David Lehman,

David Lehman,

A weeklong electronic journal.
Jan. 13 1998 3:30 AM

David Lehman,

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       Roger Shattuck, author of The Banquet Years, is here giving lectures on Montaigne, Chekhov, and Proust. Shattuck, 72, in a white turtleneck under a mint-green V-neck pullover, looks trim and fit, like a genial Jack Palance in mustache and goatee. Shattuck speaks naturally in maxims. I like it when he says, "It's impossible to paraphrase any successful poem or story, and therefore we must do it." Our assignment is to write 50-word summaries of two Chekhov stories. Nashvillean Anne Doolittle summarized "Mire" in 14 words: "A woman of wit and intelligence makes a living the only way she can." Competitive as ever, I come up with a 20-word reduction of Ulysses--"Every man goes out on an odyssey every day, but not every man has a faithful wife to return to"--but keep it to myself because Chekhov didn't write Ulysses.
       Inspired by Shattuck, who would outlaw "text" as a term for "poem" or "story," George Packer thinks we ought to make up an index of forbidden words. He would ban "place" (as in "I'm coming from a different place") and "voice" ("She has found her authentic voice") in workshops. Tom Ellis despises "issues" ("There are issues of homophobia here"). As for me, the words I most hate hearing at a poetry reading include the verbs "cupped" and "cradled," the noun "scrim," and "I'll just read nine more poems." Tonight is my turn to read. I'll be reading a bunch of short poems. I will relish the moment when I can say, "Just 33 more."
       Last night I had to introduce the readers. This is always an odd assignment, since the persons to be "introduced" are already well-known to us. I like doing it in verse:

If I were a consonant looking for a vowel,
or Allen Ginsberg on the day he wrote "Howl,"
or an employee of Bell & Howell,
tempted by the spoonerism Hell and Bowel,
I'd have exhausted nearly all the rhymes for Robert McDowell.
But I'll not throw in the towel.
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       Very excited about some ideas for poems that Sloane Miller and I came up with: a poem about forks; a prose poem called "Aida," narrating the plot of the opera as imagined by a teen-ager watching a performance without preconception, preparation, or Italian; a poem beginning with the line "This is the most serious poem I have ever written."
       For the time I'm here I'm using an office that belongs to a faculty member on leave who fearlessly annotates his books. About Dostoyevsky's The Gambler: "Very weak book." Much of Ulysses he considers confused, but at one point he interrupted his reading of Dubliners to exclaim with evident surprise, "Three good stories in a row!"