“On The Hatred of Poetry

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The Hatred of Poetry
By Ben Lerner
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 86pp., $12)

I too dislike it”: in his witty and appealing new book—more accurately an extended essay of 80+ pages—Ben Lerner puts forth a very simple if provocative thesis: we hate poetry because no individual poem can measure up to the ideal of poetry as something exalted and beyond human reach:

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” (p. 8).

Lerner tells us that he has derived this thesis from his mentor, the late Allen Grossman, whose dicta the author seems to take as incontrovertible. He might also have cited Pierre Bourdieu, who has long made the case for poetry having unique cultural capital precisely because it is the one art form entirely disinterested so far as monetary reward is concerned. Unlike novelists, dramatists, film makers, or visual artists, poets in our time cannot make a living from their writing. Consequently, “poetry” is considered something noble and elevated—above the fray-, and yet, as Lerner puts it, “the poet is a tragic figure. The poem is always a record of failure” in that it cannot live up to the poet’s own expectations (p. 8).

Lerner’s thesis has evidently delighted readers of The Hatred of Poetry: most reviewers have been ecstatic in their praise for the book’s wit and charm. Today, when, by all statistical accounts, poetry has an increasingly shrinking audience, critics seem to have rejoiced at Lerner’s rationalization for their own malaise when confronted by poetry. After all, as the author points out, the paradox is that in our youth we all feel capable of expressing ourselves “poetically”—“’You’re a poet and you don’t even know it,’ Mr. X. used to tell us in second grade” (p. 10)—but to grow up, in our culture, is to get over this childish impulse and to do something “serious” and “worthwhile.” The poet in our society is thus “an embarrassment and accusation” (p. 13).

It all sounds quite reasonable and persuasive, and Lerner gives a bravura reading of a truly “bad” poem, William Topaz McGonagall’s “The Tay Bridge Disaster of 1879” to show the wide gap between the reality and the dream. But the appealingly familiar manner and charming candor with which Lerner recalls his Topeka, Kansas childhood or evokes the wisdom of such critical eminences grises as Guy Davenport, should not fool us. His argument is, in fact, pure sophistry, cleverly designed to make light of his own uncertainty about the value of the poetry he has composed, and to explain—to himself as to the reader– why he, for one, turned to the novel as a more satisfactory mode of creative expression.

Consider Lerner’s claim that his own conception of poetry derives from Plato, who “concluded that there was no place for poetry in the Republic because poets are rhetoricians who pass off imaginative projections as the truth and risk corrupting the citizens of the just city” (p. 17). What Plato really said was that poetry is so powerful, so irresistible in its imaginative transformation of the actual world, that its very force would distract those being trained to be the Guardians of the ideal Republic–men who must be rational and sober. Music is assigned the same fate as poetry: both are given special honor precisely by Socrates’s recognition of their uncanny power over the human mind. Again, Lerner wants to make the case that Philip Sidney, in The Defense of Poesy, which makes such a remarkable case for poetry’s unique value, cannot really defend the poems he encountered; indeed, writes Lerner, Sydney “doesn’t worry much about specific poems, which often suck” (p. 21). A very cute formulation, perhaps, but merely frivolous, given that the term poetry, in the late sixteenth century when Sidney wrote the Defense, referred to all imaginative literature, by no means just the lyric, and Sidney gives countless examples from Homer, Virgil, the Roman poets, and Chaucer that testify to poetic genius. As for later poets, from Alexander Pope to, say, Baudelaire, the sense of inadequacy Lerner talks of hardly seems to be an issue.

Perhaps, then, it is our age that is at fault; perhaps mass culture in the age of the internet is inimical to lyric poetry. But Lerner does not accept this claim either.

He has some fine pages on Whitman, the American poet who sums up the contradictions The Hatred of Poetry emphasizes: the irreconcilable conflict, in Whitman’s own lyric, between the desire to be individual and yet to be universal—to speak for the masses. But instead of developing this point, he shifts to a consideration of the early twentieth-century avant-garde, with its demand that poetry play a political role, and then takes up George Packer’s critique in The New Yorker of Elizabeth Alexander’s ability—or, for that matter, any contemporary poet’s ability– to compose a meaningful poem for Barak Obama’s Inauguration in 2009. Packer believes our current moment is not propitious and that Alexander is not up to the task; Lerner, however, wonders whether the poet was ever up to such a task. And then—more padding—he devotes almost ten of his 80-plus pages to critiquing an essay by Mark Edmonson called “Poetry Slam: Or, The Decline of American Verse” in the July 2013 issue of Harper’s Magazine. Edmundson is making the case for the inability of most contemporary poetry to rise above its often petty particulars: he thinks poetry has deteriorated in recent decades. Again, Lerner doesn’t so much disagree with Edmundson’s comments on individual poets, as he contends the problem of poetry as truth-telling has always existed. And he now devotes another ten pages to Claudia Rankine’s poetry, which confronts the problem of how a black person living in a racist society like ours can produce lyric. Lerner argues that Citizen (2015), written in what looks like prose, “would baffle Keats,” who would dismiss it as not poetry at all.  But Rankine’s book, Lerner argues, can be understood as “American lyric,” given the complexity of its address (the shift from first to second person), and its use of the “virgule”, the “/”, as “the irreducible mark of poetic virtuality” (72).  

By this point, Lerner is busy justifying a particular contemporary text and seems to have forgotten all about the original question as to why we “hate” poetry. Indeed, all Lerner can safely say in his concluding pages is that there is such a thing as the poetic impulse—and it is an impulse he himself honors and celebrates, even as its realization always falls short of the mark.

The Hatred of Poetry is engaging and fun to read, but its argument, shaky as it is, has been made by page 20 or so, and the rest is filler, even if often amusingly intimate filler like “(I just got off the phone with my friend, the poet and critic Aaron Kunin—also a student, not coincidentally, of Grossman’s. . . ).” (p. 31). Or “a decade ago James Longenbach reported there were more than three hundred thousand websites devoted to poetry” (p. 54). I happen to know both these poet-critcs, but for the larger audience Lerner wishes to reach, the name-dropping seems merely cute.

The real question is why The Hatred of Poetry has been such a publishing success. Perhaps it is that Lerner shows himself at once au courant, able to discuss rhyme and meter, image and syntax with great aplomb, even if, at the same time, he gives the reader permission to be a bit philistine, to adopt the populist position that—yes, yes—the poetry of Emily Dickinson is wonderful, but, on the whole, the poetic vocation is too thankless, and anyway who, these days, reads poems? In media-speak, after all, literature” means the novel, and if Ben Lerner, himself renowned not for his poetry but for his two acclaimed novels, admits that “poems” cannot reach the status of Poetry, well, then, it must be OK to ignore the stuff. The reviewer heaves a sigh of relief: finally, a book about poetry that is actually entertaining!

Meanwhile, I have been reading two collections of letters that came out just at the same time as Lerner’s The Hatred of Poetry: Volume 4 of Samuel Beckett Letters (1969-89) and the Selected Letters of John Cage. In both cases—and how different these two writers are!—the emphasis, far from being an attempt to define what poetry is or could be, is on practical detail. Whether to remove the character “Auditor” from Not I? How David Tudor should perform Cage’s own Indeterminacy? The artist’s vocation is hard work and there are daily decisions to be made. Can one devote one’s life to literature but “hate” one of its basic modes? The question, Cage would say, is falsely posed: “Avoid a polar situation.”