The Joy of the Gamble: A Conversation with David Lehman

November 27, 2021   •   By Aspen Matis

FEW PEOPLE ARE as central to the vitality and spirt of contemporary American poetry as David Lehman, the founder of and series editor for The Best American Poetry an annual anthology that is now an institution. An acclaimed critic and editor and an authority on modern poetry, Lehman has served as editor for the new Oxford Book of American Poetry and as the poetry coordinator at The New School in New York City, opening countless minds to the delights of potent verse; as a hands-on educator, he has taught at The New School, New York University, Hamilton College, and his alma mater, Columbia University. He was on the original core faculty of Bennington’s low-residency MFA writing program.

In addition to his contributions to the community and the art form, Lehman’s personal poetry continues to captivate and inspire — he is the author of about a dozen acclaimed poetry collections. The Morning Line (University of Pittsburgh Press), his most recent book of poems, was published earlier this month to widespread acclaim. Poet Major Jackson praises the collection, writing: “The Morning Line arrives like some miraculous rendition of your favorite tune, only stylized and torqued to [Lehman’s] jocular spirit and encyclopedic range.” He goes on to call the work “[b]uoyant, wildly funny, and terrifically alive.” John Hennessy describes the book as “an antidote to loneliness,” and James Longenbach calls it Lehman’s “best book.”

Lehman has received fellowships and awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Ingram Merrill Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. When he won a three-year Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Writer’s Award in 1992, he developed a reading series in Ithaca, New York, featuring readings and school visitations from A. R. Ammons, John Ashbery, Louise Glück, Jorie Graham, Donald Hall, Kenneth Koch, Charles Simic, and Mark Strand.

I spoke with Lehman via telephone about the connection between instability and religion, celebration as “an impulse fundamental to all creation,” and the fruitful period that followed the poet’s harrowing bout with cancer — death’s deft hand in the creative life.

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ASPEN MATIS: Congratulations on The Morning Line. What would you like to share about the origins and creation process of this newest collection?

DAVID LEHMAN: The Morning Line is really a gathering of the best and most ambitious poems I’ve written (or completed) in the last five years, which has been a particularly fruitful period for me, perhaps because it followed my bout with cancer and brush with death. The book consists of poems (and a prose poem) that represent a range of my interests — everything from love to lunch, gambling to stamp collecting, music and martinis. I am inspired — to the point of writing poems — by the lives and works of Villon and Mayakovsky, Talmudic tales, jazz standards, Schubert’s Rosamunde overture, verse forms and word games, puzzles, wisecracks, big philosophical questions, the life of the mind versus what the French call la vie quotidienne. In college and since, I took seriously what we used to call a “liberal arts education,” the idea that an educated person should have an active relation with art, music, literature, history, and philosophy.

Some poems come easily, some take forever. It took me 20 years to write “The Complete History of the Boy,” which is a sort of biography-in-progress of a 15-year-old poet.

Learning you had just defeated cancer makes the vitality of the poems in The Morning Line all the more stunning — thank you for sharing about that difficult fight. This context makes the book all the more triumphant. Why, I wonder, is the period following devastation so often beautifully vital? And how, in your experience, might death’s presence in our lives contribute to our greatest awakenings and birth our truest work?

Your questions cut to the quick, Aspen. I guess if I could put it in one prosaic sentence, I’d say: All the things you usually take for granted, whether driving past a field of corn or admiring the nobility of your dog standing guard at the door, well, you take them less for granted. Okay, I can be less prosaic. I’ve come into contact with death and as a result I have wounds but also strength I never knew I had.

In a clear-eyed and familiar voice, The Morning Line paints a nostalgic impressionistic masterwork that at once entertains the imagination and illuminates the big questions we’re now facing as a society. The book embraces, in John Hennessy’s words, “subjects ranging from the perfect martini and accompanying jazz recording to profound questions of faith.” In your mind, what inquiry or exploration unifies the work? What do you hope the book’s readers will be left with, after the final page?

Good questions. What unifies the book, I think, is the poet’s sensibility and craft and a certain quantity of joie de vivre and heartfelt happiness despite the uncertainty, noise, ugliness, and even misery that threaten to defeat the impulse to celebrate, an impulse fundamental to all creation. As to what the reader is left with, you’re in the best possible position to answer that question.

