What are you working on?
A sequence of thirty sonnets entitled “Ithaca.” I have lived in Ithaca, New York, part time or full time, for more than thirty years. In the Odyssey, Ithaca is the hero’s homeland, his origin and his goal, to which he returns following the Trojan War and all the subsequent perils, hazards, and temptations Odysseus endures.
Are you drawn to the Homeric epic for reasons beyond this coincidence of names?
It is as Virginia Woolf writes, explaining her attraction to Greek tragedy: the spirit of the ancient Greeks "has nothing in common with the slow reserve, the low half-tones, the brooding introspective melancholy of people accustomed to living more than half the year indoors." And I love the Odyssey.
Why the sonnet form? And why thirty of them?
There’s a reason the sonnet is historically the greatest lyric form in English tradition. It’s extraordinary what you can do within that precise fourteen-line structure. Twelve lines are too few, sixteen too many, and the unequal distribution of the sonnet’s fourteen lines into two asymmetrical stanzas allows you to make the rhetorical shift or pivot that is crucial to your argument or theme. The sonnet sequence gets you to do at least two things at once, because each sonnet must stand on its own and as a unit in a larger whole. In 1987, I finished “Mythologies,” a sequence of thirty sonnets, each consisting of seven couplets, and it went on to win a prize at The Paris Review and to anchor my book Operation Memory. I had the model of “Mythologies” in mind when I began work on “Ithaca” two years ago. Each was undertaken at a crossroad in my life.
What is the biggest problem you face as a poet?
Can you put that in a more intellectually respectable way?
I used to think death was an extension of the reality principle. Then I began to question that assumption. I felt that reality and necessity were two different things. I recalled that Freud’s thinking on the question evolved to the point that he introduced the idea of a death impulse, a drive toward death. Death is the end of life whether you define end as finish or as aim.
For nearly five full years you wrote a poem each or almost each day. Do you still do that?
Maybe I will try that again sometime in a more limited way. Recently I conducted an experiment in the opposite direction: for thirty days I maintained radio silence, refusing to write poems even if lines occurred to me.
In your New and Selected Poems you have new translations from Guillaume Apollinaire and Henri Michaux. Are you making more translations?
I’ve done about twelve or fourteen of Baudelaire’s prose poems and I mean to keep going. A couple of years ago, I translated one of Baudelaire’s most famous prose poems, “Enivrez-vous” (“Get Drunk”), just because I needed it for a dinner toast and was dissatisfied with all the many translations I had read. Alan Ziegler liked my effort and chose it for his new anthology of poems and prose in short forms, Short. Around this time, my friends Jim Periconi and Cheryl Hurley organized a Baudelaire soiree and invited me to take part. I said yes and went to the shelf and picked out Baudelaire’s Petits Poemes en prose, an old favorite of mine. (Way back when, I wrote my doctoral dissertation on the prose poem.) The best translations I could find were done a hundred years ago by Arthur Symons and are a bit creaky. So I thought I’d try my hand at it. I started with “Le Mauvais vitrier” (“The Bad Glazier”). Believe me, it is a major challenge to render a work like that into clean contemporary idiomatic prose that manages nevertheless to convey a flavor of Paris in the 1850s. I got totally involved in it, worked on it for weeks, draft after draft. The next few came with less struggle, but by its nature translation is approximative; there are no definitive translations, which means that every time you look over one of your attempts, you feel like making an adjustment.
You are on record saying that you turn to “Tintern Abbey” when your own spirits flag. What about the same poet’s “Immortality Ode”? Do you agree with Wordsworth that for the inevitable loss of “the radiance which was once so bright,” there is adequate compensation “in what remains behind; / In the primal sympathy / Which having been must ever be; / In the soothing thoughts that spring / Out of human suffering; / In the faith that looks through death, / In years that bring the philosophic mind”?
There is “Compensation”--my guide in this conviction being Emerson’s essay of that title. But Wordsworth’s diet is severe: primal sympathy, soothing thoughts, human suffering, the philosophic mind. None of that makes up for the loss of the “splendor in the grass” that you once almost took for granted.
Is Wordsworth your favorite Romantic poet?
No, I prefer Coleridge, Keats, and Byron.
What distinguishes your work from the many new poems that you read in periodicals and books each year?
If you track contemporary poetry you get the feeling that sometimes the poets--not all, but some--act as if the world came into being roughly thirty years ago. Some are comfortable writing about their relationships and little else. The past is important to me. Some of my work dwells on it, if not in it. Ideas, too: though I subscribe to Mallarme’s dictum that “poems are made with words, not ideas,” I know that ideas and intellectual problems get my imagination going.
