Accomplished poet shares his story in guest lecture

Bridget Higdon, Assistant Arts Editor

The sun sparkled through the intricate stained glass of Old Mill’s John Dewey Lounge Friday as students and faculty gathered for an hour with an accomplished poet.

David Lehman, an acclaimed American writer and editor who has published numerous collections of poetry, visited UVM on Sept. 15. His lecture was followed by a question and answer session.

English professor Major Jackson coordinated the event.

“I am always looking for opportunities to extend the classroom experience by exposing students to people who live a life of passion,” Jackson said. “This is what we should be doing in academia.”

In his introduction, Jackson called Lehman a man who “made a career out of being curious.”

Lehman, wearing navy blue suspenders and dark-rimmed glasses, smiled widely as he explained that his talk would chronicle how, as a poet, he “lived and learned to earn a living.”

He began his story by bringing the audience back to the year 1966.

“My parents thought I would go to law school or study business,” Lehman said, but after his first four months at Columbia University, he declared himself an English major.

“I was writing a poem a day and had become completely intoxicated,” he said.

Lehman said it is not a bad idea to study English.

You pursue poetry because you love it, not to win awards.

— David Lehamn

“You will be of value to every institution because you can grapple with major issues and can write succinct, beautiful prose,” he said.

After leaving academia, Lehman began a career in journalism at Newsweek, he said.

With a note of wistfulness in his voice, Lehman said that he had found a romance in journalism.

The workings of the newsroom and its 2 a.m. phone calls fascinated him, he said.

Through telling many anecdotes, Lehman said the valuable experience he gained while at Newsweek.

“I learned how to write fast and on a deadline,” Lehman said. “Now, I can write 1,000 words in an hour.”

He came up with the idea for one of his most popular piece, “The Best American Poetry” anthology, while driving a car Aug. 1, 1987, he said.

Soon after “The Best American Poetry” was picked up by a publisher, Lehman was able to leave his job at Newsweek to become an editor and poet full time, he said.

“I had previously associated poetry with failure,” Lehman said.

But, since 1988, the anthology has been published annually. It includes 75 poems curated by a guest editor, according to the American Academy of Poets’ website.

Lehman’s wit and character had the audience laughing throughout the lecture. Chuckles erupted when Lehman did impressions of his friend John Ashbery, an acclaimed poet who died Sept. 7.

Ashbery was the first guest editor of “The Best American Poetry.”

Lehman concluded his lecture by giving some advice to the poets in the audience.

“Somebody else is going to get the recognition you deserved,” he said. “That’s going to happen as sure as night and day.”

He urged the audience to remember why they pursue poetry in the first place.

“You pursue poetry because you love it, not to win awards,” Lehman said. “Envy will kill your poetry.”

Senior Stephen Indrisano attended the event because “poetry is such a condensed form, and I am always interested in seeing the literary personality behind it,” he said.

Lehman is certainly a literary personality: a man who, with curiosity and deep passion for his craft, proved that a successful literary life is entirely possible.