In the book’s eponymous poem, “The Morning Line,” you write of gambling as an aspect of human nature — and of human folly. With intensity and grace, the speaker evokes a seductive picture of chance as “abstract art,” observing how “the gulf / is sometimes wide between the odds / set by the handicapper for the morning line / and the betting public at the track / when the horses reach the starting gate.” Why do you suspect that — as the speaker expresses — “[g]ambling is a natural human instinct”? Are you yourself a gambler, in some sense of the word?

Life is a gamble. Even when you don’t realize it, you are making a wager. Crossing a busy city street, you are betting that motorists are rational and sane, undistracted, and obedient to a system of alternating green and red lights. That’s a trivial example, but think of the choices we make when it comes to colleges, companions, relationships, and careers.

When I quit the academic world to become a full-time freelance writer, I took a huge gamble. It worked out, though at the time the odds were long. I feel like my life is a gamble, and perhaps that is why I don’t gamble in casinos.

In the same poem, the speaker draws a stunning connection between instability and religion, evoking God in “the risk you feel / when you are so deeply involved with another person / that you cannot imagine living your life without her.” That powerful stanza concludes: “The inevitability of loss, a much-misunderstood aspect / of gambling, is not a deterrent but an attraction.” Why, in your view, is instability so compelling? Why is risk-taking (such as risking love) a joyful high?

Life without risk, even if possible, wouldn’t necessarily be desirable. What makes a baseball game exciting to a fan is that the outcome is unknown. It is happening, it is real, and it can go either way. If love came with a lifetime guarantee, would it still be love? Would it be love if it didn’t have the fear of loss?

Graham Greene once said that he went to Cuba, Mexico, Vietnam, Haiti, Africa not “to seek material for novels but to regain the sense of insecurity” to which the London blitzes had addicted him. That makes sense to me.

Your words make me wonder to what extent creativity is also gambling. That inquiry in mind, what is poetry’s greatest role in your inner life? Why do you write poems?

There are few things I enjoy doing as much as putting words together to make something that will ideally outlive its author and give pleasure to persons of the unknown future.

Returning to The Morning Line specifically, one poem in particular stays and stays with me — as I’m sure it someday will with “persons of the unknown future.” The poem is “Panama Hat,” your elegant celebration of each-and-every today as “an occasion” worthy of attention — and of poetry. In “Panama Hat,” the faceless speaker observes the world in Technicolor and metaphor, thinking of “the fate of a leaf in a hurricane” as “the day’s best simile for financial markets / where the value of green keeps going up” and noticing how “[t]he ice cubes in the glass / sounded like nothing / but themselves.” This profound little poem is dedicated to your wife, though it never mentions her directly — a frame that gracefully imbues the simple snapshots of mundane pleasures with the gravity of love. In your perspective, what is the relationship between poetry and attentiveness? Between beauty and simplicity?

I’m very glad you like “Panama Hat,” because I wrote it in a state of unreasonable euphoria just after my wife, Stacey, and I arrived in Ithaca for six weeks of vacation after a difficult period in New York City during which I did everything I was accustomed to doing — teaching, writing, meeting deadlines, editing books — but also underwent painful procedures to combat cancer. We had driven up together, and we still had a flask of the gin cocktail our friend Mathew concocted for an impromptu party before we left the city. Life felt grand. I didn’t realize the cancer would return and spread. I wanted to write Stacey a love poem that was attentive to the things of the day — what she read in the newspaper aloud when I was behind the wheel; the hat she bought me for a birthday present; what I was reading as I worked on my book about Frank Sinatra, which I had to finish that summer if it was to come out in December 2015, the 100th anniversary of the singer’s birth. That the “ice cubes in the glass / sounded like nothing / but themselves” is an observation lifted entirely from Stacey.

How beautiful. I wonder what you see as poetry’s role in our present society. A unifying force? A destabilizing force of social and personal change? A reprieve from the mundanity and suffering of day-to-day existence? An access to greater empathy? A glimpse of inspiring beauty and truth? A compass that reveals new clarity of thought, redirecting our collective course?

I’m tempted to say all of the above but with one proviso. The poet should be under no obligation to do anything other than what is expected of any ordinary citizen. The gravest danger to a poet’s art may be to subordinate it to something extrinsic — a political message, a desire for fame, the pursuit of a credential for a job.

How, if at all, does the spark that ignited The Morning Line differ in nature from the impulse that generated your previous collections?

Only rarely, in my experience, does a poetry book result from a single decision or idea. The two collections of my daily poems, The Daily Mirror and The Evening Sun, emerged inevitably from the decision to write a poem a day, which I began doing in January 1996 and did for the better part of the next five years. My Poems in the Manner Of, published in 2017, was begun as a project some 15 years earlier when the title occurred to me and served as a continuing inspiration to undertake translations, write homages and parodies, and compose other poems that reflect my engagement with the poets of the past that mean the most to me. 

