David Lehman grew up the son of European Holocaust refugees in Manhattan's northernmost neighborhood of Inwood. He attended Stuyvesant High School and Columbia University, and Cambridge University in England on a Kellett Fellowship. He later received a Ph.D. in English from Columbia, where he was Lionel Trilling's research assistant. Lehman's poem "The Presidential Years" appeared in The Paris Review No. 43 (Summer, 1968) while he was a Columbia undergraduate. His books of poetry include Yeshiva Boys (November 2009), When a Woman Loves a Man (2005), The Evening Sun (2002), The Daily Mirror (2000), and Valentine Place (1996), all published by Scribner. Princeton University Press published Operation Memory (1990), and An Alternative to Speech (1986). He collaborated with James Cummins on a book of sestinas, Jim and Dave Defeat the Masked Man (Soft Skull Press, 2006), and with Judith Hall on a book of poems and collages, Poetry Forum (Bayeux Arts, 2007). Lehman has edited The Oxford Book of American Poetry (Oxford University Press, 2006), The Best American Erotic Poems: From 1800 to the Present (Scribner, 2008), and Great American Prose Poems: From Poe to the Present (Scribner, 2003), among other anthologies. He has written six nonfiction books, including, most recently, A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs (Nextbook, 2009, for which he received an ASCAP Deems Taylor award from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers.
In an interview published in Smithsonian Magazine, Lehman discusses the artistry of the great lyricists: “The best song lyrics seem to me so artful, so brilliant, so warm and humorous, with both passion and wit, that my admiration is matched only by my envy ... these lyricists needed to work within boundaries, to get complicated emotions across and fit the lyrics to the music, and to the mood thereof. That takes genius.”
Lehman’s other books of criticism include The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets (Doubleday, 1998), which was named a "Book to Remember 1999" by the New York Public Library; The Big Question (1995); The Line Forms Here (1992) and Signs of the Times: Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul de Man (1991). His study of detective novels, The Perfect Murder (1989), was nominated for an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America. A new edition of The Perfect Murder appeared in 2000. In 1994 he succeeded Donald Hall as the general editor of the University of Michigan Press’s Poets on Poetry series, a position he held for twelve years. With Star Black, Lehman originated and was co-director of the famed KGB Bar Monday night poetry series and co-editor of The KGB Bar Book of Poems (HarperCollins, 2000). Lehman’s work has been translated into sixteen languages, including Spanish, Russian, French, Polish, Chinese, and Mongolian.
Lehman is series editor of The Best American Poetry (Scribner), which he initiated in 1988. Books Lehman edited in the 1980s include Ecstatic Occasions, Expedient Forms: 65 Leading Contemporary Poets Select and Comment on Their Poems (1987; expanded, 1996), James Merrill, Essays in Criticism (with Charles Berger, 1983), and Beyond Amazement: New Essays on John Ashbery (1980). He has written on a variety of subjects for journals ranging from the New York Times, the Washington Post, Newsweek, and The Wall Street Journal to The American Scholar, The Atlantic, Smithsonian and Art in America. He has taught in the graduate writing program of the New School in New York City since the program's inception in 1996 and has served as poetry coordinator since 2003. In an interview with Tom Disch in the Cortland Review Lehman addresses his great variety of poetic styles: “I write in a lot of different styles and forms on the theory that the poems all sound like me in the end, so why not make them as different from one another as possible, at least in outward appearance? If you write a new poem every day, you will probably have by the end of the year, if you’re me, an acrostic, an abecedarium, a sonnet or two, a couple of prose poems, poems that have arbitrary restrictions, such as the one I did that has only two words per line.”
Lehman has been awarded fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Ingram Merrill Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts, and received an award in literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Writer's Award. Lehman divides his time between Ithaca, New York, and New York City. He is married to Stacey Harwood.
When A Woman Loves A Man
When she says Margarita she means Daiquiri.
When she says quixotic she means mercurial.
And when she says, "I'll never speak to you again,"
she means, "Put your arms around me from behind
as I stand disconsolate at the window."
He's supposed to know that.
When a man loves a woman he is in New York and she is in Virginia
or he is in Boston, writing, and she is in New York, reading,
or she is wearing a sweater and sunglasses in Balboa Park and he
is raking leaves in Ithaca
or he is driving to East Hampton and she is standing disconsolate
at the window overlooking the bay
where a regatta of many-colored sails is going on
while he is stuck in traffic on the Long Island Expressway.
When a woman loves a man it is one-ten in the morning,
she is asleep he is watching the ball scores and eating pretzels
and two hours later he wakes up and staggers into bed
where she remains asleep and very warm.
When she says tomorrow she means in three or four weeks.
When she says, "We're talking about me now,"
he stops talking. Her best friend comes over and says,
"Did somebody die?"
When a woman loves a man, they have gone
to swim naked in the stream
on a glorious July day
with the sound of the waterfall like a chuckle
of water ruching over smooth rocks,
and there is nothing alien in the universe.
Ripe apples fall about them.
What else can they do but eat?
When he says, "Ours is a transitional era."
"That's very original of you," she replies,
dry as the Martini he is sipping.
They fight all the time
What do I owe you?
Let's start with an apology
Ok, I'm sorry, you dickhead.
A sign is held up saying "Laughter."
It's a silent picture.
"I've been fucked without a kiss," she says,
"and you can quote me on that,"
which sounds great in an English accent.
One year they broke up seven times and threatened to do it
another nine times.
When a woman loves a man, she wants him to meet her at the
airport in a foreign country with a jeep.
When a man loves a woman he's there. He doesn't complain that
she's two hours late
and there's nothing in the refrigerator.
When a woman loves a man, she wants to stay awake.
She's like a child crying
at nightfall because she didn't want the day to end.
When a man loves a woman, he watches her sleep, thinking:
as midnight to the moon is sleep to the beloved.
A thousand fireflies wink at him.
The frogs sound like the string section
of the orchestra warming up.
The stars dangle down like earrings the shape of grapes.
Obscurantism is the academic theorist's revenge on society for having consigned him or her to relative obscurity—a way of proclaiming one's superiority in the face of one's diminished influence.
There is an air of last things, a brooding sense of impending annihilation, about so much deconstructive activity, in so many of its guises; it is not merely postmodernist but preapocalyptic.
Words can have no single fixed meaning. Like wayward electrons, they can spin away from their initial orbit and enter a wider magnetic field. No one owns them or has a proprietary right to dictate how they will be used.