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David Lerner

By Jeffrey McDaniel

Here’s an introduction I wrote about David Lerner for a new anthology called The Spoken Word Revolution Redux (edited by Mark Eleveld). Lerner is a poet few people have heard of; his top dozen poems or so are outstanding. After the introduction, I’ve pasted one of his poems.
*


“It is said that a saint
only becomes an icon
after many years of polishing.”

It’s a true pleasure to introduce the work of David Lerner in this context, hopefully exposing him to a larger readership. A few basic biographical details: Lerner was born in 1951 and died (of a drug overdose) in 1997. In his forty-six years, he published four books, all in a flurry of activity between 1988 and ’92, all with Zeitgeist Press.
Lerner was a fixture at the poetry nights at Café Babar in San Francisco; the regulars called themselves The Babarians. The San Francisco (and Berkeley) that Lerner emerged from no longer exists. That San Francisco, with the Mission’s fertile edginess, and a plethora of thorny, irreverent reading venues (the Chameleon, the Paradise Lounge) was destroyed (or at least badly damaged) with all the dot.com money that poured in, in the late 90’s, altering the city’s dynamic energy and making it much harder for scruffy, hand-to-mouth artist-types to survive.
When a poet leaves the earth physically, the phrase “out of sight, out of mind” comes into play. Even the heavily-accoladed academic poets (who Lerner despised) with their briefcases filled with olive wreathes and laurels—when they go over the cliff of life, usually their work follows suit, landing with a rarified plop on the slush pile of eternity.
What has kept Lerner’s work afloat for the nine years since he left the land of the breathing? How is it that a poet who only published on a very small press (even by poetry standards) and who didn’t have much of a readership outside of California gets to have a selected poems come out posthumously, when even a wonderful, younger, dead poet from the literary establishment, like Lynda Hull, can’t get a selected?
A couple reasons. One: a dedicated editor/publisher in Bruce Isaacson. Doesn’t every poet dream of a publisher like that, who even when you die will rescue what you did best in this world and try to bring it to the surface, just because he believes in you?
But the main reason Lerner’s work is alive, still floating, bobbing on the surface of oblivion, is that his poems bring a visceral joy to readers. Lerner doesn’t have admirers who stroke their chin and think (in a British accent), “hmm, quite a simile you came up there with Davy, old chap”. Lerner has believers. He appeals to our id, that dark place in the mind where rage and desire blurs.
His best work stomps a fine line between righteous indignation and spontaneous blasts of humor. His anger at society’s injustices, at poetic hypocrisy, is lightened, cut if you will, by his exquisite imagination, his ability to inflict tender, haunting imagery on the reader’s brain.
Lerner poems are often powered by wild, associative leaps. Many poems rely on anaphora (the repetition of a few words at the beginning of a line). The repeating phrase for Lerner functions almost like a canon, that he re-loads and aims in a new direction, firing out blasts of metaphor with great velocity. (Think of the way a star radiates out in multiple directions.) This type of poem also lends itself to (almost demands) a wild imagination, otherwise it will get boring quickly and feel repetitive. (One of writing’s paradoxes—how to repeat and not be repetitive.)
Photos of Lerner depict him as a large, furry, almost jolly man—imagine a younger version of Santa Claus who hasn’t surrendered the color in his hair yet—but Lerner’s poems are anything but big and burly, and definitely not cuddly. His poems are agile and full of kicks. More Kung-Fu than Sumo. As much Travis Bickle as Walt Whitman. Imagine the poetic love child of Etheridge Knight and Robert Desnos.
Lerner’s a chipped, cross-eyed sapphire in the rough. He’s a bearded Mona Lisa sleeping under a bridge. I’m not saying that every Lerner poet is a gem: many poems are sloppy and reach easy conclusions, striking the same note, but his best work, his top twenty poems, what every writer should ultimately be judged by, borders on the brilliant.
Maybe the best compliment I can give Lerner is that for the past four years at Sarah Lawrence College where I teach, we’ve put on a show called the Dead Poets Slam, where students memorize, embody, perform poems by dead poets in a theatrical context. Every year Lerner’s poems tear down the house.
I wish Lerner were still alive and writing, but I am thankful that we are left with this yearning, sparkling, unshaven, bruised, illuminating, relentless body of work that refuses to stay down.
MEIN KAMPF by David Lerner
“Gary Snyder lives in the country. He wakes up in the morning and listens to birds. We live in the city.”
– Kathleen Wood
all I want to do
is make poetry famous
all I want to do is
burn my initials into the sun
all I want to do is
read poetry from the middle of a
burning building
standing in the fast lane of the
freeway
falling from the top of the
Empire State Building
the literary world
sucks dead dog dick
I’d rather be Richard Speck
than Gary Snyder
I’d rather ride a rocketship to hell
than a Volvo to Bolinas
I’d rather
sell arms to the Martians
than wait sullenly for a
letter from some diseased clown with a
three-piece mind
telling me that I’ve won a
bullet-proof pair of rose-colored glasses
for my poem “Autumn in the Spring”
I want to be
hated
by everyone who teaches for a living
I want people to hear my poetry and
get headaches
I want people to hear my poetry and
vomit
I want people to hear my poetry and
weep, scream, disappear, start bleeding,
eat their television sets, beat each other to death with
swords and
go out and get riotously drunk on
someone else’s money
this ain’t no party
this ain’t no disco
this ain’t foolin’ a
grab-bag of clever wordplay and sensitive thoughts and
gracious theories about
how many ambiguities can dance on the head of a
machine gun
this ain’t no
genteel evening over
cappuccino and bullshit
this ain’t no life-affirming
our days have meaning
as we watch the flowers breath [sic] through our souls and
fall desperately in love
this ain’t no letter-press, hand-me-down,
wimpy beatnik festival of bitching about
the broken rainbow
it is a carnival of dread
it is a savage sideshow
about to move to the main arena
it is terror and wild beauty
walking hand in hand down a bombed-out road
as missiles scream, while a
sky the color of arterial blood
blinks on and off
like the lights on Broadway
after the last junkie’s dead of AIDS
I come not to bury poetry
but to blow it up
not to dandle it on my knee
like a retarded child with
beautiful eyes
but
throw it off a cliff into
icy seas and
see if the motherfucker can
swim for its life
because love is an excellent thing
surely we need it
but, my friends…
there is so much hate These Days
that hatred is just love with a chip on its shoulder
a chip as big as the Ritz
and heavier than
all the bills I’ll never pay
because they’re after us
they’re selling radioactive charm bracelets
and breakfast cereals that
lower your IQ by 50 points per mouthful
we got politicians who think
starting World War III
would be a good career move
we got beautiful women
with eyes like wet stones
peering out at us from the pages of
glossy magazines
promising that they’ll
fuck us till we shoot blood
if we’ll just buy one of these beautiful switchblade knives
I’ve got mine.

