Sneak preview: Mark Halliday on Ben Lerner’s THE HATRED OF POETRY

Today we share a sneak preview of our upcoming issue. Enjoy!

Lerner and His Firefly

Mark Halliday


On The Hatred of Poetry by Ben Lerner


There must have been a moment when an editor at FSG said to Ben Lerner, in an email or maybe in the old face-to-face modality, “How about if we publish your essay ‘The Hatred of Poetry’ as a small book!” (Let’s assume, for Lerner’s sake, that the idea did not come from Lerner himself—that would be too grotesque.) There must have been a moment when Lerner could pause and say, “No, that’s a bad idea, it would be way too pretentious.” But preumably the editor said something like, “With a catchy title like The Hatred of Poetry we might actually sell a lot of copies.” And Lerner acquiesced.

My revulsion against this tiny book is so overdetermined! Let me count the ways. There’s the cynicism in marketing as a twelve-dollar book an essay that’s barely more than 20,000 words. There’s the sensationalism of insisting on the flagrant word “hatred” when really what Lerner has in mind is addressed more fairly by such words as frustration, disappointment, radical skepticism, or Marianne Moore’s “dislike.” There’s the embarrassing puffed confidence of the author—at one point he actually refers to his thin chatty essay as a “monograph.” There’s the weird narrowness and repetitiousness of the essay—even in just 20,000 words a writer truly engaged with the subject could present many more examples and counterexamples for discussion. There’s the attempt to ride piggyback on the theorizing of Allen Grossman, whose ideas about poetry’s value are vastly more nuanced than Lerner acknowledges. There’s the comfy ordinariness of Lerner’s pages on Whitman, written as if for college freshmen. Above all, there’s the profound wrongness of Lerner’s thesis.

His thesis consists of two claims: (1) poetry has a special power to induce in readers a hunger for an ideal poem, a poem that will marvelously and totally uplift us, inspire us, enlighten us, comfort us; (2) actual poems always disappoint us by inevitably falling short of such an ideal, and our disappointment darkens into “hatred.” Lerner implies, without ever thinking it through, that poetry has this double effect on us while other arts don’t. Why could there not be a parallel essay on “The Hatred of Dance” or “The Hatred of Jazz” or “The Hatred of Abstract Painting” or “The Hatred of Theater”? For that matter, why could there not be a parallel essay on “The Hatred of Golf ” or “The Hatred of Progressive Politics”? People attach extreme unrealistic hopes to all these interests, and others. But to compare such obsessions would be difficult, and Lerner is not trying something difficult.

Most art of any kind is disappointing. More so, usually, than most experience of life, though that too is often disappointing. We all get used to this, if we are mentally healthy. Do you hate your life because it is so frequently frustrating and keeps failing to reach the great fulfillments you’ve imagined? Occasionally, in exhaustion or distress, you say you hate your life, but actually you cherish it and will fight to keep it, and next morning you’re looking for something beautiful or sweet or wonderfully funny.

Similarly, if you have truly loved some poems, and if this love has led you to be interested in poetry, you can “hate” hundreds of particular poems (in The New Yorker for instance) and you can see thousands of other particular poems as irritatingly flawed, but this doesn’t mean you hate poetry. When you’ve just experienced an onslaught of obscure and/or pretentious poems by students or by famous prizewinners, yes, you might shout “I hate poetry!”—but it’s not true, and the passion of your outcry is actually a symptom of your amazingly persistent love for poetry, that is, for the innumerable ways in which poems can enrich your life and nourish your soul.

If the topic is how do “we” feel about poetry, who are we? Ben Lerner sometimes implies that “we” are all the literate readers in the world. But there’s a silliness in this implication. I know nothing about ballet, so if I were to remark that I hate ballet, would my opinion be worth anything? It might have some kind of sociological significance but as an aesthetic response it would be empty and not worth pondering. If Lerner goes to parties where journalists or novelists or lawyers or market analysts declare that they “hate” poetry, then we can pity his choosing to go to those parties but we needn’t worry that such complaints reveal a fundamental inadequacy or pathos inherent in the art of poetry as such.

