Thursday, September 01, 2016

The Hatred of Poetry by Ben Lerner

Review by Wendell Smith

The Hatred of Poetry
Copyright 2016 by Ben Lerner
Ferrar Straus and Giroux
New York, NY 10011
IBSN: 9780865478206(paperback)

The Hatred of Poetry was presented to me as fortuitously as The Never Ending Story was to Bastian Balthazar Bux, as an apparition the legendary Joe Leaphorn would have told Jim Chee not to dismiss as coincidental. This monograph celebrating our ambivalent dependence upon poetry manifested one Saturday morning on the table of the Bagel Bards at the Au Bon Pain in Davis Square by way of the Canton Public Library. I picked it up preparing a rebuttal that I never got to because, when I discovered that Ben Lerner had first encountered this conundrum we call poetry where I had, in an English class at Topeka High School, I was hooked, and I soon discovered that even with my head start (I graduated from THS in 1960, he in the mid ‘90s) he was way ahead of me.

Lerner begins his essay with an anecdote that sets a comic tone for our shared struggle with poetry. His freshman English teacher, Mrs. X, requires her class to choose a poem to memorize and then recite. Learner, well, let's let him tell the story:

So I went and asked the Topeka High School librarian to direct me to the shortest poem she knew, and she suggested Marianne Moore's "Poetry," which, in the 1967 version, reads in its entirety:

I, too, dislike it.
      Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it,
one discovers in
      it, after all, a place for the genuine.

I remember thinking my classmates were suckers for having mainly memorized Shakespeare's eighteenth sonnet, whereas I had only to recite 24 words. Never mind the fact that a set rhyme and iambic pentameter make 14 of Shakespeare's lines easier to memorize then Moore's three, each one of which is interrupted by a conjunctive adverb – a parallelism of awkwardness that basically serves as its form.
* * *
In fact, "Poetry" is a very difficult poem to commit to memory, as I demonstrated by failing to get it right each of the three chances I was given by Mrs. X, who was looking down at the text my classmates cracking up.

He follows his narration of this joke that poetry has played upon him with some 80 pages of cogent prose exploring the implications of those three lines and 24 words. “I too dislike it,” becomes a mantra that brings unity to the variety of his arguments and I am finding his essay more useful in “understanding poetry” than Cleanth Brooks’ and Robert Penn Warren’s tome, Understanding Poetry. One reason I think Lerner’s book is more useful is that he seems to know poems should be experienced, felt not “understood.” This brings to mind a poem about poetry, which we foist upon high school students, Archibald McLeish's, "Ars Poetica"; although I find it too precious by half -- “I, too, dislike it”-- its final two lines "A poem should not mean/But be." support this idea that the “meaning” of poems is somehow beyond comprehension by our reason.

The Hatred of Poetry has a quality that I think good criticism needs; it stimulates your imagination about the poems you already love; it encourages you to freely associate with them, which enlarges their being. For example, as I was contemplating poems above for recruiting youth to The Hatred of Poetry I thought, rather than “Ars Poetica,” we would be more successful if we were to subject them to Ramon Guthrie's, "On Seeing the First Woodchuck of the Spring and the Last Pterodactyl." And, although my reasons for preferring Guthrie are an essay for another day, I think the arrival of Guthrie in the middle of this evaluation of Lerner's monograph demonstrates The Hatred of Poetry’s power of provocation. Why bother to read criticism if it doesn't set you thinking about its subject, set your mind to exploring the territory.

In fact, I think this little monograph (the book is 7.5 X 5 inches and the text blocks are 3 X 5) would make an excellent text for any introduction to poetry. Ironically, before you could subject the tender eyes of sexting adolescents to it, you would have to edit out his one use of "fucking." In spite of how refreshing it would be to have the language of everyday discourse used in a discussion of poetry and how that use might free students to think about how to dislike it, "fucking" would be the excuse censors would use to dismiss Lerner. I think, their real objection might be that his thesis brings him to praise poetry such as Claudia Rankine's with its power to make us feel; in her case its power to breed empathy in our souls for what our racism does to her, how our racism lashes at her sensibility, and to recognized the shear produced in our own souls by our concurrent awareness of our white privilege (I feel your pain and I am simultaneously protected from it.). If our hatred of poetry can lead us to appreciate such poetry, then it will lead us to appreciate our hatreds and the paradox that we can’t do anything about our hatreds until we can appreciate them. And those appreciations lead us to question a social status quo. In other words, The Hatred of Poetry is dangerous. This danger attributed to poetry is another theme dating to Plato, which Lerner explores in parallel with the paradox that poetry has also been reviled for being impotent. 

