The most striking thing about contemporary poetry is that no one seems quite satisfied with it. Non-poets, who generally don’t read poetry, are only a little less enthusiastic than poets, who do. Indeed, hardly a year has gone by over the past quarter century without a poet or critic publishing an essay bemoaning the state of American poetry—from Dana Gioia’s “Can Poetry Matter?,” which appeared in this magazine in 1991, to Mark Edmundson’s 2013 lament, “Poetry Slam: Or, the Decline of American Verse.” And the sentiment dates back further. When Marianne Moore wrote a poem titled “Poetry,” she began with the words “I, too, dislike it.”
The Hatred of Poetry, an elegant new book by Ben Lerner, might sound like a contribution to this genre. (Indeed, he quotes Moore in the book’s first line.) But Lerner has not written a screed or a lament, and he offers a very original diagnosis of what is wrong with the relationship between poets and their audience. To understand the background of Lerner’s argument, it is helpful to look back at the early 19th century, when something strange happened to the way poets think about poetry.
From the time Aristotle anatomized the subject in his Poetics, poetry had been what its Greek root, poiēsis, indicates it is: a form of making. Poems were things made of words, and a poet was a kind of artisan, who, like other artisans, could produce either shapely and useful items or ungainly and useless ones. In his Ars Poetica, one of the earliest and most influential poems about the art of poetry, Horace urged the poet to keep practicing his craft until he perfected it:
Never the verse approve and hold as good,
’Till many a day, and many a blot has wrought
The polish’d work, and chasten’d ev’ry thought,
By tenfold labour to perfection brought!
Making a poem was never quite as simple as making a table, because it required inspiration and passion, but it did involve studying techniques and following rules. Indeed, the laws of poetry were natural laws, which had been discovered by the Greeks and could be learned from their example. The English poet Alexander Pope agreed, writing in his “Essay on Criticism”:
Those RULES of old discover’d, not devis’d,
Are Nature still, but Nature Methodiz’d;
Nature, like Liberty, is but restrain’d
By the same Laws which first herself ordain’d.
That was published in 1711, so clearly not much had changed in the previous two millennia. But turn to Percy Shelley’s essay “A Defense of Poetry,” written in 1821, and you will discover that the meaning of the word poetry had undergone a fantastic transformation. Poetry, Shelley says, is “connate with the origin of man,” and “a poet participates in the eternal, the infinite, and the one.” Poetry comprises every creative activity of human nature, including the arts, politics, and science: “The institutors of laws, and the founders of civil society, and the inventors of the arts of life” are all in some sense poets, since they shape reality in the light of their vision. Shelley even speaks of “the poetry in the doctrines of Jesus Christ,” as if Christianity itself were just one enormous poem.
The Romantics, faced with a disenchanted universe, attempted to discover a new source of enchantment in the human imagination, and poetry became a metaphor for that creative, life-enhancing power. Poetry used to mean poems. Now poems began to seem like just one habitation, and far from the grandest, of the force that is poetry. Naturally, this fateful division between poetry and poems had enormous consequences for the way poems were written. After all, if poetry is ineffable and infinite, there is no reason it should be bound by the mechanical laws of meter and rhyme. In the modern age, poetry became antinomian.
Thus we find Emerson arguing, in his essay “The Poet,” that “it is not metres, but a metre-making argument, that makes a poem,—a thought so passionate and alive, that, like the spirit of a plant or an animal, it has an architecture of its own, and adorns nature with a new thing.” The metaphor of growth cancels out the old metaphor of craft. For Horace, a poem was something you had to learn how to make, at the expense of great effort. For Keats, “if Poetry comes not as naturally as the Leaves to a tree it had better not come at all.”
It is this disjunction between poetry and poems that Ben Lerner explores in The Hatred of Poetry. As a poet—he has written three books of poems, as well as two novels—Lerner is sensitive to the odd psychological transactions that tend to take place between poets and non-poets. The latter often regard the former with a blend of contempt and envy. The contempt is easy enough to understand—poetry is unprestigious, unremunerative, a form of play rather than grown-up work. But it is the envy that Lerner focuses on, the way people who don’t write poetry nevertheless feel the urge to stake a claim to it.
