(photo of David Lehman (c) W.T. Pfefferle)
Up on the /kin/ site, David Lehman's Self-Interview plus poems:
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”?
The headline: "The return of Jew Hatred."
The sub-head: "Europe has an obligation to protect its Jews."
The lede: "Toulouse, Brussels, Paris, and now Copenhagen. The list of European cities where Jews have lately been murdered for being Jews grows longer."
The bullshit transition: "Such worries are understandable, but they need to be put into context."
The fearless prediction: "The shooting at the Great Synagogue on Krystalgade does not herald another Kristallnacht."
Department of Inadvertent Humor: "Jews are targets, but so are groups of non-Jews: commuters, off-duty soldiers and, above all, cartoonists."
The irresistible touch: "and, above all."
The incontrovertible kicker: "The jihadists detest few things more than the sight of European Muslims declaring 'Je suis Charlie Hebdo.'"
The invisible typo: "Jew" for "few" in the last sentence.
From The Economist, February 21, 2015, p. 16.
From The New Republic (February 2015) -- first issue since the putsch that cleared out the editorial offices:
Judged purely aesthetically, the monuments of Paris looked far better with Nazi flags flying from them than they do with Je Suis Charlie lit up on them. Is that offensive? Not to me it's not.
-- Geoff Dyer (page 60)
Shame on you, asshole. -- DL
In his latest album, Shadows in The Night, Bob Dylan sings ten songs to God. For Dylan, singing is the most authentic form of prayer. The songs aren’t his own but come from the Great American Songbook as filtered through Frank Sinatra’s inimitable voice. Why not Dylan’s own songs? And, if not his songs, why Sinatra’s?
To answer these questions, it is crucial to understand Dylan’s aim in the album. Dylan was after an album of allegorical love songs. This tradition started for him with “Visions of Johanna.” In that song Dylan is with the earthly Louise while yearning for the spiritual Johanna. The exact nature of Johanna's Godliness is not clear in the song. She could be God as represented by a female, or a metaphor as in the "Song of Songs" tradition, or one aspect of God, or a private way that Dylan experiences God. It is very likely that Robert Graves’ book The White Goddess influenced Dylan. That complex book is about a muse, a White Goddess, who was a single Goddess behind the various mythological goddesses. In his book Graves argues that “pure” poetry is linked to the White Goddess. That is, however Dylan formed the idea, he sometimes appears to be singing to a woman but in reality is singing also or exclusively to God. Other examples of his allegorical love songs include “Shelter From the Storm” and "Red River Shore."
Therefore, while it’s easy to hear the songs on Shadows in The Night as standard love songs, they are more resonant, closer to Dylan’s intentions, if they are heard as songs to a feminine representation of God.
That in part explains the use of Frank Sinatra’s songs. Sinatra provides a perfect counterpoint to the idea of woman as God because Sinatra could uniquely deliver love songs. That is, his songs were sung to woman as woman. Dylan takes these great love songs and uses them in a new way, expanding them, not just reinterpreting their sound but also their meaning.
Interpreted in this way, the Sinatra songs of romantic longing remain intact but suddenly also include a desperate plea, an intense spiritual longing. These are not the songs of Dylan on a spiritual quest or Dylan in the rapture of religious embrace. These are the songs of a lost God, of Dylan wondering why God has gone. A shadow in the night is a darker shade of what is already dark. These songs long for an absent God.
The album operates by looking at all angles of this longing. In “I’m a Fool to Want You” Dylan berates himself for even wanting God. In “Stay With Me,” just the opposite is true because “every path leads to Thee.” Dylan wants God to be near. “Autumn Leaves” sounds like a whole new song on the album. In “Why Try to Change Me Now,” Dylan begs God to accept him as he is: “Don’t you remember? I was always your clown.” It almost sounds as though Dylan wrote those lyrics. In “Where Are You” Dylan longs for the absent God.
There’s a crucial insight about belief in these songs. Religious belief is dynamic. It changes over time. Dylan believed, but God has abandoned him. And that’s why Dylan is not singing his own songs. The otherness of the songs is a metaphor for the distance he feels from God. He can’t even pray with his own words.
