Could Be Verse

The Hatred of Poetry BY Ben Lerner. FSG Originals. Paperback, 96 pages. $12.

For an esteemed art form, poetry certainly spends a lot of time defending itself against haters and skeptics. The attacks (and subsequent defenses) go all the way back to Plato, through Percy Bysshe Shelley, and haven’t slowed in recent years. The American poet and novelist Ben Lerner shares the impulse both to attack and to defend, and his book The Hatred of Poetry is one of the best denunciations of the genre of lyric poetry I have read—and one of the more intriguing defenses. At a brisk ninety-six pages—the book grew out of an essay for the London Review of Books—it offers two for the price of one, and this is its insight. For Lerner, the hatred of poetry and his choice to “organize” his life around poetry are “inextricable.” Lerner is thirty-seven and is a professor at Brooklyn College, where he teaches poetry in the MFA program—a structure dedicated to churning out more poets. He is a recent recipient of a MacArthur “Genius Grant.” Poetry is something he has both lived and—in his novels, Leaving the Atocha Station and 10:04—turned away from. He knows whereof he hates.

What does Lerner mean, though, by the hatred of poetry? He begins by invoking Marianne Moore’s “Poetry,” which—in the version he quotes—reads in full:

I, too, dislike it.

Reading it, however, with a perfect

contempt for it, one discovers in

it, after all, a place for the genuine.

Lerner is fascinated by the question of why people dislike poetry—and most important, why poets dislike potery. A wry, highly self-conscious guide, he lures us in by sharing with the reader that, at events, when he or another poet is introduced, the words I, too, dislike it run through his head. When he is teaching or discussing poetry, the phrase sometimes takes on “the feel of negative rumination and sometimes a kind of manic, mantric affirmation, as close as I get to unceasing prayer.” It’s sort of crazy, he acknowledges—yet interesting: “What kind of art assumes the dislike of its audience and what kind of artist aligns herself with that dislike, even encourages it? An art hated from without and within.”

Lerner does talk in this book about the dislike ordinary readers have for poetry, which he attributes to an identification of poetry with one’s inner selfhood (not entirely jokingly, he cites the childhood rhyme “You’re a poet / and you don’t even know it”). Later, alienated from this source of value, adults denounce poetry in what he sees as an elaborate “reaction formation.” Lerner could more satisfyingly say much more here than he does—about the role of American anti-intellectualism, for instance, or about the historical specificity of current readers’ dislike, having to do with the rise of modernism and the “difficulty” of some contemporary poetry—but the book’s real focus is on why poets hate poetry.

Poets hate poetry, he argues, because the “actual” poem can never live up to what the poet and critic Allen Grossman has termed the “virtual poem,” or poetry with a capital P—“the abstract potential of the medium as felt by the poet when called upon to sing.” The poem is “always a record of failure,” evidenced here by the story of the early Anglo-Saxon poet Caedmon, who dreams of having sung an exquisite song, only to find, in daylight, that his actual songs fail to achieve such heights. “Poetry isn’t hard, it’s impossible,” Lerner provokingly asserts.

And so the poets and poems he respects most—we get examples here from John Keats’s odes, Emily Dickinson’s dissonant lyrics, Walt Whitman’s secular American epic “Song of Myself,” and the contemporary poet Claudia Rankine—strive to “virtualize” their poems by explicitly invoking the actual poem’s limitations, making their failure integral to their poems’ very themes and prosody. “Heard melodies are sweet,” Keats counsels, “but those unheard / Are sweeter.” Lerner even spends time on the terrible Scottish poet William McGonagall, to show that in trying to describe the terrible we—in a kind of aesthetic via negativa—only varnish our fantasy of the Grand Poem.