Any serious discussion of the essential demands poetry makes upon readers, and the essential effects it has upon readers, would have to address as its first audience, its most important because most engaged and informed  audience,  the  population of people who care intensely about poems. Lerner’s mini-book pretends to address that population, but I suspect he knows—and I’m sure his editor at FSG knows—that the actual target audience for The Hatred of Poetry is mostly people who are somehow pissed off or embarrassed by the fact that they don’t really care about poetry. Some of them are people who got an MFA in their mid-twenties but came to realize that poetry is just not their thing and now, ten or twenty years later, they might pay twelve dollars for some reassurance that there’s a deep good reason for their loss of interest in poetry. Also, there are the parents and uncles and aunts and siblings of poets whose poems are bothersomely unclear or messed up or covertly banal; these relatives may pay for an intellectual justification of their failure to love those poems.

If the actual intended audience for Lerner’s mini-book does, in any meaningful sense, “hate” poetry, it is not because they cherish such a totalistic aspiration for poems as vehicles-of-fabulous-transformation-of-life that they repeatedly suffer dismay in their earnest reading of a myriad poems. Rather, it’s because they just don’t feel the magic, the kick, that lovers of poems feel, and to be missing out on this is annoying. (That’s how I feel about jazz, almost always, but I don’t go around saying I “hate” jazz, because I know I’m too ignorant to comment interestingly on jazz.)

Who, then, is the writer who implicitly targets readers who don’t deeply care about poetry with his essay about hostility toward poetry? The suspicion arises that the writer himself doesn’t deeply care about poetry. A person who does not know what it is to love a poem is not a person who can write interestingly about “hatred of poetry.” Lerner believes that (ultimately, beyond the frustrations he calls hatred) he loves something he calls Poetry, but this something turns out to be a blissy mindblown oceanic feeling separate from, and happily oblivious of, individual poems. In his 83 little pages Lerner never shows us convincing admiration for any poem in its human idiosyncrasy and complexity and depth. At the end of his tiny book, where you might hope he would at last admit that “Ode to a Nightingale” or “That time of year thou mayst in me behold” or “Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend” or “The Tint I cannot take— is best—” or “The Collar” or “The Plain Sense of Things”—or some actual poem for godsake—is terrific and marvelously satisfying, instead Lerner tells us he went to an outdoor opera in Santa Fe, and the opera was “aggressively mediocre” but he had this trance-like moment of noticing a firefly drifting through the performance, and it seemed to him that his noticing of this was significantly more exciting than the would-be art.

It is on the one hand a mundane experience and on the other an experience of the structure behind the mundane, patches of unprimed canvas peeking through the real. And—why not speak of it—fucking and getting fucked up was part of it, is, the way sex and substances can liquefy the particulars of perception into an experience of form. The way a person’s stutter can be liquefied by song.

There is no need to go on multiplying examples of an impulse that can produce no adequate examples—of a capacity that can’t be objectified without falsification.

It would be fatiguing to sort out the mix of  obscurantism and balderdash in that passage, but it is obviously not coming from someone interested in thinking about poems. His ga-ga celebration of liquefied perception is something most of us had recognized as boring by the time we graduated from college. Floating off into a reverie about a firefly, or rapidly drinking four beers, can feel Awesome but later the experience turns out to have been vague, foggy, unconducive to interesting thoughts. (The greatness of  Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” involves his painful realization that the human mind can’t sustain itself in awesome thoughtless liquidity.) In Hatred Lerner mentions very few poets (let alone discussing whole poems). And he mentions critics only in quickie flourishes, never grappling with a worthy adversary, or feeling importantly challenged. It’s as if young Lerner (born in 1979) is pretty sure that nobody before him has thought all that usefully about the essential ambition of poetry. But he does drop names; for instance, he finds occasion to mention Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop.

