I. Whitman in the Eleventh Grade
In high school I read “Song of Myself” in a course in American literature that began with the poets who had three names (William Cullen Bryant, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Julia Ward Howe, John Greenleaf Whittier, James Russell Lowell, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow) and never reached the moderns who went by their initials (T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden). In that context it meant something that Whitman used no middle name and only a shortened version of his forename. I liked this fellow who was “mad for it to be in contact with me,” whether “it” stood for nature, the grass, a particular person, a brook—that was how I felt, too, in my more uninhibited moments. I liked the anthology excerpts so much I bought, with fool’s luck, a thin paperback of Leaves of Grass that called itself the “original edition,” edited by Malcolm Cowley. To this day I maintain that the 1855 edition is the greatest version of this great American poem, which Whitman revised often and not always for the better.
Back in the eleventh grade, I didn’t dislike Bryant’s “Thanatopsis.” That poem gave me something to brood on. It appealed to me as a reader. Whitman, however, appealed to the poet in me, the part of me that I wasn’t aware of until then. Whitman’s language was the first thing that drew me to him, his diction, and then his caution-to-the-winds indifference to metrical models. The language of “Thanatopsis” was not the language I spoke, whereas every leaf of “Song of Myself” announced the birth of a new language, the American language, mine.
I loved Whitman’s extravagance. Everything about “Song of Myself” was extravagant, but perhaps most especially the self-celebrating “I” of the poem, “Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos.”
This character, “Walt Whitman,” could fancy himself the poet of the body and the poet of the soul, the poet of the woman the same as the man. He was magnificent, magnifying, and magnanimous. He refashioned the American religion in the image of one who preferred the smell of his armpits to prayer, who beheld God everywhere yet could not understand who there could be more wonderful than himself. He was the poet of common sense and the poet of immortality. He was my grandfather, and he assured me there was nothing rank in copulation. Did he contradict himself? Yes, he admitted it freely. Why not? He was large enough to contain the crowd.
Most of all I loved the end of the poem. A summing up takes place here, a reassertion of the metaphoric element that ties everything together. “I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,” he says. “If you want me again look for me under your bootsoles.” The visionary Whitman has moments of ecstatic puzzlement when any language fails him: “There is that in me. . . I do not know what it is. . . but I know it is in me.” In this mood he names happiness as a noble theme. I loved him as much for that as for his defense of the “barbaric yawp,” the untamed dialect of the tribe. And the freedom to contradict himself.
But what chilled me about the end of the poem, what chills me to this day, is its valediction — as if indeed a friend and not a book were departing, or as if that book had a voice and all the attributes of a man, and he was saying goodbye and god speed because he was about to die and he knew it and was not afraid. At the end of “Ode to a Nightingale” (which I had not read in high school) Keats pauses and salutes the departure of his vision. At the end of “Song of Myself,” Whitman says goodbye not to the vision but to the reader. Unlike Keats, he is not plaintive or forlorn. The poem and its author have merged entirely, and the reader has emerged as a new character, “you,” who exist as if in fulfillment of a prophecy. “You” witness the withdrawal of the vision but extend it at the same time, for “you” and “I” are one (“every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you”). No period is needed at the end, because all ends are temporary, as death is a temporary condition for the poet who understands it is “lucky” to die and be reborn constantly in the form of a new reader. I was that reader, the “you” to whom he spoke when he stopped “some where waiting for you.” The knowledge that many others must feel similarly singled-out did nothing to diminish the glory.
II. A Pair of Odes
When I was seventeen, I wrote two poems that eventually were published. Both consisted of four lines. To both I gave the title “Ode.” I had never heard of Horace or Pindar and didn’t know what went into the making of an ode as composed by Jonson, Marvell, Shelley, or Keats. But the word was lovely and in the atmosphere of the 1960s it was okay to break rules, even to be ignorant of what they were.
The first of the odes to be written appeared in a broadsheet published by the poet John Fuller in Oxford, England, summer 1968:
I asked a fat man,
Do you enjoy being fat?