Comments (6)

  • On May 10, 2007 at 12:51 pm J. Bryan Shoup wrote:

    I really like the rhythm of this piece, but there’s more posturing than there are memorable lines here, at least in my humble opinion. I hope my generation is far enough removed from the pressures of Lerner’s poetic scene that we can write poetry, not just rants about poetry.
    Some of the images are a bit non-sensical when it feels he’s actually trying to be direct. However, I did enjoy: “it is a savage sideshow/about to move to the main arena.” Subtlety, or at least brevity, seems to work best when threatening someone else in your art (isn’t Obadiah an easier read than Jeremiah? Though Jeremiah is varied in topic, I hope/assume the same is true of Lerner).
    The last two lines were a perfect end, and superior to the majority of those that preceded them. Foreboding instead of bludgeoning. There’s a vibe here akin to Henry Rollins’ poetry and poetic rants, only Rollins has never spent a poem or paragraph discussing poetry, and I think he would laugh someone out of the room if they suggested he did. It seems harder, or at least more risky, to actually ignore the scene that some poets pick apart for lack of acceptance and instead just write outsider poetry with little awareness of its outsider status.
    Sometimes when a poet tries to shock, by writing lines like “the literary world/sucks dead dog dick,” I wonder if they are trying to offend or impress and if they’d be hurt if vulgarity just makes me eyes move a bit quicker to get to something with more meat.
    That said, your introduction was an engaging commentary, and your third paragraph especially laid out a common issue of poets who receive their glories in this life. Someone ought to make an anthology (or point me to it) that collects forgotten poets who were once literary darlings or best-sellers. It’s be interesting to see if their work has aged well.

