Story of My Life
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) adapted to the needs
of a Brooklyn-based brewery named after a Wagner opera, Rheingold.
My beer is Rheingold the dry beer. Think of Rheingold whenever you buy beer.
It’s not bitter, not sweet, it’s the extra dry treat,
Won’t you try extra dry Rheingold beer?
What memories that jingle stirs up, mostly about the futility
of the New York Mets, whose on-the-air sponsor was Rheingold beer.
Anyway, this meme, “story of my life,” has the virtues all clichés have:
You can rejuvenate it, jolt some meaning back into it, while honoring the vernacular,
and to do that is a challenge for young poets, and an opportunity,
and so every year a poet on the faculty somewhere is asking his or her students
to write the poem in them that finds its inspiration in the title Story of My Life.
It’s not a form exactly but a prompt, an assignment, an idea for a poem,
like getting everybody to pick photographs of themselves as teenagers
and write poems triggered by the associations.
The assumption is that everybody has a story to tell,
a sad story perhaps but one full of hidden corners and exciting detours,
and the trick is to tell the story as succinctly as possible,
it being understood that by “story” the poet means
not a narrative so much as the suggestion of one, an enigmatic anecdote
the length of a Zen koan or a poem by Stephen Crane,
that can serve as the allegory of the writer’s life.
And today, as I sit here in the yard of 105 Valentine Place in Ithaca
hoping to get some sun
at this time of day when the angle of vision is perfect
and I can survey my properties:
the passing clouds that mask the yellow sheen
of old man sun, and the gray clouds that are drifting off like his daughters,
and here comes the blue, patches of it, and clouds like big balls of cotton,
the new hemlock, the adolescent juniper, the old reliable quince bush,
and three dark, tall, and graceful pines that stand sentry over the pre-sunset celebrations
of evening, another job accomplished, another day in the book--
I sit here, just as I wanted to do all day,
with my legs and arms warmed by the sun,
with my notebook and my pen in hand,
and I am the Daddy of all the scene,
knowing the sun and the clouds, the wind pushing them
and even the stately evergreen with clusters of yellow nuts on its branches
are performing for my benefit and at my command--
I sit here, as I wanted to do, and the breeze grazes my cheeks
and there are bowls of plums and white-flesh peaches
and a sweet-smelling melon on the table beside me,
and the day offers other enticements to come:
a swim in a blue pool followed by dinner prepared by Stacey
for me and special guest son Joe,
grilled swordfish steaks with the pesto sauce Stacey concocted,
a salad of heirloom and beefsteak tomatoes, pasta punctuated with corn,
and a bottle of premium sparkling Blanc de Blancs.
And so, now that I have it, what do I do with the happiness of this moment?
I, who never took a writing workshop but have taught many,
think of how I would handle the assignment for next week’s class.
I write about a boy, not me but like me, in green tennis shirt
and khaki shorts, a blue baseball cap and well-worn brown moccasins,
and the boy wants nothing more than to sit in the sun
but always arrives too late: the diagonal line dividing the yard
into equal areas of sun and shade
vanishes as soon as he gets there.
That’s all. I write it in the third person, call it “Story of My Life.”
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.