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The UK and US covers of Ben Lerner's The Hatred of Poetry | Courtesy of Fitzcarraldo Editions and FSG, respectively.
The UK and US covers of Ben Lerner's The Hatred of Poetry | Courtesy of Fitzcarraldo Editions and FSG, respectively.

Ben Lerner's New Long-form Essay Explains Your Hatred of Poetry

Picture of Simon Leser
UK Literary Editor
Updated: 27 August 2016
Having already written prize winners in both poetry and fiction, it seems rather fitting that Ben Lerner — for a few years now a man endeared to critics everywhere — would have his latest project be a polemic.

As the name suggests, The Hatred of Poetry aims to explain the art form’s amazing propensity to attract condescension, or worse, on a scale that far surpasses the (limited) size of its audience. Even poets, we are told, hold something against poetry. So is that where their angst comes from? No. Well… partly. You see, Lerner’s point is fairly straightforward: If there is no art historically quite as hated as poetry (a plausible premise, even if painting offers stiff competition), it’s got something to do with the way poems work. In essence, to write poetry is to follow an impulse to get beyond the ‘finite and historical into something more transcendent, an ideal; a hopeless task, because the moment that impulse is transcribed into a (finite) poem, it necessarily loses all pretense of perfection. Thus, the argument follows, ‘poetry isn’t hard, it’s impossible.’

And so, in society, a poet is met with accusation and embarrassment. The former happens because people have, at the very least, some intimation of the artist’s unsuccess. The latter because most of us are taught to revere poetry as a kind of ultimate art form and will have, at some point or another, attempted to get into it (unlike with other arts, literacy is all one needs to get writing, and it shows). Rest assured, though this inherent failure manages to bring poets and readers together in disdain, it is in fact precisely what makes poetry work. Why? ‘Poet and reader of poetry are united in a suspicion of the song of any ‘earthly poet,” Lerner writes, ‘and that suspicion is the ground for an intuition of the ideal.’ In other words, a poem must be hated, because its shortcomings are how we know it attempts to be universal — to be perfect.

To support his argument, the author provides delicious close readings of artists from William Topaz McGonagall (who is widely considered to be the worst poet in the English language) to Emily Dickinson. He does so in clear and informal prose — something far from guaranteed when poets are doing the writing — complete with mildly humorous margin remarks, which somehow remind of a sketch by Fry and Laurie (a fantastic one, at that). The essay culminates in a rebuke of critiques on the state of modern poetry, which always seem to think the art fails because it should ‘speak for everyone,‘ i.e. be more universal than it is now, to remedy its lack of appeal. The logical and necessary debunking of so blatant a political intrusion into the artistic sphere seems a perfect setup for an enjoyable attack, and Lerner doesn’t disappoint. 

***

For all that, however, The Hatred of Poetry lacks depth in a few important points. One cannot very well define poetry without offering some idea of what art actually is, which is a problem Lerner doesn’t reassure on, despite 100 pages or so of enjoyable discourse. Striving for an unattainable ideal, it must be realized, is the common lot of all artists, whatever their media. No work of art, whether it be prose or music, is exactly as perfect as its creator imagined it should be — though some, like Nabokov’s first forays in Speak, Memory, or the introductory movement to Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto, certainly do appear to come close (Zadie Smith’s little essay on the matter of fiction is an enlightening read). The point here isn’t that poetry is impossible, but rather that all art is; no particular dislike for that form can originate there.

And that’s where the question of universality becomes key. It is, of course, inconceivable that as political — or, at least, social — an agenda as poetry speaking for everyone should have any bearing in art. Nonetheless, it must be acknowledged that the universality of art has nothing to do with such concerns. It is in the fact that art is expression — i.e. an emotion expressed in a way standard speech cannot — that great works can be considered universal. Art, therefore, is not supposed to speak for everyone as much as it is supposed to speak to everyone.

And therein lies the problem: Poetry, as an art, is emotion expressed through a form of aesthetics; one that, if done correctly, should appeal to all readers regardless of who they are. If the emotional tone of a musical piece can instantly be divined by its listeners, any work of art likewise appeals, by its very form, to the emotions of its beholders. In poetry, it is the sound and rhythm of words which give the work its beauty; meaning, though always in the mind of the poet, comes later. Nabokov’s famous opening to Pale Fire, ‘I was the shadow of the waxwing slain / By the false azure in the windowpane (or its more beautiful version, a few stanzas later: ‘I was the shadow of the waxwing slain / By the feigned remoteness in the windowpane), is striking precisely because it sounds so perfect. And what could be more universal than that?


 

THE HATRED OF POETRY
by Ben Lerner
Farrar, Straus and Giroux / Fitzcarraldo Editions
120pp. $12.00 / £9.99