The real brilliance of the album’s song choices stems from the notion that God’s relationship with Dylan is exactly like the relationship between romantic partners. Such a relationship can change over time. Feelings can get close and then sometimes retreat. And so in singing to a gone God, it makes good sense to sing love songs of longing for reconciliation.
Dylan’s is a perfect voice for these songs. As many listeners have noted, his voice sounds fresh and clear. He doesn’t just sing; he begs. There is a plea in every song offered by a voice that has lived. It is a voice weighted down by the accumulated strains of life.
And then there’s “That Lucky Old Sun,” the final song on the album. Dylan sometimes ends an album with a hint about his future direction. If so, it is a sad direction home. In the song, Dylan is envious of the sun because it can “roll around Heaven all day.” The way Dylan sings it, it is a song of someone weary of life, someone who desires death. And yet his is a voice that won’t be stilled. His feet still move on to the next stop on the tour.
This is simply an incredible album.
In the TV show "To Tell the Truth," there were always three individuals pretending to be the prominent or accomplished figure, an adventurer or a war hero, and the panel had to choose who was the genuine article.
But Cary Grant stumped the panel.
Each of the three individuals named Cary Grant was extraordinarily handsome, suave, charming, and irresistible even though one was named Roger Thornhill, the second was a fast-talking newspaper editor, and the third showed up at the top of the Empire State Building to meet Deborah Kerr but she, though equally eager, gets hit by a car in the street below, and they do not consummate their affair to remember.
Born Archie Leach on January 18, 1904 in Bristol (England), Cary Grant spoke in an accent that is somehow British-sunding and yet is not out of place in any set of circumstances in the US. His verstility extended from the realm of Hitchcock ("Suspicion," "Notorious," "To Catch a Thief," "North by Northwest") to comedies with leading ladies like Irene Dunne, Katharine Hepburn, Jean Arthur, Rosaline Russell, Ingrid Bergman and later Grace Kelly, Eva Marie Saint, and Audrey Hepburn. Possibly the handsomest leading man in the movies, though not the sexiest.
Origin of name: Boring Hollywood legend has it that "Cary" came from his stage role as a guy named Cary in a musical with Fay Wray, and "Grant" was assigned to him by the studio. You and I can do better. "Grant me an hour, and I will carry you over the altar," he said sheepishly.
Marital status: five times, with wife #3 (Betsy Drake) the marriage that lasted longest. He made these comies with Katharine Hepburn.The Philadelphia Story, Bringing Up Baby, Holiday. With Irene Dunne he starred in The Awful Truth. And the same rival, played by Ralph Bellamy, is bested both there and in His Girl Friday.
My candidate for best Hitchcock antagonist is James Mason in North by Northwest with Claude Rains a close second (Notorious). Last romantic hurrah: Charade (with Audrey Hepburn). The Stanley Donen-drected hilm also expoits the talents of Walter Matthau, James Coburn, George Kennedy, and the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Gene Kelly doing a carefree dance on the banks of the Seine (though filmed on a studio) is lovingly recalled by Miss Hepburn (Mrs Charles Lambert) as the two hold hans under a bridge and a bateau mouche glides by. Miss Hepburn is a perfect latter-day Cary Grant accomplice in the mode of Grace Kelly and Eva Marie Saint.
Cary Grant took LSD more than 100 times, having been introduced to the narcotic by Betsy Drake. It helped him more than a posse of doctors in confronting his identity. Best quote: "Everyone wants to be Cary Grant. Even I want to be Cary Grant." The plot conceit generating North by Northwest, in which a Madison Avenue ad executive is mistaken for a CIA agent who doesn't exist, is based on an incident in Grant's biography.
A rose is just a rose: "I never had so much fun since Archie Leach died," he says in His Girl Friday. If you watch Capra's Arsenic and Old Lace, you'll see the grave of Archie Leach.
Scandalous posthumous fact that doesn't shock anyone anymore: he may have been bi-sexual (LTR with flatmate Randoph Scott).
