Ben Lerner thinks poetry suffers from a hatred problem. A problem arising from a lack at the core of Poetry itself. Which is the inability of poetry to be or achieve what it would promise to be or achieve. Or, more to the point, the inability of poetry to live up to our hopes for its transcendence of historical finitude. Again and again, for Lerner, poetry can only speak back in failure, in a kind of eternal ontological deferral of the desires and expectations of its readers. It is imperfect, compromised, artefactual. It is traced with the stuff of the world and its contradictions. It is tethered to the pole of the banal, and we bat it around and around on its dissembling holy rope, hoping it will disconnect and fly off to somewhere else. Or something like that. Lerner, then, considers the immanent impotencies of the mode as the source of a widespread, if often inarticulate, contempt for poetry.
So Poetry always lets us down, says Lerner. He proclaims this and says that we must live with it. Even as we hate poetry for it. Still striving, but accepting of the fact that there is no greater recompense to find. Fair enough, I guess. But what’s unfortunate is that he really seems to think he has discovered something.
The problem with Lerner’s overarching diagnosis, and it’s a big one, at least in regards the community of poets and serious readers of poetry (who are today the vast community of poets itself, as we know), is that its propositional logic is exactly and stunningly inside-out. Or at least inside-out by dint of its weird anachronisms. The premise, that is, might have been current and credible up until about 1876, with the last edition of the Parnassian anthology, but even by then Flowers of Evil had been out for almost twenty years. And it’s been about 150 years by now, since Baudelaire, then Rimbaud, then Whitman, Stein, Modernism, the early avant-garde, the NAP, and the rest of the 20th century until today that the bulk of vital poetry in the West has been impelled by, and made from, precisely (consciously or not), the imperfections and contingencies of everyday, material, mortal stuff, transcendence be damned. Indeed, made out of emotional and intellectual modes that are at least inflected, to some discernible degree, with the trace-matter of disgust and hatred for the idea of the “transcendental poetic” itself, when not of the old regime of metaphysical yearning in the main. Perhaps the most broadly influential tendency in Latin American poetry for over sixty years now, just for one example, Anti-Poesía, is explicitly founded–in form and content–on a refusal of any illusion of otherworldly redemption hidden within the art. Or for another example closer to shore, one wonders if Lerner has heard of Language poetry and offshoots, which like it or not has changed the face of the practice, putting a stamp of hard materialism on its countenance so severe that the general predisposition is now near-religion for thousands of “avant” writers and readers, from U.S. classrooms to provincial capitals in China. (Lerner’s not a Language poet, but he would not write the poetry he does, to be sure, were it not for the neo-Jacobins of the 70s. Which is not to say he may not one day pursue a Four Quartets kind of path.)
To say it again and to be absolutely clear: Most poetry of the past one hundred and fifty years (the kind that isn’t about gods and goddesses and swans and urns and eternal forms, and which usually isn’t in the form of an ode or sonnet) shares to some degree a glory in poetry’s capacity, even ravenous appetite, to consume and shit out loads of epistemological and ontological botch and dross. Poetry does not come up short and disappoint because it can’t achieve some sort of Platonic promise. Poetry exists, is made, at least in its post-Romantic variety, from the very realization and often celebration that it is a fully material practice, and that its hoped-for reach will always, poignantly, exceed its grasp. Poetry today is built on the recognition of necessity’s joys, sorrows, and limits. It even finds knee-slapping laughter in the hopes it might be otherwise. The writers and readers of poetry for a long time now have loved poetry’s failure, not hated it. Because there would be no poetry without it. A circular and joyous predicament forged since the time of Flaubert in the heat of poetry-field combat and position taking. Whose objects of “hatred” are quite a bit more quotidian than Poetry proper.
Of course, one can always find exceptions to the modern episteme. Stevens, whom Lerner discusses, had big plans for Poetry, as we know. Late Eliot (a poet Lerner seems to be intent on becoming our second version of, as I hint above), I suppose. But if we are speaking of poetry as practiced by committed poets and readers–the people who matter in this genre basket–these odd-duck, partial throwbacks are really outliers.
The weird thing to me is how something so generally obvious could be apparently missed by someone so obviously gifted as Ben Lerner. It’s such an obvious miss that I am wondering if there might be some kind of acrostic message hidden in the little book, revealing it as a kind of Sokalesque joke. But, no, it appears he is in earnest.
And granted, I have actually written all of the above, and unashamedly, without reading the book. (It is, one could say, a kind of experimental [conceptual?] review in that sense, though of course the big unacknowledged secret in poetry is that most reviewers barely ever do dip into anything they discuss.) I have only read synopses of it, reviews, listened to Lerner on the radio, and so forth. So it is totally possible he has something in there that credibly refutes the apparent and bizarre blind spot at its heart: That poetry for a long time, now, is all about what he claims it strives to not be. Which is its pure, contingent self. But maybe he talks about this, for all I know, and gets beyond the apparent contradiction, and thus I will discover with embarrassment that I am calling him to task for no reason at all. Well, c’est la vie, as they say at the Sorbonne. This is an experiment.
In any case, the book that needs to be written next is The Hatred of Poets. Now this, to be sure, is a real thing: a hatred widespread, inside and outside poetry, perfectly justifiable, perhaps, and not necessarily a problem. Actually, for the future sake of poetry, we probably need more of it. In fact, poetry thrives on it.
Thus I will end with Emily Dickinson’s immortal line: Long live the Hatred of Poets.