by Margaret Kolb
Published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2016 | 86 pages
The Hatred of Poetry is not the first time Ben Lerner has explored the phenomenon of loathing verse. Lerner’s first novel Leaving the Atocha Station (2011), for instance, contains a memorable scene where the poet narrator encounters a character who unabashedly hates poetry. According to this unsympathetic interlocutor, there are exactly two kinds of poetry, “bad and worse.” Without skipping a beat, Lerner’s protagonist declares, “I, too, dislike it.” Ironically, this response is lifted verbatim from the first line of Marianne Moore’s famous poem titled “Poetry” (this is the shortened 1967 version):
I, too, dislike it.Reading it, however, with a perfectcontempt for it, one discovers init, after all, a place for the genuine.
Lerner’s new book, which is the writer’s first major critical monograph, takes this embedded but provocative allusion from the novel and explicates it in depth. The slim but pithy volume opens with a discussion of the Moore poem, and develops, over its course, Moore’s argument that poetic meaning always comes to us incompletely, and frequently in a state of tension over its status as poetry. In fact, despite its provocative title, The Hatred of Poetry explores the hatred of the form as but one extreme of a pendulum that swings between responses including discomfort and pleasure, confusion and understanding, hatred and love. Lerner’s text also explores the messy, often embarrassing encounter between poet and reader, which is a special case of the more general relation between poet and public at large. For Lerner, awkward encounters between those who read and write poetry and those who may denigrate poetry are attended by “tremendous social stakes.” Especially in the US, the ability to dismiss a poet or poem can signify no less than the question of who gets to speak for whom, and when, as well as of who gets to forge new possibilities for our language(s).
According to Lerner, poetry is, by its very nature, “an art hated from without and within.” That’s because it aspires to realize the ideal through language and metaphor, both decidedly human and imperfect tools bound to the real. “Poetry isn’t hard, it’s impossible,” Lerner declares, in an essay that may be the most important twenty-first-century specimen of the poetry polemic, a genre with deep historical roots in the dialogues of Plato’s Republic and, in English literature, Sir Philip Sidney’s “Defense of Poesy.” Specific poems can only approach the “genuine” asymptotically, as an approximation of the Poetry one imagines may be possible. Like Moore, or perhaps the Chilean poet and novelist Roberto Bolaño, who once wrote that poetry was “braver than anyone,” Lerner offers an exceptionally candid account of poetry—limits, potential, and all—in our time. Hatred at once adamantly defends the genre and its skeptics, and does so by necessity: poetry has always been a hermetic, marginal, eccentric occupation, frustratingly (“hatefully”?) inaccessible to many.
For those who have been monitoring Lerner’s work over the past decade-and-a-half, Hatred arrives as a welcome articulation of this writer’s poetics, and source of insight into the trajectory of Lerner’s career, in particular his apparent shift over the last few years from poetry to prose. A Brown MFA turned professor of English at Brooklyn College, Lerner began his literary career with three collections of poetry: The Lichtenberg Figures (2004), Angle of Yaw (2006), and Mean Free Path (2010). These were followed by two acclaimed semi-autobiographical novels, Leaving the Atocha Station (2011) and 10:04 (2014), which, along with a widely read short story published in The New Yorker (“The Golden Vanity,” 2012), earned Lerner his first minor literary celebrity. That fiction would be the genre where Lerner would earn his fame is a somewhat ironic development, given that he has always adamantly emphasized the centrality of poetry to all of his writings. Indeed, his novels not only focus on poet-protagonists, abandoning urgent prose projects (a thesis, a commissioned novel) to write obscure poetry against their better judgment. Both novels, moreover, frequently include, meditate upon, and at times even become poetry. The second half of 10:04, for example, is structured around a long poem the narrator is writing. With Hatred, however, Lerner finally makes explicit the relation between his fictional frames and his poetics.
Hatred performs a sort of critical pscyho-analysis of Lerner’s migration from poetry to fiction. It does so by showing how poetry differs from both pre-linguistic “reality” (provided such a thing exists) and other literary genres. For Lerner, the interplay between poetry and reality is always a negotiation. To take an experience from the world, and to transform it into a poem or a poetic image, will always involve compromise, and sometimes failure. By this logic, however, the slippage between poetry and prose fiction becomes not an insuperable genre boundary but a version of the original difficulty of successfully writing poetry—or anything, really—when one holds an impossible ideal as a standard. Poetry may be, after all, an imperfect abode for the genuine, but—as it exists on a continuum with prose—so, it follows, does prose. Which may explain why Lerner slips across the line between genres so easily. If poetry morphs into prose in his writings, or vice-versa, that is because both genres, as acts of representation, are equally distant from the ideals both poets and novelists alike imagine. With Hatred, the shape of Lerner’s career thus becomes more continuous than it otherwise might seem. Writing novels about poetry, instead of writing poetry itself, is only “selling out” insofar as any attempt to create a finite work of art sells out the ideal forms we might imagine to exist—mistakenly. Lerner’s explanation here thus resembles something like that of William Carlos Williams, another write who blurs the boundaries between poetry and prose, and who authorized himself to do so by arguing, “There is no confusion—only difficulties.”