Keith Waldrop has since 1968 been a poet-professor at Brown University, where I graduated in 1971. He and Rosmarie were already established then as champions of avant-garde poetry, through their own writing and the work they published at their small press, Burning Deck. I lived across the street from them for three years, and I found them to be unfailingly nice people, but as I struggled to develop my young ideas about poetry I came to feel that the torrent of incomprehensible “experimental” poetry they produced was useful to me only in clarifying what I would be against. I wanted poems to be memorable intense expressions of interestingly complicated mixtures of thought and emotion offered as a kind of urgent human communication to readers in the hope that poet and reader would thereby become less lost, less alienated, less lonely. What Ben Lerner seems mostly to want from a poem is the pleasure in finding (for the millionth time) that it falls short of the LSD-wow-a-firefly-totalizing magic of what he calls “virtual poetry.” No wonder he enjoyed Pegasus Descending, an anthology of “the best bad verse” humorously co-edited by Keith Waldrop. Lerner informs us, “One of the first books Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop—two of the most learned people I’ve ever met—gave me in Providence was [this anthology].” Let me pause to note the coyness of “in Providence”—Lerner says nothing elsewhere in Hatred about having attended Brown, maybe you’re just supposed to know? Lerner doesn’t quite realize that the Waldrops were giving books to bright young writers eight years (and more) before he was born.

Do I sound peeved?

Why does Lerner mention the Waldrops and their anthology? Well, it gives him one more opportunity to argue that when we see badness in a poem we know it as badness because we yearn for a total pure goodness: “In order to perceive a particular thing to be imperfect, we must have in mind some ideal of perfection.” This notion, though Lerner gussies it up with references to Plato and Descartes, is ridiculous. When you judge that a particular dessert, or a particular lover, or a particular novel, is mediocre or worse, you’re not comparing the disappointing instance to some abstract idea of the Perfect Dessert, or Aphrodite or Apollo, or the Perfect Novel. No, you’re comparing the disappointing phenomenon to many better desserts or romantic partners or novels you’ve  encountered in actual kitchens, beds, and chairs.

What we feel—we who actually care about poems, we who are intensely interested in poems—is passionate loyalty and gratitude. We are grateful to any good poet who has made the effort to communicate something mysteriously true about human life by packing this truth (through metaphor, through voice, through freshnesses of diction and syntax, through paradox) into charged lines of words. This effort is forever threatened by innumerable kinds of failure—Lerner fixates on this, in his doting on others’ failures—but the effort is not doomed, success is not impossible. Emily Dickinson knew passionate gratitude for poems, which is why (in “I reckon— when I count at all -”) she ranked poets ahead of the Sun, and Summer, and the Heaven of God. In “Reportless Subjects, to the Quick” she acknowledges that the meanings of poems are “reportless” (undelivered, unreceived) to most people, but they constantly reach those who can receive them; the melodies (“Measures”) of poetry are heard by the soul’s ear, by the attuned listener, by “Quick” spirits (like Hamlet the Dane) (or like Keats, who in this sense knew the sweetness of “unheard melodies”).

Good poems happen; very good poems happen; and occasionally great poems happen. You and I know this, dear reader, but weirdly Ben Lerner (though educated at a university I still feel affection for) seems not to have learned this. Just think of a poem you love. For me, today, what first comes to mind is “To an Old Philosopher in Rome” by Wallace Stevens; “The Circus (II)” by Kenneth Koch; “A Passing Stranger Who Falls Briefly in Love With Your Fatigue” by Claire Bateman; “Why We Went and What We Found” by Tony Hoagland. Many others readily come to mind. When you think of that poem you love, do you think “Nice try, but of course pathetically inadequate compared to the ideal”? (Lerner: “The fatal problem with poetry: poems.”) No, you think thank god for this poem, it has helped me live, it has nourished my soul. (In a deeply relevant way, that is also how I feel about my spouse, and I hope the same feeling lives in your house.)

Meanwhile, most poems are bad. Bad? False, fakey, pretentious, sententious, sentimental, ingratiating, pompous, preening, moralistic, cheaply cynical, cheaply despairing, sensationalist, ostentatious, derivative, trendy . . . (Add a dozen adjectives.) Bad in the ways that human beings can so variously be bad, unlikeable. To watch out for the rare wonderful person at the party, or the rare wonderful poem in a journal or book, is very tiring. It’s tempting to give up. But you don’t give up.