Dodger Fan Info: Shared exclusive box seats with Frank Sinatra and Gregory Peck at Dodger Stadium in Chavez Ravine, Los Angeles. Did not pay very close attention to the games.
Retirement job: Became a director of the Fabergé company and promoted the fragrance firm's products.
Vital stats: Rising sign Libra, moon in Aquarius; Water Cat (Chinese astrology); six feet one and a half inches tall. -- DL
This bed thy center is, these walls, thy sphere, The tarnished, gaudy, wonderful old work Of hand, of foot, of lip, of eye, of brow, That never touch with inarticulate pang Those dying generations-at their song. The One remains, the many change and pass The expiring swan, and as he sings he dies. The earth, the stars, the light, the day, the skies, A white-haired shadow roaming like a dream Limitless out of the dusk, out of the cedars and pines, Think not of them, thou hast thy music too -- Sin and her shadow Death, and Misery, If but some vengeful god would call to me, Because I could not stop for Death, Not to return. Earth's the right place for love. My playmate, when we both were clothed alike, Should I, after tea and cakes and ices, Suffer my genial spirits to decay Upon the bridal day, which is not long? I thought that love would last forever; I was wrong.
These translations were downloaded from the web:
Ce centre ton lit est, ces murs, la sphère:
le travail vieux non jamais terni, voyant, merveilleux
de la main, du pied, de la lèvre, de l'oeil, du front,
de celui contact avec douleur inarticulée ceux qui meurent
génération à leur chanson. Celui reste,
les nombreux changement et passe le cygne expirant,
et pendant qu'il chante il meurt.
La terre, les étoiles, la lumière, le jour, les cieux, ombre blanc-d'une chevelure
comme un rêve sans limites hors du crépuscule,
hors des cèdres et des pins, pensent pas à eux, au trop-Péché la musique less pensees et à son mort d'ombre, et à la misère, si mais un certain dieu vengeful appellerait à moi, puisque je ne pourrais pas m'arrêter
pour la mort, pour ne pas retourner.
Ont mis à la terre le bon endroit pour l'amour.
Mon ami, quand nous tous les deux avons été vêtus de même,
devrait thé et gâteaux, après qu'et glace, souffrent mes spiritueux réconfortants pour
se délabrer sur le jour nuptialenqui n'est pas long?
J'ai pensé que l'amour durerait pour toujours; j'avais tort.
Diese thy Mitte des Betts ist, diese Wände, thy Bereich,
die getrübte, gaudy, wundervolle alte Arbeit
der Hand, des Fusses, der Lippe, des Auges, der Braue,
des dessen nie Note mit inarticulate Pang die, die Erzeugung-an ihrem Lied sterben.
Das man bleibt, vielen Änderung und führt
den ablaufenden Schwan, und während er singt, stirbt er.
Die Masse, die Sterne, das Licht, der Tag, die Himmel,
A der weiß-behaarte Schatten, der wie ein Traum grenzenlos ist aus der Dämmerung heraus, aus den Zedern und den Kiefern heraus durchstreift, denken nicht an sie, Thou hast thy Musik AuchSünde und ihren Schatten Tod und Elend, wenn aber irgendein vengeful Gott zu mir benennen würde, weil ich nicht für Tod stoppen könnte, um nicht zurückzukommen. Bedeckten den rechten Platz für Liebe mit Erde.
Mein Spielkamerad, als wir beide gleich gekleidet wurden
sollte I, nachdem, Tee und Kuchen und gefriert,
erleiden meinen genialen Geist,
um nach dem Brauttag zu verfallen, der nicht lang ist?
Ich dachte, daß Liebe für immer dauern würde; Ich war falsch.
(Ed note: Scribner has launched a new on-line magazine and its first issue features a conversation between Best American Poetry Series Editor David Lehman and 2014 Guest Editor Terrance Hayes. Follow this link to read an excerpt. The full interview is reproduced below. Click on the cover image above to purchase The Best American Poetry 2014. -- sdh)
(Image left: John Ashbery & David Lehman (c) Star Black. R: Terrance Hayes)
DL: Terrance, when you look back over the year you surveyed for The Best American Poetry 2014, what surprised you the most?
