For many readers, the greater interest in Ben Lerner’s The Hatred of Poetry may well be Lerner himself. Although his poetry has received significant attention for some time (his second collection, Angle of Yaw was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2006), he has earned greater renown of late for his two novels, Leaving the Atocha Station and 10:04. Both consider poetry in some way; in Leaving the Atocha Station, for instance, the protagonist is a disaffected contrarian Fulbright scholar working in Spain, more moved by reading a line or two of a poem quoted in prose than by reading the poem itself. It makes sense that Lerner, a poet by training whose recent publications are not collections of actual poems, dwells upon the problem of poetry. Or as Lerner himself might put it, he has escaped the problem of writing poetry by examining it in prose—in his novels and, now, in this critical treatise.
Why is there a need to escape writing actual poems? What exactly about poetry is impossible? Lerner describes the “bitter logic” of poetry, where a gap always exists between what an individual poem strives to do (“the actual”) and the abstract potential of the medium of Poetry itself (“the virtual”). To identify an origin myth for this kind of thinking, Lerner introduces into evidence the first poet in English we know the name of—Caedmon, who had a dream about poetry but woke up only able to write a poem that dearly disappointed him, lacking for the celestial music and vision he had perceived in the dream. This gap is true enough of any human enterprise, but Lerner contends that the gap, which he calls “failure,” feels sharper in poetry because of the expectation we have inherited that poetry constitute an ideal imagined place that transcends social difference.
The primary innovation in The Hatred of Poetry is to connect the impossible demands of critics to the impossible structure of poetry itself. Lerner identifies this impossibility as most legible in the work of very bad and great poems (not merely good ones).
Or as Lerner funnily puts it: “If my seatmate in a holding pattern over Denver calls on me to sing, demands a poem from me that will unite coach and first class in one community, I can’t do it.” The anecdote is purposefully self-defeating, designed to point out that we (evidently) expect poets, writing their “irreducibly individual” lyric poems, to unite all persons. The anecdote is trivial, but Lerner notes that the assumptions of his own anecdote appear in most attacks on poetry.
Part of the relief in reading Lerner’s treatise comes from his clarity about the implicit politics of these attacks that call for a poetry, and a reality, that has never existed. In a 2013 essay for Harper’s, called “Poetry Slam: Or, The Decline of American Verse,” Mark Edmundson complains that today’s poets lack adequate political ambition—they fail to speak for anyone other than themselves. As if, Lerner rightly retorts, any such poet has existed. As if there has been any poet who speaks for every single person in every identity category. Walt Whitman, Lerner notes (and who Edmundson invokes), positioned himself in his poems as such a speaker for all. Whitman’s long inclusive lines, expansive cataloging, and open-house policy of pronouns were a groundbreaking development in U.S. literary history. But, too, Whitman wrote of the desire to be “the poet of the slaves, and of the masters of the slaves.” Trying “to be no one in particular so he can stand for everyone,” Lerner writes, is the glitch of Whitman’s democratic enterprise.
Lerner has what might be called an adequate historical analysis: he understands that class, race, gender, and sexuality inform any person’s point of view. As Lerner succinctly phrases it: “The lyric—that is, the intensely subjective personal poem—that can authentically encompass everyone is an impossibility in a world characterized by difference and violence.” Moreover: “the capacity to transcend history has historically been ascribed to white men of a certain class while denied to individuals marked by difference (whether of race or gender).” In Whitman’s case, suspending judgment may be a poetic maneuver, but it is not neutral, and as time passes, any contradictions glare.
