All posts tagged: David Lehman

September 2021 Poetry Feature: David Lehman’s The Morning Line

Please join us in welcoming back contributor DAVID LEHMAN. This is the title poem of his new collection, The Morning Line.

The Morning Line

— May 22, 2020

1.

You can pick horses on the basis of their names
and gloat when Justify wins racing’s Triple Crown 
or when, in 1975, crowd favorite Ruffian, “queen 
of the century,” goes undefeated until she breaks down 
in a match race with Derby winner Foolish Pleasure. 
Who could root against Ruffian? 
Did patriotic Englishmen cheer 
when Sir Winston won the Belmont last year? 

I rejoiced when Monarchos, a ten to one bet, became 
the second horse ever to break the two-minute mark 
at the Kentucky Derby. Why did I pick it? I liked the name.
Those two minutes in May 2001 and the giddy hours after 
now seem a little like a garden party in England in July 1914 
as the nineteenth century approached the finish line 
and collapsed.

Today you might buy 50 shares of Qualcom at 78.11, 
or 500 shares of Sirius at 5.15, 
because you like the sound of their names, 
and you may make these trades even without knowing 
a thing about what the companies produce or do. 
As luck would have it, under current market conditions, 
a portfolio consisting of these two stocks plus Alphabet, 
Amazon, and Apple would satisfy our poetry criterion 
and stand a decent chance of outperforming the market, 
as would a portfolio consisting of attractive stock symbols 
like ACES, CAT, KO, NICE, QQQ, SPY, TAN, and TOKE.

“Under current market conditions.” There’s the rub. 
If current, market, and conditions are variables,
chance determines the outcome, as in abstract art. 
There will be an epidemic, an earthquake, a hurricane; 
these will take place, but you can’t say where or when, 
and the same goes for a cyber-attack crippling the electric grid, 
a terrorist outrage in a tunnel or bridge, the meltdown 
of a nuclear power plant, or even a rebellion of angry birds 
menacing the human population of a northern California town.  
What if the stars should take a powder? Can’t happen? 
You never know. “If the Sun and Moon should ever doubt, 
they’d immediately go out,” wrote William Blake. 
The if is even more important than the doubt.
If you can conceive it, it can be done. Scoff all you like. 
If history has taught us anything, it’s that you can kill anyone, 
and Ladbroke’s of London will lay the odds. 

Acts of God (if you’re a traditionalist) 
or black swan events (if you’re a secular humanist) 
cannot be predicted. The blather of experts
will do you little good, because 
the unknowns are in flux, and the gulf 
is sometimes wide between the odds 
set by the handicapper for the morning line
and the betting public at the track
when the horses reach the starting gate.  

Nevertheless, though playing the ponies has declined
as a pastime, though market crashes 
have spooked retail investors, and though 
everyone knows the odds are stacked 
in favor of the house, people will continue to bet,
and bet big, on races and contests, cards and dice,
games and turns of the wheel, stocks and bonds, 
options, rates of exchange, orange juice futures, 
elections, murders per capita, jobless claims ,
the number of crates of disinfecting wipes 
Clorox has shipped since March 15, 2020 
or the number of current ad campaigns 
in which part of the pitch is “we’re in this together.”

At the moment I have a side bet on “never bet 
against America,” a phrase that has caught on 
since Warren Buffett used it at Berkshire Hathaway’s 
virtual annual meeting. The phrase frames the crisis 
of the day  as a wager about who will prevail when 
Affirmed and Alydar go head to head for a fourth showdown 
or when the Celtics of Larry Bird square off one more time 
against the Lakers of Magic Johnson.

The Derby and Preakness won’t be run until the fall this year, 
and they won’t be playing the NBA finals in June. 
People will miss the games, but they will bet on much else
with cash, or play money, or just in that realm 
of the imagination that prefigures the things we do.

2.

Gambling is a natural human instinct, because life 
is a gamble in which you will lose your shirt 
or draw a third ace to fill a full house 
on days equally rare. “Life,” Baudelaire wrote, 
“has but one true charm: the charm 
of gambling.” All beliefs are bets, 
though a bet is not necessarily a gamble. 
If the lockdown goes into a third month, 
and we get a heat wave, and beaches are closed, 
and there’s no sports betting, it’s a safe bet 
there will be rioting in the cities 
and a big spike in day trading. You can also bet 
on the persistence of prejudice, political bickering, 
fakery, hypocrisy, bureaucracy, and the power of the lie, 
but no one will take the bet, and it’s not a gamble.  
You need a degree of recklessness to be a gambler. 

Religion is risky, a big gamble, 
though not in the way Pascal proposed 
and Voltaire refuted. Pascal’s wager is not, 
as he tries to sell it, a real gamble. 
He would subject a belief in God 
to a cost / benefit analysis. 
If you bet on God and God exists you win; 
if you bet against and you lose, you lose big.
The argument is seductive, but the proposition 
has lost all conviction. The risk has been drained from it. 
If only self-interest could furnish the grounds for belief! 
You might also say that the ends (divinity) stand 
in diametric opposition to the means (logic) 
in Pascal’s equation, which remains, despite 
its flaws, a fascinating subject of contemplation, 
like the bust of Homer in Aristotle’s hands.

“God is a scandal – a scandal which pays,” 
Baudelaire wrote in his “squibs” (trans. Christopher Isherwood).  
“God is the sole being who has no need to exist in order to reign.”
Gambling requires faith, not assurance or certitude 
but something finer, rarer: faith, a near rhyme 
of truth and death that sounds like fate, 
which is how Willem de Kooning pronounced the word. 
And what is faith but the opposite of doubt – a force 
to press back against the dismal news of the day, 
the doubt that arises in the mind of the prophet 
beholding the wickedness of the people?