TH: One of the many surprises was just how many literary journals are out there. It's hard to believe — no, I can't believe poetry isn't thriving when so many editors are dedicating time and energy to so many publications. Here are some of the amazing journals I was unaware of before my editorship: Make Literary Magazine, Little Patuxent Review, The Carolina Quarterly, Spillway, The Normal School, ABZ Poetry Magazine, Willow Springs! One of the vital fringe benefits of The Best American Poetry is discovering these publications. I hope they get a few new subscribers because of it.
DL: I hope so, too. I never tire of saying that lit mag editors are among the unsung heroes of American poetry. You know who I think is an underrated poet? Nabokov. I take it you admire him from your decision to cast your introduction in the form of a fake q-and-a with Charles Kinbote of Pale Fire fame.
TH: Nabokov is an early and enduring guide -- muse, really -- for me as a writer. Lolita was my first love. When I read it for the first time at 20 years old or so, it prompted something I'd never experienced as a reader: something like ecstasy by way of the language and horror by way of the implications. (I feel similarly reading a lot of Flannery O'Connor.) In any event, Pale Fire prompts similar complex feelings because of the ways it combines poetry, fiction and criticism. I love that it implies that "close reading" requires, or maybe prompts, a sort of delusion. Looking at poems, little constructions of suggestion and innuendo, requires, or maybe prompts, a little craziness. Who better than Charles Kinbote, then, to help us into an anthology of contemporary poetry: contemporary songs, illusions, and shadows?
DL: Lover of wordplay that you are, do you think verse forms, traditional or ad hoc, are making a comeback? You and I both do variants of the "golden shovel." Sometimes I suggest that aspiring poets take an Auden sonnet, retain the end words, omit the rest and fill in the blanks.
TH: No, I don't think traditional forms are making a comeback, but that's only because I don't think they've ever really gone away. We all need something to push against or outgrow or reinvent, and I believe all the old fashioned forms are where we start and sometimes return to... I suspect if we look under Gertrude Stein's bed we'll fine a sonnet or two.
DL: My old mentor, Kenneth Koch, has a poem ("Fresh Air") in which a mythic personage called "the Strangler" targets bad poets, such as "the maker of comparisons between football and life." To my knowledge no such strictures exist regarding comparisons between basketball and poetry. So I ask you, the dude who guarded Ray Allen in high school, what is the equivalent of a fast break in a poem?
TH: Oh, that's a great question! My answer is syntax--- the way a sentence adjusts its rhythm and angles as it moves across line breaks is surely akin to the way a body or bodies adjust speed and direction in a fast break... Gerard Manley Hopkins's poem "Carrion Comfort" comes to mind. Not in its subject necessarily, but in its verbal grace and athletic syntactical contortions.
Maybe there isn’t room for the whole poem, but behold the linguistic equivalent to a Lebron James fast break:
by Gerard Manley Hopkins
Not, I'll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist — slack they may be — these last strands of man
In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.
But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me
Thy wring-world right foot rock? lay a lionlimb against me? scan
With darksome devouring eyes my bruisèd bones? and fan,
O in turns of tempest, me heaped there; me frantic to avoid thee and flee?
Why? That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear.
Nay in all that toil, that coil, since (seems) I kissed the rod,
Hand rather, my heart lo! lapped strength, stole joy, would laugh, chéer.
Cheer whom though? the hero whose heaven-handling flung me, fóot tród
Me? or me that fought him? O which one? is it each one? That night, that year
Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.
DL: That Hopkins sonnet has one of the all-time great last lines. I sometimes write a poem and notice only afterward that it is in 14 lines with a break around the 8th or 9th line. Do you fall back on the sonnet as a kind of default form? Our anthology opens with one -- albeit an unconventional one -- by Sherman Alexie.
