In Other Words The Ha­tred of Po­etry by Ben Lerner; Westerns: A Women’s His­tory by Vic­to­ria La­mont

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“The fa­tal prob­lem with po­etry: po­ems.” — Ben Lerner

“Ha­tred” is a strong word. It makes the ti­tle of Ben Lerner’s The Ha­tred of Po­etry siz­zle, but it’s an ex­ag­ger­a­tion that mis­leads the reader. Lerner doesn’t re­ally hate po­etry; in­deed, the word “hate” hardly ap­pears in Lerner’s text (but “haters” does). In truth, Lerner just “dis­likes” it, say­ing so over and over again, quot­ing the open­ing line of Mar­i­anne Moore’s “Po­etry:” “I, too, dis­like it.” Moore’s poem serves Lerner well, giv­ing him some dis­tance from his sub­ject while demon­strat­ing, prob­a­bly in­ad­ver­tently, how po­etry dis­ap­points us again and again.

Moore’s “Po­etry” is an ex­am­ple of just how easy it is for a poet to fail. Lerner dis­cov­ered Moore’s four-line poem in the ninth grade, when, in an as­sign­ment fa­mil­iar to all (and the most likely rea­son those among us who truly hate po­etry hate po­etry), he was as­signed to com­mit an en­tire poem of his choice to me­mory. He thought him­self clever to choose Moore’s 24-word stanza, which of­fered less to re­mem­ber than the son­nets and mul­ti­ple verses other stu­dents chose. But some po­etry re­sists mem­o­riza­tion. If Moore’s first line stuck with him, the rest never fell into place: “Read­ing it, how­ever, with a per­fect/con­tempt for it, one dis­cov­ers in/it, af­ter all, a place for the gen­uine.”

Me­mory doesn’t take to clum­si­ness and this, Lerner ex­plains, is clumsy, with its thrice re­peated “it,” the bro­ken me­ter, the “how­ever” and the “af­ter all” ap­plied like Band-Aids try­ing to hold it all to­gether. Even vis­ually, “Po­etry” is a mess, the first line jammed to the left of the stag­gered oth­ers. But even with all these rea­sons for con­tempt, “Po­etry” re­cov­ers with a last line that finds, af­ter all, some­thing gen­uine. Who would write a book ti­tled

The Ha­tred of Po­etry? Why, a suc­cess­ful poet, of course — one who’s pub­lished in The Paris Re­view, and one who, when cho­sen as a fi­nal­ist for a Na­tional Book Award in 2006, was the youngest poet (at twenty-seven) to be so hon­ored in 30 years. (He didn’t win.) Lerner, an MFA prod­uct (Brown), teaches English at a hip col­lege (Brook­lyn). His work, says the Po­etry Foun­da­tion, “of­ten uses sci­en­tific struc­tures to ex­plore the re­la­tion­ship be­tween lan­guage, form, and move­ment.” His po­ems take var­i­ous forms, in­clud­ing the para­dox­i­cal “prose poem,” and he’s known to write po­ems that ref­er­ence po­etry: “Is it so hard for you to un­der­stand/From the drop-down menu/In a clus­ter of eight/po­ems, I se­lected/sleep, but could not,” he writes in “[By any mea­sure]” from his book Mean Free Path (Cop­per Canyon Press, 2011). The Ha­tred of Po­etry puts Lerner’s po­etic skills to great use as he em­ploys metaphor, per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence, and a sense of crafted en­clo­sure to present an un­con­vinc­ing neg­a­tivism to­wards an an­cient art.

That half-hearted neg­a­tivism is the prob­lem: Lerner’s heart seems ab­sent from his polemic. He traces the “I, too ...” fra­ter­nity of con­tempt to Plato, who feared that po­etry cor­rupted the Repub­lic’s youth, dis­miss­ing po­ets as, in Lerner’s words, “rhetori­cians who pass off imag­i­na­tive pro­jec­tions as the truth.” To show how bad po­etry can be, he quotes the work of a writer ac­claimed as the worst poet in his­tory, when, as he sug­gests, al­most any poem would do. (He fol­lows this with a dis­cus­sion of Keats’ “Ode on a Gre­cian Urn.”) He says the po­ets we ad­mire most are those, like Rim­baud, who quit the busi­ness. Lerner notes that in dis­cus­sions of its worth, po­etry is al­ways in a de­fen­sive pos­ture and has been since Sir Philip Sid­ney wrote The De­fence of

Poesy in the late 1500s. An en­counter with his den­tist leads Lerner to a dis­cus­sion of the em­bar­rass­ment that goes with be­ing an adult poet in a world filled with peo­ple who wrote po­etry when they were young: “I had the sen­sa­tion that Doc­tor X, as he knocked the lit­tle mir­ror against my mo­lars, was con­temp­tu­ous of the idea that gen­uine po­etry could is­sue from such an open­ing.”

Lerner’s point is that po­etry fails be­cause the ex­pec­ta­tions for it are too high. We believe po­etry comes from on high — if not di­vinely in­spired, then from an el­e­vated mind. We ex­pect emo­tions to be stirred, metaphor to be per­fect, and mean­ing to be pro­found. What’s lost be­tween thought and writ­ten lines comes of stuff­ing words into po­etic form or of free­ing words from form. Po­ets per­sist in an im­pos­si­ble task. The poet Tony Hoagland de­scribes their dilemma in an es­say ti­tled “On Dis­pro­por­tion,” from

Real Sofistikashun, writ­ing that “any good poem is an act of tam­ing the sav­age or sav­aging the tame” — in other words, ex­em­plary po­ems re­sult from giv­ing a wild idea form or forc­ing the wild into the form. This of­fers the poet no good choices and is why Lerner de­clares, “The poem is al­ways a record of fail­ure.” In turn, this state­ment makes po­ets tragic fig­ures.

Lerner sug­gests we need to ac­cept that the high ex­pec­ta­tions we have for po­etry ac­tu­ally doom it from con­cep­tion. At the book’s end, he writes that po­etry de­serves our ad­mi­ra­tion be­cause it “is the dia­lec­tic of a vo­ca­tion no less es­sen­tial for be­ing im­pos­si­ble.” In it­self, it can’t be — to use Moore’s word — gen­uine. So what is it we read­ers of po­etry are hop­ing to find? The an­swer, in­spired by Lerner’s den­tist and Moore’s poem, iden­ti­fies it: “There is no gen­uine po­etry; there is only, af­ter all, and at best, a place for it.” Po­ets take us there. — Bill Kohlhaase

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