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David Lehman's The Daily Mirror

by Jough Dempsey
30 September 2002
Daily Mirror Cover

The Daily Mirror: A Journal in Poetry
by David Lehman
160 pages | PB $16.00 | Scribner | 2000
ISBN: 0684864932 | Order from Amazon.com

David Lehman's The Daily Mirror: A Journal in Poetry falls somewhere between journal writing (or as I like to call DEWTB - 'Diary Entries With Line Breaks') and poetry. In the poet's own words, the results are "hit-and-miss." Here's the gimmick: Lehman began writing a poem-a-day for over a year, and then selected and abridged the collection to represent a "Best of" those days.

It's a clever idea, although not entirely original (Robert Bly published the results of his poem-a-day experiment a few years earlier with Morning Poems, William Stafford was said to have written a poem a day, and Emily Dickinson likewise wrote, well, almost constantly) but that doesn't matter - Lehman makes the novelty of the poem-a-day experiment his own, through some conventions that give the collection cohesion. Each poem's title is simply the date it was written. While each poem is different (somewhat) they all have enough in common thematically to conjoin them into something that you could call a "volume." The poems' themes include, as the author notes in his introduction, "love, sex, jazz, the twentieth century, poetry, movies, books, memory, friends and friendship, the weather, fathers and sons, and the city of New York."

It's convenient for a reviewer when authors write introductions to their books - few poetry volumes have authorial introductions because most books don't require one. The introduction for this book is almost necessary. I'd go so far as to say the introduction makes it a better book because the author handles some of the possible criticism that could be levied against him (it seems to be widely accepted that being aware and vocal about one's own shortcomings is a magic shield against critical attack). One is almost able to forgive any of the book's failings because after all, it's just an experiment, a fun diversion from the writing of serious poetry. As Lehman says "The daily poem, unpretentious as a diary entry, allows the poet to talk to the present. The practice also obliges him, inveterate day- dreamer that he is, to be more attentive to his immediate surroundings —the music on the radio, the snow on the ground in the glitter of the sun—than he might otherwise be."

So it seems appropriate to hold the author to his own declared standards. Since Lehman provides his own introduction I'll simply let the author speak for himself through this extended quote:

The practice of writing a daily poem has some of the advantages of keeping a journal but with a crucial difference: the desired end is an aesthetic product that asks to be read as a poem. 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. But however casual each poem may seem, however nonchalant, it has to work as verse—it must transcend the occasion of its making as only real poems do.

One thing's for certain - Lehman's daily poems are free from poetic diction - artificial or otherwise. I don't know necessarily how "honest" the poems are, but they are steeped with the details of daily life, sounds, smells, sights, from the city, references to movies, musicians, songs. Lehman's culture is New York, and New York's culture is all cultures, everything, from everywhere, all the time - it's a great basis for poetry.

Lehman notes that he wrote many of these poems while working on his book The Last Avant-Garde about the New York School of poets (Frank O'Hara, John Ashbery, et al) and their spirit is alive in these poems, although Lehman never quite reaches O'Hara's heights. What Lehman seems to have gleaned from his work with the New York School poets is a sense of jazz rhythms and timing - almost every poem in this book just pulses with rhythm, even if the poems barely function as verse.

Does Lehman deliver a product that reads as a poem and "transcend[s] the occasion of its making as only real poems do"?

Not really - but on the better days he comes close. Here's one of the more successful poems, selected mostly because it was written on my birthday:

April 26

When my father
Said mein Fehler
I thought it meant
"I'm a failure"
which was my error
which is what
mein Fehler means
in German which
is what my parents
spoke at home

Unfortunately, most of these poems do not transcend their occasion - but the majority of them are so hip-deep in their occasion that the poems' genesis is readily apparent. Here's another poem:

November 6

Remember when Khrushchev said
"We will bury you!"
on the cover
of Time
I thought he was
employing a metaphor
as in "Braves Scalp Giants!"
on the back page
of the Daily News
I pictured the Russians
burying us under a mound
of all the rubble
that rubles could buy
when what he meant was
he had come not to praise Caesar
but to bury him

This poem is emblematic of the entire book - it's chatty and prosy and quick - it moves and before you know it it's over - and the final two lines, referring to one of the most famous metaphorical buryings in literary history (for those that have had their head buried in the sand, it's a Shakespeare reference - yes, The Shakespeare) but it falls short - not only because that's not what Khrushchev meant, but also because it's cute wordplay; almost cute enough to distract us from thinking that it makes sense, and follows, which it doesn't. Not all non sequiturs make for good poetry - while it's true good poetry needs to be surprising - those surprises have to have purpose as well.

Of course, the real problem with this poem is that it hardly functions as a poem at all. At best it's really a prose poem that's been broken up into line breaks. Here's the same poem, written this time as a standard paragraph:

November 6 Remember when Khrushchev said "We will bury you!" on the cover of Time I thought he was employing a metaphor as in "Braves Scalp Giants!" on the back page of the Daily News I pictured the Russians burying us under a mound of all the rubble that rubles could buy when what he meant was he had come not to praise Caesar but to bury him

Not only is the content unchanged, but I believe that by rendering this prose text in a prose-like format, it actually improves the poem (feel free to disagree with me - there's a form at the bottom of the page). One function the line breaks do offer this poem is to provide Artificial Punctuation - the enjambment requires that we pause a short beat - long enough to make each line its own unit of speech.

Having said all of that, this is still one of the most alive, quirky, fresh, quick (the pace of the text and beats - the short lines facilitate the poems' quickness), and is one of the most downright entertaining books published recently. Is it poetry? Not really, but if you're looking for some quick entertainment in the form of verse then this book may be for you. Think of it like literary television - without the commercial breaks.

You can read some of these poems in the Plagiarist Poetry Archive (Hint: the poems from The Daily Mirror are the ones with dates for their titles) and decide for yourself whether or not this book is for you.

David Lehman is generally known more for the publications he edits, the "Best American Poetry" series, than he is for his poetry. Personally I don't think he's a bad poet, mostly. There's a maxim in making movies: a good movie has three good scenes and no bad ones. The same can be said of a volume of poetry: if you can find a few good poems, and no bad poems, I'd say that the volume was pretty successful (most poetry books contain mostly bad poems). The Daily Mirror contains a number of "pretty-good" poems (if you can bring yourself to call them poems) and not too many bad ones.

Was Lehman's experiment successful? If it spurred him on to write, then yes. Does it make for good reading? You betcha. Are the poems in the book thought-provoking, lasting, artful, or well-written? Not really - but that's missing the point. This book is all about style and levity. Lehman's legacy will be his excellent book The Last Avant-Garde. The Daily Mirror shows us how Lehman applied what he learned from studying his precursors. It's a lark, a side-project, one of those works that stands on its own beside the main body of an artist's output.

I for one am looking forward to what David Lehman does next.

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