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