TH: There have been sonnets in all of my books. It's the form I return to most often. It's a centuries old box always waiting to be reshaped, adapted, filled with new words. I love to see what new things poets do with the form. Hence my attraction to the very smart Alexie poem. Alexie also has an on-going interest in poetic form, I think. I can recall a short story of his which utilized the sestina form.
DL: Oh, I love the idea of hiding a sestina within a prose paragraph. Edmund White does that in one of his early novels ("Nocturnes for the King of Naples"). With so much to like in modern and contemporary poetry, does it drive you crazy to see reviews that treat the poet as if he or she were a criminal on the dock? I wonder when the snark arrived – the little imp that instructed magazine editors to commission articles on the “most overrated poet” or the like? I'm not asking reviewers to be cheerleaders, but there is something a little cheap, even cynical, in the excessively nasty pieces that turn up regularly in well-funded magazines.
TH: On one hand, I think the constant assessments (and self-assessments) of poetry (or any cultural phenomena) are ages old. Whether the reviews and lists and critiques are good or bad, outrageous, misguided, I see them as an avenue for people with an interest in poetry. I suppose the feeling of despair comes when the writing seems to be more about the reviewer/critic/list-maker than the actual poetry... It reminds me of the feeling I used to get watching the young Geraldo Rivera. It was as if he needed to situate himself at the cinematic center of whatever drama or tragedy he was covering. It seemed being first was more important than being right. A lot of the online articles on poets and poetry often seem driven by the same quality of self-importance. The more “followers” and potential followers, the worse it is. I guess people just want to be “viral.” (How did “viral” become a good word?) I'm glad to read any provocative or new news about poets and poetry, but these days I trust blogs like Structure and Style or your own Best American Poetry blog where the odor of ego is not a distraction.
DL: Thanks for the plug. I hope you will agree to be a guest blogger on the BAP blog. It is a pity that ego should get in the way of poetry, which seems to require egolessness (also known as "negative capability"). But if most critics are failed poets, that's also true for most poets, alas. As a teacher, do you have a shit list of instantly poetical words you hate to see students use in a poem? Like "cicadas," or like "cupped" as a verb? And a second question: do you think a proliferation of bad poems, stimulated by contests or creative writing classes or whatever, is bad for the art (inasmuch as it lowers the cultural denominator) or good (inasmuch as it is a sign of vitality)? Please answer either -- or both.
TH: Years ago Michael Harper told me "nice," "cute," and "amazing" are three words that never belong in poems. I've been trying to work them into a poem ever since. No luck yet, but I haven't given up. My attitude-- that what's bad might be made good--maybe shows in my response to your second question...
I think the challenges of what makes a poem good or bad have always been with us. Maybe the scale is more evident, more prolific because there are more publication venues these days. It makes the hunt for what anyone considers good or bad more intense, but not impossible.
DL: Every year when The Best American Poetry is published, I ask my students to write two poems, “one that is better than the best poem in the book and one that is worse than the worst poem.” It’s liberating for them to know they’re entitled to dislike one of the “best” poems. But the real surprise is that in writing a deliberately bad poem, they may happen onto something pretty good.
To pursue the basketball analogy a little further: which poet from the previous generation would you single out as the most difficult to guard?
TH: That's a very tricky question. "Guard" implies a poet to be stopped or maybe overthrown... Uhhh, I don't even think I can say who's the Poet-Jordan of the 90s or the Magic-poet of Magic's era... Certain poets who maybe are not "franchise poets" like Ashbery are still distinct for an inimitable style of play: Allen Grossman, Harryette Mullen, Rae Armantrout, Ed Robeson-- I'm thinking of poets hovering in the avant garde domain, I guess. Poets who write the sort of poems that prompt mutual pleasure and mystery... You can't guard what you can't touch!
DL: I sometimes think of the prose poem as the equivalent in poetry of the free throw in basketball. Something that should go in, if you’re a professional, and yet Shaq missed a lot of them. Any comment?
