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The Hatred of Poetry

9780374712334 fc
Paperback, FSG Originals, 2016
read an excerpt

No art has been denounced as often as poetry. It's even bemoaned by poets: "I, too, dislike it," wrote Marianne Moore. "Many more people agree they hate poetry," Ben Lerner writes, "than can agree what poetry is. I, too, dislike it and have largely organized my life around it and do not experience that as a contradiction because poetry and the hatred of poetry are inextricable in ways it is my purpose to explore."

In this inventive and lucid essay, Lerner takes the hatred of poetry as the starting point of his defense of the art. He examines poetry's greatest haters (beginning with Plato's famous claim that an ideal city had no place for poets, who would only corrupt and mislead the young) and both its greatest and worst practitioners, providing inspired close readings of Keats, Dickinson, McGonagall, Whitman, and others. Throughout, he attempts to explain the noble failure at the heart of every truly great and truly horrible poem: the impulse to launch the experience of an individual into a timeless communal existence. In The Hatred of Poetry, Lerner has crafted an entertaining, personal, and entirely original examination of a vocation no less essential for being impossible.

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An excerpt from The Hatred of Poetry

The bitterness of poetic logic is particularly astringent because we were taught at an early age that we are all poets simply by virtue of being human. Our ability to write poems is therefore in some sense the measure of our humanity. At least that’s what we were taught in Topeka: we all have feelings inside us (where are they located, exactly?); poetry is the purest expression (the way an orange expresses juice?) of this inner domain. Since language is the stuff of the social and poetry the expression in language of our irreducible individuality, our personhood is tied up with our poethood. “You’re a poet and you don’t even know it,” Mr. X used to tell us in second grade; he would utter this irritating little refrain whenever we said something that happened to rhyme. I think the jokey cliché betrays a real belief about the universality of poetry: some kids take piano lessons, some kids study tap dance, but we don’t say every kid is a pianist or dancer. You’re a poet, however, whether or not you know it, because to be part of a linguistic community—to be hailed as a “you” at all—is to be endowed with poetic capacity. 

If you are an adult foolish enough to tell another adult that you are (still!) a poet, 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. They will tell you they have a niece or nephew who writes poetry. These familiar encounters—my most recent was at the dentist, my mouth propped open while Dr. X almost gagged me with a mirror, as if searching for my innermost feelings—have a tone that’s difficult to describe. There is embarrassment for the poet—couldn’t you get a real job and put your childish ways behind you?—but there is also embarrassment on the part of the non- poet, because having to acknowledge one’s total alienation from poetry chafes against the early association of poem and self. The ghost of that romantic conjunction makes the falling away from poetry a falling away from the pure potentiality of being human into the vicissitudes of being an actual person in a concrete historical situation, your hands in my mouth. I had the sensation that Dr. X, as he knocked the little mirror against my molars, was contemptuous of the idea that genuine poetry could issue from such an opening. And Dr. X was right: there is no genuine poetry; there is only, after all, and at best, a place for it.

The awkward and even tense exchange between a poet and non-poet—they often happen on an airplane or in a doctor’s office or some other contemporary no- place—is a little interpersonal breach that reveals how inextricable “poetry” is from our imagination of social life. What ever we think of particular poems, “poetry” is a word for the meeting place of the private and the public, the internal and the external: my capacity to express myself poetically and to comprehend such expressions is a fundamental qualification for social recognition. 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. I don’t mean that Dr. X or anyone else thinks in these terms, or that these assumptions about poetry are present for everyone, let alone in the same degree, or that this is the only or best way of thinking about poetry, but I am convinced that the embarrassment, or suspicion, or anger that is often palpable in such meetings derives from this sense of poetry’s tremendous social stakes (combined with a sense of its tremendous social marginalization). And it’s these stakes which make actual poems an offense: if my seatmate in a holding pattern over Denver calls on me to sing, demands a poem from me that will unite coach and fi rst class in one community, I can’t do it. Maybe this is because I don’t know how to sing or because the passengers don’t know how to listen, but it might also be because “poetry” denotes an impossible demand. This is one underlying reason why poetry is so often met with contempt rather than mere indifference and why it is periodically denounced as opposed to simply dismissed: most of us carry at least a weak sense of a correlation between poetry and human possibility that cannot be realized by poems. The poet, by his very claim to be a maker of poems, is therefore both an embarrassment and accusation. 

