The Hatred of Poetry
By Ben Lerner
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 86pp., $12)
Ben Lerner’s The Hatred of Poetry is a slim book with a husky premise: “The fatal problem with poetry: poems.” This is Lerner’s first book since winning a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship in 2015 for his two widely celebrated novels. It shows. The Hatred of Poetry, which helpfully includes marginal glosses on nearly all of its 83 pages of text, reads like a virtuosic barstool rant by a precocious freshman whose only failing is never having seen the inside of a room he wasn’t the smartest person in. The argument of the book goes roughly as follows: (1.) True Poetry is a spotless abstraction of which every real poem is a contemptible travesty, (2.) meanwhile, all of us share, as an innate condition of our humanity, a subconscious love for True Poetry, a love that (3.) gives rise to a bitter widespread hatred of all the real poems that roam the earth cheapening True Poetry’s good name. In its way it’s a fine theory. It would certainly go a ways toward explaining the bitter, widespread hatred of poetry one observes in the world today. But as several reviewers have already noted, no one but Lerner seems to observe such a hatred. A more accurate title might have been The Indifference toward Poetry, or perhaps The Dislike of Poets. Still, Lerner is on to something, even if it isn’t the thing he thinks he’s on to.
“Poetry isn’t hard,” Lerner tells us, “it’s impossible.” The quip has been cited in many reviews of The Hatred of Poetry, in part I suspect because Lerner treats it with such solemnity, as if it were a devastating paradox. And yet, any poet who has graduated from high school has already heard this same complaint scores of times in nearly as many phrasings. It is a standard craftsman’s gripe. Beckett famously says, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Valéry says, “A poem is never finished, it is only abandoned.” Jarrell says, “A poet is a man who manages, in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, to be struck by lightning five or six times.” Art is long, life is short. For a poet, “Poetry isn’t hard, it’s impossible,” is boilerplate gallows humor, equivalent to Shit happens, or Men: can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em. Witness, though, the mournful reverence with which Lerner rehearses the old wisdom:
Poetry arises from the desire to get beyond the finite and the historical—the human world of violence and difference—and to reach the transcendent or divine. You’re moved to write a poem, you feel called upon to sing, because of that transcendent impulse. But as soon as you move from that impulse to the actual poem, the song of the infinite is compromised by the finitude of its terms.
Lerner is so well-spoken he gets taken in by his own rhetoric. Like so much of The Hatred of Poetry, the above passage is persuasively and elegantly written, but its basic goofiness becomes plain if one restates it in slightly blunter terms:
Poetry comes from the wish to do an impossible thing. When you write a poem, it’s because of that impossible thing you wish to do. But as soon as you actually try to do the impossible thing—by writing a poem—you can’t, because it’s impossible.
One gets the feeling that if Lerner had been in King Solomon’s shoes, he would have had that baby cut in half just to be safe. According to his morbid outlook, poetry is forever being tarnished as an art form simply by being practiced by anyone at all, even—as he frequently reminds us—by its the very best practitioners:
Our contempt for any particular poem must be perfect, be total, because only a ruthless reading that allows us to measure the gap between the actual and the virtual will enable us to experience, if not a genuine poem—no such thing—a place for the genuine, whatever that might mean.
Lerner is playing here with the argument of Marianne Moore’s famous poem, “Poetry,” which in the 1967 version reads in its entirety: “I, too, dislike it. / Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in / it, after all, a place for the genuine.” Lerner would have us believe that “any particular poem” spoils the abstract promise of True Poetry and serves at best as a bracing reminder of its disincarnate purity. Any particular poem? Philosophically, the argument is digestible enough. The difference between the real and the ideal is apparent to anyone who’s ever read a Cliff’s Notes summary of the Allegory of the Cave, not to mention anyone who’s ever wanted anything he didn’t get. But a glance at, say, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 proves Lerner’s pouting claim that there are no genuine poems to be, if not logically insupportable, then obviously silly. And surely one can’t seriously claim there is “no such thing” as “a genuine poem” when one speaks the same language as the person who wrote “Caesar’s I am, / And wild for to hold, though I seem tame,” and the person who wrote, “even and intrepid come / The tender boots of night to home,” and the person who wrote, “the marble eyelids are not wet: / If it could weep, it could arise and go.” But Lerner is drawn less to the pleasures of reading poetry than to those of writing about it. I’m reminded of those old grade school word problems in which one had to determine after a series of additions and subtractions how many apples were left in a basket. As a rule, if one ended up with a negative number of apples, then one could be sure that one had done one’s math wrong. In The Hatred of Poetry, Lerner ends up with a negative number of apples and concludes that apples don’t exist. He has presumably forgotten that all those cranky truisms about how brutally difficult (or seemingly impossible!) it is to write poetry take as a given that people write it all the same. He tells us, “I remember first reading Plato at the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library and feeling poetry must be a powerful art if the just city depended on its suppression.” But you don’t spend weeks, months, or years refining a sonnet because you have it on good authority from Plato that poetry is powerful. You do it because you once read a sonnet by Donne that cut you to the pith. Good writing does not feed on critical loathing but on readerly joy.
Lerner, though, understands poetry the way a dictionary understands diction. When he says things like, “The hatred of poetry is internal to the art, because it is the task of the poet and poetry reader to use the heat of that hatred to burn the actual off the virtual like fog,” he shows himself to be the most miserly of prescriptivists. He does not want to find a vocabulary that fits his reality. He wants to find a reality that fits his vocabulary. Take this passage from the closing pages:
I’m asking you to locate your memory of that early linguistic instability, of language as a creative and destructive force. I have done the reading, and the reading suggests that we always experience this power as withdrawing from us, or we from it—if we didn’t distance from this capacity it would signal our failure to be assimilated into the actual, adult world, i.e., we would be crazy. Our resentment of that falling away from poetry takes the form (among other forms) of contempt for grown-up poets and for poems; poets, who, by their very nature, accuse us of that distance, make it felt, but fail to close it.