One day in 1973, six years before Ben Lerner’s birth, I stood in the Brown University Bookstore, depressed, plucking books off the poetry shelves and deliberately looking for bad poems, or, for poems that left me cold, or repelled me, or alienated me by their obscurity. I found plenty. I was preparing to write an essay called “Poetry Disgust” for The Providence Review, a zero-budget literary magazine I helped edit. A quarter-century before the Internet, at the sweet age of twenty-four, I felt my world was grossly oversupplied with poems poems poems, the vast majority of them very un-wonderful, and I wanted to explain why I couldn’t simply take this in stride the way you take in stride the fact that most restaurant meals are un-wonderful. My point was that a poem makes a special kind of imperious demand on one’s attention, a poem insists upon fully focused intellectual/emotional/spiritual attention, you are asked to bring your mind and heart and soul to the reading—hence when the poem fails you feel betrayed and depleted in a special way. If this occurs too many times in a given day or a given week, you develop a condition I called Poetry Disgust. I’m still proud of my short 1973 essay. It’s a forerunner of a longer essay “The Arrogance of Poetry” which I wrote in 2002 (and which you can find online, as published in The Georgia Review).

You can see why I want to distinguish between my thoughts in those essays and Ben Lerner’s gaudy (notorious, and profitable) claim that “we” “hate” poetry itself. Dismay or disgust in response to a bad poem or a hundred bad poems need not reflect, or inspire, “hatred” of the genre itself. No, as I’ve said, for those of us who know what it is to love a poem, it is love for poems, for poetry, for the possibilities of poetry, that makes us impatient with poems that ask for our love without earning it. The impatience or dismay or even disgust may last a day or a week but soon your appetite for poetry returns, your optimism returns, and soon enough it is rewarded by an amazingly wise or alarming or bleak or funny or poignant or loneliness-reducing poem.

Absorbed engagement with a whole poem does not appeal to Lerner. He remarks:

. . . lines of poetry quoted in prose preserve the glimmer of the unreal; to quote the narrator of my first novel who is here describing an exaggerated version of my own experience: “I tended to find lines of poetry beautiful only when I encountered them quoted in prose, in the essays my professors had assigned in college, where the line breaks were replaced with slashes, so that what was communicated was less a particular poem than the echo of poetic possibility.”

It seems not to occur to Lerner that this is a devastating disqualifying confession. It’s as if someone said “I only enjoy baseball when I watch a few seconds of highlights on SportsCenter. But hey, here’s my book about baseball.”

Let’s pause to note that in the above passage (on page 22 of Hatred) Lerner has arranged to quote from his own novel. And he re-quotes the same bit on page 74! In a “book” on poetry that quotes nothing substantive from Pope, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Emerson, Arnold, Yeats, Eliot, Stevens, Auden, Winters, Leavis, Jarrell, Empson, Bloom, Vendler (et al.), this guy quotes and re-quotes his own novel. Smugness, where is thy limit? Well, he’s not the first victim of the MacArthur virus.

One thinker about poetry who is more than glancingly invoked in Hatred is Allen Grossman. Grossman (who died in 2014) was a genius of poetic theory intensely concerned with distinguishing poetry’s power from the powers of other kinds of discourse. He was strongly inclined to issue stern rebukes to poets who underestimated their debt to poetic tradition, or who felt that the details of individual lives could be carried  over  copiously and effectively into poetry. In that spirit of warning, Grossman did emphasize the gap between the “virtual poem” to which one aspires and the actual poem that any one poet manages to write. Ben Lerner seizes upon this part of Grossman’s thought to add gravity to his own drastic dissatisfaction with poetry. Lerner:

Here I am  bypassing  the  beautiful  intricacies of Grossman’s account to extract from his under-read and almost freakishly  brilliant  essays the idea that actual poems are structurally foredoomed by a “bitter logic” that cannot be overcome by any level of virtuosity: Poetry isn’t hard, it’s impossible.

That’s wrong. Grossman always wanted to show that poetry is hard, but his life was devoted to its possibility and to its value. Aspiration to the ideal, perfect, “virtual” poem (or for that matter, to any total perfection in human life) becomes lethal when carried too far. Grossman stressed this warning in his writing about Shelley, Yeats, and Hart Crane. In his labyrinthine theoretical work Summa Lyrica, Grossman quotes Crane’s yearning for “the unbetrayable reply / Whose accent no farewell can know.” That desire, Grossman says, “cannot be consummated without passing beyond the limits of art.” And Grossman adds this warning (in which “stone” means the inscrutable immensity of reality): “When the message devours the stone, death ensues. When the stone usurps the message, death also.” Poems need to do what is doable in language. What is doable is a lot! Grossman:

The strategy of poetry is to take a stand in the global, and therefore unutterable, state of affairs. By taking a stand it disavows whole knowledge. Poetry, therefore, is antignostic as it is antimystical. … In poetry the countenance is manifested, and the realm of manifestation is a broken realm.

