Issue > Book Review
David Rigsbee

David Rigsbee

David Rigsbee is the author of Not Alone in My Dancing: Essays and Reviews, and of the forthcoming This Much I Can Tell You (poems), both from Black Lawrence Press. He is contributing editor for The Cortland Review.

David Rigsbee reviews "The Hatred of Poetry" by Ben Lerner


The Hatred of Poetry
The Hatred of Poetry
by Ben Lerner

96 pages
FSG Originals

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Ben Lerner's challenging new book, The Hatred of Poetry, extends a key element enunciated in the work of the late Allen Grossman, and that's the good news. Grossman's depth and perspicacity—what Lerner calls his "almost freakishly brilliant" work (albeit often marred by nearly impenetrable prose) lays out what he calls "the bitter logic of poetry," namely poetry's inability to deliver the promise of timelessness since its medium of representation—like all media—takes place under the regime of time. In other words, it's contradicted by its means. Poetry's faults at the deep end have been decried for years, both by poets, know-nothings, and many in between, but why does this result in "hatred," as opposed to indifference? And yet I must admit no one could take seriously a book called The Love of Poetry. All poets are Platonists (pace Ginsburg) in the sense that there is always a better version of their works to be had, but then all poets are therefore failures—in that sense. The problem is how to get around that sense. And ways have been proposed.

In Lerner's terms,  

Poetry arises from the desire to get beyond the finite and the historical—the human world of violence and difference—and to reach the transcendent or divine. You're moved to write a poem, you feel called upon to sing, because of that transcendent impulse. But as soon as you move from that impulse to the actual poem, the song of the infinite is compromised by the finitude of its terms. (8)

Grossman, I should note, prefers the term saying to singing, which he finds "theatrical." What results is a disappointment and finally resentment that what we get ("actual poems") falls far short of the promise that Poetry has claimed as its raison d'etre. That we so often begin our lives, as Blake and Wordsworth saw, full of imaginative potential, subsequently overwhelmed by the getting and spending of living, compounds the bitterness of this disappointment.
 

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 a measure of our humanity. (10)
 

I wasn't actually taught this myself as a young person, although I suppose the mandated exposure to music and art at school presupposed such a thing. I learned the interplay of art, imagination, and freedom as an undergraduate but came later to sense the point of these things as between knowing and being—and where that led. Where it led was the acceptance of a vocation, and vocation—a calling—is in Grossman's sense, obligatory, even if it isn't everything. It means acquiring a self, a subjectivity, from which to ex-press (as Stanley Burnshaw argued), something that would otherwise leave us uncentered and even biologically off-key from the significance of our human journey. Is the capacity for poetry, in fact, a measure of our humanity? And, perhaps more importantly, does "poet" carry with it a sense of exceptionalism when it comes to being human? More than for all those non-poets? Perhaps in moments of our most vivid imagining, as Virginia Woolf or Nabokov might say, we transcend the difficulties and ambiguities that are our lot going forward from that early age. Yet if we persist in claiming the poetics of expressiveness and song generally, we run into another difficulty: the room has thinned out. The poets have grown up to become dentists.
 

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. (11)


It's a double whammy: the poem, as opposed to Poetry, is impossible at the core, hence the poet is rendered manqué, and the reader, who is supposed to complete the circuit of representation and experience, finds herself short-circuited by the inability of poetry continually to inspire. Is it that we find we ourselves no longer inspired or that we don't believe in such inspiration? Grossman's formulation in Summa Lyrica (which emulates Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico Philosophicus in numbering propositions) goes as follows:
 

1. The function of poetry is to obtain for everybody one kind of success at the limits of the autonomy of the will.

1.1 The limits of the autonomy of the will discovered in poetry are death and the barriers against access to other consciousness.
 

You could look at this several ways. The "autonomy of the will" is, in some important sense, biological; as for the "barriers of access to other consciousness," there are always loopholes, if you believe in Imagination (as the Romantics did) as meaning there are always loopholes. Until there aren't—which, I think, is the point. Schopenhauer, for his part, says in effect that it's the artist alone who escapes the categories of the Will. That's because he understands and acts on the difference between knowing and being. Translation: the more inward you are—and the artist for him is nothing if not inward—the less you succumb to the wordly. Eliot similarly argues that believing is the best kind of knowing. I would put my trust in an experienced pilot, rather than someone who had read the 747 operating manual.

