The Hatred of Poetry, by Ben Lerner, Fitzcarraldo Editions, 96 pp, £9.99, ISBN: 978-1910695159
No Art: Poems, by Ben Lerner, Granta, 304 pp, £14.99, ISBN: 978-1783782741
Readers of the Diary section of the London Review of Books will feel a bit cheated by Ben Lermer’s The Hatred of Poetry, should they have doled out £9.99 for the Fitzcarraldo Press book. That newspaper was where Lerner originally published a piece of nearly four thousand words in June 2015 entitled “On Poetry and Why I Dislike It”, riffing initially on Marianne Moore’s famous opening to “Poetry”: “I, too, dislike it”.
Within a year, and with the addition of a few more thousand words and the deployment of a massive font, the essay became a provocative little book, proclaiming hatred at a substantial mark-up. Hatred clearly has more sex and market appeal than dislike, of course; you can hardly imagine getting excited at Catullus saying “I like and I dislike.” The word “hatred” exercises us, as it should, and Lerner’s book plays a clever game of luring its potential reader into a state of radical agreement or dissent; yet it is not really an exercise in that kind of oppositional thinking, nor is it providing the hard sell or posturing that its title implies. It should also be admitted, however, that hatred is not really what it was either, what with practically every web jockey or pop idol spending most of their time demanding that we care about the rough handling they get from “haters”. There is a lot of real hate out there, of course, but it has also become a familiar mode of simulation. In the middle of so much hating, true or false, what is especially contemptible about poetry?
Lerner understands such contradictions very well, and for anyone familiar with his fiction this will come as no surprise. In those books, he has proven to be just about the most self-conscious writer that we have about poetry in this cultural moment, particularly in terms of its precarious relationship to the dominant narratives of money and crisis. What makes him particularly astute, however, is that he queries poetry in terms that we should query everything. If we ask what poetry is worth, why not ask what everything is worth? In Leaving the Atocha Station, his brilliantly corrosive novella of 2011, his protagonist is a wretched example of the poet-as-bounder, necking back prescription drugs, booze and anything else he can get while working his way through a generous grant that he has received for a project on Spanish Civil War poetry, a task for which he has no feeling or intellectual commitment. He is a lucky fraud, perpetually living with a sense that he is about to be found out; at the same time, this understanding does not inhibit him, rather it only licenses further corruptions and lies. He pretends that his mother is dying from cancer to manipulate the affections of a Spanish woman, and claims ownership of traumatic experiences which others have offered him anecdotally, such as an eyewitness account of a drowning in Mexico. As Madrid turns itself over to a radically grieving expression of its civic power in the aftermath of the 2004 train bombings, Lerner’s poet-protagonist seeks to capitalise on the opportunity this provides for him to become a poet of conscience, albeit one fuelled increasingly by pills: he interprets the communal suffering as a kind of bingeing and sees how he might profit from it:
I could lie about my interest in the literary response to war because by making a mockery of the notion that literature could be commensurate with mass murder I was not defaming the victims of the latter, but the dilettantes of the former, rejecting the political claims repeatedly made by the so-called left for a poetry radical only in its unpopularity. I had been a small-time performance artist pretending to be a poet, but now, with an alarming fervor, I wanted to write great poems. I wanted my “work” to take on the United States of Bush, to shed its scare quotes, and I wanted everybody everywhere to read my poems, shatter storefronts, etc.
Yet the inevitable popping of this little bubble is already clear; you can’t overcome your poetic bad faith overnight:
If I was a poet, I had become one because poetry, more intensely than any other practice, could not evade its anachronism and marginality and so constituted a kind of acknowledgement of my own preposterousness, admitting my bad faith in good faith, so to speak.
This is clearly a poet to avoid; a variation on the kind of lunatic imagined by Coleridge with his mouth spilling out milk of paradise, or the figure of bad influence from Plato’s Republic. Having said that, what redeems the situation for Lerner’s reader, and what makes his bad man so compelling, is the rhythm that he generates, and how comically he continually demonstrates poetry as a problematic and practically absurd domain: “When are you going to stop pretending that you’re only pretending to be a poet?” It also turns out that Lerner’s feel for the negative power of poetry has a loving touch, leaving him confounded to the extent of rapture:
Reading poetry, if reading is even the word, was something else entirely. Poetry actively repelled my attention, it was opaque and thingly and refused to absorb me; its articles and conjunctions and prepositions failed to dissolve into a feeling and a speed; you could fall into the spaces between words as you tried to link them up; and yet by refusing to absorb me the poem held out the possibility of a higher form of absorption of which I was unworthy, a profound experience unavailable from within the damaged life, and so the poem became a figure for its outside. It was much easier for me to read a poem in Spanish than Spanish prose because all the unknowing and hesitation and failure involved in the attempt to experience the poem was familiar, it was what invested any poem with a negative power, its failure to move me moved me, at least a little; my inability to grasp or be grasped by the poem in English that I felt, in this respect, like a native speaker.