TH: I hadn't thought of it before, but yes, maybe the prose poem is akin to the free throw in that both appear very easy--free of line breaks "should" mean easier, but, no sir. These days I love to go to the gym and do little more than shoot free throws for a few hours. It becomes a meditative act. So I'd probably have associated it with something more formal, something less surreal than the prose poem. But forget that: the prose poem is a smarter parallel.
DL: In your introduction to The Best American Poetry 2014, you say that the 1990 volume, edited by Jorie Graham, was the first book of poems you ever purchased – and that you own all the books in the series. Which are your favorites?
TH: Well, I've taught Rita Dove's 2000 edition more than any other-- partly because it was published around the time I began teaching poetry, partly because it covers such a wide array of styles. And I know, just about by heart, every poem in Graham's edition. Philip Levine's poem "Scouting" and Yusef Komunyakaa's "Facing It" are still among my very favorite poems. In fact, it's easier to recall favorite poems than favorite books and poets. Allen Grossman's "The Piano Player Plays Himself" from Ashbery's edition-- one of my very favorite poems in the world; Thom Gunn's "The Butcher's Son" from Louise Guck's 93 edition; Brigit Pegeen Kelly's poem, "Scouting the Famous Figures of the Grotto of Improbable Thought," from Ammon's 94 edition; Larry Levis' "Anastastia and Sandman" from Tate's 97 edition. My two favorite poems by Charles Bukowski appear in the series, I discovered the awesome prose poems of Phyllis Koestenbaum (whatever happened to her?) in this series. I first encountered Dean Young in the series-- he's regularly amazing. If I were to make a list of my top twenty contemporary poems, maybe 60-70 percent would come from the BAP series. I have lots of favorite poems from the last ten years as well, but it'll be another decade before I can say which poems stay with me.
DL: Great answer. Do you have a question for me?
TH: I've long wondered what an edition solely in your hands would look like. I doubt any of the past, present or future editors could do a better job than you alone. What sorts of qualities would you look for in your dream BAP anthology?
DL: I’m grateful for the compliment, but I’d have trepidations about taking on the task. If I did it, I think maybe I would get obsessive, try to read everything, and do little else, though that does not seem like a practical solution. I would hope to find someone like David Lehman to send me packets of poems at regular intervals, nudge and cajole me, and make sure I hadn’t overlooked something vital.
During your year reading for The Best American Poetry 2014, did you write much poetry of your own? If yes, is it because reading poems, especially good ones, acts as a spur?
TH: Yes, I wrote while I was hunting poems. Whenever and whatever I'm reading I often approach as a miner (looking for creative influences/resources), teacher (a teachable poem isn't the same as a poem that opens the roof) and fan (looking to have the roof torn off). I found lots of roof rippers and even poems that were both teachable and awe-inspiring, but I can't recall any one poem directly impacting a poem I wrote in the last year or so. Eventually, I'd love to try what Sherman Alexie does with the sonnet form and what Rosemary Griggs does with the "Script Poem." Subversions and appropriations of form are always of interest to me.
Oscar Levant, who "knew Doris Day before she was a virigin," defined a politician as a man who will "double-cross that bridge when he gets to it." Has anyone read hs book Memoirs of an Amnesiac?. It's the sort of book I must have read, but I can't remember doing so. I have a feeling that I would have liked it. I am sure of it in fact. Putnam published it in 1965. Three years later came The Unimportance of Being Oscar, another bravura performance -- not too wild, not too earnest, but full of self-deprecatory wit and wisdom. "I was once thrown out of a mental hospital for depressing the other patients," he confided. He was very fast, very smart and knowing, a good guest on a talk show, a mordant foil to Gene Kelly's native optimism in "An American in Paris." He wrote these lines that he says in the movie: "It's not a pretty face, I grant you. But underneath its flabby exterior is an enormous lack of character." He also wrote "Blame it on My Youth" and other songs and was a buddy of Geoge Gershwin. The jokes were spontaneous and delivered deadpan. When he said that he knew Doris Day "before she was a virgin," it was a valuable reminder of the band singer's brilliance -- with the Les Brown Orchestra in the 1940s, as Ruth Etting in "Love Me or Leave Me," in duets with Sinatra in "Young at Heart" -- which preceded the virginal image projected in the sugary pillow-talk movies of the 1960s. After Marilyn Monroe converted to Judaism, Oscar said, "now that Marilyn Monroe's kosher, Arthur Miller can eat her." -- DL
Like John Donne and Gerard Manley Hopkins, though not as flamboyant as the first or as metrically inventive as the second, George Herbert proved that devotional poetry can generate high intellectual excitement.