Religion requires risk, like the risk you feel 
when you are so deeply involved with another person 
that you cannot imagine living your life without her. 
The inevitability of loss, a much-misunderstood aspect 
of gambling, is not a deterrent but an attraction. 

The experience of loss is as potent a stimulant 
as the experience of jumping from a low-flying plane 
trusting your parachute will work. 

3.

A compulsive gambler’s habit is as hard to break 
as smoking or drinking, maybe harder. The gambler 
believes in the god of chance, which is the wrong god 
to believe in. Gamblers act on superstition just as athletes do: 
wear a shirt with red in it every Sunday; on a winning streak, 
use the same bat, do not shave, eat the same breakfast 
every day; change your stance in a slump, though you know 
nothing will help in a slump. Skillful poker players 
put a game face on a nasty turn of events, 
but they do that when the cards favor them, too.

Skill or luck: “People think mastering the skill 
is the hard part, but they’re wrong. The trick to poker 
is mastering the luck” (James McManus). 

To the writer, all is raw material, bad luck or good. 
A novelist friend developed a system of winning at roulette, 
but it did him more good as the backdrop for a story  
than in practice in Monte Carlo.

The philosophical gambler takes the path 
of the melancholy pickpocket in a 1950s French movie.
To him, if I may speak of myself this way, luck is a muse, 
and Frank Loesser’s song “Luck, Be a Lady”
communicates the risk taker’s situation. The phrases 
he likes have two or even three separate meanings, which
he must conjoin, so that Stendhal’s The Red and the Black
is read in the context of the red and black boxes 
on a roulette-wheel carpet – or the red and black squares 
of the chess board in a match pitting the Russian grandmaster 
against the American upstart – and the morning line signifies 
not only the bookmaker’s calculations, but also
a verse to speak when the bell tolls for thee.

 

David Lehman‘s recent books are One Hundred Autobiographies: A Memoir (Cornell University Press, 2019) and Playlist: A Poem (Pittsburgh). He is the editor of The Oxford Book of American Poetry and series editor of The Best American Poetry. He has written nonfiction books about the New York School of poets, classic American popular songs, Frank Sinatra, and mystery novels, among other subjects.

September 2021 Poetry Feature: David Lehman’s The Morning Line
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November 2020 Poetry Feature: David Lehman

We are happy to welcome DAVID LEHMAN back to our pages. 

 

The Complete History of the Boy

1.
The baby giggled in his crib.
His father walked in. “Why are you laughing?”
“Because,” the baby said, “we all have our joy.”
It was his first sentence.

When the baby had his own bed,
he said children are luckier than grownups
because they get to sleep in their own bed
while grownups have to share.

At four he was asked what he wanted
to be when he grew up. “Santa Claus,” he said.

That was Thanksgiving. By January he thought better of it.
“I never want to be a grown-up because
that would be the end of me.”

It was the age of the aphorism:
“Candles are statues that burn for the ceremony.”
“Saliva is the maid of your mouth.” (It cleanses it.)

November 2020 Poetry Feature: David Lehman
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Francois Villon Begins His Journey

By DAVID LEHMAN

[in memory of Paul Violi]

In this my thirtieth year,
Drunk and no stranger to disgrace,
I grin like a fool from ear to ear
Despite the trickle of tears on my face,
Clown that I am, condemned
By Thibauld d’Assole’s command,
Threatened and even damned
By the faker with the crozier in his hand.

Francois Villon Begins His Journey
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Two Poems in the Courtly Manner

By DAVID LEHMAN

1.

Gather ye rosebuds come what may,

Old time’s a frequent flyer,

And many lovers that link today

May soon be forced to retire.

 

Let each of us have one, each of us be one

Soul unlinking from its mate in the past

To eat the golden apples of the sun.

Youth fondly supposes it will last.

Two Poems in the Courtly Manner
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January 2016 Poetry Feature

New Work for the New Year

This month we welcome Cassandra Cleghorn to our pages, presenting poems included in her first book, Four Weathercocks, which will be published by Marick Press in March. We’re also happy to be welcoming back TC contributors David Lehman, Jonathan Moody, and Sylvie Durbec. Lehman’s new book is Sinatra’s Century: One Hundred Notes on the Man and His World. Jonathan Moody won the Cave Canem Northwestern University Press Prize for his collection Olympic Butter Gold, published in November 2015. The book includes five poems first published in The Common. Jean Follain Prize-winner Sylvie Durbec’s poem “Shining Red in the Torrent” is offered here in its entirety, translated by Denis Hirson. An excerpt from the poem was published in The Common Issue 10.

January 2016 Poetry Feature
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Volunteer

By DAVID LEHMAN

The drill instructor was not in a good mood. He had had a mi-
graine all weekend. The weather sucked. He hated sports and there
were going to be no pleasantries about the Yanks, the Mets, the
Knicks, the Nets, or any other team. He knew as I knew that every-
thing depended on one thing: the book. You went by the book. Fol-
low orders and stay out of trouble.

Volunteer
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David Lehman on Literary New York, the KGB Bar, and His New and Selected Poems

S. TREMAINE NELSON interviews DAVID LEHMAN

David Lehman headshot

David Lehman, born and raised in New York City, is the author of the forthcoming poetry collection New and Selected Poems, published by Scribner. He is Series Editor of The Best American Poetry anthology and co-founder of the KGB bar poetry reading series. His poems “Mother Died Today,” “Remember the Typewriter,” and “The Bronze Décor”appeared in Issue No. 05 of The Common.

David Lehman on Literary New York, the KGB Bar, and His New and Selected Poems
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