Poems, either implicitly or explicitly, stand as records of some kind — of the poet’s mind, the world outside of it or both. David Lehman’s new book of poems, “The Daily Mirror,” is subtitled “A Journal in Poetry,” which makes it clear that the poems will be record-keepers of the explicit variety. In the book’s introduction, Lehman lays out his rationale for this choice: “Wordsworth said poetry was ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity,’ and the most important word in that formulation is recollected,” he writes. “But the immediacy of American poetry, from Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson onward, is one of its distinguishing characteristics. The daily poem, unpretentious as a diary entry, allows the poet to talk to the present. The practice also obliges him, inveterate daydreamer that he is, to be more attentive to his immediate surroundings …” In these lines, Lehman neatly acknowledges the vast terrain of poetry’s work, while staking out his own territory; he’s moving forward, not lingering in the shadows of time.
Citing Frank O’Hara as his main source of inspiration for “The Daily Mirror” — he refers admiringly to O’Hara’s “I do this I do that” poems, a moniker O’Hara himself would have loved — Lehman wrote at least one poem every day for two years, and pulled together selections (anywhere from seven to 20 for each month) into the book we have before us. The result takes us through a full year, with each poem appearing chronologically under the day it was written. Lehman became enamored of the experience: “Writing a poem began to seem as natural as taking a walk,” he marvels. “Inspiration was not something you needed to sit and wait for. It was something that came to you.”
Now, creating art is rarely as unconscious as going for a stroll (unless, of course, you’re Frank O’Hara), so this perspective has its dangers. Lehman admits that he occasionally missed days and that he changed the dates on certain poems that appear in the book when he wanted to save more than one from the same day. All of this is evidence that it isn’t possible to crank out poem after poem while still upholding a certain standard of quality, and that there isn’t any reason to pretend otherwise. Perhaps it would have been more honest for Lehman to let the book come to us as it came to him, warts and all. No doubt that tactic would have destroyed the momentum of “The Daily Mirror,” but at least we’d get to watch the poetic mind in action, blunder next to revelation.
The happy fact, however, is that whatever manipulations exist behind its form, Lehman’s book is a good read. This probably has to do with his attention to the stricture that “however casual a poem may seem, however nonchalant, it has to work as verse — it must transcend the occasion of its making as only real poems do.” It may also have a lot to do with his O’Hara-as-muse stance; O’Hara jammed everything he could into his work, once commenting, “What is happening to me, allowing for lies and exaggerations which I try to avoid, goes into my poems.”
Whatever editing or culling Lehman has done, he has managed to get an awful lot of life into his book. Perhaps he’s revealing something of what challenges him as a poet when he comments in his introduction that “The dailiness of the poems may act as a corrective to artificial poetic diction. It may keep the poem honest by rubbing its nose in the details of daily life.”
When you’re charging ahead full speed, there isn’t time to do anything but chronicle whatever hits your path. If you’re a good writer with a decent ear and a whole lot of human sympathy to boot, some of what results will come out quite well.
Of the poems Lehman has collected, which have largely to do with other poets, jazz, romantic love and the big city, the best ones capture genuine awe amid the hubbub. On January 24, for example, we get this:
I was about to be mugged by a man
with a chain so angry he growled
at the Lincoln Center subway station
when out of nowhere appeared a tall
chubby-faced Hasidic Jew with payess
and a black hat a black coat white shirt
with prayer-shawl fringes showing
we walked together out of the station
and when we got outside and shook hands
I noticed he was blind. Good-bye,
I said, as giddy as a man waking
from an anesthetic in the recovery room,
happy, with a hard-on. The cabs were
on strike on Broadway so beautiful
a necklace of yellow beads
I breathed in the fumes impossibly happy.
Reading along, we’re whisked through the events at the same surreal speed Lehman was, skidding into home at the oddly biblical moment when he realizes the man is blind. As far as Lehman’s concerned, by this time sucking in car exhaust is tantamount to drinking nectar, and the rush of intensity is palpable. The poem’s real value, however, lies in its preservative quality. It reads like a story you’d tell friends, or your spouse or lover, when you got home from the fateful subway ride. After that, you might trot it out at a dinner party once in a while, but chances are it’d be lost in the shuffle of daily life.
Elsewhere there are sections where Lehman lays his feelings bare with good result. Like many of the poems in “The Daily Mirror,” these personal missives lack punctuation, which compels us to swallow them whole. They jangle along in the same tone and rhythm as their more matter-of-fact counterparts, which makes their poignancy all the more effective; it doesn’t hit until you’ve finished and had a moment to sit back and ponder the words. On April 10, in love, he writes:
there’s the expression on your
face when I photographed you
in the bathtub there’s spring
which came a month early
this year but is sticking around
for the celebration
On the topic of being a writer, not an easy subject to address without sounding pedantic, he offers this charmingly desperate picture, written on “April 27 or 28″:
… you feel like
a writer facing a blank page,
and the trees may be full of rifles,
and the whole reason for crossing
the field escapes you now that
you have reached its edge,
and the rumor of a castle
on a high hill in the distance
is almost certain to turn out false.
Lehman is at his best when he’s seemingly paying no attention to the project of putting together “The Daily Mirror.” The most successful poems give the impression that he just wrote them and moved on. At several points, though, he bumbles around trying to figure out what to write about — a perfectly reasonable thing to do, but he compromises our fun by putting these machinations into his poems in lines like “Immediately I knew I had to write a poem ending with that phrase” (Feb. 19) and “I think I will write a one-line/ ‘Language’ poem here it is” (June 9). It’s somehow disappointing to be let in behind the curtain this way. This is a book that runs on pure verve, and such interjections gum up the works. Since Lehman discarded any number of poems in the selection process, thereby acknowledging that some were clunkier than others, it seems odd that he didn’t remove all signs of winnowing. We know he’s engaging in an exercise, but that doesn’t mean we don’t want the illusion that he isn’t — a little sleight of hand goes a long way.
But these moments ultimately don’t damage the overall character of the book, which remains energetic even when it’s discussing serious topics like death or social injustice, or even a petty book review. In this sense, Lehman has accomplished what he set out to do. He’s created a kind of immediacy that’s not easy to come by in poetry today, and he’s injected it with a jazzy love of the everyday world that even O’Hara would have admired.