Posted on December 15th, 2012
ON BEAUTY, TRUTH, AND TAKING YOUR VITAMINS
David Lehman is the editor of The Oxford Book of American Poetry, the series editor of The Best American Poetry (which he established twenty-five years ago), and the author of such books as When a Woman Loves a Man and A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs.
HS: How did the poem “Sixteen Tons” (1 HS) come about?
David: In Ithaca on a September afternoon I heard the Bernstein composition on my car radio, and later that day, faced with the whiteness of a blank computer screen, I started writing the poem. The song “Sixteen Tons,” which I remember hearing a lot on the radio when I was a boy, is in an altogether different genre, but I love it, too. The refrain goes like this: “Sixteen tons, and what do you get? / another day older and deeper in debt. / St. Peter, don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go, / I owe my soul to the company store.”
HS: When and how did you first know that you were a poet?
David: When I graduated from high school a “free man,” as I thought myself — college coming as a liberation — I found myself writing poems and combing old notebooks for snippets of verse that I recollected writing. And then that fall, in my first months at Columbia, I wrote a poem every day and my head was filled with poems. It had something to do with the amount of stimulation: this was my first experience of Plato, Aristotle, and Sophocles in one class and Sartre, Ionesco, and Henri Michaux in another. Also, I had fallen in with the fellows at the “Columbia Review” magazine.
HS: What is your definition of good poetry?
David: I can quote and endorse Coleridge, Walter Pater, Auden and Wallace Stevens on this subject. But I, if pressed, would say that poetry is the agent that links beauty and truth and makes them inseparable in the mind of Keats contemplating the Grecian urn.
HS: Where and when do you write? Do you have any particular rituals for conjuring the muse?
David: I can write pretty much anywhere.
HS: Who are your poetic influences? Are there any poems in particular that never fail to inspire?
David: The list would be too long to give here. Why don’t I just mention some old favorites that I recently re-read: Yeats’s “Vacillation”; Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey”; Coleridge, “This Lime Tree Bower My Prison”; Milton’s “Lycidas”; Gray’s “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College”; Shakespeare’s Sonnets; Auden’s “Sonnets from China” and “New Year Letter”; Emily Dickinson, a whole group of poems; Ammons, “Garbage.”
HS: In addition to being a poet, you teach in the graduate writing program at The New School. Do you have any advice for other writers balancing a writing life and a day job?
David: Take your vitamins, drink plenty of fluids, and be patient with those who make legitimate demands on your time. “Be to their virtues very kind, be to their faults a little blind.”
HS: In your book, A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American songs, you elegize iconic American music. What kind of impact has music had on your poetry?
David: Music inspires me. I like writing with music on in the background. And I set store by some of the values that the great lyricists upheld. Lorenz Hart, Ira Gershwin, Leo Robin, Yip Harburg, Dorothy Fields—these writers were unbelievable witty and clever and they were formalists who balanced a love of the vernacular with an ability to fit the words into a set musical frame. I have sometimes written rhymed, patterned poems that are like lyrics in search of a Harold Arlen to set them to music.
HS: What is the last book you read?
David: Susan Sontag’s “As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980″
HS: At the moment, what project are you most excited about?
David: My “New and Selected Poems,” in the works.
Poetry by David Lehman forthcoming in 1 HOT ST.