Ben Lerner on Why So Many People (Rightfully) Hate Poetry
In conversation with the MacArthur-Genius poet and novelist
Perhaps, writes Ben Lerner, the collectively considered “worst poem” of all time is William McGonagall’s “Tay Bridge Disaster,” published in 1879. It begins:
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.
Its meter is clunky, with a triple and duple measure mismatch in the first line, no metrical pattern (iambic, dactylic, anapestic) and no mode (pastoral, elegy or ballad), and the omission of the third syllable in ‘silv’ry’ makes it, as Lerner explains in his new book The Hatred of Poetry, “truly preposterous.”
But in this poem’s myriad failures, one can imagine what a perfect poem might look like, and it is through this lens—the infinite possibility and potential of poetry—that Lerner says poetry is both so loved and hated.
Poetry can theoretically achieve anything—it can conjure complex emotions; it can describe a work of music or art with a beauty and depth greater than that work of music or art itself—so that any time it does not reach its near-limitless potential, whether it is as far off the mark as McGonagall’s poem or as close as, say, Keats’ six odes or Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass,” it is viewed—by definition—as a failure. And it is through poetry’s failure that we come back to it (hoping for better) and are repelled from it (knowing it can never reach the perfection expected of it).
We hate poetry though not just because it fails in living up to its potential for perfection, but because it makes us, as humans, feel like failures—poetry denotes humanity, and if we cannot understand it, if we cannot create it, then we wonder if a core aspect of our humanity has been taken away. And yet, as Lerner writes, our hatred of poetry only serves to signify its continuing importance. “People getting upset about poetry,” Lerner told me, “is a nagging sign of poetry’s relevance.”
I recently sat down with Lerner at a coffeeshop in Park Slope. A MacArthur and Guggenheim Fellow, Lerner was born in Topeka, Kansas, and educated at Brown University. He is currently the poetry editor at Harper’s and contributes fiction and essays to The New Yorker and The Paris Review.
Lerner has the distinct ability to see the parallels between poetry and other art forms in a way redolent of Clement Greenberg. He began his career as a poet, but has since branched out to fiction, writing two critically acclaimed novels, Leaving the Atocha Station and 10:04. His latest book, “a monograph,” is called The Hatred of Poetry.
Over café discussions and email correspondences, we discussed poetry, why humans hate it, and why—against the odds—it can and must persist.
Cody Delistraty: You write, “The fatal problem with poetry: poems.” How do poems get in the way of poetry?
Ben Lerner: I think “poetry” is a word that is often used to name a set of impossible demands. When that’s the case, actual poems can only fail. One persistent idea about poetry—particularly about lyric poetry—is that a poem should at once be irreducibly individual and totally accessible to others, that it can reconcile the individual and the collective. And I say this is a fantasy that can be represented but not fulfilled by any specific poem.
CD: What makes poetry special though? People don’t tend to talk about novels, for instance, as being disappointing when they don’t reach perfection.
BL: There is no stable definition of what counts as a poem. Is it prosody? Rhyme? An emotional quality? A decision on the part of the writer? The reader? Is it just a superlative? What’s a prose poem? And so on. I think what makes poetry “special” in this regard is precisely the assumptions and expectations that gather around the amorphous term. And part of this has to do with how “poetry” can name, independent of actual poems, a kind of limit case of language—the desire to do something with words that we can’t actually do.
CD: Does this have to do with why poetry is often perceived as elitist?
BL: I think some of the anxiety about who has access to a poem has to do with the belief—conscious or not—that personhood and poethood are in some sense inextricable. If you think that poems should be at once individual and socially universal and you feel excluded from a poem, then you might feel like your humanity is being threatened. I think more people feel that about a poem than about a piece of music or style of painting. This is part of why the question of “accessibility” in poetry is so vexed. And then there is of course the fundamental fact that the “humanities” have traditionally claimed to represent all of humanity while actually being largely a canon of white men of a certain class.
CD: Why hasn’t poetry died then if there’s so much push back against it and so many people feel excluded from it?
