The poet David Lehman, most recently the author of Yeshiva Boys, writes about the artistry and joy of American song in A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs. Though not officially poets, the great lyricists more than lived up to Ira Gershwin’s ideal of “rhymed conversation.” In the passage below, Lehman imagines a conversation with Gershwin which touches on poets and lyricists, Sinatra and Robert Frost; the excerpt is followed by a cento he wrote to reproduce the medley he hears when crossing downtown Manhattan—the cento being “a poem consisting of lines lifted from other poems,” he explains, “in this case the titles of songs.”
As I did with everybody, I asked Ira about Sinatra. Ira recalled the time Sinatra phoned him to see if he would change “The Man That Got Away,” written for Judy Garland in A Star Is Born, to “The Gal That Got Away” so he could sing it. Usually such opposite-sex versions of songs don’t work, Ira said, but this was an exception. Sinatra pointed out that all you needed to do was change “man” to “gal,” “his” to “her,” and fix the ending. True enough, so I obligingly improvised an ending for him: instead of “a one-man woman” I wrote “a lost, lost loser looking for / The gal that got away.” Sinatra liked the alliteration. I thought his recording was excellent, Ira concluded. But such a case of “sex transilience” is rare.
Later, I thought about Ira’s point and connected it with something I’d heard from the poet Carolyn Kizer, who was a teenager at the height of the Sinatra craze in the early 1940s. According to Carolyn, what the girls saw in Sinatra was his vulnerability. He had an androgynous side. If he hadn’t been so thin, would the girls have loved him so much? Not on your life. He brought out the mother in them. I don’t say that in singing to them, he was singing to his mother, or to his mother in them, but androgynous he was, Carolyn said. I thought about this when Ira brought up the “sex transilience” that allowed Sinatra to sing a Judy Garland song. Sinatra was always doing that. “The Girl Next Door.” “I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good.” A lot of guys might have shied away from singing a girl’s song, like “I Could Have Danced All Night” from My Fair Lady. Sinatra made it a featured piece of his 1960s concert repertoire.
And by the way, said Ira, the title of that song is “The Man That Got Away”—”that,” not “who.” And it’s “I Got Rhythm,” not “I’ve got rhythm.” Got that? Yes, I did, and I cite it as evidence of Ira’s astonishing attention to minute detail, just as the absent comma in the first line of stanza four of “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” gives evidence of Frost’s expertise. (In “The woods are lovely, dark and deep,” there should be no serial comma after dark, as if “dark and deep” were twin halves of one adverbial phrase modifying “lovely.”) You see, Ira said, the lyricist’s task is different from a poet’s, and may be more difficult. It’s the task of “fitting words mosaically to music already composed.” I nodded my head. Having to do that with a Gershwin tune like “My One and Only” or “Fascinating Rhythm” might be the most challenging task of all, I said. And “mosaically” is such a great pun given the influence of your Jewish background. I thanked him for the word. “Don’t mention it,” he said, which I took to mean “you’re welcome,” though later when I thought about it I wondered whether he meant that phrase literally.
Poem in the Manner of a Jazz Standard
I’ve got five dollars and my love to keep me warm
I’ve got the world on a string and you under my skin
You’re the cream in my coffee and driving me crazy
You couldn’t be cuter and go to my head
Love is here to stay and just around the corner
Where or when I take my sugar to tea
All I do is dream of you, all of you,
You took advantage of all of me
Don’t blame me or worry ’bout me
It had to be you and might as well be spring
Let’s get away from it all, fall in love, face the music
And dance with me, let’s do it
I got rhythm and the right to sing the blues
She didn’t say yes she’s funny that way
I believe in you were never lovelier
My melancholy baby my shining hour
David Lehman is the series editor for the yearly volume The Best American Poetry; visit him and the series at bestamericanpoetry.com
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