'The Hatred Of Poetry' Feels PersonalNovelist Ben Lerner takes on poetry in his new book, an academic dissection of the ways we love and hate that ancient art. But sometimes he seems like he's talking about his own thinly-veiled hatred.
The familiar cycle of denouncements and defenses of poetry never seems to have much to do with anyone's actual experience of, say, John Ashbery. You know these pieces from highbrow magazines: The Death of Poetry versus The Enduring Relevance of Poetry, on and on into infinity. "What kind of art is defined — has been defined for millennia — by such a rhythm of denunciation and defense?" asks the poet and novelist Ben Lerner.
Poetry as a concept has a life outside of either poems or poets. In The Hatred of Poetry, Lerner looks at poetry's symbolic life and the hostility that he says it generates.
We want too much from poetry. We want it " — to defeat time, to still it beautifully; to express irreducible individuality in a way that can be recognized socially or ... to achieve universality by being irreducibly social," and so much more. "The one thing," Lerner concludes, "all these demands share is they can't ever be fulfilled with poems."
This inevitable failure of poems to live up to their sublime promise generates a kind of contempt, Lerner continues. Form, in other words, contains an unfulfilled promise — one that's painfully illustrated by The Hatred of Poetry. Much of this book appeared under the title "Diary" in London Review of Books, and in that space it seemed perceptive and promising, an earnest of deeper thought to come. The same idea also pervades his excellent first novel, Leaving Atocha Station.
But extract the idea, place it between two covers, expand it slightly, give it the trappings of a book, a grand title and a veneer of impartial cultural commentary, and you promise something different: Something original and rigorous that attempts to define poetry, engages with scholarship rather than skims from it, and speaks for more than just the author.
Lerner might have made this a better book in one of two ways: First, he could write something rigorously introspective, not about our hatred of poetry but his hatred of poetry. Or, if he insists on the our, he could engage with the history of poetry, trace shifting cultural attitudes towards it, and actually talk to some people who hate poetry.
The second option is harder. He would have to define poetry: Are Wordsworth and his hedge-rows (hardly hedge-rows) really the same animal as Claudia Rankine and her scalding prose poems? What connects John Keats ("O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms, / Alone and palely loitering?") to Eileen Myles ("O, I don't give a s—-"), aside from their Os and a certain ratio of white space to type on the page?
He would also have to scrutinize the many casual allusions he makes. For example, he cites — predictably enough — Plato's supposed banning of poets from his Republic. But Plato never exactly banspoets — if one reads on from that famous passage in the Republic, the argument becomes infinitely more subtle and doubtful.
And, in any real treatment of animosity towards poetry, the author should address class and the history of poetic education. He should ask why it stands next to modern art and wine-tasting in our shorthand for the pretentious and bourgeois. But he bypasses class entirely.
Lerner would have to do a lot of things, some of them impossible in 86 pages. But I don't think he wanted to write a comprehensive treatment of our collective hatred of poetry. I think he wanted to write a personal account of his relationship to poetry, and he fell into the same mistake he accuses bad poets of: confusing the personal and the universal.
Take, for example, his meditation on the virgule, the slash that marks poetic line breaks. It comes, Lerner writes, "from Latin virgula — a little rod." He continues, "We hear in it the Virgula Divina — the divining rod that locates water or other precious substances underground ... And we hear the meteorological phenomenon known as 'virga,' my favorite kind of weather."
We do? I don't. I resent the faux-inclusive "we." "We" is either a condescendingly democratic gesture ("I would never be so impolite as to imply that you, reader, are unfamiliar with the vocabulary of ancient divination"), or a more basic failure to remember that other people have different brains and think different thoughts (and even like different kinds of weather).
Lerner should abandon the pretense of "we" and look at how he, one poet, struggles with the gap between his poems and the poems he wants to write. He should eliminate The Hatred of Poetry's falsely distancing "The" and explore his hatred of poetry. In The Hatred of Poetry, a personal feeling has been dressed up, given a few distracting academic tassels and a vague, impersonal "we." But maybe I just resent being spoken for. I, for one, like poetry.
Annalisa Quinn is a freelance journalist and critic covering books and culture. She likes poetry.