Yes, he said,
that is the only thing that I enjoy.
It pleased me that the last line of this simple poem scanned perfectly as iambic pentameter, as if to demonstrate that it is the natural flow of the English language – what we today might call the default meter.
The second ode made a hit with Columbia University radicals during the campus strike of spring 1968, perhaps because it made people laugh when I read it aloud:
As long as I live,
there shall never be
What made me break up the lines as I did? What made me think that these were poems? I don’t know the answer to these and other legitimate questions except to say that I let instinct guide me where it will, and in the end, instinct is what we have to fall back on.
III. Frankly. . .You’re okay
In the first month of my freshman year at Columbia, I wrote a poem nearly every day, often after taking a walk in Fort Tryon Park. What possessed me? Nervous excitement: the excitement of being fully alive, grown to my full height, challenged and stimulated intellectually as never before. In the morning I had classes on Homer, the French resistance in World War II, and the ontological proof of God’s existence as set forth by Saint Anselm, refuted by Aquinas, and demolished by Kant. In the afternoon I walked up Sherman Avenue, turned left on Dyckman Street, right on Broadway, and discovered The New American Poetry, Donald M. Allen’s landmark anthology (1960), at the Inwood branch of the New York Public Library. There was much in that book that spoke to me. The poet who caught my attention and held it the longest was Frank O’Hara, who had, I was soon to learn, died a few months before I read such poems as “Why I Am Not a Painter,” “The Day Lady Died,” “In Memory of My Feelings,” “Ode to Michael Goldberg(’s Birth and Other Births),” and the poem dated 9 / 17 / 59, which begins “Khrushchev is coming in the right day!” The anthology’s five other O’Hara poems from 1959 were also given dates as if to say or imply that the writing of poetry was a daily occurrence and that an accumulation of the poems would therefore constitute a chronicle of the poet’s many selves. Not until many years later did I adopt my own practice of writing a poem a day and collecting the results in two “journals in poetry,” The Daily Mirror (2000) and The Evening Sun (2002). I was aware of other exemplars of the daily poem: Emily Dickinson, A. R. Ammons, James Schuyler, William Stafford, Robert Bly. But my first inspiration came from Frank O’Hara, O’Hara when he was still a secret, before the academics discovered him.
I bought Meditations in an Emergency and Lunch Poems, the two O’Hara collections, and read them on the subway. He would have approved. O’Hara was witty, brilliant, erudite, but also down to earth. He was colloquial, he made the life of New York painters and poets seem glamorous. His meditations were as quick and urgent as the time required. Poetry was continuous with his life.
O’Hara dashed off poems on his lunch break. A tabloid headline might trigger the process, or a chance encounter with a friend, a party, a classical symphony on the radio. Nor did you have to wait until you were alone at your desk. The stimulus for a poem could occur in a bar as easily as in a concert hall or museum. Riding the Staten Island Ferry, he jotted down one of his “I do this I do that” poems. Before reading O’Hara’s Lunch Poems I didn’t know it was okay to start a poem with “Lana Turner has collapsed.”
It was also okay to depart from your daily routine and imagine a conversation with the sun or make sound translations (or pseudo-translations) from the German O’Hara exemplified a style of freedom; he participated in what came to be called the “tradition of the new” but was also firmly grounded in the traditional sense of tradition.
He knew art, music, French poetry, Russian poetry; incorporated these influences in his poems; and never made you feel stupid if you hadn’t before encountered the names that appear in his poems. Verlaine, Bonnard, Hesiod, Brendan Behan, Strega the liqueur, Gauloises and Picayunes the cigarettes, the Five Spot bar, and the pianist Mal Waldron, all show up in “The Day Lady Died.” I would wager that more than a few poets sipped Strega after a meal or bought a pack of Gauloises just because of that poem.
