David Lehman

David Lehman was born in New York City, the son of Holocaust survivors. Educated at Stuyvesant High School and Columbia University, he spent two years as a Kellett Fellow at Clare College, Cambridge, and worked as Lionel Trilling’s research assistant upon his return from England. He received a PhD at Columbia with a dissertation on the prose poem in England and America with reference to the French tradition. He taught at Hamilton College for four years, then was sponsored by A. R. Ammons for a year-long residency at Cornell University's Socviety for the Humanities. He left academe to pursue a career as a free lance writer and wrote frequently for Newsweek. His journalism and essays appear regularly in the Wall Street Journal and The American Scholar among many other print and electronic publications.  Poems in the Manner Of  (2016), his most recent book, comprises poems written in imitation, homage, parody, or translation of poets from Catullus and Li Po to Charles Bukowski and Sylvia Plath. He is the author of nine earlier books of poetry, including New and Selected Poems (2013),When a Woman Loves a Man (2005), The Daily Mirror (2000), and Valentine Place (1996), all these from Scribner. He is the editor of The Oxford Book of American Poetry and Great American Prose Poems: From Poe to the Present. Two prose books recently appeared: The State of the Art: A Chronicle of American Poetry, 1988-2014 (Pittsburgh), comprising the forewords he had written to date for The Best American Poetry, and Sinatra’s Century: One Hundred Notes on the Man and His World (HarperCollins). A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs (Schocken) won the Deems Taylor Award from the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) in 2010.  Lehman teaches in the graduate writing program of the New School and lives in New York City and in Ithaca, New York.


Mother Died Today

Mother died today. That's how it began. Or maybe yesterday, I can't be sure. I gave the book to my mother in the hospital. She read the first sentence. Mother died today. She laughed and said you sure know how to cheer me up. The telegram came. It said, Mother dead Stop Funeral tomorrow Stop. Mother read it in the hospital and laughed at her college boy son. Or maybe yesterday, I don't remember. Mama died yesterday. The telegram arrived a day too late. I had already left. Europe is going down, the euro is finished, and what does it matter? My mother served plum cake and I read the page aloud. Mother died today or yesterday and I can't be sure and it doesn't matter. Germany can lose two world wars and still rule all of Europe, and does it matter whether you die at thirty or seventy? Mother died today. It was Mother's Day, the day she died, the year she died. In 1940 it was the day the Germans marched into Belgium and France and Churchill succeeded Chamberlain as Prime Minister. The telegram came from the asylum, the home, the hospital, the "assisted living" facility, the hospice, the clinic. Your mother passed away. Heartfelt condolences. The price of rice is going up, and what does it matter? I'Il tell you what I told the nurse and anyone that asks. Mother died today.

(May 10, 2012)


Poem in the Manner of Polonius

Neither a follower nor a leader be.
Vote, but tell no one for whom you voted.
Do not avoid jury duty. Avoid a fight,
but if attacked, fight back with all your might,

and don’t try to get laid on your first date.
Kiss her good night and call the next day.
Memorize verse, laws, and amendments
to the constitution. Obey the ten commandments.

Eat when hungry, have a drink when you need one,
and remember to have fun
at least once a week, and not to forget whose son
you are. Take your vitamins. Sign no one’s petition.

Travel light, and don't forget a sweater
when you wander in the dark talking aloud
to a mother or a lover though no one's there.
Look up at the sky, and see god in a cloud.


Riverboat Gamble

"Darwin predicted you," Jim Cummins said.
"You’re in the theory." His assailant fled.

People clapped. They wanted Jim to make a speech.
"My subject is Cincinnati," he said. "Do I dare to eat a peach?"

Into the room flew the fly, humming. "Place your bets."
"Shall we gamble everything on red?" Jim asked. I said, "Let’s."

It was a hot day in the Queen City.
Pitching for the Reds was Walter Matthau playing Walter Mitty.

When Jim got audited by the IRS, he cursed:
"It was like having an autopsy without being dead first."

A world-class wise-ass, he volunteered to prepare my return.
I pretended to do a slow burn.

But I didn’t mind. If life was a riverboat gamble, you could count me in.
Jim nodded. It was exactly as predicted by Darwin.

Poem in the South American Manner

Miro painted the sea’s curtain. I said go
ahead, abuse the laws of perspective,
choose not to lose your will to live.
Stay sober and you can join me, bro.

At the volcano, where we defied the embargo,
all bullish bravado, it was our turn to wait,
confuse the nine muses with fate,
drink cheap wine, memorize Vallejo.

No gringo fruit company can make a difference
to one who comes bearing no present,
wearing no tie, just work shirt and pants.

Ante up to play the future. No essence
precedes your last-chance existence
in my country of sugar cane and no parliament.

David Lehman and Gabriel Gudding | Poetry at Sea - Caribbean Princess May 2006.

David Lehman and Gabriel Gudding | Poetry at Sea - Caribbean Princess May 2006.

The Trouble with Spain             
                                for Gabriel Gudding, who asked for it

The trouble with Spain
is it doesn't exist
on my wrist
like a watch losing
two seconds in accuracy
each day of its life.

The trouble with pain
is it does.

The trouble with rain
is it was.

The postponement of the game
is the trouble with Maine
and the chill of the Atlantic Ocean.

The trouble with Cain
is he is constantly in motion.

The trouble with Jane
is the absence of lotion
or the suicide of Hart Crane
as the object of devotion
in a lonely lane
sipping a witch's potion.

The trouble with Spain
is no absence of pain.

The trouble with the bubble
is it's about to burst.

It won't be the first.

The trouble with the Rouble
is it's valueless,
not value-free.
It is we who are value-free.
We have the souls of moralizers
and secret abortionists
said T. S. Eliot at a meeting
of deceased ex-ministers.

Thank you, said the Ladies and the Sirs,
each of whom deserves to be kissed.

The trouble with them
is they don't exist.

  © David Lehman 2006


By Sean Sexton, Catherine Prescott, Yaccaira Salvatierra, Julie Marie Wade, Elizabeth Cross, Charlie Bondhus, Sara Biggs Chaney, David Lehman, Susan Chiavelli, Lois Marie Harrod, Ben Lucas, Orlando Ricardo Menes
Poems in the Manner Of
By David Lehman