The Hatred is good criticism because it gets you thinking in new ways about poetry familiar to you while it introduces you to poetry with which you weren’t familiar. Learner has intriguing things to say about a bundle of poets beginning with “Caedmon, the first poet in English whose name we know” to Whitman and Dickinson. As he discusses them he develops his compelling thesis: poets, too, “dislike it” even as they write it, because the imaginative source of the poem can never be realized by either the poet, nor her reader. As a dream is lucid until we wake so the poem is lucid until it is written (Lerner’s metaphor). Thus the poet is doomed to failure (truth perceived is always compromised when translated into words) but also doomed to perpetually attempt that translation. The argument implies that the human condition is a divine imagination, which can’t be expressed fully in a material reality (illusion?). Wordsworth (the irony of allegory): "our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting;" Browning: "Ah, but man's reach should exceed his grasp." You, no doubt, have your own fragments that point to what we might come to know about our selves through poetry once we admit our hatred for it. Here is how Lerner puts it in his concluding paragraph:

There is no need to go on multiplying examples of an impulse that can produce no adequate examples – of a capacity that can't be objectified without falsification. I've written in its defense, and in defense of our denunciation of it, because that is the dialectic of a vocation no less essential for being impossible. All I ask of the haters – and I, too, am one – is that they strive to perfect their contempt, even consider bringing it to bear on poems, where it will be deepened, not dispelled, and where, by creating a place for possibility and present absences (like unheard melodies), it might come to resemble love.

And I’ll close my praise with a cheer, “Hoy! Hoy! Mighty Troy!” that may only be appreciated fully by the 15,000 or so of our fellow graduates because, if he continues writing like this, Ben Lerner could become to 21st century American letters what another Topeka High School alumnus, Dean Smith, became to 20th century American basketball.


  1. But this review (and I suppose the book too) doesn't even touch on the original reason for the "hatred" of poetry - this goes back to Plato, who held the poets (and the teachers of rhetoric, known as sophists) responsible for the death of Socrates. Socrates had managed to make fools of them simply by asking them pointed questions that revealed that they literally did not know what they were talking about. Added to this is the poetic license to lie; this leads to the misrepresentation of the gods (the entanglement of the divine nature, which is deemed perfect, with all sorts of sordid human-all-too-human stories of rape, swindles, battles, and trickery). It was the poets and the sophists who had really corrupted the youth by misrepresenting the true nature of divinity, and by undermining morality by "making the strong argument weak and the weak argument strong" - as lawyers and politicians are wont to do. Only philosophy - the disinterested quest for truth - can put things right, for "there will be no justice until philosophers are kings and kings philosophers". Of course, a defense can be made of the art of poetry (and rhetoric) but the defense must take account of and furnish answers to these deep and serious charges, something neither this book nor this review comes close to doing.

  2. Anonymous8:10 PM

    This is from the reviewer, Wendell Smith, because I could not get my reply accepted except as anonymous. Dear OraPro, Thanks for your comment; it is good to know that someone is paying attention. However, I did mention that Ben, in his discussion of the hatred of poetry dealt with Plato's argument. Vide supra: " In other words, The Hatred of Poetry is dangerous. This danger attributed to poetry is another theme dating to Plato, which Lerner explores in parallel with the paradox that poetry has also been reviled for being impotent." I didn't spend much space on this part of his essay because I limit myself to 1500 or so words. I think if you read the book, you may well discover that it furnishes some answers. My review does not provide answers; my intention in writing it was not to provide them but to provoke others into reading The Hatred of Poetry.--Wendell Smith