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.