New and Selected Poems

David Lehman, Author
David Lehman. Scribner, $20 (288p) ISBN 978-1-4767-3187-2
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Lehman (When a Woman Loves a Man) enjoys an unquestionable prominence in American poetry, as much for his energetic editorial and critical work (he edits the Best American Poetry series) as for his own much-praised verse. This seventh volume and first selected places the poems themselves at center stage: they steer an entertaining, zigzag path between nonchalant Jewish-American autobiography and whimsical experiment. Lehman shows a genius for comic one-liners, for the humor at the root of pathos and the pathos inside tragedy: “my favorite word is ‘you.’ I love ‘you’ ”; “You either live too long or die too young—/ Nothing else is real, not even your childhood.” Especially in 50 pages of brand-new poems, Lehman mixes personal reminiscences with literary history, with results that defy realism but capture a certain extroverted tone: “Rabbi Kafka escaped to Mexico. Details are sketchy.” Earlier books show his way with game-like forms: daily poems, sestinas, and villanelles. (A handful of “early and uncollected” poems conclude the volume.) Skeptics may complain that Lehman’s verse is often too conversational and too low-pressure; admirers will connect it instead to the comic side of the New York School, to Ashbery and Koch. Attuned to the life of his own generation, and to the mechanics of memory, Lehman remains a nonpareil creator of quotable remarks, often about how we write or about how we read: “The idea was to have a voice of your own… The result was that everybody sounded alike.” (Nov.)
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