September 07, 2016
LITERARY CRITICISM THE HATRED OF POETRY By BEN LERNER
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016
by Robert Detman
Verse for the Averse: a Review of Ben Lerner’s The Hatred of Poetry
The health of an art form is the fortress which invites attack, and is often the precursor of proclamations of its demise. Assessing the forces against contemporary poetry, award winning poet and MacArthur genius Ben Lerner, in his book length essay The Hatred of Poetry, offers a critique and a defense of poetry, as well as a rebuke to those who would herald poetry’s decline. The expansive essay offers a welcome discourse on contemporary poetry with Lerner admitting, with some winsomeness, that he has no love for the discipline himself.
Lerner takes on cultural commentators from George Packer in the New Yorker, to Mark Edmundson, in Harper’s, who in their own polemics have slighted contemporary poetry’s relevance for a mass public. For roughly half the long essay, Lerner thrills in going after these figures who want to limit the notion of the poet to something like the anachronistic voice of a prelapsarian America. These are the critics whom, Lerner explains, believe Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass to be “a kind of secular bible for American Democracy.”
Lerner attempts to disabuse this strain of Whitman centric culture of its shallow calculus. At the same time, by abandoning stale and limiting notions of American poetry and poetics in general, Lerner reveals he’s an ur-Feminist who embraces the no less beloved Emily Dickinson and her emphatic dashes, as well as the subtleties of Claudia Rankine and her consciously mislabeled “lyric poetry”. Built into Lerner’s critique is the intensive formal analysis of several poems, including a psychological survey of Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” and a merciless deconstruction of William Topaz McGonagall's feeble "The Tay Bridge Disaster."
Having grown up in the shadow of the “politically correct” culture wars—he was born in 1979–Lerner embodies a generous spirit and openness in his essay, as he attempts to update how poetry should be received. Curiously, though Lerner feels uncomfortable with the muddying of poetry with politics, so many of his examples bear out how poetry and politics seem inextricably fused, while the whimsy of the book’s title points at more glancing personal issues.
Highlighting the hypocrisy of Mark Edmundson’s insistence in Harper’s that contemporary poets should speak with a universal voice, Lerner defends the idiosyncrasies of individuality. “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.”
As in his poetry, Lerner infuses the autobiographical into his essay. He admits to making the uncomfortable admission to semi-strangers that he is a poet, and then confronting their skepticism (his dentist narrows his eyes at Lerner’s profession, revealing that the man wouldn’t recognize a poem if it was in front of him). One might surmise that the embarrassment Lerner faces is at not merely being a poet, but an eminently successful one—try explaining that to your dentist.
Like a bad conscience, the skeptic’s voice peppers the essay with asides: “Couldn’t you get a real job?” These weaken Lerner’s argument, potentially undermining them with too much self-deprecation. “I, too, dislike it,” Lerner says, to quote the many times quoted Marianne Moore, in regards to poetry. Rather than buttressing his argument, this musing functions as if a reminder to himself to not take this all so seriously.
Lerner is a Rock Star of the literary world. And by the standards of poetic renown, he is on par with the figures he discusses. His unprecedented popularity as a novelist, and as a legitimate, highly lauded, poet, makes him unique. To use a parlance more befitting of pop stars, he’s a “triple threat.” Lerner might want to speak for everyone, and here the poet as populist becomes the voice of poetry nation, the village explainer. Yet Lerner’s discussion can read as if it is more academic than populist. Still, Lerner is aware that poetry should be, and is—the writing and the consumption of it—available to all. And the paradox of poetry’s eminence provides Lerner much opportunity for analytical hand-wringing.
To situate Lerner’s polemic within the tradition of poetic discourse, one can turn to The Norton Anthology of Postmodern American Poetry (which, incidentally, includes a section on Lerner) and notice that over the decades that make up the post-modern era, roughly from the 1950s until the present, poets have been inclined to write formal accounts of poetics. To the mildly curious, these writings can appear cryptic; to the initiated, the exhortations within can seem as if manifestos to the most extreme of dogmas. Lerner’s essay works a conservative and populist variation of one of these statements. Though firmly entrenched in a contemporary tradition, even experimental, in his poetry, he offers straight up discussions of the mechanics involved in understanding poems.
As bad as a poet may be, Lerner will defend their right to produce poetry. But he takes no prisoners. Ever the professor, Lerner shows his poet's education and details, humorously, just how bad a bad poem can be. Discussing "The Tay Bridge Disaster", he says: "There are a million ways to attack McGonagall's attempt at elegy, but crucial for me is how, just as he seems incapable of counting prosodic stresses, there is something disturbingly (and yet comically) off about his strategy for measuring lives and time. "I am very sorry to say" is a very sorry expression of sorrow [...]"
In its purest manifestation, Lerner writes, “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.” Nonetheless, the reader feels the barrage of Lerner’s doubts in being up to the task.
Lerner is ambitious, and probably feels the irony of his bona fides just enough to voice doubt that poems, and poets, transform, and transcend, the ordinary. “Most of us carry at least a weak sense of a correlation between poetry and human possibility that cannot be realized by poems.” A poem is a form of aspiration. What is any art but the aspiration to what is possible? That transcendent impulse, the moment of inspiration that the poet covets, draws him back to the page to try again.
Throughout the essay, Lerner returns to the notion of the virtual, how poetry in its ideal form, is an impossible goal. He admits:
Reading in my admittedly desultory way across the centuries, I have come to believe that a large part of the appeal of the defense as a genre is that it is itself a kind of virtual poetry—it allows you to describe the virtues of poetry without having to write poems that have succumbed to the bitterness of the actual.
As a final mild concession, Lerner says, echoing his own essay, of course: “Hating on actual poems, then, is often an ironic if sometimes unwitting way of expressing the persistence of the utopian ideal of Poetry, and the jeremiads in that regard are defenses, too.”
It’s as if Lerner—who wanted his work to be revolutionary, as noted in a reflection about his youth discovering poetry in Topeka, earnestly believed the early clichés of his teachers (That voice again, pre-skeptic: “You’re a poet and you don’t even know it”). But he is already so far removed from the legion of poetic everyman, that his essay can’t help but seem an unexpected artifact, and yet a welcome and invigorating discussion, and one to be duly charmed by. It may even be revolutionary.