Hickock and Mary Jo Bang. Then, after six years he
turned the series over to Deborah Landau and Matthew Laprada, who he calls
"younger blood", though he continues to make recommendations, and they
continue to keep the envigorating pace he set.
It would be difficult to find a poet and editor who has inspired and
supported more people over the years. KGB is an excellent example of this.
In an intimate public atmosphere poets have an opportunity ignite our
imaginations, and it remains a really hot series where writers from all
over the country, as well as local talent, congregate. There's a great mix
of distinctive voices, and crowds find it a welcome change from the more
conventional or library setting.
Speaking of the genesis of the series Lehman says: "Star and I felt that
poetry should have contact with the street, the market, and the material
world. So we signed to do it in that reckless way you do things, without
thought to the consequences."
In much the same innovative vein he presents The Best American Poetry,
a yearly collecion, informed by such editors as A. R. Ammons, John Ashbery,
Charles Simic and Billy Collins. He also has favorites among his own
poems, although he describes himself as "a mother who love all her children
equally." In addition to using forms, he champions the found poem and likes using
collage as a method and the cento, in which all lines come from other poems.
In tracing the relationship between writing a murder mystery and writing a
poem, he refers to the private eye hero of hard boiled detective novels as
"a disillusioned romantic. Old fashioned and a loner. He keep going even
though everyone urges him to drop the case." With a soft spot for losing
battles and lost causes he is, for Lehman, the quintessential poet.
The poet's lot is the pain of being alive. After 9-11 people have turned
more and more to poetry for solace and to try to make sense out of the
world and their lives. David Lehman is forever in the forefront of helping
us recover and recycle what we've lost and to pinpoint and re-channel it
into new waves. As a poet, editor and human being he is busy providing
compass and pen so we can do our best to make the best American poetry
He encourages the Luke Skywalker and the Darth Vader in all of us.