What else gets you going?
The act of revision. I like to raid the drawer for old discarded drafts. It can be inspiring, or sometimes unsettling, to look at the draft of a poem begun ago and abandoned for whatever reason. Just the other day I discovered a poem written, according to the date below it, in August 2008. I had completely forgotten it--I felt as if I were reading someone else’s poem. I had the detachment to see what worked and what didn’t and to make alterations as needed. It’s as though the poem were already there but encased in the clay, like a Michelangelo sculpture.
Your writing is saturated with literary tradition--you write in forms ranging from the sestina, haiku, and villanelle to prose poems and poems in ad hoc forms consisting of a fixed number of words per line. Yet your writing is very anti-academic. I am thinking of your poem “With Tenure,” for example, which satirizes that academic institution, or the devastating book you wrote on deconstruction and the case of Paul de Man, Signs of the Times. Is there a contradiction?
Maybe there is a problem of classification. As the son of Holocaust survivors who has written about the experience, I recently made a presentation to a professional group of scholars who specialize in Holocaust studies, and I welcome that association. My work has just appeared in anthologies of sestinas and prose poems and I am very glad to be in the company of others drawn to those forms. I have been labeled “post-modernist” but that term is a bit parochial and out-of-date. There is a comic element in some of my poems. The idea that poems can be serious and comic at the same time has gained traction, though there remains a prejudice against the comic in the academic mind. I like to rhyme, and that is one of the least orthodox things a poet can do today.
Why do you like rhyme?
Probably because I love songs, popular jazz songs with witty rhymes, but also because it’s a challenge to do it well. It’s a way of collaborating with the language to discover something you didn’t know you knew. Rhyme is one of those requirements that paradoxically liberate the imagination by putting a constraint on it. Rhyme is underrated. Rhyme is what the music of the spheres sounds like in poetry.
When you lead a writing workshop, do you give prompts or exercises to your students, and if you do, can you give us an example?
I teach at the New School in New York City. One week last fall, we read poems by Auden, William Carlos Williams, and John Berryman, each one based on a Brueghel painting. We have a Brueghel at the Metropolitan Museum and I asked everyone to go look at it and write a poem.
If you had no audience, no publisher, would you continue to write?
I believe that the poet’s first responsibility is to give pleasure to the reader, whether that reader exists or not. Kenneth Koch loved to quote this mysterious statement, which he attributed to Paul Valery: “A poem is a communication from one who is not the poet to one who is not the reader.” I guess I take a weird pleasure in knowing that something I do is gratuitous, makes no difference to the world, and requires, in the end, no one's approval or authority but my own.
Your poems have some of the distinctive traits of the New York School. In what ways do your poems differ from a model derived from Ashbery, Koch, and O’Hara?
I feel a kinship with others of my generation for whom the New York School was decisive. I may be more interested than some in history, in trying to understand the present moment in relation to the past. The New York School, when I was exposed to it as a Columbia undergraduate, came as a great liberation. You could write about daily things, real things; you could do something that was literary and even formal but felt fresh and new in colloquial language. You could write with a buoyant rather than a doleful spirit. You could make jokes in poems. Parody was okay, irony even better. It was an aesthetic movement. Let me put it this way: the New York School opted for aesthetics as the answer to the end of metaphysics and the failure of politics [to] fill the void left by the gradual death of religion following the abrupt demise of God in a living room in Germany in 1885. What complicates things is that I was raised as an orthodox Jew, and I have it, the old religion, in my bones. I believe in justice and moral judgment and like to go on intellectual adventures in areas far removed from official New York School subject matter. I read and reread Freud, Matthew Arnold, Eliot, Lionel Trilling, Northrop Frye, Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag; I get absorbed by such things as the Snow-Leavis controversy ignited by a pair of dueling lectures at Cambridge in the early 1960s. And I find myself drawn toward divinity if only to mourn its withdrawal from the world. I have a hunch that Kenneth Koch, my Columbia professor, would be critical of certain poems written in this spirit, though I think he would have liked the wild phantasmagoria of “Yeshiva Boys.”
What is your quote of the day?
Mark Twain, on the Viennese Parliament in 1897: "As to the make-up of the House itself, it is this: the deputies come from all the walks of life and from all the grades of society. There are princes, counts, barons, priests, mechanics, laborers, physicians, professors, merchants, bankers, shopkeepers. They are religious men, they are earnest, sincere, devoted, and they hate the Jews." Lionel Trilling, who quoted this, added that “This hatred of the Jews was the one point of unity in a Parliament which was torn asunder by the fiercest nationalistic and cultural jealousies.”
