Gary Lehmann - Author

Author's Publications and Upcoming Appearances

Monday, June 01, 2009

Inspiration: Comments on Some New Poems

People often ask me where I get my ideas for a poem. I write narrative, historical verse and it's a natural question since most of my poems are firmly rooted in personalities and events. Most readers specialize their reading by their interests, but I'm a generalist. I love to read widely and from that reading, I get ideas for poems. Sometimes, the original idea gets reworded but stays largely in the form it originally appeared, but sometimes the original idea is just a jumping-off point for an entirely different approach to the subject.

Here are some recent poems with brief comments on their inspiration.

Oh, please do read it

Charles Algernon Swinburne was a poet who loved himself
and his poetry so much he would read verse at any time.

He wrote poetry that the public considered scandalous, so
he particularly loved to show off when calling on friends.

To lure them in, he cleverly placed an oversized sheaf of poems
in his breast pocket where it could not be missed.

Oh, please do read it. This was all the goading the poet needed
to be induced to produce some delicious new verse to delight all.

While reading, he’d get so excited he couldn’t sit still,
but jumped up gesticulating wildly as he pranced about the room.

The audience usually tired of this show before he did,
but he appeared not to notice. So enthralled was he with himself.

COMMENT: I read Swinburne's poetry in college and taught some of it over the many years I taught college English, but I never really knew much about him. Garrison Keillor has a website called The Writer's Almanac which I read almost every day. One day he had a brief comment on Swinburne which got me started reading some of his poems and doing some research on his life. I highly recommend the site for literary snippets and a daily dose of poetry.

For Love of All

Into the sky my beloved flies.
See his silver machine cutting the air.
With rare courage and a rising sun
into the enemy ships -- he dies.

COMMENT: This is a short poem for me. I was watching the History Channel one evening. A Japanese-American girl returned to her ancestral land to explore the question of why anyone would want to become a Kamikaze pilot. She grew up in America with the view that it was crazy to willingly go to your death, even for your country. When she went to Japan, she interviewed family members who were alive during the Second World War and recall the attitude that everyone must sacrifice for the Emperor so Japan could win the war. Slowly, she discovered the mental framework of patriotism and family pride that allowed this phenomenon to exist. The poem just dropped out of the sky pretty much as you see it today.

The Man Who Saved the Whole Country

J. Pierpont Morgan sat in a darkened room of the Arlington Hotel and waited.
He smoked endless cigars and played solitaire until the President called.

The panic of 1893 dragged on and the gold reserve was getting dangerously low.
Grover Cleveland knew there was only one man with the liquidity and pull,

but J. Pierpont Morgan sat in a darkened room of the Arlington Hotel and waited.
He smoked endless cigars and played solitaire until the President called.

Morgan was not going to be hurried, and he wasn’t about to work on the cheap.
A few calls to European bankers and to some Morgan cronies for a tidy profit.

So J. Pierpont Morgan sat in a darkened room of the Arlington Hotel and waited.
He smoked endless cigars and played solitaire until the President called.

Cleveland was holding back. He knew his party would explode in protest.
William Jennings Bryan would launch a withering attack; McKinley would roar.

Still, J. Pierpont Morgan sat in a darkened room of the Arlington Hotel and waited.
He smoked endless cigars and played solitaire. It’s the President, Mr. Morgan.

COMMENT: Everyone has been thinking about what happened to unhinge the financial system in America -- and the world -- recently. I came across a passage while reading somewhere that told of J. Pierpont Morgan's role in saving America from a similar financial collapse in 1893. The original statement I encountered described Morgan in his private room in the Arlington Hotel. I started to think about the immense power he exerted by waiting and not pushing himself on President Cleveland at the White House. He knew that if he waited long enough, Cleveland would come to him. When he did, Morgan would have the power to dictate terms. This is the essence of Morgan's genius. I had to try to capture it in a poem. When I wrote the poem originally, I didn't yet have the repetition in the lines, but later it became clear that waiting is the essence of the story and repetition is the poet's best way to indicate patient waiting to the reader.

Love Letter to the Ford V8

While I still have breath in my lungs
I will tell you what a dandy car you make.

Clyde Champion Barrow of Bonnie and Clyde fame
had the fastest guns in the mid-west because
they drove fast, real fast. They had to drive fast.

I have drove Fords exclusively
When I could get away with one.

Between 1930 and 1934, they had every cop
in the mid-west on their tail for bank robberies,
gas station and small business robberies.

For sustained speed and freedom from trouble,
The Ford has got ever’ other car skinned

Driving a Ford V8 gave them that extra edge
during a shoot-out. After all, G-Men chasing
an 8 with a 4, only had half a chance.

and even if my business hasn’t been strictly legal
it don’t hurt anything to tell you what a fine car you got in the V8.

