David Lehman grew up the son of European Holocaust refugees in Manhattan's northernmost neighborhood of Inwood. He attended Stuyvesant High School and Columbia University, and Cambridge University in England on a Kellett Fellowship. He later received a Ph.D. in English from Columbia, where he was Lionel Trilling's research assistant. Lehman's poem "The Presidential Years" appeared in The Paris Review No. 43 (Summer, 1968) while he was a Columbia undergraduate. His books of poetry include Yeshiva Boys (November 2009), When a Woman Loves a Man (2005), The Evening Sun (2002), The Daily Mirror (2000), and Valentine Place (1996), all published by Scribner. Princeton University Press published Operation Memory (1990), and An Alternative to Speech (1986). He collaborated with James Cummins on a book of sestinas, Jim and Dave Defeat the Masked Man (Soft Skull Press, 2006), and with Judith Hall on a book of poems and collages, Poetry Forum (Bayeux Arts, 2007). Lehman has edited The Oxford Book of American Poetry (Oxford University Press, 2006), The Best American Erotic Poems: From 1800 to the Present (Scribner, 2008), and Great American Prose Poems: From Poe to the Present (Scribner, 2003), among other anthologies. He has written six nonfiction books, including, most recently, A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs (Nextbook, 2009, for which he received an ASCAP Deems Taylor award from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers.
In an interview published in Smithsonian Magazine, Lehman discusses the artistry of the great lyricists: “The best song lyrics seem to me so artful, so brilliant, so warm and humorous, with both passion and wit, that my admiration is matched only by my envy ... these lyricists needed to work within boundaries, to get complicated emotions across and fit the lyrics to the music, and to the mood thereof. That takes genius.”
Lehman’s other books of criticism include The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets (Doubleday, 1998), which was named a "Book to Remember 1999" by the New York Public Library; The Big Question (1995); The Line Forms Here (1992) and Signs of the Times: Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul de Man (1991). His study of detective novels, The Perfect Murder (1989), was nominated for an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America. A new edition of The Perfect Murder appeared in 2000. In 1994 he succeeded Donald Hall as the general editor of the University of Michigan Press’s Poets on Poetry series, a position he held for twelve years. With Star Black, Lehman originated and was co-director of the famed KGB Bar Monday night poetry series and co-editor of The KGB Bar Book of Poems (HarperCollins, 2000). Lehman’s work has been translated into sixteen languages, including Spanish, Russian, French, Polish, Chinese, and Mongolian.
Lehman is series editor of The Best American Poetry (Scribner), which he initiated in 1988. Books Lehman edited in the 1980s include Ecstatic Occasions, Expedient Forms: 65 Leading Contemporary Poets Select and Comment on Their Poems (1987; expanded, 1996), James Merrill, Essays in Criticism (with Charles Berger, 1983), and Beyond Amazement: New Essays on John Ashbery (1980). He has written on a variety of subjects for journals ranging from the New York Times, the Washington Post, Newsweek, and The Wall Street Journal to The American Scholar, The Atlantic, Smithsonian and Art in America. He has taught in the graduate writing program of the New School in New York City since the program's inception in 1996 and has served as poetry coordinator since 2003. In an interview with Tom Disch in the Cortland Review Lehman addresses his great variety of poetic styles: “I write in a lot of different styles and forms on the theory that the poems all sound like me in the end, so why not make them as different from one another as possible, at least in outward appearance? If you write a new poem every day, you will probably have by the end of the year, if you’re me, an acrostic, an abecedarium, a sonnet or two, a couple of prose poems, poems that have arbitrary restrictions, such as the one I did that has only two words per line.”
Lehman has been awarded fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Ingram Merrill Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts, and received an award in literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Writer's Award. Lehman divides his time between Ithaca, New York, and New York City. He is married to Stacey Harwood.