Book Review

The Hatred of Poetry by Ben Lerner

Photo on 05-07-2016 at 09.48 #2

A lot of people don’t read poetry.

A lot of people who read a lot of books, don’t read poetry.

A lot of people who read a lot of literary books, who chat about books a lot, don’t read poetry.

A lot of people who don’t read poetry, or even people who read poetry from time to time, don’t like it.

A lot of people who read poetry when they were at school, forced to by an insipid English teacher, don’t like the memory of it.

A lot of people think of poetry as something dry and dull and disappointing, something that offers a promise of universality, a promise of art and release and excitement, they think of poetry as something they’d hoped their life would be filled with, until they actually read any.

There’s that line in Withnail & I, reminiscing about youthful sexual excitement and a boy holding “a book of poetry stained with the butter drips from crumpets”. This is what poetry is meant to be, what poetry has attained the status of in the eyes of the world, something as transgressive as young lust, something that pulls one out of the present flesh and into intense excitement, something that powers nations and bodies and minds into great acts. Poetry is rebellious, is outside the norm, poetry is the original rock ‘n’ roll to be taken with languorous acts of sex and drugs when young. Poetry is meant to be monumental, your first poem as important as your first shag, an art form as suited to post-coital reflection as cigarettes and opium. Poetry is, in short, meant to be amazing.

But, as Lerner writes, it’s very often not, and this is where the hatred begins.

Poetry’s over-exalted reputation is where the gap lies, and this reputation has existed since the ancient world. Plato, writes Lerner:

concluded that there was no place for poetry in the Republic because poets are rhetoricians who pass off imaginative projections as the truth and risk corrupting the citizens of the just city, especially the impressionable youth.

This is the position that poetry has been struggling to attain ever since, a position whereby it’s so transcendental that cities are at risk by poets merely existing within it. Because society tells us that poetry has the capacity for such greatness, such weightiness, such import, the fact that we encounter so much dull poetry in school is a tragedy in itself, almost as if the education establishment designs its poetry courses in order to keep interest away. I think if I’d had a copy of Howl put into my hands for the first time when I was 17 instead of 21, I’d’ve probably grown into an adult who drowns in verse rather than prose.

Lerner is, for those of you who don’t know him, a poet and novelist. His poetry was (as he seems to have stepped away, at least for a bit) written often in prose, but it was poetry, it’s good. He published three volumes of “verse” before switching to writing novels, and his Leaving the Atocha Station and 10:04 are both hugely lauded contemporary works, and both well worth a read. The Hatred of Poetry is an essay, published in the UK by the wonderful Fitzcarraldo Editions, and falls into the classic genre of a “defence” of poetry. Lerner – as an academic, teacher, poet and novelist – has a keen personal and professional interest in poetry, but he finds it frustrating too. Like a pet or a child or a long-term partner, it is an essential part of his sense of self, but it is a deeply confusing and external part that he can never truly know.

The poetic defence is a common poetic trope, and Lerner cites several, the most famous being the late 16th century The Defence of Poesy by Sir Philip Sidney. Here, when English language poetry was at its most popular, when it was – in the opinion of many – at its peak, poetry was still something that had to be defended. Poetry was not faultless even in the era of Shakespeare, poetry was something that needed to be defended, rather than an entity able to hold its own justification within itself. If poetry is meant to be so powerful it can collapse cities through its corrupting influence, surely it shouldn’t need defending? But it does, is the point, it always has and it always will, because of its reputation.

Later on, Lerner criticises the critics of poetry, and how there are two conflicting and ever-growing avenues of contemporary disapproval. One is that poetry aims to be too individualistic, that poetry seeks to speak in a unique voice of a unique experience and thus loses value, and the second criticism is that poetry seeks to be too universal, with evocations of mutual societal experience failing to connect due to differing lives of readers. These two criticisms cancel each other out – poets cannot aim to both express themselves less and express others less, the idea of the truly universal poem is a false one. Lerner appoints these ideas to old-fashioned, institutionalised, academic criticism, a result of ingrained gender and racial privilege. Too many critics, Lerner argues, expect the “normalised” experience described in a poem to be the experience of a white male, and these critics moan about anything that doesn’t situate the central poetic experience within their comfort zone. Claudia Rankine is cited as a poet who has suffered this criticism, as a prominent African-American, female, poet, and Lerner’s praise of her work and his selection of quotations from her are very flattering, in fact I’ve already gone and bought a copy of one of her books. The central point of the section about Rankine is to emphasise the ridiculousness of this tenet of hatred of poetry – a good poem must speak of the individual experience, and the individual experience is naturally an evocation of an experience that occurred within a community, within a society, within humanity. To dismiss any poem for not being “universal” enough is ridiculous – we all lead different lives, and though we all wander through life facing different adversities (some more than others), we all share the same ultimate human needs: food, shelter, sex and access to the internet at speeds suitable for streaming.

Poetry disappoints because society believes that poetry is, or should be, the most exalted of all the literary arts. Poetry is hated because people believe it should hold “planet-like music” (Sidney) within its verses, and it almost never does. Poetry is hated because children are encouraged to write poems but adults are encouraged to repress their creative urges; poets are hated because other people are jealous of their continued ability to play.

We have a strong idea of how powerful poetry should be, and every bad poem is an example of the gap that emphasises the possible wonder, though every mediocre poem is a strike against that promise: if poems can be mediocre rather than life-changing or dull, does that dull the perceived extremes?

Ben Lerner has written an inspired, informed and interesting essay on the conflicting ways poetry is perceived in the modern age. He discusses race, gender, politics and philosophy, and he also talks a lot about specific poets. As well as the Rankine, he’s also inspired me to move the dusty Walt Whitman volume I’ve got much nearer to the top of my “to read” pile.

Poetry, Lerner emphasises, has great value to both the casual and the in-depth reader, and its perceived aloofness is a big problem that will never go away. Poetry has mythologised itself, and Lerner has no idea how to go about undoing that, particularly as it’s been done for millennia. This is fun, engaging and educational. Recommended, as is everything else Fitzcarraldo Editions publish.

2 comments on “The Hatred of Poetry by Ben Lerner

  1. Pingback: 100 Haikus about Haemorrhoid Cream by Lewis Parker & Friends – The Triumph of the Now

  2. Great post ! I’ve been writing a couple of things that tumble out- the more I read and discover, the more ‘uneducated’ I realise my poetry is. Can be off putting! But then the words tumble out again.
    I’ll keep this post as a reminder. Thanks!
    Poems.sketch31.co.uk

    Liked by 1 person

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