O’Hara demonstrated that writing poetry could be as natural an act as talking on the telephone or walking in the street with a friend. Imitating Mayakovsky, he happily puns on his name when he mouths the words of the sun:
Frankly I wanted to tell you
I like your poetry. I see a lot
on my rounds and you’re okay. You may
not be the greatest thing on earth, but
It seems a modest claim to make for oneself, but remember, it is not everyone who gets to be on speaking terms with the sun.
IV. The Sun at Five O’clock
At Columbia, poetry was my reality. The sun at five o’clock was a poem. I fell in love and it was a poem. I looked straight, hair neatly combed, no beard, and yet I was a poet. I held hands with a girl and lived in a bildungsroman. I read James Joyce and was a poet.
Walking up a steep hill to get to George Washington High School, where I took an evening class in touch typing, I rewrote a poem. As it snowed and the snow fell diagonally across the trees of Fort Tryon Park, I wore a black topcoat, looked in the darkened mirror-like shop windows, and saw Scott Fitzgerald’s profile. One Sunday I accompanied David Shapiro to NYU’s Loeb Student Center, where Kenneth Koch and John Ashbery read newly discovered poems by their late friend Frank O’Hara, and the subway tokens in my pocket were poems. The forest green V-neck sweater on the couch became a meadow and I had a new poem.
By the end of my first year at Columbia, four poems of mine (two in verse, two in prose) had appeared in Columbia Review. In June I learned that “The Presidential Years” won the university’s Van Rensselaer Prize, and in the fall, it and a second poem (“Traces”) were accepted by Tom Clark for The Paris Review. That was all I needed. I was a poet and a passenger on a drunken boat. Everything around me, everyone I met, spoke poetry.
V. Lessons Learned
Write any time, any place. Take a little notebook with you. Jot down possible titles, overheard phrases, unexpected similes.
Write prose. All the writing you do helps all the other writing you do. Learn the prose virtues of economy, directness, and clarity. Good journalism or nonfiction writing or speech writing or technical writing can help your poetry. Writing to an editor’s specifications, on deadline, with a tight word-count, is a sort of discipline not unlike writing poems in rigorous forms. It teaches you brevity.
I always liked writing captions and headlines, the haiku of journalism.
Write every day, or almost every day, even if only a few lines, not only to keep in fighting trim but because the results may be worth perpetuating. The quality of the writing may vary inversely with the amount of time expended.
Write in forms, whether traditional or ad hoc. The sestina form was once exotic. Now, after masterly examples by Auden, Bishop, Ashbery, Anthony Hecht, Donald Justice, Harry Mathews, James Cummins, it sometimes seems as if the sestina is that restaurant Yogi Berra had in mind when he said, “No one eats there any more — it’s too crowded.” I once received a rejection slip from John Frederick Nims, then the editor of “Poetry” magazine, saying that he was returning a sestina I had sent him because “sestinas are a dime a dozen.” In fact, however, poets continue to write sestinas that are amazingly fresh and inventive. After a stimulating gossip session with Jim Cummins, who had set a precedent by writing a sestina using “Gary Snyder” as one of his six recurring end-words, I wrote “Sestina,” choosing as end words the names of poets (Walt Whitman, Ted Berrigan, Anne Sexton, Marvin Bell, Philip Levine, and a variable). The poem was written with malice toward no one. I had just happened to read an interview with Ted Berrigan in which he was asked to state his opinion of Rod McKuen. He said something like, “I don’t mind McKuen, I begrudge no man his right to make a living. My idea of a bad poet is Marvin Bell.” This seemed an extraordinary statement, implying that competent mediocrity was more of a sin than true badness. So, I put it into the sestina as part of the mix, without prejudice.
