My Favorite Gershwin Song (in the manner of David Lehman)

INTERVIEW BY LAUREN HILGER

poems in the name of cover grab

Poems in the Manner of… David Lehman’s most recent book speaks to the future by speaking to the poets who have come before. Featuring poems inspired by Kafka, Lady Murasaki, Catullus, alongside translations and astrological profiles, it’s a book that opens up with enthusiasm, deep love for poets’ technique and for their individual personalities, and provides possibilities for teaching. When I met David, he placed his hat on his hat stand and sang me the lyrics of my favorite Gershwin song. I talked to him about Poems in the Manner of… (Scribner), collaboration, and the American songbook.

Lauren Hilger: Most of the titles in this book begin “Poem in the manner of” and all start with a preface. I especially admire the poems that twist this constraint, like the twice-baked idea of a poem in the manner of Wallace Stevens as Rewritten by Gertrude Stein. I am curious, though, about how many layers it would take for it to no longer be a poem “in the manner of” and for it to just be your own. If this is a poem in the manner of Stevens rewritten through Stein, for instance, how many other voices would need to appear before it was yours again?

David Lehman: Writing the poems in this book I felt that I was writing my poems, as well as writing poems that were either homages to, or parodies of, appreciations of, translations of other poets.

I thought that was such a good idea: a poem by so-and-so rewritten by someone else. I wish I had done that more. I wish I had taken Wordsworth and rewritten it with the vocabulary and in the style of Wallace Stevens. A friend of mine, Terrence Winch, a very good poet, said after reading the book he wondered if the book had a different title and the poems had different individual titles, and there were no preface or no headnotes, how would people react? Another friend of mine said he came to the reading I gave and he felt the poems all sounded like me–which I was glad to hear. It’s really a device.

I wanted to write a poem one day in April of 2002 and I think it was either a poem of Max Jacob or Baudelaire that I looked at and took some of the words and some of the syntax of and built a poem around that, little knowing that I would enjoy the exercise so much I would repeat it the following day and day after until I had something that could grow.

Books are miscellanies, gatherings of poems, written from different periods. This is a unified project and the short headnotes and those prologues reinforce that. They can orient the reader, introduce them to Crane, for instance, open the door. The preface is a little bit like what you receive at a live reading or an anthology.

Hilger: I like that the prefaces are not “born, died, name of the boat off which he jumped, etc.” but they are your take on the poet, an usher guiding you to your seat.

Were there any poets with whom you struggled?

Lehman: William Carlos Williams. That one looks so easy. Williams’ first draft was easily done, but it was unsatisfying because it was easy. I imposed on it a rule that there be three words per line, and I often find that’s a good technical requirement because it will create a shape and perhaps a music as well, and that was the first thing I did but I rewrote that poem a lot.

Rimbaud also, those two were rewritten so many times. I rewrote both of them without looking at the previous versions. I had a pretty good memory of some of the lines or how it began, but in the abstract. One might think those were two of the less complicated poets.

Hilger: I love that revision strategy–whatever needs to stay will stay. Whatever you remember is what needs to be, and what got in there but is excess is probably not what you’d remember anyway.

Lehman: Do you revise a lot?

Hilger: I value compression and I value how–you said it beautifully–to make it look easy, it’s so hard. To have those poems that seem as if they arrived fully formed, Venus on the halfshell, takes a lot of work.

In a book like this, you’re connecting to someone’s individuality. I’d like to ask you about Emily Dickinson’s poem. In that one, just that one word and year and dash, it’s both you and a heightened version of her style. Was it important to focus on her and not think of yourself? How do you allow for someone to come through you?

Lehman: With Dickinson, I made two dozen attempts to write it. I couldn’t do better than the one word poem, although I did try.

Hilger: Another poem I admire is Edna St. Vincent Millay’s–the brilliance of the beginnings and ends of her lines. It’s amazing to realize how Edna St. Vincent Millay it still is were you to chop her poem in half and see just the words she’s chosen. It’s difficult to isolate what’s great about a writer, it’s sort of amorphous, or takes a lifetime of reading to see.

Lehman: Millay I believe is a very underrated poet, totally underanthologized and underread. The Oxford Book of American Poetry, a previous edition that Richard Ellmann put together, a noted Joyce scholar …

Hilger: and Oscar Wilde!

Lehman: Yes, also an Oscar Wilde biographer, well he didn’t have any of her poems in the 1976 book. She had fallen so completely out of favor. She’s in the 1950 Oxford book that F.O. Matthiessen put together even though Matthiessen didn’t like sonnets. He thought there were too many sonnets in American poetry; there are always interesting biases.

One thing I was really happy to be able to do is choose certain poets–to give them a little boost. She’s such a fine sonneteer, in particular. She knows how to make a sonnet. It’s a little trick if you isolate the last and first words, you really distill it in a way that may not be true if you take Auden’s sonnets. I really enjoyed doing that with her poems.

Hilger: I’ve been thinking about your translation of Apollinaire’s “Zone.” That one took forty years? It’s a revelation of a last line. Maybe it required those years of approaching it and then it came on its own.

Lehman: The Mayakovsky one too, I possessed it in some way, I knew it for so many years.

