The Hatred of Poetry by Ben Lerner
There are many ways to love poetry: with passion, with rigour, and in the case of Ben Lerner, even with contempt. But love it he does—which is why The Hatred of Poetry is pleasurable, even given its tendency toward, as one critic put it, “cerebral curio.” The book embodies aspects of creative tension that I find necessary to poetry: failure and contradiction. At times difficult to parse, Lerner’s book-length essay dissects the failure of poems to live up to the implied potential of Poetry, capital “P”—overhyped and imbued with unfounded power since the days of Socrates and his expulsion of poets from the Republic. “The problem with poetry: poems,” Lerner sums up nicely. The contradictory thesis is at the heart of many of the “expectation vs. reality” scenarios he performs in his book. The reality is, Lerner argues, that poems can’t incite meaningful change in the world and they surely can’t capture, create, or unite us all in some universal humanness. He’s even skeptical that poems actually move readers in any profound or swoony way. It seems bleak, sure. But just as the “negative” in Keats’ notion of negative capability isn’t used pejoratively, failure and contradiction can be generative and affirming, and the way Lerner’s project fails and contradicts itself (intentionally or not) is what makes it successful.
In his book Theatre of the Unimpressed, Jordan Tannahill argues that the “spectre of failure” is what vitalizes theatre by raising the stakes of live performances and, by doing so, “increases the possibility of beauty.” Just as Tannahill suggests that the spectre of failure looms over every moment in our (sometimes profound and swoony) lives, I think it also invigorates other types of artistic output—poetry in particular.
It’s not hard to draw comparisons between poetry and theatre. Both Lerner and Tannahill acknowledge that critics are borderline obsessed with declaring their respective art forms dead, that most people don’t read poetry or go to the theatre but feel vaguely guilty or apologetic about it, and that experiencing a single uninspiring poem or play in youth has the unforgiving power to turn people off to an entire art form. Considering this last point, The Hatred of Poetry opens on a formative moment of failure. Young Lerner is faced with the task of memorizing a poem and reciting it to his ninth grade English class, tries to be clever by learning the shortest poem he can find, and fails publically after he can’t get it right even after three tries. Throughout the book there is the sense that Lerner is both disappointed and in awe of the fact that his cleverness can’t save him from failure.
However, Lerner succeeds at being an incredibly astute reader of poems. His description of the mechanics behind Marianne Moore’s “Poetry” and the difficulty memorizing it makes you excited enough to try to commit it to memory yourself—or at least to read it out loud. It’s a beautiful contradiction that a book about hating poetry provides such loving line-by-line engagements with poets ranging from Emily Dickinson to Claudia Rankine. It’s impossible not to feel the simple pleasure of readings poems—poems, not Poetry capital “P”—radiating through even his most curmudgeonly or dramatic rhetorical positions. Borrowing from theatrical language, Lerner goes so far as to declare the poet a tragic figure because the “poem is always a record of failure.” But Hamlet is a tragic figure. Keats is a tragic figure. Isn’t there a delicious sense of self-importance in aligning yourself with tragedy? Isn’t “tragic” too big of a word, anyway, if Poetry is supposedly not all it’s cracked up to be? Lerner admits right away that his contempt for his ninth grade poetry assignment is imperfect. It’s this same imperfect contempt for poetry that makes his position interesting rather than insufferable.
The fact is, Lerner has not even given us a straightforward essay removed from poetry. As much critical attention as The Hatred of Poetry’s received, I’ve never seen anyone mention the paratextual material running alongside the essay in the margins. The marginalia doesn’t annotate or add any new commentary, but repeats words or phrases already appearing in the essay, like the chanting of a poetical chorus. To read only these interjections is to read something like a poem at the core of the essay.
In another lyrical gesture, by the end of The Hatred of Poetry Lerner breaks from the orderly structure of arguments and adopts a new register, returning to his childhood in Kansas to marvel at the mysterious power of language. The creative energy of testing the limits of new words, of puncturing sentences weirdly and wildly, of watching adults make leaps of logic to accommodate playfulness. That was poetry. But as soon as words calcified and clicked into place, Lerner says, the poetry fled. Infinite possibility (Poetry) is compromised by the finitude of its terms (poems, crafted from words pinned to a rigorous system of language). With mastery comes deflation.
“We begin in admiration and we end by organizing our disappointment,” says philosopher Gaston Bachelard. Yet how beautiful and generative an endeavour—to organize disappointment into something that lets us once again begin in admiration. Perhaps Lerner is right—maybe poems don’t end wars, make you reach for the smelling salts, or forget where your body ends and another’s begins. Poems can’t imitate the music of the gods. But I’d rather have an imperfect poetry engaged with the small dull notes of human harmony—a song connected to and haunted by the spectre of failure—than to have no poetry at all. And no matter how hard he tries to convince you that he’s waxed his ears to it, it’s abundantly clear that Lerner wants the same.