For Allen Grossman the point is not to passively lament the broken (incomplete, frustrating, changeful) nature of real human experience, but to strive for recognition of human beings as irreducibly significant presences. For Grossman the idea of a person is the crucial ethical idea, and poetry is an art for making persons visible: in poetry the countenance is manifested. A poet writes certain words, inscribing these upon the baffling totality of experience.

The ground is the ocean and its sentiment “the oceanic feeling,” with, however, the fundamental difference that upon this water a name is written, and in this element and ocean the person is not carried down but carried up and sustained.

Carried up and sustained: that is an effect that a poem can offer the reader—so Grossman believed. I don’t mean to pretend that Grossman’s theorizing is lucid. Alas, it is not. But I know that affirmation of the crucial ethical and spiritual power of actual poems was at the center of his thought. Anyone who ever heard him read a poem by Milton, or Yeats, or his own poems, had no doubt that Grossman felt the poems achieved something crucially valuable (rather than always already disappointing, “foredoomed”).

Near the end of Hatred Lerner prudently sees fit to admit that he may have left out a few things. Hilariously (near the end of such a tiny book) he says, “I hope it goes without saying that my summary here doesn’t pretend to be comprehensive—poems can fulfill any number of ambitions other than the ones I’m describing”—and he graciously (no, condescendingly) admits:

They can actually be funny, or lovely, or offer solace, or courage, or inspiration to certain audiences at certain times; they can play a role in constituting a community; and so on. The admitted weakness in the story I’m telling about Poetry is that it doesn’t have much to say about good poems in all their variety; it’s much better at dealing with great or horrible instances of the art.

Excuse me? Where, Ben, did you “deal with” a great instance of the art? In The Hatred of Poetry there is no earnest effort to appreciate the complex phenomenon of any one great (or good) poem.

That’s because even the best poems are always so disappointing, right? But wait, what if the poem is by a celebrated New York poet who is near the end of his career and who has tremendous cachet among writers and  readers very  concerned with being postmodern? In the August 2016 issue of Harper’s there are four poems by John Ashbery—“presented” by Ben Lerner. Now, there are many assiduous critics who have written at length about Ashbery’s work. Why should Ben Lerner be the person to “present” Ashbery’s latest poems? It must be because Lerner’s name has buzz, these days. Any magazine, even a serious one like Harper’s, has to worry about buzz. Guess what? It turns out that Lerner does not hate these Ashbery poems. In fact, he says they are profound. Here’s the ending of one of the poems, “Whatever the Old Man Does is Always Right”:

What is your foot exactly?
Flummoxed . . .
the makeshift western quarter
and I wish I could devalue you a currency.
Where do I first blurt him out?

It would be quasi-fun to hear Ben Lerner try to convince a skeptical audience that this Ashbery poem does not belong in Pegasus Descending.

Lerner says that Ashbery’s  “Commotion  of the Birds” is “magnificent.” Oh? What happened to Lerner’s brilliant hatred? Maybe hatred would be impolitic here? For me now it would be convenient to say that “Commotion of the Birds” is absurdly meaningless like most (not all) Ashbery poems. However, Lerner is right to say that the poem is coherently a parody of Art History discourse. In that mode it is mildly charming, with Ashbery’s fluidly erudite sound. But “magnificent” is a stretch. Unless perhaps “magnificent” in Lerner’s usage means only “quite clever, and from a powerful famous poet!”

Here’s a proposal. Let Ben Lerner read “Vietnam” by Wislawa Szymborska (in Polish if he reads Polish, or in the translation by Cavanagh and Baranczak). Let him then declare, if he will, that the poem fails because all poems fail. Let him explain, if he will, that this poem is sentimental or trite. And then let him go on being the smartypants who said these things, until he’s older.

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