Hilger: There so many poets behind closed doors. And if we’ve read one bad translation, they’re not going to be real to us.

Lehman: Goethe is another one, he’s less accessible than Dante or Homer, harder to translate.

Hilger: Were there any writers you admire or teach but who were omitted?

Lehman: There’s the problem of finitude, what you’re able to do given the exigencies of time and space. I didn’t invest time in writing something in the manner of Blake or Coleridge, though I love Coleridge. I tried Shelley many times and threw out most. As for the astrological profiles, I did one for Barbara Stanwyck Dostoevsky, Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland, and Graham Greene.

Hilger: I love those forms that feel like they’re having fun. If you lower the stakes, there’s something you can achieve that maybe feels too grand to approach in a different style. I love the Freud quiz.

Lehman: I love ad hoc forms, forms that are not literary but are out there. The multiple choice test is one we’re familiar with from school and examinations. They can have jokes, and can also have serious information.

Hilger: My favorite is “Poem in the manner of a jazz standard.” One lyric morphs into another. It’s what jazz musicians do, there’s a fakeout beginning: they’ll start with one song–you think you know you where you are–or maybe they’ll begin with three different songs’ beginnings, or maybe in the middle of one song they’ll play another–then they return.

The subjects of so many of those jazz standards are the most grave and hurtful parts of life. Nothing would connote that we would want to be in their presence, yet we go to those songs and those songwriters for that joy. Can you give some insight?

Lehman: Well, they believed in romantic love as a possibility.

I don’t know that the popular culture today does, really, but at that time in American pop culture the idea of love at first sight, for example, which is kind of preposterous as a proposition, was a wonderful point of departure for a make-believe kind of universe. In fact, there’s a song called “Make Believe” by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein, “We can make believe I love you.” And that’s a really interesting supposition. And in fact, Hammerstein liked that idea so much, he has “We Can Make Believe” and the bench scene in Carousel, “If I Loved You.”

If! There’s a supposition in those songs of a passionate love, that is really a condition even Freud would say is the most exalted.

Hilger: “It’s only a paper moon […] But it wouldn’t be make-believe / if you believed in me!”

Lehman: It’s only a paper moon. That’s right. But we need those illusions.

Hilger: Is it real if we invent it?

Lehman: I think there’s a reality principle that comes along.

There’s an exuberance when you realize you’re falling in love with someone. And popular music, of the kind that I like and you like, especially that 50-60 year stretch, captures that: “I’ve Got the World on a String.” That’s a very exuberant feeling. “I’m Sitting on Top of the World”

Hilger: “If I seem to scintillate / it’s because I’ve got a date”

Lehman: Yes, now who wrote that…

Hilger: “Stepping out…”

Lehman: “…with my Baby.” Irving Berlin! That’s a whole subjective mood: the conditional if.

That allows for a lot of songs…there’s an equal number in which there’s heartbreak: “Angel Eyes,” “One for my baby / ”

Hilger: “…and one more for the road.” They make you light up, though, even the sad ones. There’s something to it that still makes you relieved to be in the presence of that–I wonder what that is and how we can understand it.

Lehman: I think it’s insane to think that all that matters of a performer is if they wrote the song themselves. If you have a song like Rodgers & Hart “Lady is a Tramp,” you can have Ella Fitzgerald sing that song and she does a magnificent version, and Frank Sinatra does a great version.

Hilger: And Lena Horne! They’re all so different.

Lehman: And the song’s the same! It lends itself to all of these different singers, and there’s a song “Day In, Day Out,” a Johnny Mercer lyric. The Sinatra version most people know is a swing version, a fast tempo, but he did a very slow early 50s version too. It shows you how the same song can be done in a different time signature, a different tempo, can be done in three part harmony, can be done with a chorus, can be done with just strings, no strings. You’d have the best composer and the best lyricist and the best orchestrator–that’s a division of labor that makes perfect sense to me. You can’t expect someone to do all of those things.

Hilger: And you need the alchemist performers. It’s true, it’s sort of like with one artist, their vision stops there, but it expands when you have someone else, it bounces off of them. It’s like reflecting and refracting light–in order to have a rainbow you need all of these angles and ideas bouncing off the back of a raindrop.

In maybe the way it’s hard to write a poem that appears easy, it’s hard to write these lyrics. Still, there’s a guttural difference in the reaction. If you hear one of these songs, there’s a lightness. It’s not not serious, but it’s different from that intellectual sigh at a poetry reading when someone hears something that moves them.

Lehman: The wit is such is that it appeals to the intellect, but the heart is the music; the music is the real genius. I would aspire to write lyrics. I’d have a wonderful time. You just need the composer, you need the band, and you need the people who are going to dance.

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Lauren Hilger is the author of Lady Be Good (CCM, 2016.) Awarded the Nadya Aisenberg fellowship from the MacDowell Colony, her work has appeared in Harvard Review, Kenyon Review, Massachusetts Review, and elsewhere. She serves as a poetry editor for No Tokens

  • Amy Leigh Cutler

    This is an incredibly successful interview. As a reader I felt like I was given lots of strategies for my own writing and revision, as well as interesting insight into Lehman’s process and execution. Well done!