And when you are foolish enough to identify yourself as a poet, your interlocutors will often ask: A published poet? And when you tell them that you are, indeed, a published poet, they seem at least vaguely impressed. Why is that? It’s not like they or anybody they know reads poetry journals. And yet there is something deeply right, I think, about this knee-jerk appeal to publicity. It’s as if to say: everybody can write a poem, but has your poetry, the distillation of your innermost being, been found authentic and intelligible by others? Can it circulate among persons, make of its readership, however small, a People in that sense? This accounts for the otherwise bafflingly persistent association of poetry and fame—baffling since no poets are famous among the general population. To demand proof of fame is to demand proof that your songs made it back intact from the dream in the stable to the social world of the fire—, that your song is at once utterly specific to you and exemplary for others. 

(At the turn of the millennium, when I was the editor of a tiny poetry and art magazine, I would receive a steady stream of submissions— our address was online—from people who had clearly never read our publication but whose cover letters expressed a remarkable desperation to have their poems printed anywhere. Some of these letters—tens of them—explained that the poet in question was suffering from a terminal condition and wanted, needed, to see his or her poems published before he or she died. I have three letters here that contain the sentence, “I don’t know how long I have.” I also received multiple letters from prisoners who felt poetry publication was their best available method for asserting they were human beings, not merely criminals. I’m not mocking these poets; I’m offering them as examples of the strength of the implicit connection between poetry and the social recognition of the poet’s humanity. It’s an association so strong that the writers in question observe no contradiction in the fact that they are attempting to secure and preserve their personhood in a magazine that no one they know will see. It is as though the actual poem and publication do not matter; what matters is that the poet will know and can report to others that she is a published poet, a distinction that nobody—not Death, not the social death of exclusion from the Law—can take from her. Poetry makes you famous without an audience, an abstract or kind of proto-fame: it is less that I am known in the broader community than that I know I could be known, less that you know my name than that I know I am named: I am a poet / and you know it.)

  • “Loathing rains down on poetry, from people who have never read a page of it as well as from people who have devoted their lives to reading and writing it . . . Mr. Lerner skates across this frozen lake of pique with delicate skill . . . The book achieves its goal in the most circuitous of ways: by its (lovely) last sentence, Mr. Lerner might get you longing for the satisfactions of the thing you’re conditioned to loathe.”

    Jeff Gordinier, New York Times
  • "In lucid and luminous prose, poet and novelist Lerner (10:04) explores why many people share his aversion to poetry, which he attributes, paradoxically, to the deeply held belief that poetry ought to have tremendous cultural value. . . Lerner’s brief, elegant treatise on what poetry might do and why readers might need it is the perfect length for a commute or a classroom assignment, clearing a space for both private contemplation and lively discussion."

    Publishers Weekly (starred review)
  • "Lerner argues with the tenacity and the wildness of the vital writer and critic that he is. Each sentence of The Hatred of Poetry vibrates with uncommon and graceful lucidity; each page brings the deep pleasures of crisp thought, especially the kind that remains devoted to complexity rather than to its diminishment."

    Maggie Nelson, author of The Argonauts
  • "Just how many singular reading experiences can one novelist serve up? . . . Lerner obviously loves playing with language, stretching sentences out, folding them in on themselves, and making readers laugh out loud with the unexpected turns his paragraphs take . . . Let Lerner's language sweep you off your feet."

    NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross, Maureen Corrigan
  • "This is only Lerner's second novel (and he is only thirty-five), and yet to talk about mere 'promise,' as is customary with the young, seems insufficient. Even if he writes nothing else for the rest of his life, this is a book that belongs to the future."

