The Hatred of Poetry
“Poetry is a word for a kind of value no particular poem can realise.” This is the problem identified by the American poet Ben Lerner in this lucid and engaging book – more a long essay – that seeks to understand poetry’s reviled status in the Western world.
Lerner presents the form as burdened with impossible ideals and then hated for its inevitable failure to meet them. He traces how these expectations and failures are played out in various contexts.
He begins with poets themselves, who conceive a perfect poem in their mind, which they can never realise. Indeed, Lerner identifies hatred as “internal to the art” of poetry, providing the angst and ambition that drive composition. Poetry is also perceived in grandiose terms as the expression of our humanity, in a way that is bound to breed resentment from those who do not practise it. In addition, the form has “social stakes” despite its “tremendous social marginalisation”. Poetry is supposed to unite a nation, in the manner of the 19th-century American poet Walt Whitman, speaking in a language that includes everyone. Thus it is predictably hated for being too private or sectarian.
Elsewhere, showing off his skill with the epigrammatic, Lerner describes avant-garde poetry – which, despite dreams of reforming society, “remains a poem” – as “a bomb that never goes off”.
Poetry is supposed to represent “an alternative to the kind of value that circulates in the economy”. The poet should be unemployed and thus pure. This ideal is one that academic poets perhaps most conspicuously betray and are thus hated for.
Even the various defences of poetry that have been mounted over centuries describe an “ideal poem” in ways that deny “the bitterness of the actual”. This is because every actual poem reminds us of the ideal poem against which it cannot compete. Thus Lerner pithily writes: “The fatal problem with poetry: poems.”
This witty and wise book goes some way to addressing this absurdity. Without anxious recourse to academic jargon or inflaming long-running arguments, Lerner transcends the battles over poetry’s proper provenance by identifying a common problem: a self-defeating idealism. The solution? Engage with actual poetry, Lerner advises poetry readers and haters, in order to “perfect” your contempt into an emotion that “might come to resemble love”. KN
Text, 98pp, $19.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 18, 2016 as "Ben Lerner, The Hatred of Poetry". Subscribe here.