Lerner considers alternatives to the bitter logic model, but the alternatives don't have the authority of such a logic. In fact, he ends his book in a minor key, by suggesting that poetry, in its possibilities and paradoxes, "might come to resemble love." To which the Interior Paramour would surely reply, good luck with that! He also seems to worry, when the grandiosity is shown the door, that what remains, far from inspiring and mirroring love, or creating community, far, in other words, from taking its rightful place, will actually be small potatoes. Of course, the chief worry that this book explores, is the already present sense that poetry amounts to small potatoes.

Where Lerner extends Grossman is to claim this "hatred" for himself, in his role as poet. He both writes and accepts the impossibility of writing. He finds a like hatred toward the endeavors of other poets, admitting (as I often do) that lines of poetry embedded in prose (say, in an article like this one) are more to his liking than poems taken whole. In this he invokes Marianne Moore's infamously short poem that begins, "I, too, dislike it,." He goes on to affirm this dislike:
 

When I teach, I basically hum it. When somebody tells me, as so many people have told me, that they don't get poetry in general or my poetry in particular and/or believe that poetry is dead: I, too, dislike it. Sometimes this refrain has the feel of negative rumination and sometimes a kind of manic, mantric affirmation, as close as I get to unceasing prayer. (5)
 

It's a dislike that begins to take on the semblance of a wound, even a Philoctetes-style wound that never heals and yet also provides some solace, even strength. Moore concludes with the suggestion that, per impossibile, there might be a "place" for poetry. This place is the placeholder, you might say, for the poetry that is never delivered. And yet the place takes in a lot of what poetry does, as intimation, as experimentation, as expression, and transport. Notwithstanding the suggestion box, Poetry lives, but the poem does not because the poem comes courtesy of language, and language was designed to represent the actual. This contretemps puts the poet in ironic relation to her desire to deliver the timeless artifact, and the irony is not lost on the reader. Plato was right to eject the poets from the Republic because they, as Auden put it, "told lies to little boys." But also because in sugaring the promise of what a poem could do, they turned their heads away from the pursuit of Truth, which was the real duty of the citizen:

We might say that [his teacher] Socrates...is a new breed of poet who has found out how to get rid of poems. He argues that no existing poetry can express the truth about the world, and his dialogues at least approach the truth by destroying others' claims to possess it. (18)


By incorporating this hatred into the way he approaches his own poetry, Lerner is able to squirm Houdini-like out of the trap to advance the possibility that the poem might have other, less Olympian (but no less authentic) uses than to preside over the marriage of heaven and earth. But there is some ambivalence—which he shares with Grossman—because the notion that turning to alternative ideals will dispel the feeling that the poem, in marginalizing itself from grownup pursuits more in line with earthly institutional systems—might drag Poetry itself after it. Hence the "virtualization" of poetry:


Reading in my admittedly desultory way across the centuries, I have come to believe that a large part of the appeal of the defense as a genre is that it is itself a kind of virtual poetry—it allows you to describe the virtues of poetry without having the write poems that have succumbed to the bitterness of the actual. (22)
 

Enforcing the distinction between the actual and the virtual, upon which both Lerner's and Grossman's argument depends, raises the question why we shouldn't man-up and collapse such a dualism—as so many such distinctions between these terms need. What if by bringing the transcendent into presence (as in thought, imagination) these things (the eternal, the timeless) are also "experienced" (I experience my thinking and feeling, for example). It's true that poetry can't transport us literally to heaven or even describe its spendors. Dante himself says as much, before he embarks on the Paradiso, but modesty, rather than hatred, prevents him. Or rather, he overcomes his pro forma modesty before embarking, as if to collapse the difference between the virtual and the real. The same could be said for sidebars, the discussions ancillary (and yet pertinent) to the meanings of actual poems. Oakshott's widely read "The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation if Mankind" advances an argument for poetry's give-and-take without chafing against the bitter logic.