Comedy, wit, humor, satire, japes and jibes — all are valid. The comic or ironic impulse can heighten the tragic—in Hamlet and King Lear, for instance. When I was a freshman in college, I wrote a paper on the funny parts of Paradise Lost. This was considered a brash and eccentric thing to do, as Paradise Lost is thought not to have any funny parts. (I quoted lines from Book IV that were, I argued, beautiful but slightly ridiculous: “the unwieldy elephant, / To make them mirth, used all his might, and wreathed / His lithe proboscis.”) The comic is underrated and complicated. Comedy affirms, but comedy can also express (or cunningly conceal) savage indignation. Wit as a term encompasses not only clever word play, skill at repartee, a flair for a turn of phrase, but also a way the intelligence has of apprehending the world.
When I resumed teaching poetry writing in the mid-1990s after many years of not doing it, I noticed that students were writing poems based on experience, so I devised assignments to emphasize the possibility that poetry could be linguistically generated, that you could arrive at truth or beauty or both without being fully aware of what you were up to. In fact, the conscious mind may get in the way. Therefore, it is useful to occupy the conscious mind with something it can profitably do, like solve a word puzzle. Sometimes writing a poem is as much about solving a problem or puzzle as it is about resolving a crisis. A poem is the consequence of a game played with invisible cards and dice.
When I teach, I enjoy distributing a poem in a language foreign to the students and asking them to translate it without the help of a dictionary. The mistranslation assignment invariably generates interesting work.
I like doing the same assignments I give to students. In 1997 I asked my students at the New School to write a poem or prose poem in a form adapted from a public mode of discourse not usually associated with poetry, like a menu or recipe. When I did the assignment, I chose the errors column in the New York Times as my model. It appeared in Harper’s under the title “Mistakes Were Made.”
Another assignment I like giving myself and others is to write a poem that does the work of an obituary. “A shilling life will give you all the facts,” Auden wrote about a certain type of biography. I wanted to give not all the facts but some striking ones, and some fancies too, in such a biographical poem as “Wittgenstein’s Ladder.”
The poet’s chief obligation is to keep poetry alive. Poetry, if genuine, is a resistance manifested against what would conspire against it. Wallace Stevens has the phrase “the pressure of reality” in one of his essays. He talks about the imagination pressing back against this pressure. The best way to manifest resistance is not by writing a poem that narrowly protests a particular injustice, but by writing a poem that on the surface has no bearing on that injustice, a poem that renews the possibility of human imagination in a sphere where that is endangered.
At the University of Cincinnati, where I taught as the Elliston Poet in Residence, I was asked what advice I would give to young writers. I looked at the bright, eager faces in the room, and I said — I didn’t know I was going to say this, it was just what I felt at that moment – that they should remember that poetry is not life. That there will come a time when all of them will feel envy and resentment, because they didn’t get the job they deserved, or the award, or the recognition. There is no one is the poetry world who feels he or she has received the recognition they deserve. The question is: How will you deal with the bitterness and resentment? Because those things are the enemies of poetry. Those things are not real — not real in the sense that grief and love are real. Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to succumb to competitive envy. And that is why it is important to remember that poetry is not the whole of one’s life, but a part of it, and that we should not put too great a burden on the poetry that we love. Keeping it alive, poetry and the possibility of poetry, is the great thing.
VI. Letters to Young Poets
Dear Karl. I’m glad your reading list includes the mother of all lofty letters to young writers, Rilke’s: “There is only one way. You have to go into yourself. Determine why you write. Has the source spread its roots in the depths of your heart? Ask yourself whether you would have to die if you couldn’t write. This above all – ask yourself in the stillness of the night: must I write?” Yes, read Letters to a Young Poet; his elegies and sonnets, too. But don’t stop there. Read Keats’s letters, Emerson’s essays, Gertrude Stein’s lectures, Randall Jarrell’s criticism, Auden’s prose. Read everything and everyone and imitate someone great. The best exercise is to imitate something great. Next best is to write in forms.
Dear Allyson. I loved what you said about resisting the impulse to write a motherlove poem and think, “There, that’s perfect, that’s lovely.”
Dear Danielle. I agree. Adding “you” to an “I” poem almost always improves it. There are other tenses besides the present, other points of view besides the first person singular, other things to write about besides the errands of the day and the horrors of war.