    Giles Harvey, The New York Review of Books
  • "Reading Ben Lerner gives me the tingle at the base of my spine that happens whenever I encounter a writer of true originality. He is a courageous, immensely intelligent artist who panders to no one and yet is a delight to read."

    Jeffrey Eugenides, author of The Marriage Plot
  • "One of the most important American writers to emerge in the new century."

    Dan Katz, Textual Practice
  • Praise for 10:04:“Just how many singular reading experiences can one novelist serve up? . . . 10:04 is a mind-blowing book; . . . Lerner obviously loves playing with language, stretching sentences out, folding them in on themselves, and making readers laugh out loud with the unexpected turns his paragraphs take . . . 10:04 is a strange and spectacular novel. Don't even worry about classifying it; just let Lerner's language sweep you off your feet.”

    Maureen Corrigan, NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross
  • “Ingenious . . . Lerner packs so much brilliance and humor into each episode. . . . This brain-tickling book imbues real experiences with a feeling of artistic possibility, leaving the observable world ‘a little changed, a little charged'.”

    Sam Sacks, The Wall Street Journal
  • “What is 10:04 by Ben Lerner? It is a book for people who like great writing--"great," here, meaning frequently brilliant, electrically hyper-conscious, extravagantly verbose, aggressively sesquipedalian throw-the-book-across-the-room-in-despair-that-you-will-never-invent-that-metaphor-because-he-just-did writing . . . Nothing much happens, except for writing. But let me tell you: The writing happens.”

    Derek Thompson, The Atlantic, "Best Book I Read This Year"
  • “[10:04] is a beautiful and original novel . . . it signals a new direction in American fiction, perhaps a fertile one.”

    Christian Lorentzen, Bookforum
  • “[Lerner's] concerns wrap around the modern moment with terrifying rightness . . . 10:04 describes what it feels like to be alive.”

    John Freeman, The Boston Globe“Lerner is talented at noticing his mind's feints and twitches, and thereby making the quotidian engaging . . . As I read 10:04 I began to feel life itself take on the numinous significance, the seriousness, or art.”
  • “Lerner, with his keen poetic eye, manages to fill 10:04 with deft, breathtaking observations and possibilities . . . If indeed, as many postmodern critics tell us, there is no longer the prospect of the certified masterpiece or the Great American Novel, Lerner has created a meaningful substitute: a thinking text for our time.”

    Christopher Bollen, Interview“The boundaries between 10:04 and real life are porous, and it's exciting. But none of it would matter if it weren't for Lerner's excellent prose, which is galloping yet precise, his humorous, complex scene-settings (including one of the best extended party scenes I have ever read), his charming obsessions, and poingnant world-view.”
  • 10:04, with its slippery relationship between narrator and author, its beautifully wrought sentences, and its intricate network of leitmotifs, allusions, and recurring phrases--from a jar of instant coffee to time travel, to the speech Ronald Reagan gave after the Challenger exploded--demonstrates the pleasures and insights . . . literariness can still afford.”

    Daniel Hack, Public Books
  • “Lerner writes rich, ruminative fiction . . . Like Whitman, and like W. G. Seabld and Teju Cole, Ben Lerner is a courageous chronicler of meditative ambulation, of the mind reflecting on its own vibrant thinking processes before they congeal into inert thoughts.”

    Steven G. Kellman, San Francisco Chronicle
  • “Frequently brilliant . . . Lerner writes with a poet's attention to language.”

    Hari Kunzru, The New York Times Book Review
  • “Lerner's perceptiveness makes his writing not only engaging but funny . . . Ben Lerner tells a story that moves and provokes.”

    Maddie Crum, The Huffington Post
  • “Reading Ben Lerner gives me the tingle at the base of my spine that happens whenever I encounter a writer of true originality. He is a courageous, immensely intelligent artist who panders to no one and yet is a delight to read. Anyone interested in serious contemporary literature should read Ben Lerner, and 10:04 is the perfect place to start.”