Born in Wales in 1593, Herbert distinguished himself at Trinity College, Cambridge, and was elected to Parliament twice. In 1630, a year after he married, Herbert took holy orders. He served as rector in Bemerton near Salisbury, delivering sermons and writing poems, for the rest of his short life. Before he died in 1633 he entrusted a gathering of his poems, “The Temple,” to a friend. The poems won an immediate audience.
Herbert is one of the so-called metaphysical poets, who rely on cunning wit and use elaborate, sometimes incongruous metaphors to explore complex themes. He has a poem, “The Pulley,” in which God pours all his pleasures on man except “rest.” Anyone who doubts that the lowly pun can perform sublime feats need only consider these two lines in which “rest” meaning “remainder” and “rest” meaning “repose” are entangled to their paradoxical enhancement: “Yet let him keep the rest, / But keep them with repining restlessness.”
Where Herbert is most obviously innovative is in his use of carmen figuratum—shaped or patterned poems. He has one in the shape of an altar and another, “Easter Wings,” that demands to be viewed as a pair of birds in flight. Herbert was also an inveterate compiler of proverbs. To him we owe one that has since become a durable cliché: “His bark is worse than his bite.”
Have we taught a generation of college graduates to vilify capitalism without doing it the honor of knowing how it works? Spot checks at New York’s Penn Station reveal that a vast majority of college-educated commuters do not have a clue about the relation of the prime rate to the federal funds rate, the advantage of capital gains over wages, the difference between a progressive income tax and a sales tax, the reason bond prices go up when interests rates go down, and the best age at which to start taking Social Security benefits. This test for advanced financial literary was devised by a team of professors at Columbia, Harvard, Stanford, and the University of Pennsylvania. – DL
1) The Dow-Jones Industrial Average was created by
a) Charles H. Dow, either alone or with Edward Jones, two cofounders of the company that bears their names
b) Charles W. Dow in partnership with Samuel J. Jones, the infamous Sheriff Jones of Douglas County in the Kansas Territory
c) Standard & Poor’s
d) Dow's stepdaughters Jane and Martha Bancroft, on instructions from Clarence Barron prior to his acquisition of the company in 1902
e) Meyer Wolfsheim
2) According to the Dow Theory, there are three phases to a primary bull market and three to a primary bear market. The theory was developed by which of the following, for which purpose:
a) Charles W. Dow and Alexander Hamilton, to develop a metric to gauge the wealth factor associated with the Louisiana Purchase
b) Charles H. Dow, and refined and sustained after his death in 1903 by his understudy William Hamilton, for the purpose of predicting stock fluctuations
c) Elmer Bernstein, Carolyn Leigh, and Max Shulman, the Tony Award-winning producers of the musical comedy How Now, Dow Jones? (1967), mainly for laughs and the sheer pleasure of it but also to entertain audiences, employ actors and musicians, and make a profit at the box office, all by poking fun at the academic study of risk, economics, and finance
d) John Maynard Keynes in a 1938 letter to President Roosevelt arguing that “the present recession is partly due to an ‘error of optimism’ which led to an overestimation of future demand” and that continuation of “public works and other investments aided by Government funds or guarantees” was essential going forward.
e) Herbert Henry Dow, a grandson of the founder of Dow Chemical, in 1969, as a way to divert public attention from protests against the use of napalm, which the company manufactured, during the war in Vietnam.