The primary innovation in The Hatred of Poetry is to connect the impossible demands of critics to the impossible structure of poetry itself. Lerner identifies this impossibility as most legible in the work of very bad and great poems (not merely good ones). Lerner devotes a few entertaining pages to the example of a poet named William Topaz McGonagall, whose verse attempts (hilariously) to sound supremely dignified but fails in rhyme and meter. As readers, we can hear the echo of what McGonagall is trying to do. As for the great, Lerner identifies the strategies of Whitman, Dickinson, and Keats who each render this echo in a new way as “a glimmer of the unreal,” i.e. of the virtual potential of Poetry. Dickinson invokes an image of gathering paradise in her narrow hands, an image made more potent via her dissonant rhyme and tight metrical scheme; Keats gets this glimmer in through sweetly describing music too sweet to hear. Lerner is not describing moments of resonance that many a good poem has; he is interested in how a poem might render an image of its own impossibility, and thereby come as close as it can to a genuine place (the terms ‘genuine’ and ‘contempt’ and ‘place’ Lerner takes from Marianne Moore’s 1967 version of her brief poem called “Poetry,” which begins “I, too, dislike it.”).
Lerner’s most fascinating reading is of Claudia Rankine’s most recent two books, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric and Citizen: An American Lyric. Lerner finds here an example of how a work may find its power, its place of the genuine, by strategically addressing an expectation of universality. The subtitle for each book comes to power because it seems to contradict the form; each book is mainly in prose. Don’t Let Me Be Lonely attends to what Lerner calls “the experience of depersonalization—numbness, desensitization, media saturation,” which he interprets as “the felt unavailability of traditional lyric categories.” Chiseled lines, high musicality and rich emotional appeals (traditional signs of lyric) are absent here. The book enacts in episodic structure and palpably flattened prose the interiority of various exhausted speakers:
“Am I dead? Though this question at no time explicitly translations into Should I be dead, eventually the suicide hotline is called. You are, as usual, watching television, the eight-o’clock movie, when a number flashes on the screen: 1-800-SUICIDE. You dial the number.”
An ambulance driver shows up, much to the protests of the caller. The scene’s power derives from the speaker’s decision to set into motion contradictory imperatives—listening to the self and to the outside world, acting out the difference between being made to feel deadened by reality and the desire to actually end one’s own life: “You explain to the ambulance attendant that you had a momentary lapse of happily. The noun, happiness, is a static state of some Platonic ideal you know better than to pursue.” Earlier in the treatise, Lerner cites Plato’s famous contradictory attack on poetry—that it speaks nonsense as well as corrupts the youth, stirs revolutionary feeling. Lerner does not specifically point it out here, but this invocation of Plato here is telling, too, about how Plato is a figure to hold in contempt.
Lerner’s argument is one perspective on how a poet might subvert tradition, acknowledge the limit of the medium, and respond to the urgency of the public world that demands so much of poetry while denigrating it. That Lerner is making this argument in an historical moment highly self-conscious of race and other kinds of social difference enforces the specificity of his claims.
Lerner argues that it is vital that Rankine’s work presents itself as lyric, so that the reader continually feels a present absence (present absence, he adds, is also what makes the long dash, the virgule, so potent in Dickinson). For Rankine, as opposed to Whitman, the refusal not to not take sides determines her poetic strategy—her use of pronouns in Citizen, a book in part about daily micro-aggressions, opens the text by putting the reader directly in the position of being made to feel attacked, assumed criminal. The pronoun strategy answers the implicit interpretive burden that in order for a text to be successful, a white reader has to be able to “relate” to it.
Lerner’s argument is one perspective on how a poet might subvert tradition, acknowledge the limit of the medium, and respond to the urgency of the public world that demands so much of poetry while denigrating it. That Lerner is making this argument in an historical moment highly self-conscious of race and other kinds of social difference enforces the specificity of his claims. Lerner professes to be interested only in specific kinds of poems—he is not interested, he says toward the close, in the many good poems that actualize themselves “to certain audiences at certain times.” He confesses that poems “can actually be funny, or lovely, or offer solace, or courage, or inspiration.” Is it not especially striking, then, that Rankine’s Citizen is probably one of the more well-known books of poetry in the United States right now? It has won major national attention and Rankine herself (like Lerner) was recently named a MacArthur Genius grant recipient. It also appeared in the news in other ways: a story that ran on MSNBC featured a woman protesting a Trump rally by sitting behind him and reading Rankine’s book in plain view of the camera. Which perhaps affirms Lerner’s major point—that there is a special thrill and power in perfected contempt.