The trouble with this stuff is not that it’s vague or esoteric or presumptuous. The trouble is it simply rings false. I understand what Lerner is saying, I just have no idea what he’s talking about. Contrast Lerner’s vatic pronouncement with this more plainspoken account of an old poetry lover’s ambivalence:
Is it not absurd to say that one loves poetry? To say that is to say that one loves all poetry—as indiscriminate a love as the love of all women. Yet it is reasonable to prefer all women to horses. I prefer all bad poems to all good sociological tracts.
This is Allen Tate, responding in 1965 to an earlier version of the same Marianne Moore poem that Lerner takes as his personal mantra. Tate touches the nerve precisely. The ornery dislike so many of us (I, too) feel sometimes toward poetry is neither an awe of the poetic ideal nor a rage against its reality. It is instead an admiration for a few great poems and a concomitant disappointment with innumerable bad ones. Lerner gets this backwards. Dislike for poems doesn’t arise from a love of poetry. Dislike for poetry arises from a love of poems.
Happily, though, Lerner is at his best when he is talking about real poems and the real poets who wrote them. There are five to whom he gives substantial consideration: John Keats, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, William Topaz McGonagall, and Claudia Rankine. Lerner is a thoughtful and attentive reader, and he marks in these five poets’ work—across different subjects, forms, and eras—a certain consistency of theme. This theme lies parallel to that of the book as a whole, but it is founded on poems, not poetics, and so it feels discovered rather than contrived. From the poems of these five poets, Lerner draws out a recurring dream of a more perfect world. In McGonagall, a famously terrible poet, this dream is suggested through a sort of happy fault:
by hammering away at McGonagall’s extreme failure here, I find myself implying a poem that could do something like the following: create a rhythm at once recognizably collective (because using the framework of inherited prosody) and irreducibly individual (because McGonagall’s management of that framework would be expressive of his specific poetic voice), a rhythm that therefore enacts what the poem attempts to describe—the integration of individual (lost) lives into a human community that persists across time.
At last, Lerner is talking about what poets try to do to their readers and how they try to do it. In Dickinson, he notes how subtle alignments and near-misses of meter, rhyme, diction, syntax, and typography work to stir in the reader a longing for a truer harmony than the poem itself provides. In Whitman and Rankine, he observes the way a prosy line and a capacious or ambiguous point of view can achieve a lyric effect while bringing attention to the very absence of lyric technique. In Keats, Lerner attends closely both to sound and to silence: “even in Keats’ most mellifluous odes, he describes an ideal music the poems themselves cannot make audible.” He cites an illustrative passage from “Ode on a Grecian Urn”:
Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone.
To Lerner’s delight, Keats here invokes something like a divine Poetry that exceeds the possibilities of any merely human poem. Lerner would seem to have found vindication for his anti-poetical argument in the very flower of the English lyric tradition. But these lines are excerpted from a much longer poem, and the impossible music Keats describes takes place within a larger vision of a lifeless, aesthetically pristine fantasia depicted on the titular Grecian urn. This artificial vista is one in which felt reality is replaced by a frozen ideal from which “all breathing human passion” has been banished. In the very same stanza in which Keats praises the unheard melodies of which Lerner is so enamored, he also offers consolation to one of the inanimate figures on the urn. “Do not grieve,” he tells the painted lover who can never kiss his painted beloved, “She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss, / For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair.” The lover, the beloved, the melodies, and the melodists are all, to steal a phrase from Alice Sebold, trapped in a perfect world.
This is the perfect world of Lerner’s “ideal Poem.” It is a place where nothing is broken, nothing is ugly, everyone is happy, and no one ever dies. In his reading of Dickinson, Lerner makes this dream explicit: “we feel the distance between the writing of this poem on earth and whatever passes for Poetry in heaven.” As Lerner has it, this feeling is what reveals the poem’s failure as Poetry, specifically “because meter and rhyme are in tension at the end of the poem.” He is not just giving Dickinson a hard time. In fact, he praises her for being in the know: “Great poets as different as Keats and Dickinson express their contempt for merely actual poems by developing techniques for virtualizing their own compositions—by dissolving the actual poem into an image of the Poem literary form cannot achieve.” Here Lerner has strayed far enough beyond anything real that he has once again stopped making sense. But that feeling he identified earlier? The feeling of “the distance between” what we have and what we could have? Between what is real and what is wished for? That is the feeling poetry evokes. Not failed, false, non-“genuine” poetry. Poetry. That feeling is the thing that is not hard but impossible to inspire. That feeling is the ambition of the art that’s longer than life. That feeling is what happens when a poet gets struck by lightning. By contrast, Lerner’s “Poetry in heaven,” which does not suffer from any tension between meter and rhyme, between sign and truth, between reach and grasp—what that poetry lacks is precisely what makes real poetry moving. Lerner is right to say that such an ideal poetry would be impossible. He’s just wrong to say it would be poetry.
“In a dream your verses can defeat time,” Lerner muses in one of his reveries on the unattainable promise of True Poetry, “your words can shake off the history of their usage, you can represent what can’t be represented…” It may be his most telling mistake. Words are not definition-bearing gadgets that have been hobbled by “the history of their usage.” Words are the history of their usage. Unlike numbers, they claim no a priori value. They are from nowhere else but here. Designing a poem for an ahistorical paradise would be like designing a wheel for a frictionless plane. It wouldn’t work perfectly because it wouldn’t work at all. Poetry, after all, is not the thing we ache for but can never have. Poetry is how we name the ache.