Bonnie Parker probably wrote the actual letter to Henry Ford
on a scrap of writing paper she stole from a grocery store,
but they never got around to prosecuting her for it.

COMMENT: I have long wanted to tell the story of the romantic adventure/love affair of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. In desperation they marauded across the mid-west for a brief chronicle of years. One thing that I loved was the letter Clyde supposedly sent to Henry Ford praising his V8 engine. Research on the web turned up handwriting evidence that convinced me that Bonnie wrote the letter, but what's the difference really? When I started writing the poem, I quoted extensively from the letter, but finally it just became clear that using the entire letter with alternating comments by me was the way to go. This poem came largely from web research and the fact that Bonnie and Clyde had just a terrific story to tell. You'll notice I prefer italics to quotation marks in poetry.

The Deed to the City of White Plains

I won it in a poker game from John Steinbeck.
His hand was hot, but the bet was $400 to him.
He was cleaned out, but claimed he had
this deed of title from the 1600s.
We let him bet it on the pot.
He had a full house,
but I was dealt
four kings

COMMENT: This poem came from a brief caption under a picture in the Maine Antique Digest, a journal I read and have read monthly for many years. I retold the story slightly to meet poetic demands, but basically the idea came from the newspaper. In all my poems, I look for an ironic moment to capture the essence of a human dilemma. This poem looks a lot better when centered on the page, but I couldn't figure out how to do that here.

Bathed in Penetrating Light

The novelist Elizabeth Bowen visited Virginia Woolf
at her country home in Sussex in southeast England.
just a month before her death by suicide in March of 1941.
At the youthful age of 59, a despondent Woolf drowned
herself in the swiftly moving waters of the Ouse River.

She suffered from periods of depression for many years.

Bowen wrote about Virginia: I remember her kneeling
back on the floor ... and she sat back on her heels and
put her head back in a patch of sun, early spring sun.
Then she laughed in this consuming, choking, delightful,
hooting way. And that is what has remained with me.

COMMENT: This poem started out with the quote by Bowen as it appeared in The Writer's Almanac some time ago. I did a lot of extra research on Bowen and Woolf and the poem emerged. Some poetry editors have rejected my work, because it is too prosey for them. They understand the elliptical quality I try to impart to each story, but there is always a narrative element which makes my work a stretch for some editors. Luckily, not all. It amuses me that some editors publish my work as flash fiction and some as poetry. I don't really care what they call it as long as it gets published and read. Poetry lives in a big tent. At least, that's what I believe.

The Eyes of Gustav Klimt

The remarkable thing about Gustav Klimt’s drawings is that they are quite unremarkable.
Focus on the drawings only, and you find they are merely academic, even ordinary.

They’re good -- as you’d expect from an artist as practiced and talented as Klimt – but
the reason we look at his work today with such rapture is not that he could draw faces.

No, what makes his paintings so spectacular is what he places around his faces.
That’s what creates eroticism in portraiture and glorifies gaudy golden materialism.

After his brother’s untimely death, Gustav Klimt broke away from traditional images.
He encrusted his works with metal objects, thick gold paint, patches of fabric, and eyes.

Klimt’s paintings are studded with eyes. Eyes and more eyes. They stare out at you.
Cat eyes, Egyptian eyes, square eyes, hooded eyes, round eyes, golden eyes, wiggly eyes.

At the turn of the century, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was at its very height.
They didn’t yet know it, but the Hapsburg dynasty was dying. Its glory was past.

Only the Secessionists remained, the last sparks of the comet that once flashed
so brightly across the eastern European sky, like the eyes in a Klimt painting.

COMMENT: Last November, I had the opportunity to go to Vienna, Austria for the wedding of my niece which took place in a small castle right in town. While I was in Vienna, I visited as many art museums as possible and was repeatedly struck by the jewel-like quality of the paintings of Gustav Klimt. I had seen his work in New York, but Vienna museums had dozens of his lesser works as well as most of his iconic pieces. This poem developed over a couple of months after the trip. It took some time for me to focus on the eyes and to understand how vital they were to what Klimt was attempting artistically. As the poem appears on this page, it illustrates a problem editors have with prose poetry. Frequently the prose poet's long lines jump over and create orphan words which look funny stuck there on lines of their own. I appreciate it when editors give me the chance to rebreak the lines to suit their journal's line length to avoid this awkwardness.

What a beautiful thing is a sunny day

I arrived late for the college opera class’s end-of-the-year song fest.
Each student had a favorite aria to perform and
a youth from Mexico City stood forth to sing his favorite,
O Sole Mio.

