Gary Lehmann - Author

Author's Publications and Upcoming Appearances

Friday, September 15, 2006

Gwendolyn Brooks and Point of View

Most poets write from their own point of view. Write what you know is the old adage, which most poets follow religiously, but sometimes it works best to locate the presumed narrator of your poem in a voice other than your own. Take Gwendolyn Brook’s poem We Real Cool.

We Real Cool
The Pool Players.
Seven at the Golden Shovel.
We real cool.  We
Left school.  We
Lurk late.  We
Strike straight.  We
Sing sin.  We
Thin gin.  We
Jazz June.  We
Die soon.

Aside from the unusual use of the third person plural pronoun at the end of most lines, the internal rhyme scheme, and the use of capital letters to emphasize the verbs, the reader is struck by the sense that this is not the voice of a traditional female poet. The poem takes on the voice of the collective consciousness of the gang members themselves. This voice is conspicuously male in tone and form. This is how we see ourselves. Here is what gives us street cred. The poem is a kind of street gang’s credo.

The last line of this poem draws you up tight. For most people this would be a chilling realization. At first, it seems like it is inadvertent, even an unguarded revelation, but I think that both the poet and her hooligan narrator realize that the threat of death in the streets is an ever-present part of what makes life on the streets worthwhile. It’s what gives that life vitality.

Vitality. That is not only what holds the poem together, it is why the poem needs to be told from the point of view of the subject. Gwendolyn Brooks was not pushing for this lifestyle. She is merely reflecting what has come to her attention as a form of life she saw all around her. Gwendolyn Brooks was no street thug.

She was a mild-mannered writer and editor, born in Topeka Kansas in 1917, but brought up on the streets of Chicago. She published 21 books of poetry, 5 books of prose, and 1 novel during her long lifetime. She spent her life behind a desk, not in a pool hall, but still, she witnessed the destructive nature of the street gangs for herself. She knew the street even if she wasn’t a direct part of its life. To write a poem about this life would have been a natural enough desire, but to try to tell that story from her own point of view would have involved layering too many masks over each other. The poem would have gotten very confusing.

And what would the poet’s point of view have added to the poem anyway?

The power of this poem comes from its direct and honest revelation of belief. The gang is speaking. Here is what we are. Take it or leave it. This is how we live, and die. In an interview with George Stavros, Brooks confessed that those boys “have no pretensions to any glamor [sic]. They are supposedly dropouts, or at least they're in the poolroom when they should possibly be in school, since they're probably young enough, or at least those I saw were when I looked in a poolroom.”

The poet is a voyeur in the life of the street thug’s gang life. She had no standing to speak for them in her own voice, and so she naturally takes on the only voice that works, the voice of the gang itself.

As Gary Smith has said, “Brooks's attitude toward the players remains ambivalent. To be sure, she dramatizes the tragic pathos in their lives, but she also stresses their existential freedom in the poem's . . . meter, the epigraph that frames the poem, and the players' self-conscious word play. . . .” Sometimes it is best to do what the poem dictates and ignore the well-worn poetic adages that limit and confine too much modern poetry.

Maybe it should be Write what you feel, not Write what you know.

Gary Lehmann: Featured Reader at Harvest Poetry Festival

Gary Lehmann will be the lead featured poet at the Foothills Publishing's Harvest Poetry Festival to be held September 24, 1-4 PM, at the Gell Center in Naples, N.Y.

The Festival celebrates the 20th Anniversary of Foothills Publishing's exclusive commitment to publishing the works of emerging poets in the New York and Pennsylvania region.

Lehmann will read from his recent Foothills book, Public Lives and Private Secrets. The Harvest Festival is open to the public and is free. Come and enjoy!

Some Recent Poetry

Addie, 1910

Gary Lehmann

The orphan girl, Addie, leans back on her machine uncomfortably.
Behind her is a six foot bank of cotton spinning machines.
Her arms are emaciated.
Her left forearm looks like it may have been badly set after a break.
She wears a checked smock over a calico blouse.
Her sleeves are rolled up above the elbow.
Her patch pocket bulges and is stained with greasy smudges.
The edges of the pocket have been sewn for reinforcement.
Bits of thread cling to her smock.
It has no shape or size.
Grease marks spot the lower half.
Her hands and bare feet are grease covered.
Her toes splay out from long hours standing shoeless on the slippery floor.
Her hair is pulled back to keep it from getting caught in the bobbins.
Her eyes are partially hooded, blank and staring.
Her face is gray.
Her mouth registers no emotion.
You can almost hear the clatter of a thousand bobbins behind her.
Everything except Addie is moving.
She has taken a moment to allow someone to take her picture.

The Gospel According to Timothy

Gary Lehmann

In an open letter dated August 9, the Reverend Timothy LaBoeuf, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Watertown, NY, declared that Bible School teacher Mary Lambert would no longer be permitted to teach male children the Holy Word of Sacred Scripture because she is female.

The Word of the Bible is final.

The Reverend Timothy cited the first epistle to Timothy, “do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man.” Ms. Lambert was dismissed without warning after providing Bible study to the children of the church for 54 years. God has not released a statement as yet.

Inside the Gaze of Eliza and Josiah Goddard

Gary Lehmann

In October 1838, Josiah and Eliza Goddard had their pictures painted by a local artist.
The newly-weds wanted to leave a likeness of themselves in case they failed to return.
They had received a calling to convert the heathen races of the world in the Far East.
Josiah learned about the hardships he would face as a missionary at Brown University.

Their two portraits evidence their single-minded dedication to a sacred purpose.
At 22, they voluntarily predestined their lives to be sacrificed for the conversion of the heathens.
They look coldly ahead, feigning Stoic resolve, anxious to impress us with their determination.
Two months later, they boarded the freighter Apthorpe in Boston bound for far-off Burma.

Eliza was seasick for the entire four months of the journey. In Bangkok, she bore four children. In her journal, Eliza recorded the lack of drinking water and clean food. The heat was inhumane. The savageness of the people was overshadowed by smallpox, typhoons, and flooding.
An opium eater, evidently brought to despair by a lack of God, committed suicide on her step.

Josiah mastered the local dialect but in the process contracted tuberculosis and sickened.
A move inland to Nang-po did not improve his health, and he died a few years later.
Eliza found it necessary to return home where she enrolled her son at the seminary at Brown.
She never returned to missionary work, but her son did to raise his own family in China.

In 1944, his grandson donated the paired portraits of Eliza and Josiah to Brown University.
When years of grime were cleaned away, they revealed the text under Josiah’s painted pen.
Now no one could for a moment contemplate the spirit of Christ without [being] convinced that It was a spirit of love ... but also a willingness to make [the] greatest conceivable sacrifices.

GERONIMO’s Last Stand

Gary Lehmann

In his day, Geronimo had an unsurpassed reputation for cruelty and cunning.
For nearly 20 years, his Apache warriors killed white soldiers and tortured captives.
General Nelson Miles, one of his many captors, wrote,
“He was, in fact, one of the lowest and most cruel of the savages.”

After the Indian Wars, Geronimo managed to negotiate a peace settlement for himself.
Together with his wife, he traveled all over the country signing photographs for $1 each.
If you didn’t already have a likeness of him, he sold you one for $3. – signature included.

Geronimo’s signature was awkward and scrawled. He’d turn the picture on its side,
and write the letters of his name from top to bottom each letter sideways
such that when you turned the image right side up again
it appeared for all the world like the signature of a wild savage.