3) Mutual funds are
a) An attempt by rogue elements in the legal profession to monetize the value of a married couple’s community property
b) The amount on the paycheck that is left after all taxes, charges, and fees have been deducted
c) A way for individual investors to hold a basket of stocks and other securities
d) A recurring loophole that allows high-ranking corporate executives to rent hotel rooms at clients’ expense, entertain guests there, and not have to report the sum to the IRS
e) Often cited as proof that “buy low, sell dear” remains the first rule of investing ahead of “sell in May and go away” and “the market has to climb a wall or worry”
4) Standard & Poor’s is a financial firm that
a) traces its history to the 1941 merger of Poor's Publishing and Standard Statistics
b) has Poor in its name as a warning to over-zealous investors
c) is a credit rating agency that roiled markets three summers ago by lowering the credit rating of the US government
d) publishes an index of the stock market performance of the 500 largest corporations in the United States
e) all of the above except b
5) Lehman Brothers
a) arranged the sale of Babe Ruth from the Boston Red Sox to the New York Yankees
b) was, in the person of Meyer Wolfsheim, then executive vice president, behind the fixing of the 1919 World Series
c) quintupled its assets by selling the Dow Jones Industrials short in August 1929
d) traces its origins to a dry goods store in Montgomery, Alabama, founded by German-Jewish immigrant Henry Lehman shortly after he came to the US from Bavaria in 1844.
e) broke with Wall Street tradition when Peter Lehman, a war hero who had become the face of the firm, endorsed the economics of deficit spending as articulated by John Kenneth Galbraith
6) When the Wall Street Journal published its first issue on July 8, 1889, it was priced at “two cents” and led off with a story about American “operators identified with the bear party [who] sent early orders to London” in preparation for the opening of the bear market there. Which of these statements is true?
a) From the fact that it was priced at two cents, we get the expression “I’ll put my two cents in.”
b) The “bear market” was a market in bearskins
c) The “bear market” in London introduced the idea of selling stocks short often on the basis of what we today would call “insider trading”
d) The Bull-Moose Party in the United States was formed, in part, because of the pressure of the “bulls,” or long-term investors, to counter the negativity of the bear marketers, on whom the New York Times blamed the panic and sell-off of 1893
e) In July 1889, the President of the United States was Benjamin Harrison and the vice president was Levi P. Morton, a Vermont-born banker and loyal supporter of Ulysses S. Grant, whose gracious good manners made him a natural to serve as chairman of the Republican National Committee.
7) On September 17, 2001, the Big Board eliminated the position of honorary chairman. The last to hold this post was
a) Frederick Usher (heir to the Rodney Usher real estate fortune)
b) Meyer Wolfsheim
c) Mikhail Gorbachev
d) Muriel Siebert
e) None of the above
8) What security analysts call a price-earnings ratio (“p/e”) is
a) the stock’s price divided by its underlying book value
b) the stock’s price divided by its annual dividend per share
c) the stock’s price divided by its net earnings per share
d) the compensation of the firm’s CEO divided by the number of employees in the company
e) the company’s revenues less expenses and taxes multiplied by pi divided by the square root of a number designated quarterly by the Federal Reserve Board
9) Experts tout the benefits of “dollar-cost averaging,” which means
a) the dollar is the safest bet in foreign exchange markets
b) invest a little at regular intervals
c) ever since President Nixon took the United States off the gold standard in 1971, the greenback derives its value from the average daily cost of production of bills and coins at the Department of the Mint (including operating expenses and liabilities)
d) the average of your expenses per month, which, when multiplied by twelve, may be used to predict your ability to take on significant new debt, such as the purchase of a house or the cost of four years at an elite college
e) reversion to the mean
10) Which two of the following are not associated with the Great Depression?
a) a national unemployment rate of 24.9 % in 1933 (whereas, during the Great Recession, the rate peaked at 10% in October 2009)
b) a bank holiday declared by President Roosevelt in 1933 to deter a run on the banks
c) the New Deal
d) the Iron Curtain
e) the Great Society
Extra credit: identiy the painting, by title and by painter, that illustrates this quiz.
-- David Lehman
I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark
from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman
THE RULE OF THUMB
Ringfinger was nervous
when they learned
that Hand might succumb
to the rule of Thumb.