“Opaque and thingly” might rightly give you a weirdly pleasurable shudder, the kind of embarrassment-effect that Christopher Ricks so astutely identified in Keats. So even if a poem usefully prevents us from comprehending everything, and even if this is exhausting, it is worth doing because its chaos feels as real as the chaos that is experienced everywhere else other than the poem:
fall into the spaces between words as you tried to link them up; and yet by refusing to absorb me the poem held out the possibility of a higher form of absorption of which I was unworthy, a profound experience unavailable from within the damaged life, and so the poem became a figure for its outside.
Poetry does not only offer a pleasurable alienation, therefore it is not irresponsible in that way. Poetry does not get thrown out of the prose world, rather it throws itself out, policing itself independently within its own irresolvability; this represents its peculiar toughness, and Lerner has made this thorough comedy of poetry into his signature.
Like plenty of other people, I have only come to Lerner’s poetry via the novels; both practically flatter to deceive. The sociopath poet of Leaving the Atocha Station actually drives you into thinking about accountability, the poet-academic drifter of 10.04 (his more recent novel) lives in a bubble of grant funding and attachment-aversion (but he knows it is a bubble). So the poems might appear to be full of Ashberyian fanciness (and Lerner’s debt to Ashbery is made clear everywhere in his work), spending much of their time telling you that they are poems, as here in the sequence The Lichtenberg Figures:
The poetic establishment has co-opted contradiction.
And the poetic establishment has not co-opted contradiction.
Are these poems just cumbersome
or are these poems a critique of cumbersomeness?
This could be irritating if Lerner did not know how to be broad as well as witty: “I wish all difficult poems were profound. / Honk if you wish all difficult poems were profound.”
Once you know to read Lerner for his honk as well as his snigger and swagger, you are in good shape. Sometimes, as here in “Angle of Yaw”, the honk comes quickly and gives you a slap of truth:
AMERICANS HAVE CONQUERED THEIR FEAR of public speaking by abolishing its public. Chief among our exports: wisps of precipitation. Because it receives the impression of your teeth, it is genuine emotion. Compare the streak left on the gemstone with that left in the retina. Confusing the desire to display affection with affection, we applaud the veterans of an imaginary conflict with real victims. An immoderate reverence for tradition guides everything but our reading. I throw my own party and go away.
In The Hatred of Poetry, Lerner writes an apology for poetry that is nevertheless based on a sense of its ridiculousness, hence the title which does not really sound like an apology. Ultimately the talk of love and hate for poetry is a way of trying to validate it in the eyes of a larger force which is completely indifferent to poetry (as it is to pretty much anything else), outside of its ability to be monetised. Claiming hatred is a good way of lifting poetry out of indifference, implying its urgency and value; the movies have put it rather well, as in Adam McKay’s The Big Short: “Truth is like poetry. And most people fucking hate poetry.” Yet we should not be so stupid; nobody really hates it; at least not sufficiently to be bothered enough to explain why. It is practically impossible to hate all of it, even if you might hate the poetry you learned in school. Curiously enough, the people who often say they hate poetry are not harassed supermarket cashiers or driving instructors but undergraduate students of English, especially when they are not given an option of avoiding it. This is often a consequence of having been processed through the grindhouse of state examinations, which in itself is fed by the fear of failure. They also might have come to hate the confoundedly passionate relationship to words which Lerner has suggested. It is plausible that they have come to fear it. Yet it should also be added that they may hate poetry in this circumstance because it is in a context in which it is insisted that it really does matter and have value. It can be argued that there is not much that is poetic in so aggressive a claim.
