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Since 1996, April has been National Poetry Month. The initial goal was not the writing of a poem a day. Instead, according to the publishers, booksellers, librarians, literary organizations, poets, and teachers who dreamed it up, the goal was to establish a month-long holiday in celebration of poetry. Volumes of verse were handed out, poets were invited to read at the White House, and an election was held to decide which poet should be honored with a postage stamp. Not everyone saw these developments as praiseworthy. Charles Bernstein, for one, railed against the month because its sponsors “exclude from its promotional activities much of the formally innovative and “otherstream” poetries that form the inchoate heart of the art of poetry…[A]ctivities on behalf of National Poetry Month tend to focus on the most conventional of contemporary poetry; perhaps an accurate name for the project might be National Mainstream Poetry Month. [P]erhaps we should designate August as National Unpopular Poetry Month.”
National Poetry Writing Month has by now (2007) morphed into NaPoWriMo, with poetry cells at any of a number of blogs, providing pied a terre for the bodhisattvas of poetry, mainstream or not. Mainstream poets do participate, but there’s also a healthy contingent of misbegotten, pub-crawling outcasts in the poets of NaPoWriMo, who overwhelm the online world with verse, not all of it forgettable. “Planet April,” Alison Armstrong-Webber called it.
In January 1996, well before NaPoWriMo, New York poet and part-time Ithacan David Lehman began writing a poem a day. At this time, Lehman had already put out three volumes of verse and had been publishing extensively in the New Yorker and the Paris Review. He had not yet published his critical study The Last Avant-Garde, which was eventually named a "Book to Remember” by the New York Public Library in 1999. In the preface to the volume that resulted from the daily discipline, The Daily Mirror, Lehman recognizes William Stafford, Emily Dickinson, and Robert Bly as forebears. He praised the dailiness as a “corrective to artificial poetric diction,” and pushed his work to “transcend the occasion of its making, as only real poems do.” He published The Daily Mirror in 2000, the overall tone of which is a masterful wriggling from tone to tone, a shifting of inflections, emotions cast as cerebration. There is a debt to Frank O’Hara’s “I do this, I do that” style in this collection, to O’Hara’s love of the comic, and to New York, both up- and down-state. Let’s look at the opening piece, entitled—as it must be—“January 1”:
Some people confuse inspiration with lightning not me I know it comes from the lungs and air you breathe it in you breathe it out it circulates it’s the breath of my being the wind across the face of the waters yes but it’s also something that comes at my command like a turkey club sandwich An unpretentious little beginning that we know is the set-up for situating the speaker as a man apart. No one characterizes the subgroup “some people” and then claims to be a kindred spirit to it. Almost Blakean in its innocent whimsy,
almost comic-book like, with the lightning visual, line 1 gives way to line 2’s anticipated distinction (between the lyrical “I” of the poem and “some people”) and a gentle etymological exposition of what it is to breathe. Line 1 is missing a piece of final punctuation, line 2 is missing one too, as well as a comma at the end of the first foot—if we can say “foot” about any part of this free verse—but line 3 is all about unpunctuated, all three complete sentences tumble out in a breath—simple, childlike statements—and then at line 4 and through the enjambement of line 5,the tone shifts into Shelley-land: “it’s the breathof my being the wind across the face / of the waters.” “yes,” we say with the poet,right before he shifts tone again, this time to the ultra-mundane, the “turkey club sandwich.” Maybe we laugh, maybe we feel more comfortabe, less abstract, maybe we have been insulted—perhaps the poet has refused to expose “inspiration” to us (we could be just “some people”). Moreover, in strictly poetical terms, everything from “but it’s also something that comes at my command” could be filler, a long drum-roll from the moment Inspiration’s curtain begins to rise and the god Inspiration is replaced with the turkey club, like something out of Ovid.
but it’s also something that comes at my command like a turkey club sandwich with a cup of split pea soup or like tones from Benny Goodman’s clarinet my clarinet the language that never fails to respond
The poet hacks away at the ghost of Shelley, piling in “split pea soup” and a couple of clarinets, and then we realize (maybe we laugh) that the bit about the
command was not filler, it was pointing all the time at “the language that never fails to respond,” at “Inspiration” itself. When you’re committed to writing a poem a day, that’s what you count on, language never failing. Lehman uses jazz music as a touchstone, the way the New York School used Abstract Expressionism. Poets and musicians form a natural audience for each others’ work. Time and again in Lehman’s work, a metaphor,a reference, or an image evokes this synaestheisa, as classical as it is Homeric, the poet’s song. Lehman’s song is jazzy. So the inspiration is jazzy, American, specific ( a cup of split pea soup) and accidental.