Lerner’s primary argument begins with and builds upon a direct engagement with Plato’s famous assault on poets in The Republic, the earliest and perhaps the most famous denunciation of poetry in Western literature. Plato identified poetry’s inevitable departure from both its represented object(s) and the ideal, and was highly skeptical of it for this reason. Along with rhetoric, he considered poetry’s ability to “deform” the public’s sense of truth a threat to the Republic. A key post-Platonic touchstone for Lerner is Caedmon, the Anglo-Saxon poet. In a famous poem, Caedmon explains a time when, unable to provide a song for his companions by the fire, he goes to sleep and is visited in his dream by a divine presence who instructs him to sing. To the spirit in his dream, Caedmon finds it possible to issue wonderful verse. But when he awakens his song, however eloquent and pleasing to his audience, pales in comparison with that of his dream. This, for Lerner, is the perfect metaphor for the struggle all poets face: the problem of writing imperfect, specific poems, when the promise of the ideal Poem, though unattainable, looms nevertheless in the imagination.
Poetry for Lerner is impossible, and our discomfort with this fact is at the root of our experience—and, at times, our hatred—of the form. His next wager takes on a bigger risk: if bursting ideals are both the problem and domain of poetry, then could the lowest poetic specimens have something to teach us about how the genre works? Departing from Plato, Lerner takes on an experiment, attempting an exceptionally detailed explication of a poem he identifies as the worst in the language, “The Tay Bridge Disaster” (1883) by Scottish poet William Topaz McGonagall. This poem attempts to memorialize the collapse of a railway bridge in 1879, but whatever solemnity it aspired to is marred, in Lerner’s reading, by its “horribleness,” which is “evident even to those of us who don’t read poetry.” Lerner provides an astonishing—and humorous—reading of the poem’s many and egregious failures: its meter is a “prosodic train wreck,” its diction “embarrassing” and hardly serious enough to memorialize a disaster in which scores lost their lives, its rhymes an affair of “sheepishly hedging.”
Admittedly, an aura of privilege looms over the basic gesture of The Hatred of Poetry. This is, for the record, the third book in which Lerner refers to his (or his fictional protagonist’s) elite Brown University education through conspicious euphemism, as his time “in Providence.” But just when it appears Lerner might prefer to dwell in the abstract debates of Plato’s Republic, perhaps as temporary relief from the messy realities of our own troubled American Republic, Hatred pivots and embraces an unexpected political responsibility. This is an unprecedented move for Lerner, whose novels have largely dealt with characters who evade their historical and political obligations as Americans. Whitman has long been one of Lerner’s self-declared masters, and Whitmanian rhetorical inclusivity, with its radical democracy and form-breaking irreverence, provides Lerner with a means to rethink the ethical stakes of his theory. The discussion occurs amid Lerner’s compelling engagement of George Packer’s skepticism, in the New Yorker blog, of President Obama’s decision to reinstate a poetry reading as part of the 2009 inauguration ceremony, choosing Elizabeth Alexander to compose the verse. Parker essentially complains that inaugural poetry makes little sense in our time, due to the fact that modern American poets learn in their MFA programs to pursue hyper specialized yet simultaneously marketable voices rather than anything like Moore’s broken poetic “genuine.” To embrace such a poet as a unifying representative is, for Packer, impossible. Lerner strongly disagrees. He finds Packer’s dismissal to be misguided on the basis that all poetic labor represents compromise, and any poetic speaker is always going to be subjective, and thus can only ever offer a limited perspective. The notion of a bygone Golden Age of poets who spoke for everyone is, for Lerner, pure fantasy. Lerner demonstrates this by showing the power of two Whitmanesque prose poems by Claudia Rankine. One of these portrays a black person misidentified as a thug because of race and later mistreated by a trauma counselor. The frank discomfort Lerner expresses upon inhabiting such a speaker’s perspective as a privileged white male—discomfort because the very pronouns of the prose-poem force him into subject positions he cannot readily, or would not like to, imagine—illustrates exactly why the rhetorical limits of poetry should be embraced and make explicit, rather than condemned and concealed.
Because of the political turn that occurs midway through Hatred, Lerner’s most profound observations may belong more to the realm of rhetoric, or public discourse, than they do to poetics. The book ends with two meditations on the real-life “poetry” he has experienced: a childhood visit to the consumerist cornucopia of the Topeka, Kansas Hypermart and the novelty of becoming distracted by a police helicopter in the distance while attending an outdoor play in Central Park. These are lovely, idiosyncratic moments, although on the heels of the Obama/Rankine discussion, it can seem as if attempting to end on the high note of a Whitmanian poetic pluralism risks inadvertently concluding on a poetics of mundane postmodern privilege. In a way, the anecdotes with which Lerner concludes feel plucked from another project; they are like miniature David Foster Wallace essays grafted onto an otherwise dense, largely historical polemic. But the genre confusion here may very well be deliberate, and taken as a whole, contribute to Hatred’s project of outlining a poetics admirably attentive to voice, voicelessness, and representation both literary and political. Ultimately, Lerner’s Hatred of Poetry successfully diagnoses the “hatred of poetry” as an instance of one of what literary critic Sianne Ngai has called literature’s “ugly feelings”—that is to say an affective literary paradigm or mood, such as envy, or anxiety. Though we may prefer not to speak about such “ugly” matters, and may wish we could avoid them all together, it is all the more imperative for these very reasons.
Kevin C. Moore is a lecturer in the Writing Program at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He earned his PhD in English from UCLA in 2013. His scholarly and creative work has appeared in journals including Arizona Quarterly, Composition Studies, Souciant, as well as several edited collections in literature and rhetoric. In addition to UCSB, he has taught writing, critical thinking, and literature at the University of Arizona, Loyola Marymount University, the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine, and the UCLA English Department. His research interests include nineteenth- and twentieth-century American literature, writing studies, and the rhetoric of creativity. He is currently at work on a novel about American privilege titled The Dog Massacres.