By David Lehman
Guest Columnist
New York, NY, USA

During the nearly four years when I battled bladder cancer, I didn’t think about it too much. I thought about getting through the day, taking my medicine, heeding the doctor’s instructions. I joined no support groups, read little about the disease or the procedures I was to undergo. I preferred to get on with my own work, to meet deadlines and fulfill commitments. Also, there were legal and financial necessities to handle in the event of my death.

Death: sometimes I pondered death, oblivion, and the big questions. But it wasn’t easy to do. I was distracted by pain, or by the medical directives, or by the various procedures I underwent. Much of the time I spent waiting, reading old magazines in the waiting room, or watching sports or an old movie on television when I was immobilized. I read little, though I am a big reader. But I wrote every day. I wrote to affirm my existence, my identity. As Gerard Manly Hopkins wrote:

         Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
         Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
         Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
         Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.

Myself I spoke when I wrote.

And at the same time writing was a way not so much to confront the situation but to escape from it. Reality is what it is, after all, but the mind is a house with many doors, corridors, hotel rooms, closets, a balcony or two, a front porch, a back yard, a widow’s walk, a cellar, an attic, a garage. Behind one door a sick man in a hospital bed is really a crooner in a white dinner jacket at the Copacabana. Behind another an amnesiac impersonates a psychiatrist.

By writing I could become a different person. By merely changing the pronoun I could slip into a different time period, change my personality and profession, end fact, try fiction.

You’re about to go on a trip. There’s hardly time to pack a suitcase, and only in the train do you realize you are lacking the necessary documents. It’s as if you’re in the hall of mirrors. There are one hundred of you – one hundred possible lives – and someone is shooting at you. You have to get away, and down the chute you go. But there’s still one murder unaccounted for. In the courtroom, the celebrated lawyer on crutches cross-examines himself. In the war room they are fighting the last war.

You can escape from one room to another, and you will, you have no choice.


Escapism: I maintain that there is an element of escapism in all art, not just the espionage thrillers and noir movies to which I am admittedly addicted. During the ordeal, I shunned self-help books that talked about cancer as a “journey.” But encouraged by Stacey, my wife, I wrote every chance I could, in any venue, in longhand on my pocket pad or at the keyboard on my desk computer at home. What I wrote began as a journal and turned into a sort of cancer memoir, but an unconventional one that is full of stories, memories, dreams, songs, jokes, fictions, fantasies, speculations, confessions, protests, and religious meditations. I called it One Hundred Autobiographies: A Memoir, the title a gift from the late Mark Strand. I wanted to write a book that would please my readers, even those reluctant to read about a disease and the patient’s progress through it.

As Oscar Wilde recommended, I put on masks to uncover truths. I was a patient, also a pilgrim, and there were, of course, nights and days when the big subjects infiltrated my dreams. Certain dead people came back and conversed with me. I had memorable encounters with my mother, my father, Frank Sinatra, a French teacher I had in college, Perry Mason, Vivien Leigh in Waterloo Bridge, and Franklin D. Roosevelt, with whom I drank the vermouth-heavy martinis he enjoyed mixing and proudly served. One night I went to Beijing to cover a campaign speech by presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in which she declared that she was pregnant.
On my pillow as I slipped into sleep I would ask myself questions. Have I accomplished something of worth in my life? How lasting or, better, how evanescent is a reputation, an existence? I went over things that I did, or were done to me, and wondered whether I had behaved well. The news on television or the radio was relentless, ugly, dispiriting, often boring, and I checked the impulse to care, knowing my own approval or disapproval was of no consequence in most matters. But I knew, too, that my will to live was strong. I read Schopenhauer, the missing link preceding Nietzsche and Freud in the chain of thinkers apprehending the new reality. Schopenhauer got it right. Reason didn’t matter in the end. The will to live, expressed as a sexual drive, could overcome all restraint, moral or legal or familial. There was something optimistic about this, although Schopenhauer is generally thought to be a pessimist.

When I fought cancer, my will to live expressed itself when I wrote. Writing kept me alive. And thus, in addition to the journal entries and narratives that went into One Hundred Autobiographies, I wrote letters to the editor of a wide variety of magazines, ranging from the tabloids to Sports Illustrated, the New York Review of Books, the New York Times Book Review, and the Wall Street Journal. I wrote poems, articles, essays, publishing many, and I wrote a weekly column for The American Scholar, “Next Line, Please,” giving prompts and reviewing the poems that they provoked. I repeated to myself what Porgy says in the Gershwins’ great opera: “No use complaining.” Nor did I make any public statement revealing that I had cancer. While I didn’t keep it a secret, I told as few people as necessary. Why? Was it a matter of male reticence, stoicism? Maybe it was also a matter of the deep privacy that I value. Privacy of a sort is essential in the vale of soul-making. Here is a paradox that may apply to other writers of either sex. Much as we like to publish, we have recesses of the mind that we do not want to use a flashlight to illumine. If you are stricken with cancer, I believe that you must do whatever you can to get through the night – be it Jack Daniel’s or pot, poetry or Turner Classic Movies. It is only after the fact that you see things with clarity.

And as a survivor I can say this: the first and most important thing I believe is that God still has plans for me, and that is why I survived. That, and love, the love bestowed on me by my wife.

These days I wake up refreshed every day – even though I may ache from the handful of ailments I have as a result of the disease, the treatment I endured, or the imperatives of aging. Food tastes good, though I am not allowed to eat gluten or dairy products. Martinis have the tang I love, which they lost during the ordeal.


You ask how my poetry has evolved over the years, the many years since I began writing poems. That’s a tough question, and one I’m going to dodge, but I can say that the experience of cancer has deepened my love of the great poets of the past: Homer, Catullus, Shakespeare’s sonnets, Villon, Hölderlin, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Keats, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Whitman, Baudelaire, Emily Dickinson, Mayakovsky, Eliot, Marianne Moore, Auden. I have translated twenty-five of Baudelaire’s fifty prose poems (Spleen de Paris), because I cannot find a satisfactory translation more recent than Arthur Symons’s dated but beautiful renderings from 1905 or ’06. I am also translating a tremendous poem by Friedrich Hölderlin, “Bread and Wine.” It’s in nine parts; I’ve done a draft of the first seven. Hölderlin has also inspired me to invent an author, Madeleine Freitag, who was born in Zurich in 1969, studied at Heidelberg, and was decisively influenced by the great German Romantic poet. A recluse who lives in Kyoto and eschews all digital technology, she and I communicate by old-fashioned airmail, and she has entrusted me with translating her poems.

As the previous paragraph implies, I value the eclectic, do not fit neatly into one compartment, like to throw my voice, write both free and formal verse and do not feel I need to be either consistent or loyal to enthusiasms I may have outgrown. From my predilections, you may conclude, correctly, that I admire the strong, distinctive, sometimes reckless voice that James Schuyler, referring to Mayakovsky, called the “intimate yell.” I feel I am multiple persons. Borges and Pessoa, creators of pseudonyms and heteronyms, are models. From Machado de Assis, the nineteenth century Brazilian novelist, I got the idea of writing a narrative in multiple parts, each with its own title – a structure that allows for digressions and interruptions – necessary if you are going to lead multiple lives.



David Lehman is one of today’s foremost editors, literary critics, anthologists of contemporary American literature and poets. His latest book, One Hundred Autobiographies, was published in October 2019.

All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.