BL: I think that, generally speaking, people getting upset about poetry is more a sign of poetry’s relevance, a sign of the importance of poetic practice, than it is a sign of its death, which is proclaimed every few years. It just means that we have a desire for our language to be able to perform in a different way than it performs, and we have a desire for a reconciliation between the individual and the social that poetry can’t fulfill, but can help made felt. So part of the point of my book is that hating on poems is a way of expressing a kind of poetic idealism.
CD: In your first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, your protagonist Adam Gordon finds poetry in the context of prose moving because it has an “echo of poetic possibility;” but he finds poetry, on its own, dull. What is the power of the “echo of poetic possibility”?
BL: I think that many poets have a variety of techniques that keep a poem from being merely actual, finished. This isn’t just something that happens when you dissolve a poem in another medium; it’s something that happens within poems all the time. Leaving the Atocha Station talks a lot about how Ashbery’s poems do that—how they keep their meanings from being fixed, giving you an experience of syntax as it unfolds in time. And Adam Gordon doesn’t find that dull.
But I’ve been particularly interested recently in how novels can be haunted by poems, or how novels can become spaces in which poems live. And part of why poems are strangely alive in novels is because they’re both poems and images of poems; they’re both poems and fictions of poems; they’re both actual and virtual. I think a lot about this in relation to Jean Toomer’s masterpiece, Cane, for instance—how lines will appear first in a poem, then embedded in the prose. How poems are sometimes inside and sometimes outside of his fictional frames. (Not that Cane is clearly a novel; I don’t know what it is, exactly.)
When I say something is virtual, I don’t exactly mean it’s unreal—a work of art can be a vehicle for the virtual: it can help you imagine what can’t be made. We have actual experiences of virtual possibilities, if that makes sense.
CD: Like the second stanza of Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”
BL: Yeah, exactly. The thing about ekphrastic modes—one artwork describing another artwork—is that it allows you to produce some of the pleasures of an art form without having to succumb to its specific limitations. (The writer Michael Clune taught me to see this in Keats.) I’m trying to say that this way of talking isn’t only a mournful story about how all poems are failures; it’s a way of thinking about different artistic tactics that can keep the poem from becoming merely a sealed, final, closed object. And there are of course other kinds of poetic accomplishment that have nothing to do with the kind of logic I’m exploring.
CD: I think of you as, in many ways, an essayist, someone who has lots of ideas and then, when you’re writing poetry or fiction, creates stories around those ideas. Where do you start? With ideas or stories?
BL: I don’t know where I start, exactly. But you’re right that I kind of test an idea by seeing how it plays out in different genres. And this book is in part a distillation of logics that were operative in—or challenged by—my last book of poems, Mean Free Path, and the two novels. I like passing an idea back and forth between media. I learn something, at least. The other thing I’d say is that The Hatred of Poetry is a fiction: I’m looking at one of many stories people tell about poetry and trying to see what possibilities are opened up or foreclosed by that story. I’m not saying: here is the truth of poetry.
CD: Is that what explains your interest in writing in—and writing about—so many different media—art, poetry, short stories, novels, novels with poems, novels with essays, et cetera?
BL: Yeah, it’s a way of testing language and ideas in the related but different laboratories we call genres. I’ve heard people say, putting an author down, “he’s more of an essayist than a novelist.” I know what that can mean—if the thinking doesn’t feel sufficiently embedded in the world of the fiction, if it feels separable, formally unmotivated, it can just feel false. But for me the appeal of the novel as a form has always involved its ability to open up space for a kind of essaying you can’t otherwise undertake—in part because you’re limited by the verifiable.
CD: Geoff Dyer has said that Leaving the Atocha Station was “a comet from the future.” Do you view yourself as such, or do you see yourself as a part of a certain school or tradition?
BL: I think that Leaving the Atocha Station is a very traditional novel in a lot of ways.
CD: Don’t tell James Wood that.
BL: Well any writer is always exploring how the historical resources of a genre can be bent to contemporary exigencies, right? And Leaving the Atocha Station has a lot of traditional features: an American abroad; it’s a kind of Künstlerroman. And then it’s trying to place those in a changed political and technological landscape: Google and psychopharmacology and the global war on terror and all these other reorganizations of psychic space.
CD: There is a feeling that you’re really working within the time you’re living in—not many writers are including Uber and Gchat as core elements of their fiction.