    Jeffrey Eugenides, author of The Marriage Plot
  • “Ben Lerner is a brilliant novelist, and one unafraid to make of the novel something truly new. 10:04 is a work of endless wit, pleasure, relevance, and vitality.”

    Rachel Kushner, author of The Flamethrowers
  • Praise for Leaving the Atocha Station “A work so luminously original in style and form as to seem like a premonition, a comet from the future.”

    Geoff Dyer, The Observer on Leaving the Atocha Station
  • “Lerner's writing [is] beautiful, funny, and revelatory.”

    Deb Olin Unferth, Bookforum on Leaving the Atocha Station
  • “[A] subtle, sinuous, and very funny first novel . . . There are wonderful sentences and jokes on almost every page.”

    James Wood, The New Yorker on Leaving the Atocha Station
  • “One of the funniest (and truest) novels . . . by a writer of his generation.”

    Lorin Stein, The New York Review of Books on Leaving the Atocha Station
  • “Flip, hip, smart, and very funny . . . Reading it was unlike any other novel-reading experience I've had for a long time.”

    Maureen Corrigan, NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross on Leaving the Atocha Station
  • “Remarkable . . . a bildungsroman and meditation and slacker tale fused by a precise, reflective and darkly comic voice.”

    Gary Sernovitz, The New York Times Book Review on Leaving the Atocha Station
  • “The overall narrative is structured round [these] subtle, delicate moments: performances, as Adam would call them, of intense experience. They're comic in that obviously, Adam is an appalling poseur. But they're also beautiful and touching and precise.”

    Jenny Turner, The Guardian on Leaving the Atocha Station
  • Leaving the Atocha Station is a marvelous novel, not least because of the magical way that it reverses the postmodernist spell, transmuting a fraudulent figure into a fully dimensional and compelling character.”

    Sam Sacks, The Wall Street Journal on Leaving the Atocha Station
  • “An extraordinary novel about the intersections of art and reality in contemporary life.”

    John Ashbery on Leaving the Atocha Station
  • “Utterly charming. Lerner's self-hating, lying, overmedicated, brilliant fool of a hero is a memorable character, and his voice speaks with a music distinctly and hilariously all his own.”

    Paul Auster on Leaving the Atocha Station
  • “Last night I started Ben Lerner's novel Leaving the Atocha Station. By page three it was clear I was either staying up all night or putting the novel away until the weekend. I'm still angry with myself for having slept.”

    Stacy Schiff on Leaving the Atocha Station
  • “A character-driven ‘page-turner' and a concisely definitive study of the ‘actual' versus the ‘virtual' as applied to relationships, language, poetry, experience.”

    Tao Lin, The Believer on Leaving the Atocha Station
  • “Ben Lerner's Leaving the Atocha Station is a slightly deranged, philosophically inclined monologue in the Continental tradition running from Büchner's Lenz to Thomas Bernhard and Javier Marías. The adoption of this mode by a young American narrator--solipsistic, overmedicated, feckless yet ambitious--ends up feeling like the most natural thing in the world.”

    Benjamin Kunkel, New Statesman's Books of the Year 2011 on Leaving the Atocha Station
  • Praise for Angle of Yaw"The poems in Angle of Yaw compact layers of thought into a language of emergency. The juxtapositions are as striking as they are in commercial media except the upshot is to exacerbate instead of conceal differences. The words are not easy on the ear, but the pressure to listen is unmistakable. The sights are not welcome to the eye, as it is our ‘radical emotional incapacitation’ being shown. Violence absorbs the background. No offhanded commentary, no prophesies, no reassurances are given here. Instead, a sane voice orbiting the failed authority of a culture. Instead, the radiant sanity of dissent."

    National Book Award judges' citation
  • "Employing the language of aphorism, advertising, parable, personal essay, political tirade, journalism and journal, the collage-like poems of Lerner's second collection express the ennui of American life in an era when even war feels like a television event. Two sequences of untitled prose poems weave public and private discourse, yielding often absurd yet frighteningly accurate observations... this collection places Lerner among the most promising young poets now writing”

    Publishers Weekly