Is poetry dead?
[In] seemingly regular intervals, an article will appear in a wide-circulation magazine declaring--as if it hasn’t been said often before--that poetry is finished, kaput, over and done with, ready for interment. People used to debate whether the novel is dead. There was a split decision that satisfied nobody, and I think proponents were ready to throw in the towel. But people keep on writing novels, and some of them get read and make a dent in the reader's consciousness. What is different today is that poetry has moved to the center of this debate. Is it dead, does it matter, is there too much of it, does anyone anywhere buy books of poetry? The discussion is fraught with anxiety and I suppose that implies there's a love of poetry, and a longing for it, and a fear that we may be in danger of losing it if we do not take care to promote it, teach it well, help it reach the reader whose life depends on it.
You are often seen as a champion of American poetry. When asked about changes you have witnessed, you point to the greater diversity in recent American poetry--the increase, for example, in the number of women, or African-Americans, or Asian-Americans doing accomplished work. You have also drawn attention to the rise of the prose poem and to an increase in candor, especially about sex and the erotic. Have all the changes been positive?
Death has robbed us of wonderful poets--irreplaceable figures. We lost James Schuyler, May Swenson, Donald Justice, Ruth Stone, Joseph Brodsky, Charles Bukowski, James Merrill, Allen Ginsberg, Denise Levertov, A. R. Ammons, Kenneth Koch, Anthony Hecht, Robert Creeley, Adrienne Rich, John Hollander, Seamus Heaney, Thom Gunn, Tom Disch, Karl Shapiro, Stanley Kunitz, Josephine Jacobsen, Jane Kenyon, and Bill Matthews, just to name poets who appeared in early volumes of The Best American Poetry.
It has been said that in America today everyone's a poet. Is there any truth in that? And is it altogether a good thing?
It was Freud who argued that everyone is a poet when dreaming or making wisecracks or even when making slips of the tongue or pen. He maintained that daydreaming is a passive form of creative writing. The popularity of creative writing as an academic field has encouraged what might be a natural tendency in American democracy. In the proliferation of competent poems, poems that meet a certain standard of artistic finish, I can’t see much harm except to note one inevitable consequence, which is that of inflation. In economics, inflation takes the form of a devaluation of the currency. In poetry, inflation lessens the value that the culture attaches to any individual poem. Byron in a journal entry in 1821 or 1822 captured this trend with his customary brio: “there are more poets (soi-disant) than ever there were, and proportionally less poetry.”
Do you feel there has been a rise in perishable poems--poems that aspire to no greater fame than momentary notoriety?
No doubt, but you can’t begrudge a poet the blandishments that come his or her way, few as they are. You can’t fault a poet for enjoying the rare day that her or his poem went viral, though on some level we all associate the word “viral” with infection.
Have you ever written a poem whose title is the best thing about it?
Oh, sure. “Fuck You, Foucault.”
Please name a neglected or undervalued poet that people should read.
There are so many--you name the poet, and chances are, he or she is overlooked or underrated. Of the eighteenth-century poets, Thomas Gray is terribly great and too little read. Emma Lazarus wrote superb sonnets and innovative prose poems. Among recent poets, Joseph Ceravolo was a remarkable talent, and I am glad to have had the chance to write the introduction to his long overdue Collected Poems, which Wesleyan published a year ago. The late Paul Violi wrote wonderfully inventive poems. David Shapiro is an outstanding poet. Two other poets of my generation that deserve a wider audience are Aaron Fogel and Mitch Sisskind. Oh, there are so many.
How can a poet combat the feeling that his or her work is underappreciated, undervalued?
You have to resist this feeling if you want to avoid the disappointment, bitterness, and resentment to which too many writers and artists are prone. You can remind yourself that people in all fields suffer from the same feeling. The wise know that it is not only bad form but bad for the soul to broadcast your disappointment in life.
If you could give your young poet-self one piece of advice, what would it be?
It would be the same advice I would give to a young poet today. Read a lot of poetry, especially the great poetry of the past; disregard critics, except dead ones; write a lot, every day if possible; and never expect your poems to earn you a living.
David Lehman is a poet, writer, and editor. His eight full-length books of poetry include New and Selected Poems (2013), When a Woman Loves a Man (2005), The Daily Mirror (2000), and Valentine Place (1996). He is the editor of The Oxford Book of American Poetry and series editor of The Best American Poetry, which he founded in 1988. In 2010 he won ASCAP's Deems Taylor Award for the most recent of his nonfiction books, A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs. He teaches in the graduate writing program of the New School in New York City.