Over the past few years, I have co-ordinated a master’s degree in Poetry Studies, and I have got used to hearing from a variety of people, often academic peers, that they wish they had the kind of time to do a programme like that, but …; perhaps this carries with it an implication that only the fine and dandy or retired could afford it. It also implies that they think that anybody could do it, had they the time. They are right, in many ways. I am not sure that I could afford to do it, and I teach it. Of course, poetry is a waste of time; but is so thoroughly a waste of time that it gives the lie to other activities and occupations which protest to be inherently gainful. Poetry is no more or less wasteful than buying bank shares; you could say it is a far safer investment, even if it is not promising anything too tangible in terms of profit. It also really does waste time in the sense that it collapses and destroys the latter as a predictive and harvestable phenomenon, even as it can beat out rhythms and patterns that can be as measured as the ticking of a clock. So the iambs of Shelley’s “Ozymandias” in reality direct our ears to a kind of time that is not colonised by kings or capital.
This is also what makes poetry inherently suspect; it is what has Catullus imagining warnings against the consumptive dangers of otium as opposed to the health and efficiency of negotium, it is what prompts Phil Connors, Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog Day, to blurt out “What a waste of time” in response to the admission by his producer Rita (played by Andie McDowell) that she majored in nineteenth century French poetry, even as he is trying to talk her into the sack. But Phil cannot help himself, nobody could; and the truth might be that as Rita has ended up as a producer of TV weather shows, he is right. On the other hand, he lives the same day enough times to learn how to write poetry in French, and only then does he get his girl. In his time-trapped scenario, poetry turns out to be one of the more productive things to do. At a time in her development, Rita understood this too, which is precisely why Phil covets her.
One aspect of all of this is that although it is an artform that is free to produce and relatively cheap to reproduce, poetry is nevertheless regarded as an elite artform, associated with the dreaded notion of entitlement. (I had an irredeemably bad-tempered student at one time who would respond to any book of contemporary American poetry by saying “you shouldn’t underestimate the sense of entitlement with these people”; he was, of course, a poet.) It could well be that in our time of hegemonic capital it gets harder to shake the sense that poetry is a kind of aristocratic behaviour, but that analysis only really applies if your understanding of poetry is limited to how it is produced and disseminated in a few universities and even fewer cities. If poetry was only the kind of writing that wins poetry awards, then there would be plenty of reason to loathe it; yet in reality we all understand that it exists multifariously: in a lyric by Dylan or Q-Tip, or the remembrance pages of the Evening Herald, in football chants and skipping songs. This is a peculiar paradox, that we understress the poverty of poetry when that is precisely what gives it such doggedness and resistance in history. Its real problem is in securing credibility as an activity in the living present, as if poetry was a form of anti-social pleasure like gambling; but few families were ever torn apart by problem-sonneteering (Robert Lowell apart). In the long run, all kinds of poetry reiterate its worth as a phenomenon, time and time again; nobody has to make poetry happen, it takes care of itself.
Lerner’s real problem in the essay is making you believe that anybody really hates poetry to the degree that he needs, indeed if that is what he really wants to talk about. He plays the Trumpish game of referring to “so many” haters and critics without giving us a name or two until later in the book (he eventually goes hard after Mark Edmundson from the University of Virginia, the in-house Jeremiah for Harpers magazine, who must be delighted by the attention, even as he might ask why me?) He imagines a mild disdain from his dentist, but this is a case of pretty radical presumption. We never really get to hear what the dentist actually thinks or feels about poetry; he does not say, and Lerner does not ask. As it turns out, however, this is only a minor difficulty; reading Lerner is always pleasurable, not least because of the whiff of codology that is evident in everything he does. He connects us to that peculiar anxiety that no matter how expert or exquisite our work might be, it might well be a waste of time. That kind of edgy truth is what we should expect from the poetic, and it is one that you can – respectfully – hate.
Crude loathing or cruel contempt aside, part of Lerner’s more nuanced argument is that poets hate poetry because they cannot ever write the “genuine” (to use another of Moore’s terms from “Poetry”) poems that they want to create: “The hatred of poetry is internal to the art, because it is the task of the poet and poetry reader to use the heat of that hatred to burn the actual off the virtual like fog.” This is clearly not the kind of vulgar hatred that the title of the book may have promised to explore: “Great poets … express their contempt for merely actual poems by developing techniques for virtualizing their own compositions – by dissolving the actual poem into an image of the Poem literary form cannot achieve.” Hating poetry turns out to be a highly specialised activity then, one preserved for those who write (or try to write) poetry. You cannot underestimate the sense of entitlement with these people.