He held his hands in front of him and, as the piano accompanist
set up the solo, the shoulders of the youth began to heave.
Suddenly it was not just a rhythmic sympathetic pacing
but something else altogether.

A stream of projectile vomit cascaded across red carpeting of the aisle.
The piano player, not noticing, played on and,
after a somewhat awkward wiping of the mouth,
the Mexican opera aficionado belted out his song.

O Sole Mio -- The Sun, My Own Sun -- to a standing ovation.

What a beautiful thing is a sunny day,
The air is serene after a storm
The air's so fresh that it feels like a celebration
What a beautiful thing is a sunny day

COMMENT: This spring I had occasion to attend a college concert, the graduation recital for an opera class. The story emerged just as I recount it, but the youth did not lose his cookies. But it certainly looked like he was about to. Luckily, I had my poetic licence with me when I wrote the poem a few days later. I think the story is better this way. I like the shock value and the fact that I can lay claim to being the only poet I know to have written a poem about projectile vomiting.

Nothing Happens for Nothing

Last fall, I flew to Paris and Vienna while
reading this book about DaVinci’s bicycle.
When I arrived in Vienna, I came across a
replica of DaVinci’s bicycle standing on a
side street near the Esterhazy Palace.
It was quite unexpected. I felt connected.

One of the reasons I flew to Vienna was to
see Freud’s couch and the apartment
where he first practiced psychiatry.
I learned that his couch is in London where
he took it running away from the Nazis.
I felt connected, but events came undone.

On the way back to Baltimore, I read about
Gertrude Stein delivering babies in tenements
from the John Hopkins Medical School.
So I went looking for Gertrude’s Baltimore,
but no where could I find a single remnant.
Puzzling journey. A writer is a foreign country.

COMMENT: This poem emerged from a couple of unscheduled coincidences that occurred during and immediately after the Vienna trip. My wife had a conference to attend in Baltimore, so we went there directly from Vienna before coming home. While in Baltimore, I was deeply involved in writing another poem, but a few months after the trip this poem emerged as I had time to contemplate the incredible coincidences involved in the trip. I don't frequently write poems about the writing process. I mostly leave that to my essays.

Cosmetic Friends

Although they lived just 5 blocks apart on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue,
and competed their whole lives for the same elite cosmetic trade,
Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden refused to meet each other.

After a while, it became a game. They assiduously avoided each other
even while they were spying on each other’s new product lines,
stealing employees from one another and pirating ad campaign ideas.

They had a lot in common. Both were hard working immigrants to NYC.
Both were self-conscious of their appearance, took classes in posture,
and bobbed their hair about the same time to suit the fashion.

They both sold red lipstick to suffragettes in 1912 and neither believed
that a woman would think much of face cream that wasn’t expensive.
They both believed you are only as old as you look, but when

death finally did catch up with Helena Rubinstein, Elizabeth Arden and was
overheard to say as she passed the entrance to Helena’ Fifth Avenue store,
What a shame. That’s the closest they ever came to speaking.

COMMENT: Somewhere in my reading, it might have been the Smithsonian magazine, I came across the unusual relationship between Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden. What a colorful pair they were. I researched them both on the web and wrote a much longer poem focused on the development of the cosmetics industry. Then I went back and refocused on the pair of them and their unusual non-relationship, because that seemed more interesting in the end. Sometimes, it takes months for the real focus of a poem to emerge.

An unknown person,

probably his appointment secretary, is seen in this photo
with Norman Rockwell's dented, blackened brass bucket.
It was used as a receptacle for turpentine-soaked rags.
The rags often would catch fire, explained our tour guide.
Then someone -- maybe Rockwell, maybe his assistant,
would calmly throw the bucket out the door of the studio
to extinguish the flames. That's how it got dinged so badly.

COMMENT: Years ago, I went to see Norman Rockwell's museum in the Berkshire Mountains. The museum was interesting, but the reconstructed studio was really fascinating. There in the actual place where most of his paintings were made, you really gathered in the character of this all-American painting hero. Years later, I encountered an article about the studio, I don't remember what magazine, and a brief passage leapt out at me as an icon of the quixotic nature of this painter so known for his regularity. The irony in this rag bucket story struck me, and the poem emerged. I like the idea of letting the title become the first line of the poem and offering the entire poem -- title included -- as a quotation from an unknown source.

Poems come from a variety of inspirations. Sometimes, they bear a striking similarity to their sources; sometimes they don't. The trick is to find raw material that contains what you -- as the poet -- want to say about the subject of the poem. I like the ironic and seek out stories that characterize what I feel is the essence of the famous person or event. It's a strange way to go about writing poetry, I suppose, but it satisfies me.