Lerner is also troubled by the ease with which poetry lends itself to the fantasy, among both poets and readers, that it possesses universalizing collective power that erases real differences. He offers sharp readings of recent denunciations of contemporary poetry by George Packer (on the New Yorker website) and Mark Edmundson (in Harper’s). He points out the contradictions and misplaced nostalgia in them: In complaining that Elizabeth Alexander’s work was too “personal and unsuggestive” to make her worthy of being Obama’s inaugural poet, Packer mistakenly “mourns the lost unifying power that poetry supposedly formerly had.” (Although to me Packer’s essay suggests that he never thought that any American poetry could unite the masses.) Meanwhile, such essays often betray a retrograde idea of what “the universal” actually is: Edmundson calls for a poetry that speaks of “how it is for all” yet insists on reading Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy” as a poem that challenges “women to reimagine the relations between fathers and daughters.” Rightly, Lerner raises an eyebrow: “Edmundson apparently cannot imagine a father reading the poem and feeling challenged.” These critiques are revealing of our sentimental but (in Lerner’s view) unrealistic vision of what poetry “could” be. (Likewise he critiques the avant-garde’s belief in the power of poetry to revolutionize the world.)

But a condition of any art form—or at least high-art form—is that its most serious practitioners feel disappointed by the gap between their ambitions and their accomplishments. What goes largely unaddressed is why this gap is so particularly maddening in poetry. Surely the particular discomfort with poetry at this historical moment has a component that Lerner skirts here: the earnestness of poetry’s goals, the fact that one can even use variations on the word transcendence in its vicinity—the “celestial music of the spheres” and all that. There’s something embarrassing about a poem’s yearning to transcend, to move us in an age of skeptical ironies, of radical inequity and secret surveillance and media saturation.

In fact, to really understand what Lerner’s up to, you have to appreciate his broader position, signaled here only indirectly. Lerner’s own complex, calibrated sensibility inflects everything he says. As a poet and a novelist, he is suspicious of not only the “modernist nostalgia for some lost unity” but, it would seem, all experiences of reported transport. He writes, in The Hatred of Poetry, of the fact that many literary critics have described how the music of Keats’s poems creates “altered states” or “induces a trance.” Lerner will have none of this, briskly noting, “for all my admiration for Keats, I can’t experience the trance these critics are talking about (and also have some trouble believing that they’ve experienced it).” Likewise, in his first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, the narrator talks about his inability to feel anything while standing in front of a great painting. There is something a little peculiar about someone writing a book about poetry’s not living up to an ideal that, by his own report, he finds entirely inaccessible—but that’s part of the idiosyncratic charge here.

The poet John Ashbery once invoked a generation shaped by “a kind of fence-sitting / Raised to the level of an esthetic ideal.” Though he doesn’t acknowledge it, there’s some kind of fence-sitting at the root of Lerner’s own self-consciousness, raised here and in his novels and poems to “the level of an esthetic ideal.” And it is indeed raised—in his best work, Lerner dramatizes deftly the push-pull we feel between a yearning for collective connection and an intuition of individual isolation and alienation. Like many postmodern writers, he’s skeptical of our claims that art moves us, and of the value of being moved in the first place—skeptical of the space art is supposed to make between writer and reader, or painter and viewer. In some ways I share that skepticism: After all, being moved in and of itself is not a sign of the excellence of a poem or the value of a reader’s connection to it. We can be moved by kitsch and by work that reinforces a bankrupt moral or political ethos.

Of course, that’s not to say that no one feels some kind of connection. What goes unmentioned—too uncool? too earnest or naive to think so?—is the way that reading enlarges us even if it does not universalize us. I am large, I contain multitudes, Whitman yawps, but one can only contain multitudes when one has been in some kind of—admittedly mediated—contact with them. And one way to enlarge our contact is through reading, even through reading good, and not great, poems.

One wonders, then, if it is possible to carve out a more modest space for poetry, one that is neither a denunciation (I, too, dislike it, at times) nor a defense (I, too, like it, at least at times). In this space, what a poem does is not try to create a grand universal, or participate in what Lerner dismisses as “modernist nostalgia for some lost unity of experience” and its old “totalizing ideologies,” but simply remind us of our differences even as it does connect groups of us. Isn’t Claudia Rankine in Citizen—by delineating the many microaggressions experienced by African Americans and people of color, by using the Whitmanic “you” to involve the reader—clearing a space where the reader can connect to others’ experience, if not in a “universal” way then at least in an illuminating and aesthetically engaging way? Maybe poetry goes first, and we come after, partial and damaged, measured out in the ordinary heard melody instead of the sublime unheard—but heard, in patches, nonetheless.

Meghan O’Rourke is the author of the memoir The Long Goodbye (Riverhead, 2011) and the poetry collections Halflife (2007) and Once (2011; both Norton).