Significantly in this regard and others, the poet that Lerner reaches towards most productively and most often is Whitman, who continues to lay waste time-honouring properties of verse for anyone that reads him. Whitman’s extravagant claim on his reader’s attention amounts to a reinvention of poetic time and poetic labour, taking apart the precedent forms of the art as if he hated them and the interpretative apparatus which surrounded them. At the beginning of Song of Myself, one of his boldest gestures is the near-ridicule of the poetry reader:
Have you reckon’d a thousand acres much? have you reckon’d the earth much?
Have you practis’d so long to learn to read?
Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?
Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems,
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun, (there are millions of suns left,)
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look
through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.
Lerner reverts to Whitman for proof that poetry can connect because of his contradictions, rather than in spite of them: “What makes Walt Whitman so powerful and powerfully embarrassing a founding figure for American poetry is that he is explicit about the contradictions inherent in the effort to ‘inhabit all’.”
Whitman is embarrassing in a good way, but when he attempts through demonstration to indicate how poetry might be embarrassing in ways that are hateful, Lerner does some strange things. He chooses to write about the notoriously bad poetry of William McGonagall but it does not serve to persuade that Poetry is detestable, rather that it can be fatuous. Is McGonagall really a figure of contempt, rather than fun? Lerner writes that “I find it remarkable that his horribleness is evident even to those of us who don’t read poetry.” The answer to this must be: why is it so remarkable? McGonagall’s poem on the Tay Bridge disaster sounds horrible because it sounds horrible; you can explain this technically, as Lerner does, but you do not have to. It simply sounds like shit, and it does this so evidently that it does not help to make any kind of point about poetry and hatred. Do you hate Les Dawson hitting a bum note, or laugh at it? It is funnier, of course, that he appears to take his role as pianist so seriously, and continues to do so as he rolls out his cacophony. Lerner’s astonishment is telling, however, because it signifies assumptions about poetry as seen from the world of poetry that do not coincide with how things look from the point of view of poetry-in-the-world.
Because poetry is Lerner’s occupation, he inevitably foregrounds such concerns; but for others it is also a pre-occupation, a post-occupation, or a non-event, and they might ask different questions. There is a curious taking-for-granted about the hatred for poetry in this book which leads to a kind of laziness, even if it might not quite become otiose. So Lerner deals with the expected, working his way through Plato’s admonitions regarding the poets; this is to be found in any defence of poetry, but the usual caveat also has to attend such a discourse. Plato did not hate poetry, he had a healthy fear of its ability to affect people; in an ideal Republic, you would not want to let it hold sway, but in a real one it has its critical power and function. In an ideal Republic, you would not feel like a drink after a day’s work, or need to go to the bathroom, or want anything. As Wallace Stevens pointed out in “Sunday Morning”, the problem with an ideal world is that if nothing changes, then nothing ripens, even as nothing dies:
Is there no change of death in paradise?
Does ripe fruit never fall? Or do the boughs
Hang always heavy in that perfect sky,
Unchanging, yet so like our perishing earth,
With rivers like our own that seek for seas
They never find, the same receding shores
That never touch with inarticulate pang?
Stevens did not hide from the hateful truth that death and pleasure were necessary to one another, it is what makes his apparent frivolities so vibrant and essential. In this way, the flippant becomes oracular, and the odious becomes lovable. The ideal Republic is no place to live. For all of his remarkable sense of comedy, Lerner turns out to have a simultaneous desire for gravity when it comes to his craft:
All I ask the haters – and I am one – is that they strive to perfect their contempt, even consider bringing it to bear in poems, where it will be deepened, not dispelled, and where, by creating a place for possibility and present absences (like unheard melodies), it might come to resemble love.
The final push here from Lerner is into a surprisingly sentimental domain, but this is again characteristic of his inherently dialectical sense of possibility and impossibility in a poem. Feeling and thinking do not always synthesise, rather they continue to contend. The softening of tone does not diminish the hard questions about relevance and accountability which the book has toyed with, but not answered. What Lerner asks of hater-lovers of poetry is well worth asking, but at the same time this is only another part of the “fiddle” which Marianne Moore wrote about the need to move beyond in her earlier version of the poem “Poetry” (the poem which got Lerner going in the first place). Aside from the hateful wanting that poetry might generate in the poet, making noise about poetry, rather than actually making poetry, is perhaps the kind of thing which you might well find hateful. Alternatively, it might well just make you want to go and read a poem, or listen to a song; either way, it is time wasted, or is that time well spent?
Michael Hinds is an associate professor in the School of English at Dublin City Universityl.