BL: For me the great resource of the novel is how it manages to describe the way emerging technologies alter social relations. Like Proust talking about the telephone. What does it do to his relationship with his grandmother, his relationship to space and distance? The novel is an old technology that’s really good at capturing the feeling of new technologies. But I don’t know what it would mean not to work within the time you’re living in.
CD: A quote from The Hatred of Poetry: “Great poets disdain the limits of actual poems, tactically defeat or at least suspend that actuality and sometimes quit writing all together, becoming celebrated for their silence.” Is the greatest poem no poem? A Robert Ryman-esque “find meaning in the absence.”
BL: I don’t think the greatest poem is silence. I do think that Ryman or Agnes Martin or John Cage or many others do amazing things by approaching the limit of the disappearance of their medium. So that is a strategy, it can produce really incredible effects; but it’s just one strategy. There’s this really interesting book out right now by Pascual Quignard called The Hatred of Music. For Quignard, silence is the goal—it’s the only way to honor music in the contemporary moment. It’s like Pound in his “Notes for Canto CXX”: “Do not move / Let the wind speak / that is paradise.” I’m pretty suspicious though of the grandiosity and fatalism of the valorization of silence. I don’t valorize it.
CD: You don’t?
BL: No. But I think it’s a persistent idea—and that its persistence is fascinating. And I think there is a joyous and enabling version of it, as in Martin and Cage. And I think negative spaces and felt silences are a constitutive part of the art. But I don’t think of Silence as some absolute.
CD: It sounds like you’re not interested in making any absolute claims about what poetry is.
BL: No. I think the idea—Grossman’s idea—that poems are foredoomed by what he calls the “bitter logic of the poetic principle”—that idea of a gap between the virtual and the actual—can be a really fertile way of talking. When it isn’t, kick it away. When I talk about this little book with people they often say, understandably, “what about hip-hop or what about this great poem or what about people who get this out of poems or what about all the people that love poetry, etc.” Actual literary practices are incredibly diverse and I have no interest in pretending to have anything to say that applies to all of them. I’m just saying I think that “bitter logic” helps us account for the rhythm of denunciation and defense that I look at in the book. And I also think there is a political danger it can help us expose—a kind of white male nostalgia for a universalism that is always false. And I think it can also help us account for the power of some really great and really terrible poems. It’s not the only way to account for their power.
CD: Do you see painting as one of the closest analogues to poetry? You write about it perhaps more than any other subject—is it an art form you feel you know well?
BL: I don’t feel like I know it that well. I’m fascinated by it, and fascinated by the historical collaborations and rivalries between poets and visual artists and how many poets have been art critics, how many poets have got something out the process of throwing language at works of visual art. So I’ve been really inspired by both paintings and art criticism and the challenges of the translation between the verbal and the visual and also by works that collapse or perturb that distinction, like Susan Howe or Dickinson. I’m really interested right now in the work of the artist Steffani Jemison, for instance; I know her videos best, but I feel like she’s linking up a lot of different art practices in challenging ways: writing, painting, experiments with publishing. I feel like I’m learning something about the relation of the visual and the verbal from her work.
CD: Has winning the MacArthur Genius Grant fundamentally changed you in any way or is that like asking whether you feel different because it’s your birthday?
BL: It gives you space and time. Most serious writers I know have a weird relation to any kind of celebration where you’re of course both honored and you also wonder: “How did I become so palatable?” It’s really hard to say anything interesting about an award or a grant, but I hope it doesn’t change me. I guess I’d be the last person to know.
CD: Who are the poets you have your eye on?
BL: There’s a new book by Simone White called Of Being Dispersed that I think is really great. Which reminds me that—earlier I was talking about poems in novels—a lot of the prose that interests me most is framed within books of poetry. She has a piece called “Lotion” that’s amazing. It’s certainly “essayistic.” I admire the recent book by Anna Moschovakis called They and We Will Get Into Trouble for This. There’s a new collection of several books of Mark McMorris’s just out from Wesleyan. I wrote about him a little in Harper’s. Rosmarie Waldrop and Keith Waldrop just published volumes of selected poems simultaneously. C.D. Wright—who I miss more than I can say—has two new books I keep rereading with gratitude and sadness. There are many others.