Dear Carly. The enemy of poetry is should.
Dear Peter. James Merrill in an interview warned against the tendency to rely on “the first-person present active indicative.” The present tense is, Merrill said, a “hot” tense that “can’t be handled for very long without cool pasts and futures to temper it; or some complexity of syntax, or a modulation into the conditional – some alternative relation to experience. Otherwise, you get this addictive, self-centered immediacy, harder to break oneself out of than cigarettes.”
Dear Mark, Mia, Patrick, Huy, Shobita, Matthew, Erin, John, and Alex. You can rescue an unsatisfactory poem by wrecking it. You wreck it by scrambling the lines or running them backward, omitting every second word, or replacing every noun with, say, “Ohio.”
Dear Loretta, Christine and Anita. Feel free to dislike anything. As James Schuyler put it: “Ulysses” is a masterpiece “I suppose,” but “freedom of choice is better.”
Dear Chris. Hello. Sometimes it is easier to write love poems when you are not in love. A love poem does not have to be written to anyone in particular. A love poem invents its recipient. P. said: The reader comes into existence when the writer ceases to be. Not sure I agree with that. O. said: Sincerity is a bogus virtue in poetry. You don’t respond to Shakespeare’s sonnets by testing their sincerity. E. said: the less autobiographical, the truer the poem. If you write “my father,” the reader will assume you’re writing about your father even when you aren’t. So be it. The last sentences of Samuel Beckett’s Molloy describe the universal origin of all writing: “Then I went back into the house and wrote, It is midnight. The rain is beating on the windows. It was not midnight. It was not raining.”
Dear Anne and Mark. Don’t feel you need to make sense all the time. Your poems don’t have to change the world. They just have to give pleasure.
Dear Ruth. Good revision. The ending is lovely, as is the personification of the car (“hot yellow eyes”) and the streak of monosyllables in line five. Cut “the crunch of leaves underfoot.”
Dear Len. You might want to give William Blake’s “Songs of Innocence” a second chance. Don’t worry about the ten‑page paper due in December. You have already fulfilled the requirement.
Dear Sarah, Rebecca, and Rachel. Do not read reviews. Many people with strong opinions and the need to air them are loudmouths or bullies, and if you could see them for what they are, you wouldn’t crave their approval.
Dear Victor. Ignore the asshole. Isn’t it amazing that the very people who take pride in voicing obnoxious or offensive statements so often turn out to have such thin skins?
Dear Nikki. Writing about what you know may not be as great as writing about what you don’t (yet) know, but it sure beats writing about the dialectics of loss, bullshit without a dream, gnostic visions of critical theory as the latest capitalist rip-off plot, ambition without heart, energy without mind, or the satisfactions of the flatterer, who masturbates in hell writing self-aware narratives.
Dear Laura, Megin, Justin, Matthew, Erin, and Phoebe. Eight drops cedarwood oil, two cups sea salt, two cups baking soda. Soak for twenty minutes.
Dear friends. There will come a time when someone else will win the prize you wanted, the job you coveted, or the publication you were banking on. It might even be the person sitting next to you right now. And you will feel envy, you will feel resentment — you wouldn’t be human if you didn’t. But you cannot afford to give in to these feelings, which are poison to a writer. To ward them off, you will need to go deeper into yourself, into your heart. You will need to remember that awards and publications and jobs — great as they are to achieve — are not the reason you undertook to do this work in the first place.
Dear Victoria. Pity the spiteful. They communicate their disappointment in life.
Dear Shanna. Hello. It is one fifty a.m., and no one is sleeping.
David Lehman is a poet, writer, and editor. One Hundred Autobiographies: A Memoir, his new nonfiction book (Cornell University Press), tells the story of his (provisionally) triumphant three-year battle with cancer, with the book’s structure allowing for digressions, memories, fantasies, dreams, reflections on life and death. Lehman’s poetry books include Playlist, When a Woman Loves a Man, and The Daily Mirror.