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 organised 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 defence 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.
Readers will finish this essay exalted by Ben Lerner's love of poetry, by his apprehension of the impossible task of poetry to defeat time, and of poetry as the essence of language and meaning.
Ben Lerner was born in Kansas in 1979. He has received fellowships from the Fulbright, Guggenheim, Howard and MacArthur Foundations. His first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, won the 2012 Believer Book Award. His second novel, 10:04, was a finalist for the Folio Prize and was named one of the best books of 2014 by more than a dozen major publications. He has published three poetry collections: The Lichtenberg Figures, Angle of Yaw (a finalist for the National Book Award for Poetry), and Mean Free Path. Lerner is a professor of English at Brooklyn College.
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. The "bitterness of poetic logic," Lerner claims, is that its transcendent ideal universal, trans-historical, divinely inspired always falls short in the actual expression. He explains that when readers read with, in Marianne Moore's words, "perfect contempt" skeptically and critically they find that poetry clears a space for the genuine, even if the "planet-like music" of the spheres cannot be adequately captured by human language. Ably moving from Plato and Caedmon to John Keats and Emily Dickinson and then to Amiri Baraka and Claudia Rankine, Lerner offers a concise primer on how to read a poem, along with a humorous, faintly regretful look at how individual poems fail to live up to the ideals readers have for them. 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.