Dear Ben Lerner, Do We Really Have to Hate Poetry??

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It is really stretching definitions to call Ben Lerner’s The Hatred of Poetry a book since it is only 86 pages long, and I’m really getting away with a lot by including it on my summer reading list while all of you have read so many very much longer books, but I was so eager to read it especially with ModPo beginning in a week.

Lerner is a fascinating and very successful writer.  He’s a poet but may be better known these days for his novels, Leaving the Atocha Station and 10:04 (which I read earlier this summer), and he’s won a Fulbright, a Guggenheim, and the grandest of prizes, a MacArthur.  He is acutely aware of the tensions in the literary world surrounding poetry and its place in the contemporary artistic firmament.  His premise is that poetry elicits hatred and contempt because it seems to be unable to reach the kind of perfection people expect it to, but that the dislike for poetry can lead–and must lead–to a love for the possibilities that poetry opens up.

Lerner includes himself among the poetry haters.  His first experience with poetic transformation comes from having had to memorize a poem in high school, and he chooses Marianne Moore’s 1967 version of “Poetry” because it is very short and easy, he mistakenly thinks, to memorize:

“I, too, dislike it.

Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in

it, after all, a place for the genuine.”

Here is Lerner’s encounter with the slipperiness of a poet’s use of language, for it is the way Moore uses conjunctive adverbs and deliberately awkward choppiness that brings the poem its power and provides him with a starting place for his analytical ruminations–contempt leads a reader to reach for the “genuine,” the ideal of what a Poem can achieve in our minds through the understanding of its failure to be a mere object or collection of pretty images.

Poetry, Lerner argues, contains a sense of insufficiency.  Even the most lyrical of poems can’t ever reach the ideal, and he quotes Shelley: “the most glorious poetry that has ever been communicated to the world is probably a feeble shadow of the original conception of the poet.”  This is Plato’s contention, that since poetry can never reach the ideal, poetry and poets should be banned from the Republic for promoting false premises.  According to Lerner, the “fatal problem” with poetry is poems themselves.

And yet what brings Lerner back is what he calls the power of “Emily Dickinson’s dissonance”: “I think this is because Dickinson’s distressed meters and slant rhymes enable me to experience both extreme discord (although in Dickinson it’s eerie and controlled, nothing like McGonagall {a 19th century poet whose poem “The Tay Bridge Disaster” is widely proclaimed to be the worst poem ever written} and a virtuosic reaching for the music of the spheres.”  Several paragraphs later he discusses “I Dwell in Possibility” and the ambiguity of Dickinson’s punctuation and dashes which make each poem something that is both read as a poem and seen as a visual object, like a painting, a very keen insight into the duality of Dickinson’s presence on the page.

Lerner also discusses Whitman and the capacity of the Whitmanian “I” to include all: “Walt Whitman is himself a place for the genuine (note how this word refers back to the Marianne Moore poem that begins the book!), an open space or textual commons where American readers of the future can forge and renew their sense of possibility and interconnectedness.” Interestingly, Lerner goes on to discuss Whitman in context with Amiri Baraka who, in his poem “Someone Blew Up America,” excludes the kind of false “we” that politicians claim as their domain: “To suggest that Baraka’s ‘we’ is an attempt to speak for ‘all’ is therefore to repeat the dismissal of ‘our {people of color’s} history and contemporary reality.” He continues to discuss the work of pronouns in Claudia Rankine’s two books of poetry, “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric” and “Citizen: An American Lyric” which “announce in their common subtitles a tension between a national project and a personal one.” No poem can speak for all people, Lerner writes: “You can hate contemporary poetry–in any era–as much as you want for failing to realize the fantasy of universality, but the haters should stop pretending any poem ever successfully spoke for everyone.”

And here is the crux of Lerner’s premise: a poem can’t speak one thing to everyone, and that’s why people hate it, but the immensity of poetry is that it can speak an infinite multitude of images, ideas, and possibilities to one person, to each person. He ends with a beautiful thought: “All I ask the haters–and I, too, am one–is that they strive to perfect their contempt, even consider bringing it to bear on poems, where it will be deepened, not dispelled, and where, by creating a place for possibility and present absences (like unheard melodies), it might come to resemble love.”

This is an excellent companion to the reading of poetry and especially to the ten weeks of ModPo.  Lerner’s work defends poetry by “hating” it, and yet the reader is sure that his so-called hatred is a kind of back-handed love and admiration, the kind of amazement that a reader can have when a poem opens up into endless possibilities.


1 comments on “Dear Ben Lerner, Do We Really Have to Hate Poetry??”

  1. Hey one of my books was super short too! I am a short person, so I try not to judge short books- they can pack a lot of punch, like this one! 😉


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