Part of the Lerner's ambivalence comes with realizing just how institutions underwrite the importance of all representations. By institutions should be understood languages, cultures, nationalities, political systems, religions and the customs relevant to each. Institutions formulate the terms of representation, but because they are grounded in the social, their ability to take in the asocial falls somewhere between the inexact and the oblique.

Lerner relates how Elizabeth Alexander was hammered for civic irrelevance after her Inaugural poem for President Obama in 2008 (I can confirm: I was there on the Mall). Both George Packer and Mark Edmundson come in for a drubbing for missing the point that great public poems aren't being written. That poetry and politics make a feeble mix is not in question. And then there's the suspicion of pretension: the everything-is-everything philosophy strikes the wrong chord. So yeah, the good folks of America are pissed that poetry isn't what it used to be and are (perhaps) chagrined that they don't get it. They don't see a way forward. It's even seen as a good when some poets fall into silence (Rimbaud, Oppen). It's an admission and a vindication of the virtual Poem over feeble actual poems.

As a character in Raymond Carver admits, "Maybe I just don't understand poetry. I admit it's not the first thing I reach for when I pick up something to read." Be that as it may, it will depend to some extent on how much you put by the impossible dream of the virtual poem and how much you believe that words still lift you to another plane of regard and/or transport you to a place (virtual or not) where you can find experiences not available anywhere else. It also depends on, as Lerner mentions in an aside, what we may expect by poetry-related "technologies" like "hip-hop, spoken word, or other creative linguistic practices," by which I take him to mean things like language and concrete poetries. In other words, we must still have hope that the future will make bypasses where we find impasses.

Lerner's book proceeds by readings of actual poems by Dickinson, Whitman, Rankine, and his readings are illuminating in how these poets decode representations, as they are poets for whom representation ("figuring") of the Poem is at once exploratory and problematic. You could make the case that the bitter logic also makes us capable of tragedy, but Lerner doesn't go there because that would require a different book. His aim is to underscore one kind of logic and to explore its consequences.

Don't get me wrong. I liked Lerner's book a good deal and think the theme he advances touches on something important (and his touch is deft, his style both confessional and sharply analytic). I particularly like his extension of this argument to explain the absence of poetry from the national discourse. If it is so important, why aren't we all talking about it? Of course, there are numerous explanations. For example, because poetry eschews the materialism of capitalist America and the equation of value with monetary value, it can't compete. As for its claim, if it is a claim, such as advanced by Coleridge and company, that poetry is a substitute for religion, poetry again seems laughably out of step in a world where old-time religion and robed orthodoxy themselves saturate so much of public and private life.

Despite the deflationary paradox at the center of The Hatred of Poetry ("...actual poems are structurally foredoomed by the 'bitter logic' that cannot be overcome by any level of virtuosity"), Lerner still keeps the back door cracked: "Hating on actual poems, then, is often an ironic if sometimes unwitting way of expressing the persistence of the utopian ideal of Poetry... (76) Haters, in this parlance, are always a pejorative bunch. Yet I came away wishing he had taken his argument further (the books weighs in at a mere 86 pages) and not doubled-down on the bitter logic, without taking a look at any number of actual poems that don't really resist or engage in an heroic but foredoomed agon, but, so to speak, dismiss the logic of bitterness out of hand. Many accept intimation of transcendence as itself transcendent, and so in collapsing the virtual/real distinction, they manage not to disappoint when compared to Poetry. I'm thinking of poems like Stevens' "To an Old Philosopher in Rome," Seferis' "The King of Asine," Heaney's "Lightenings," Eliot's "Little Gidding," Valery's "The Graveyard by the Sea"—the list is not short. Yes, there is a considerable bump when it comes to presuming to speak for all—one of the problematic claims made on behalf of Poetry (see Rankine, et al.), which presumption would pertain to all, if poetry's ambitions were always the same as Poetry's. What is at issue is how you feel about the difference between "figuring" and saying. What if, sometimes, there is no difference to get worked-up about? As for inflexible laws, I am reminded (I am always reminded) of Creeley, who wrote, "the world is dead in us/ if we forget/ the virtues of an amulet/ and quick surprise."

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