What is the most radical thing a poet can do in his or her work?

Write about something other than yourself. Write poems in traditional forms. Use rhyme.

Beyond your verse, you are also an accomplished writer of prose. Once a freelance journalist for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times, you have now penned five books of criticism, including A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs (Schocken, 2009) and The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets (Doubleday, 1998), which was named a “Book to Remember 1999” by the New York Public Library. Your study of detective novels, The Perfect Murder (University of Michigan Press, 1989), was nominated for an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America.

What, in your view, is criticism’s ideal role in contemporary poetry’s vitality? Why is criticism important?

When I earned my living as a book reviewer, I learned after a while that it was easier and often more fun to write a devastating review of something bad than to write an appreciative review of something fine. More fun, maybe, but bad for your soul.

When I wrote about poetry for Newsweek, the feeling was there was so little space available, why waste it on something undistinguished when out there were really interesting books about or by Stevens and Eliot, Frost and Bishop, not to mention the space I got to devote to such authors as Merrill, Ashbery, Ammons, Hollander, Heaney, Walcott, Pinsky, Muldoon, Alice Munro, Georges Perec and the Oulipo, Harry Mathews, Frank Bidart, Updike, Adam Zagajewski, M. F. K. Fisher, Cynthia Ozick, and so many others who deserved our attention?

As the author and editor of books, I know what pain a negative review can inflict — particularly, of course, when the insults are gratuitous and in excess of any offense. So temperamentally, and because of a lifetime’s experience, I am much more interested in affirmative criticism than in dismissals, and I find myself wishing people would write books about Shakespeare’s sonnets and Emily Dickinson’s wonderfully perplexing poems and Keats’s odes and Yeats’s methods of revision and what are the 75 most important poems of the 20th century.

Do you have any wisdom or guidance you’d like to share with young poets?

The best thing any writer can do is to write something every day, no matter how uninspired you may feel. If you’re working on something long, you fulfill the condition even if all you do is revise a sentence.

Make writing a habit you can’t break, something you indulge in as regularly as coffee or tea.

Read and absorb the great poems of the past; study them as needed; put in the time to get a grasp of the tradition, which is rich, and borrow or steal as needed.

Also, read and write prose. It never ceases to alarm me that some poets cannot write decent prose.

Lastly, get a job outside of academia.

Returning to your stated view of the “liberal arts education” as a valuable foundation on which to build new creations, I wonder about your favorite poets-of-old. What 17th- and 18th-century poets do you read? What has their work awakened in you? 

I love so many: Shakespeare, Donne, Jonson, Milton, Marvell, Herbert, Traherne, Lovelace, Herrick, Pope, Gray. They are all touchstones. The Metaphysical poets attracted me strongly because of the logic of their conceits, their ways of organizing a poem. Donne’s ingenuity, Jonson’s wit, Marvell’s logic, the glories of Shakespeare’s sonnets and Milton’s “Lycidas.” Pope is a great satirist. Gray pulls off an amazing reversal in the middle of his “Ode on a Prospect of Eton College.”

Poet John Hollander once described you as an “increasingly impressive poet” who “keeps reminding us that putting aside childish things can be done only wisely and well by keeping in touch with them, and that American life is best understood and celebrated by those who are, with Whitman, both in and out of the game and watching and wondering at it.”

Beyond your triumphs and trials at poetry’s boundless game, what childish joys still light you up? And what do these playful endeavors offer, beyond the obvious? 

I like games of all kinds, playing or watching, and there’s certainly an element of gamesmanship that goes into the writing of poetry. And I am still a kid who makes little collages and drawings, roots hard for favorite athletes and teams, enjoys being the center of attention, gets good grades but has bad boy instincts. I am in daily contact with the kid that I was, who is surprised to find me here.

What are you working on now? What creative pursuits most excite you, today?

I am finishing The Mysterious Romance of Murder: Crime, Detection, and the Spirit of Noir. It’s about noir in books and movies. Cornell University Press will publish it in spring 2022. I have also resumed the practice of writing a poem every day. For a while my working title was “Journal of the Plague Year,” but pandemic fatigue has set in, and I now favor “The Open Window,” the title of a Matisse painting of great distinction.

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Aspen Matis is the author of the critically acclaimed memoir Girl in the Woods, published by HarperCollins in 2015.