“If you are an adult foolish enough to tell another adult that you are (still!) a poet,” he writes, “they will often describe for you their falling away from poetry: I wrote it in high school; I dabbled in college. Almost never do they write it now.” For Lerner, this is more than mere politeness, an attempt to find some common ground with the poet. Rather, it is an unconscious tribute to the sway that the idea of poetry continues to exert over our collective imagination. “Most of us carry at least a weak sense of a correlation between poetry and human possibility,” he asserts. Thus, “if I have no interest in poetry or if I feel repelled by actual poems, either I am failing the social or the social is failing me.” Poetry is a gauge of our mutual connection. If we can’t speak the language of poetry, it is a sign that human communication has been blocked in a fundamental way. This feeling of failure is what explains why people tend to hate poetry, rather than simply being indifferent to it. Poetry is the site and source of disappointed hope.
For Lerner, as his use of the term the social suggests, that hope is not just individual and spiritual, but collective and political. Poetry is linked, in his vision, to the possibility of a total redemption of human society, of the kind Marxism used to call “the revolution.” In particular, his fusion of aesthetic, political, and spiritual messianism brings to mind the work of Walter Benjamin, the 20th-century German Jewish theorist. Lerner’s previous book, the novel 10:04, was saturated in the Benjaminian concept of redemption: the idea that the world as we know it carries within itself the possibility for transformation. Key to this vision is the idea that salvation will come from within, from a rearrangement of the world, rather than through an external power or a god.
In the novel, Lerner associates this idea with what he calls “the utopian glimmer of fiction.” Fiction, he suggests, anticipates redemption in its power to alter facts and timelines, to summon alternative possibilities, to transcend the given. In The Hatred of Poetry, Lerner makes some of the same claims for the art of poetry. “ ‘Poetry’ is a word for a kind of value no particular poem can realize: the value of persons, the value of a human activity beyond the labor/leisure divide, a value before or beyond price,” he writes. Poetry is a figure for the unalienated labor and uncommodified value that Marx thought would exist after the revolution. This is a 21st-century artist’s Marxism, one that no longer hopes for real revolution, but looks to the imagination for anticipations of what a perfected world would look and feel like.
As Lerner works sinuously through a chain of texts, he draws attention to the inevitable gap between the actual poem, which can only be a series of particular words, and what he calls the “virtual poem” (borrowing a phrase from the poet and critic Allen Grossman), which we can imagine as being perfect because it remains pure potential. It is in taking the measure of that gap that we can “experience, if not a genuine poem—no such thing—a place for the genuine, whatever that might mean.” Yet this approach to reading any particular work by any particular poet also leads to a certain monotony. Because actual poems are always primarily valuable for what they are not, the many different kinds of poems Lerner invokes all supply evidence for the same argument: Look at what these lines fail to capture.
The gap between the ideal and the real is, of course, the subject of many great poems. Lerner quotes Emily Dickinson: “I dwell in Possibility— / A fairer House than Prose—,” noting that “instead of the expected opposition of poetry with prose, the former term is replaced with ‘Possibility’—an immaterial dwelling, all threshold and sky.” But the ridiculous serves his argument as well as the sublime does. Thus Lerner quotes the opening of William McGonagall’s infamously bad poem about a bridge collapse in Scotland:
Beautiful railway bridge of the silv’ry Tay
Alas! I am very sorry to say
That ninety lives have been taken away
On the last sabbath day of 1879
Which will be remember’d for a very long time.
This is ludicrous, of course, and Lerner shows exactly why. Yet he also suggests that the poem’s very badness is its virtue: “A less bad poet would not make the distance between the virtual and the actual so palpable, so immediate,” he writes. A bad poem can perhaps point to utopia even more effectively than a good poem can, since its very badness reminds us of the impossibility of achieving the total goodness that poetry promises.
This is the perverse logic of invoking utopia, which is a literal “no place.” Like a Romantic poet, Lerner yearns for a transformation that poetry can intimate and promise but never enact. What he largely ignores in his book is the idea that poetry can also be a means of reconciling us to our place, to “the very world, which is the world / Of all of us,—the place where, in the end, / We find our happiness, or not at all,” as Wordsworth wrote. The Hatred of Poetry is a subtle inquiry into poetry’s discontents, and a moving statement of poetry’s potential. It can also be read, though, as an example of the dead end into which modern poetic theory has been led by its grandiose aspirations. As long as we focus on what poetry isn’t and can’t be, how can we rediscover what it once was, and might be again?
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