some people think you need to be pure of heart not true it comes to the pure and the impure alike the patient and impatient the lvers the onanists and the virgins
Here the poet takes us back to “some people,” the poem’s straw man. Inspiration is not a reward for uncompromising idealism, Lehman says. It comes to the im/pure and the im/patient alike. And as if to ward off the accidental dualism these terms introduce, the poet throws in a three way: lovers/onanists/virgins. This “language that never fails to respond” refuses to close itself up too tightly, it turns out to be something “simple a traumatic / moment that fascinated us more when it was only / a fragment.” It’s about possibilities:
a fragment an old song a strange noise a mistake of hearing a phone that wouldn’t stop ringing No final punctuation. (Inspiration is unstoppable).
At about the time that Lehman was writing this poem, I shared a lover with Lehman’s ex-wife, whose son then was about the age that my son is now, on the verge of puberty. The child’s name was/is Joe, and on January 5, Lehman wrote this poem:
Every time I hear a new word I see a new color, Joe said in a cab. For example, I said. For example, he said, the word example is yellow brown, olive & a little white mashed together
Quoting Kenneth Koch, Lehman once wrote,” I like collaborating the way people like drinking.” Lehman has quite a few poems that are half Joe’s, like this one. Its small, neat lines in the sparse vocabulary of the pre-teen male make a good read. The first six lines are all exactly five syllables long. Of the 24 words they use, eight are used more than once, fully 14 times. Which means that less than half of the words are unique. In stomps line seven, a gavel: “said, the word.” Boom boom boom. After that, it’s fast-paced, like a cartoon or a good watercolor, a gush of words. The repetitions are not anaphora, not quasi-Biblical; they are the artful use of a limited palette, a boy’s world, earth colors and synaesthesia. An ampersand (that’s for modernity) culminating in a kid’s word: mashed (that’s to ward off the high brows).
And each letter of the alphabet has an age, a sex, & a personality. H, for example, is a lavender girl, fourteen a friend of the number 4, who is also a girl and also lavender.
The average line length in this clump is just under seven syllables and the repetition index is at 16 of 34. So, slightly more than half the words are unique. Not statistically significant, the academician avers. “Lavender,” besides being a lovely word, voices the fricative of “fourteen,” “friend,” “alphabet,” and “four.” “Lavender” also shares the short “a”’s of “alphabet,” “personality,” and “example,” that’s why this skinny little poem is so tight and muscular. It’s a small palette, which like a kaleidoscope or tube of mirrors makes endless variations of finite resources. “Lavender” is one of the pebbles in the tube. In Ayurvedic terms, lavender oil can be said to pacify the vata (calming the nervous system) and to cool the pitta (acting as an anti-inflammatory). It is a highly sattvic oil, which means that it beings mental peace.
And I? I asked. I, he said, is a genius, white.
Continuing the use of few words in small patterns, the poet juxtaposes inflections: “I?” with “I”. Then “I” with “he” in a pronominal pun. “I” used as a third
person signifier, “I, he said.” This is a tender sense of humor, not the joke that depends upon someone else looking ridiculous, but the humor that finds a kind of wonderment in what is, eliciting laughter. “And I,” Yeats said of the accomplished Chinamen whose gay eyes and nimble fingers are carved in lapis lazuli, “I delight to imagine them.” So when Joe’s dad asks him not “And me?” as he would in a 21st century sitcom, but the “And I?” of proper English, Joe the blaguer turns a pun. “I” he says, speaking the homophone and treating it alphabetically, synaesthetically. The lyrical “I” merges with the letter “I” and dissolves into the universe of all colors, white.