  • On May 10, 2007 at 3:10 pm Mark Eleveld wrote:

    Wonderful Jeff, thank you for sharing this. A brief history on the idea: In the first ‘Spoken Word Revolution’ Jeff McDaniel and Jack McCarthy were introduced by poet Thomas Lux. For the sequel, I asked Jeff to offer some suggestion on poets and if he would offer an introduction. He did both. His introductions to David Lerner, Derrick Brown and Matt Cook are spot on. Fun to read. Important to know of … memorable. I knew a little bit of Derrick Brown’s work prior, I had heard one Matt Cook poem live, but Lerner was unknown to me. With help from Lerner’s publisher, Bruce Issacson, I spent several nights reading and listening to David Lerner’s work. I was taken by the raw power of the work. To hear Lerner perform it on mic at the fabled Cafe Babar–people yelling in the back, asking him to read Mein Kampf, offering matches for his cigarettes, goating him, echoing his lines with him–the piece drools with power. (I wish the written version on this site could include an audio of it.)
    I enjoyed reading J. Bryan Shoup’s comments…I don’t think I agree with them. No. I don’t agree with them at all. I have had ample time to be around poets, philosopher, truckers, teachers, etc., to suggest that they never talk about the conditions they are part of seems a bit absurd to me. If Shoup wants to suggest that talking to much about an art form and investing that time into the art might be harmful, fine. I’d probably agree. Maybe not. (What are we doing now?) But I’d be hard pressed to believe Rollins (by the way, I think Lerner closer to Bukowski than Rollins, but we’re both probably far from the truth) or Frost or Brooks or anyone for that matter wouldn’t consider the conditions closest to them as vital to them–art included. And, I think if we start digging a little deeper into Lerner’s piece, all of this might pop up; the reference, the contradiction, the futility, and, by god, the fire.

  • On May 11, 2007 at 12:31 pm Brian Hadd wrote:

    [sic] made soul more airy, is [sic] originally present? I’d be amazed, but I like it!
    The Hood Company

  • On May 13, 2007 at 4:11 pm Robert Cantoni wrote:

    I’ve been a fan of this poem for some time but I’ve never seen other Lerner poems or been able to find his books.
    I agree that the lines that attempt to shock me aren’t very convincing, and I’m also generally wary of poetry about poetry, but this is the exceptional poem that does, by the end, enact what it preaches, and the individual images (“bullet-proof pair of rose-colored glasses” and “how many ambiguities can dance on the head of a machine gun”) are cogent critiques of some contemporary poetry. Those images are presented with such rage and strength that they’re really hard to resist. I like that the rant feels out of control at some points.
    Thanks for sharing this poem. I’ll have to try to find more of Lerner’s work.

  • On May 14, 2007 at 10:47 pm Jeffrey wrote:

    Hi Robert,
    Thanks for your insightful comments about Lerner’s poem. Lerner has a number of poems about poetry, and his poems seem to echo one another, often using anaphora, (maybe over-using). He’s a raw poet, but his best poems, his top dozen poems are strong, powered by the combination of rage and imagination that you touch on.
    The place to go for Lerner’s work is Zeitgeist Press
    http://www.zeitgeist-press.com
    They put out a selected last year, The Last Five Miles To Grace.
    best wishes, Jeffrey

  • On February 22, 2008 at 4:34 pm doug anderson wrote:

    He would like to be Bukowski, but he isn’t. Merely attempting to shock (the poem shocks no one except perhaps the hysterically politically correct) and there is little evidence of craft or imaginative discovery. The rebellious pose is only conventionally unconventional. The anaphora is merely repetitive and does not vary its recurrance or wind up the pace.
    My suggestion is that the poet, 1) go have a life, 2) learn craft.


Posted in Uncategorized on Thursday, May 10th, 2007 by Jeffrey McDaniel.