The Hatred of Poetry
reviewed by Nyla Matuk
The American novelist and poet Ben Lerner’s personal essay The Hatred of Poetry asks, ‘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.’ He goes on to delineate, with the help of the American critic and poet Allen Grossman, why ‘like so many poets, I live in the space between what I am moved to do and what I can do’. Lerner sees this lacuna – the break between what’s ideal and desirable and what is realistically possible to achieve – as an insurmountable aspect of poetry-making, whether one denounces the art form or defends it.
Lerner characterizes the root of poetry as an ever-present bugbear; it induces a kind of embarrassment on the part of the practitioner for her inescapable incapacity to produce the transcendent even while in childhood. He cites the example of his second grade teacher having declared ‘you’re a poet and you don’t even know it’ every time the children happened to say something that rhymed. Even this confers an elevated personhood, a humanity expressed as innermost feelings in language. The idea of the poet as a special being is familiar in the culture; thus, Lerner says, even non-poets experience an embarrassment as they deny poetry: the dismissal of it as juvenilia is tantamount to ‘falling away from the pure potentiality of being human’.
The Hatred of Poetry goes along fairly convincingly in this way, providing readers with a variety of instances in which poetry ‘denotes an impossible demand’. Although he doesn’t mention the tenets of aesthetic autonomy d’après the German philosophic tradition of Schiller, Hegel, and Herder, the idea that works of art are sublime and alienated from a mundane means of production, along with the notion that artists possess God-like qualities, is at the root of Lerner’s preoccupation with poetry’s failures, and this monograph’s ruminations. He uses these tenets in order to underscore the impossibility of transcendence in poeticizing, but does so with the presumption that all poetry seeks, or is born of, such a lofty status. The presumption may not be wrong, but it may be worth noting that the critique Lerner advances is predicated on his privilege (which he discusses later on in the essay, and which I’ll revisit below).
Holding fast, though, to the thesis about poetry’s impossible demands brings him to an analysis of the egregious verse of the nineteenth-century Scottish poet William Topaz McGonagall, as well as John Keats and Emily Dickinson. The latter two aren’t, obviously, bad poets in the manner of McGonagall, with his spectacular failure ‘The Tay Bridge Disaster’, which Lerner holds up as a thorough instance of the poet’s ‘ambition outpacing his ability’ – ‘a less bad poet would not make the distance between the virtual and the actual so palpable, so immediate […] the more abysmal the experience of the actual, the greater the implied heights of the virtual.’
Turning to Keats’s sonnets, Lerner notes that he’s never experienced the kind of trance many critics are said to come over them in reading the Romantic poet. Lerner finds a virtual music that Keats himself can only describe and not play; this too is the lacuna between the ideal and the possible, but in this case symptomatic in a great poet rather than a bad one. It is rather puzzling, though, that Lerner doesn’t mention Keats’s injunction that poets write with ‘negative capability’: that is, without needing certainty. Surely Keats’s dwelling in uncertainties and mysteries included that ideal music, that which can never be fully determined? Dickinson too is recruited, her dissonance and slant rhymes enabling Lerner to experience ‘both extreme discord […] and a virtuosic reaching of the music of the spheres’. And Dickinson’s lacuna is in her dwelling in ‘Possibility’, which makes ‘a place for the genuine by producing a genuine image of the ideal Poem we cannot write in time’.
Just as readers are expecting this monograph to end with this premise in place as the major contributing factor to our hatred of poetry, expanding on Marianne Moore’s ‘I, too, dislike it’ (which Lerner invokes repeatedly), he considers identity – i.e., who is making the poetry, and what that person does with historic and privileged conditions.
Claudia Rankine’s work as an African-American woman, particularly in Citizen: An American Lyric and Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric, is shown to discount universality (that is, the unattainable ideals of Poetry) and repurpose it in social contexts. Lerner first cites ‘On Whiteness and the Racial Imaginary’ by Rankine and Beth Loffreda thus:
What we want to avoid at all costs is […] an opposition between writing that accounts for race […] and writing that is ‘universal’. If we continue to think of the ‘universal’ as better-than, as the pinnacle, we will always discount writing that doesn’t look universal because it accounts for race or some other demeaned category. The universal is a fantasy. But we are captive, still, to a sensibility that champions the universal while simultaneously defining the universal, still, as white. We are captive, still, to a style of championing literature that says work by writers of color succeeds when a white person can nevertheless relate to it – that it ‘transcends’ its category.
– to show that Walt Whitman’s universalizing tendency, for instance (‘I am the poet of the slaves, and of the masters of slaves’), is powerfully embarrassing as a poetic ideal. ‘You can hate contemporary poetry – in any era – as much as you want for failing to realize the fantasy of universality,’ Lerner writes, ‘but the haters should stop pretending any poem ever successfully spoke for everyone.’
Citing Rankine’s books, Lerner notes that the prose in these ‘Lyrics’ is measured, ‘less in the sense of having a poetic prosody than in the sense of evincing a kind of restraint, verging on flatness, exhaustion, dissociation.’ In these features of the writing, there is what he calls a ‘felt unavailability of traditional lyric categories.’ Indeed, ‘the instruction to read her writing as poetry – and especially as lyric poetry – catalyzes an experience of their loss.’ And so ‘“Poetry” becomes a word for that possibility whose absence we sense in these poems’. This subversion of the famous lacuna allows Lerner to explore the hatred of poetry in the context of the racist social condition of being an African-American; it leads him to see his own social position vis-à-vis Rankine’s powerful intervention. Unlike Whitman’s universalizing pronouns and presumptions to universality, Rankine offers a ‘you’ that is presumably Rankine herself; Lerner: ‘but of course I am, as I read, the recipient of the address […] but I also then quickly, if after a pause, reject my identification with the “you” because I am aware of how I, a white man, cannot in fact relate to the experience in question: I cannot be a victim of such racism; I am in that regard much closer to the “I”.’
The ‘confrontation with false universality’ that Lerner uncovers as a way of understanding Rankine’s work is critical; though he only mentions it in passing, he in fact redefines poetry as a possibility for expressing political and other social conditions of those who create the art. But the idea isn’t new, of course. He doesn’t acknowledge the work already done in this regard by the pragmatist philosopher Richard Shusterman, in Pragmatist Aesthetics. Lerner confesses: ‘poems can fulfill any number of ambitions other than the ones I’m describing. They can actually be funny, or lovely […] they can play a role in constituting a community.’
In the end, though, imperfectability remains. Lerner asks the haters – and he considers himself one of their number – ‘that they strive to perfect their contempt, even consider bringing it to bear on 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.’
Nyla Matuk is the author of Sumptuary Laws (2012), nominated for the League of Canadian Poets’ Gerald Lampert Award for a best first book of poetry in Canada. Poems have appeared in Canadian, American and U.K. journals including PN Review, Ladowich, Prelude, The Walrus, and The Fiddlehead, among others, and in the anthologies New Poetries VI (Carcanet, 2015) and Best Canadian Poetry in English 2012 (Tightrope Books). A new book of poems, Stranger, is being published with Véhicule Press in 2016.
Image credit: Fitzcarraldo Editions