“Poems in the Manner of....” By David Lehman, Scribner, 144 pages, $18, paperback.
The first thing that no doubt occurs to you is that Lehman is doing parodies for yuk’s sake. But no, that’s not really what this book is all about. The tradition in all the arts, is so much older and more complex than that, whether we’re talking about Bach and Vivaldi or Shakespeare and Marlowe or all those painters, after Caravaggio, whom we now call the “Caravaggisti.”
Lehman is writing poems in the manner of what poets Emily Dickinson, William Shakespeare, Robert Frost, Ernest Hemingway, Sylvia Plath, Walt Whitman, Pablo Neruda and many, many others (to name only those named on the book’s dustjacket) have done.
His book begins, chronologically, with “Two Poems In the Manner of Catullus” (“To a Critic,” for instance, includes ““Yet I took no pleasure when I heard Junius tell/Calista your wife had cuckolded you/with her yoga teacher the same week/that you faced a tax audit and ate a steak/with a side of fried poison, missed your train/and lost your job. I feel your pain/ Flavius. Not even a shmuck/like you deserves such luck.”
It ends with “Poem in the Manner of a Hit Sing by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer C.1945.” (“It’s time to reiterate/the need to celebrate/and not be celebate/so you don’t die solo.” Yes, it’s a tribute to “Accentuate the Positive (And Don’t Mess With Mr. In-Between.”)
Among the work that “triggered” this project were poems by Ted Berrigan and those by the “heteronyms” of the great and remarkable Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, who felt that “the poet should adapt as many names, personae, masks...as suits his or her personality.”
That Lehman is far from kidding is constantly evident. Try this stanza, from his Robert Frost poem:
“But when you watched a bird being born/You know the rest of your life will be dying/The rest of the night is a sleepless moan./You are dying to live and you live by dying.”
A brilliant book, quite obviously. But in its own way, it is, in many of its pieces, a great one.