Lehman agrees with Kenneth Koch and Oscar Wilde that all bad poetry springs from genuine feeling. To that end, Koch once wrote an epic verse in ottava rima about a Japanese baseball player, and John Ashbery wrote a sestina about Popeye. Lehman weighs in with his July 12 poem, which after some Mainstream Poetickal Rhyming and brand name shilly-shallying, anchors itself in a wisecrack:
Wisteria, hysteria is as obvious a rhyme as Viagra and Niagara there must be a reason honeymooners traditionally went to the Falls which were, said the divine Oscar, an American bride’s second biggest disappointment
The poet’s better half—in this case his son Joe—rescues the father from these shallow musings:
tell me which do you like better the American falls or the Horseshoe Falls,
I say the Horseshoe Falls, Joe says, because its magnificence surpasses the American Falls thank you, Joe, and did you know But the father is not yet ready to abandon the comedy club: when Casey Stengel managed the Yankees he sat next to Bob Cerv on the bench one day, put his arm around the big outfielder, and said, “One of us has just been traded to Kansas City” I don’t know what put that in my mind except that it backs up Michael Malinowitz’s line about John Ashbery being the Casey Stengel of poetry
Comedy, yes, but here tinged with respect and love for a forebear and perhaps anxiety about the assessment a mentor might make about a disciple. Casey Stengel, athlete, wit, and Yankee’s manager, was nicknamed the “Old Perfessor.” In this free-flowing poem, one memory dragged in on the heels of another, as Lehman says of an Ashbery poem, “an argument whose terms are constantly morphing.”
wait a minute I’ll be right back I am back that’s another line I’ve always wanted to put in a poem what it will say on Johnny Carson’s gravestone “I’ll be right back”
The poem’s closing in this way not only cements its relationship to vaudeville, the variety-show stand-up, but also uses a line we all used to use when we wrote letters on paper. Now we write our “letters” in email (we don’t say that, actually, we say, we sent an email) and when we have to leave and come back, we just push “Send.” It’s easier to write a second email later than it is to leave the one email opening, waiting for a continuance. But once upon a time, we let the paper
lie on the desk, we came back later, maybe with a different pen, the way we might do if we’re writing a poem a day, as Lehman did.
Some of the features of Lehman’s verse that I have called out here: comedy, Americana, Joe, the spoken language, and the art of the blague also feature in Lehman’s second collection of daily poems, The Evening Sun, published in 2002.
Lehman, the young perfessor, wrote a particularly sweet poem for June 4, in Ithaca, when the town is at its flowering, lazy best. Father’s love, father’s learning blend:
I said OK Joe what makes this flower beautiful what makes the flower a flower he answered We know Joe’s laconic style. Or perhaps this is the father’s learning (“…the three Steins,” as Lehman calls them on December 3,”Einstein, Wittgenstein, and Gertrude Stein”) wrapping his conversation with his son in Gertrude Stein’s caftan. Lehman delights in his son’s “rightness”:
right again as we walked down Valentine Place past the students and the nursing home down the cobblestone street leading to the bridge above Six Mile Creek where
the students swim naked in the summer. Valentine Place is old, old Ithaca. Its real name is Quarry Street, but because of Valentine’s Restaurant, a kind of
speakeasy nestled into a converted dormitory, it earns the name Valentine Place. The street back there is paved with the original cobblestones, so rough they can twist your bike frame, and so steep that you want to walk your bike anyway. Valentine Place leads to a suspension bridge across one of the area’s many gorges. Ithaca is Gorges, as the bumper sticker asserts. In early June when the trees are still budding, the shade-loving vinca (myrtle) is long since fully green and spreads out in a carpet under the maples:
myrtle grows wild I wonder why Milton said “ye myrtles brown” when they’re green with little purple buds in May
The perfessor cannot leave Milton out of it. All the poems in these two collections are bite-sized, like this one. Perhaps because Lehman carries a line in his head about Milton’s Paradise Lost, by way of Sam Johnson: “None ever wished it longer.”
Let’s close our look at Lehman’s dailies with a poem from October 15th. In it, we get some more of his gentle humor, we see again the avatar of the young man, his innocence, we also hear the tenured professor:
Byron was right the true Don Juan is not an Italian tenor sentenced to damnation not a melancholy commitment-phobic philosopher in Copenhagen but a passive
good-natured good-looking young fellow prone to seasickness who lets the girls make the first move All twos and threes it is, Byron and Don Juan. Not a tenor, not a philosopher, but a fellow. Good-natured/good-looking. I’m not sure about “…prone / to seasickness…” though. I thought that was Romeo.
Judy Swann is a poet, novelist, essayist, copy editor, designer, illustrator, reader, translator, and webmaster. Once she had 14 apartments in a single year, but now she has lived for almost 13 years in the same small blue house (looks like Frieda Kahlo’s casa azul) with city park on two sides. Someday she hopes either to retire to a utopian goat-farm in Missouri or to sail around the world, going from port to port in a 30-something foot boat.
rights reserved to the author, www.nabanassar.com, june 2007
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