The day that Kennedy was killed Was the day before the Stuyvesant-Clinton football game. There was a rally in the auditorium And our coach who was from Texas or Oklahoma said slowly, carefully, “There isn’t a horse that can’t be bucked.”
Meanwhile half the school was marching along Fifteenth Street to Union Square and then up to Forty Second Street and Fifth Avenue and some got up to Fifty Ninth, and they were parading, Yelling, “De Witt eats shit” until they were stopped by policemen. I didn’t go. I stayed in school. That day I almost got into a fight With a fellow twice my size on the stairway And he laughed at me. A friend of mine broke it up.
In English the head of the Physics Department walked Into the room. He said, “I think you are old enough To understand this. The President was shot today in Texas.” I stand up. I do not understand. I say, “What” And I think, the President was shocked today in Texas. He leaves the room. I am sorry.
I leave early. The Clinton game is called off, And the series has since been discontinued. My French teacher is waiting for me. Smiling shuffling his legs Touching his teeth with his tongue looking at me He says, “There is a rumor that Kennedy was shot. Do you know anything about that?”
A week later I go to my cousin’s bar mitzvah Out in Long Island, and I bring a catalog with me From the Bernard Baruch School of City College. I want to be a stockbroker. It is windy outside and we walk a mile or more To get to the bar mitzvah And as I walk I talk to my mother And I think carefully of what I am to say And I narrow my eyes. It is a cold and windy three days after Thanksgiving And I point my thumb to my stomach and chest And I brush my scarf against my face And I say, “I too want to become President.”
-- David Lehman from "The Presidential Years" in The Paris Review, #43, Summer 1968. Reprinted in New and Selected Poems by David Lehman (Scribner, 2013).
Charles Baudelaire, father of the French prose poem (and thus progentior of the genre internationally), used prose as the medium of choice for the manifesto, the plea, the diary entry, the dialogue, the truncated story, the anecdote that falls just short of the parable, the elaborated epigram. The "Petits Poemes en prose" (also known as "Spleen de Paris") have not, to my mind, been transated well since Arthur Symons's versions, which are 100 years old. Among the most famous of the fifty-one prose poems is "Enivrez-Vous," commending a state of drunkenness as an almost moral imperative. Baudelaire, who also wrote "Artificial Paradises," understood escapism as a need and not just an addiction. Here is my version of the poem. I took a few liberites with the opening paragraph. -- DL
You must get drunk. That’s it: your sole imperative. To immune yourself from the backbreaking, body-bending burdens of time, you must get drunk and stay that way.
But on what? On wine, on poetry, or on virtue, your choice. But get drunk.
And if sometimes, while on the steps of a palace, on the green grass beside a marsh, in the morning solitude of your room, you snap out of it, your drunkenness has worn off , has worn off entirely, then ask the wind, ask an ocean wave, a star, a bird, a clock, every evanescent thing, everything that flies, that groans, that rolls, that sings, that speaks, ask them what time it is; and the wind, the wave, the star, the bird, the clock, will tell you: “It’s time to get drunk! To avoid being the martyred slaves of time, get drunk, get drunk and stay that way. On wine, on poetry, or on virtue, your choice.”
It is not difficult to see why some poets from Lord Byron to the present have resisted and sometimes even jeered at William Wordsworth (1770-1850). The refreshing heterodoxy of Wordsworth's youthful verse gave way to the piety of his "Ode to Duty." He started out full of French revolutionary fervor—"Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, / But to be young was very heaven!"—but grew disenchanted and became a Tory. By the time he was 40 he had lost what he called the "visionary gleam." But he lived 40 years more and kept writing.
Not for Wordsworth the ghostly galleons of Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"; Wordsworth's imagination was tamer than that of his collaborator on the landmark "Lyrical Ballads," to whom he was a less than generous friend. Nor was he as adroit a craftsman as Keats or Shelley, masters of lyric forms, although he single-handedly revived the sonnet from a century of neglect. He lacked utterly what Byron had to excess: a sense of humor. There isn't an intentionally funny line in Wordsworth.
David Lehman and NPR's Ken Tucker prepare for Lehman's New and Selected Reading and Interview at the NYU Bookstore (photo (c) E.J.Kelley IV)
And that's not all . . .
David Lehman's Signs of the Times: Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul de Man is now available at Amazon as a Chu Hartley Publishers e-book. Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times called the book, "superb" and "fascinating": "It stands as a lucid and fiercely intelligent study of the disturbing implications of deconstruction, and at the same time, as an impassioned argument for a more humane study of literature."
It is always a pleasure to have a poem selected by Garrison Keillor for his Writer's Almanac. He posted my poem "Radio" today -- perfectly timed, as Tuesday was the official pub date -- and filled in the historical context. Did you know that on this day the Bolshevik revolution began? But because "the Russians were still using the old Julian calendar. . . .the revolt [was said to take] place on October 25th — and so it was called the October Revolution." I happened to be in Moscow on October 25, 2007, which by one calculation was the eightieth anniversary of the revolution. I attended a lot of literary events that week, and not one person spoke of the significance of the date. The only mention of Lenin came from a tour guide at the Kremlin. -- DL
New York University Bookstore (Broadway and Waverly Place, NYC)
Reading followed by conversation with NPR's Ken Tucker
“Very few writers can actually shape how you see the world. David
Lehman is such a writer.” —Robert Olen Butler
“Inventive and often winningly sincere…Lehman is candid as well as
ironic—sometimes, both at once. He generates a maniacal, irreverent,
fast-thinking range of references to movies, poems, history.” —Robert Pinsky, Washington Post Book World
“Lehman uses many conveyances—including the prose poem, the
sestina, and curt rhymes—to travel across the writing life of a poet whose
instinctive romanticism is always bracing and tough-minded, brimming with a
rare generosity.”—Ken Tucker, Entertainment Weekly
David Lehman's Signs of the Times: Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul de Man
is now available at Amazon as a Chu Hartley Publishers e-book. Michiko
Kakutani in the New York Times called the book, "superb" and
"fascinating": "It stands as a lucid and fiercely intelligent study of
the disturbing implications of deconstruction, and at the same time, as
an impassioned argument for a more humane study of literature."