The Hatred of Poetry: Ben Lerner’s book, in Two Posts
1. “I, too, dislike it”: Poems Doomed to Fail?
- “I dwell in Possibility,” “the thing with feathers”
[Before I begin to examine the exhibit under scrutiny, I should say that I’ve been writing and studying poems for over forty years and have found plenty that stimulate, provoke, surprise and nourish me every time I read them, but I add fewer poems to my private anthology every year because I find the new and newer new and newest new poems delightful and instructive less often than I used to. Some of this is laziness, some is due to an inertia that can accompany my age, some my resistance to techniques (especially involving the newly holy fragment) and varieties of poems that have never thrilled me but which seem in our less patient world to run rampant. Some of them are too easy, too feeble for my taste, and others are too demanding. The result of this dissatisfaction has been almost devastating for me, so much that I spent a substantial part of the first decade of this century concentrating on writing fiction to escape the many unpalatable but loudly acclaimed poems of those years. But in the end, I was not much soothed. After all, I make my living as an editor and teacher, and I have to confront new directions daily. I bite the bullet and occasionally get a surprising reward. Although I have not given up writing verses to write fictional paragraphs, as a close friend of mine did five or six years ago, I keep thinking I should. How’s that for a complicating notion to take to the writing desk when you’re trying to find a word with both the sound and the implications that you think a stanza needs or the key to make a closing line click shut with meaningful resonance?]
Ben Lerner fashions/assembles his 86-page essay/booklet The Hatred of Poetry (FSG, 2016) around the 1967 version of Marianne Moore’s poem “Poetry,” which is a radically whittled down revision of a delightful but less aesthetically radical poem of the same name from 1927. Both poems begin with the somewhat challenging, “I, too, dislike it,” and Lerner reaches back to Plato and beyond to explain that both those who know quite a lot about poetry and those who know very little are pretty much united in this hostile attitude. The gist of it is that (if you believe Shelley, Spenser, Keats and others who value grandiose claims about poems translating the actual to the ideal and the reverse) a substantial old school claims that poetry is somehow outside the realm of human knowing. It’s a feeling or light in the soul or mind, though no actual poems on a page live up to that goal. From conception to execution they fade, which is a bad thing . . . though not for me, who believes that execution and conception are intertwined, a trellis and vine arrangement, if the trellis were also growing. Poems, I think, I hope, come into being through careful cultivation – maybe fast, maybe slowly – but not in a magician’s or angel’s flash of light. Like “the news from Tunis,” the mystery can be grasped.
From page to page Lerner discusses how much better the “unheard melodies” are than the shoddy human productions, and I think he goes badly (and willfully) astray and askew in prosecuting this case. And so does he, sort of, for he admits, ten pages from the end of the essay, that the genre he’s been renouncing can “be funny or lovely or offer solace or courage or inspiration” and that the case he’s been making “doesn’t have much to say about good poems in all their variety.” It’s almost as if he’s stamped in 48 pt. letters over the last page: OR NOT!
But Lerner is convinced that two other considerations are more important: the age-old case for the weakness of mimesis, and why the general population says that poetry is useless or indecipherable or not real work or just what’s left over after a mortal gets through clumsily fiddling with a divine model. For him, “a poem is always a record of failure.” But a poem is not a record; its conception is likely foggy and fragmented, volcanic magma, and it comes into being gradually, a phrase at a time, a word at a time. When the writer in the process of revision feels the law of diminishing returns set in, s/he stops editing and asks what the poem is becoming, the nature of its semantic experience and the responses it invokes. When he judges that the process is done, that it is a product, a crafted result of ideas, plans, surprises, shortcomings, s/he locks it in (though not always “for keeps”) and moves toward the further refinement of varnishing, which can also throw her back to an earlier stage. It “begins in surprise and ends in delight” as some wag put it. In that respect the making resembles a dance, a sculpture, even many other “products” which are not considered artistic. This is the way most of the writers I know see a poem coming together and feed it. It’s too much an organic and unpredictable process to be called a “record.”
Lerner is also convinced that looking hard and long at A) an admittedly terrible poem (William Topaz [!] McGonagall’s justly obscure “The Tay Bridge Disaster”) and B) a poem mostly written in prose (by Claudia Rankine) tell us more about what poems aspire to and how they fail than anything like a widely admired poem by Yeats or Donne, Bishop or Heaney. He’s interested in Dickinson, but prefers the poems by her which explicitly address the kind of limitations he finds infecting all poems. There’s one other aspect of his essay that I want to explore, and I’ll do it now because it seems the most obvious importantly wrong direction of the piece.
A significant source of Lerner’s conviction that Philistine Q. Public hates poetry is rooted in Lerner’s contact with people to whom he announces he’s a poet. “Embarrassment, or suspicion, or anger” arise because, he believes, there are “tremendous social stakes.” People expect those who claim the title of poet to be able to do very special things with words, to conjure phrases that go beyond the mundane realm. But such cannot be delivered on demand, and the old poems are often linguistically too difficult for the speaker and hearer of contemporary American English-cum-textspeak, so resentment sets in quickly. Jim Dickey used to talk about this, about the suspicion or scorn he received from men on planes when he said he was a poet. But who brings this on? Those writers who can’t resist claiming poet as an honor, who half believe that travelers will be impressed by the profession (?) of poetry.
But why not take control of the awkward situation and work toward an understanding? Say, for instance, “I’m a teacher and a writer” (maybe an editor, too). Then more specific questions follow: What do you write? Are you published? How’s that work? Does it pay well? What led you to choose this path? These questions are part of a more directed dialogue, one that can go both ways and opens the door to say, “I write poetry, too” without seeming to throw the gauntlet down. To reveal to the “civilian” that you don’t claim poetry as a priestly or prophetic vocation is to seek common ground. It opens the opportunity to explain how poetry fits with rather than conflicts with being a husband, a Unitarian, a Democrat, a daughter, a juggler, a forger, a fisherman. The writer who hasn’t thought her/his way through this may just be an elitist who can’t wait to point to the laurel crown and desires the mantle as “remarkable,” badge of a “chosen one.” But after all, poetry has arisen from the world’s disadvantaged, as well as the highly lettered and degreed ones. Open the discussion with difference between the questioner and the writer, and you doom it to animosity. Play a different card, and exchange and understanding may follow. Just imagine the conversation that opens with this self-identification: “I’m a teacher who likes to fish, listen to jazz, write poems, play racket ball, visit art museums and read novels. I wanted to be a potter, but I was a disaster. An archeologist, but my undergrad college didn’t offer the major.” That just might get a different response from, “Poetry, I hated that stuff in school. Why can’t you guys just say what you mean?” Or something like, “I’m a poet and don’t know it.” When I was a callow/fallow young man, I asked Robert Penn Warren what subjects interested him as a poet, and he replied, “Why Rod, only those things which interest me as a man.” He knew that, even if poetry is your most important calling, it doesn’t have to be on your business card or stitched onto your shirt pocket. Maybe he also believed that poetry was a way to appreciate at least as much as a practice to be appreciated in itself.