The Short Version: Why do so many people hate poetry, or at least claim that they do? What is it, through history, that has caused a disconnect between the idea of poetry as perhaps the most noble of art forms… and the reality of its crushing inadequacy? Ben Lerner, a noted poet in his own right, believes that it may be part of poetry’s essence: that there will always be an impossible gap between a poem’s goal and its actual effect.
The Review: I only came to enjoy poetry, really enjoy it, in the last two or so years. Oh, sure: I had an appreciation for some individual poems here and there, I’m a Shakespearean actor by training, a good song is poetry set to music, and the beauty of, say, the Longfellow translation of The Divine Comedy is nearly unimpeachable. But it was Saeed Jones’ Prelude to Bruise (and, not too long thereafter, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric) that suddenly cracked poetry wide open for me. I suddenly saw the beauty in the sometimes archaic-seeming structures and rules of the line and verse, the way that poetry could speak more directly to some inherent internal truth of life than any thousands of pages of novel could attempt. Nobody has responded to the epidemic of gun violence and general violence against African Americans better than Rankine, for example.
But why do I look at poetry askance, even still? Why do most poets look at it a little sideways, demurring or acknowledging the futility or absurdity of their careers? Lerner, a novelist whose work I love and whose voice is absolutely formed by his work in the poetic form, sets out to explore why he feels that way – and, hopefully, in so doing, provide a sort of backdoor defense of poetry and why it matters. To my mind, he is completely successful: The Hatred of Poetry shows the indefensibility of poetry and exactly why that indefensibility is itself a paradoxical defense of the art.
“The fatal problem with poetry: poems” is a great encapsulation of that paradox – and it’s rather true. Lerner’s explanation of this stems from a truth that we all learn in school: “…we were taught at an early age that we are all poets simply by virtue of being human.” This is the core of Lerner’s argument: that humanity has decreed that poetry is inherent in every human soul – but the poems we produce altogether rarely approach the indescribable beauty of the human soul. He refers, several times, to the story of Caedmon, the first English poet whose name is known: Caedmon falls asleep and dreams of a divine entity who asks him to sing of the beginning of all things. He does so and, when he wakes, he scrambles to transfer that dream-song/poem into a corporeal one. As anyone who has ever dreamed can tell you, a dream version of something is impossible to recreate in reality and even the best recreation is only a pale simulacrum. This difference, between the Poem and the poem (as Lerner also puts it), is the crux of the reason we as a society dislike poetry: because it promises something it can never deliver.
He goes through several poets from history, beginning with Plato and encompassing Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, John Keats, William Topaz McGonagall (in a delightful takedown of the first stanza of perhaps the worst poem of all time), Claudia Rankine, Elizabeth Alexander, Amiri Baraka, Marianne Moore, and others – and each time, he shows how these varied poets have attempted to capture something that is both individual and universal and how, even at their very best, they have necessarily failed. Early in the book, he cites reading Marianne Moore’s “Poetry” as a child (he was meant to memorize it for class and failed rather hilariously) and how that first line – “I, too, dislike it” – becomes a sort of mantra for him. It also serves, upon reflection, as one of the best achievements of poetry, for it delivers an individual’s thought that manages to capture something altogether larger and more immortal than any individual could ever be.
The paradox that we know Lerner is working towards throughout the whole book is encapsulated in his closing paragraph, where he requests that the haters – “and I, too, am one” – attempt to refine and consider their distaste in the hopes that it “might come to resemble love.” These two things are, as the poets themselves might tell us, closely entwined, and I feel lucky to’ve begun my own move from hate towards love-through-hate of poetry just in time to read this essay. Lerner’s voice is as close and immediate as it is in his novels and that near-fiction quality of his narrative voice even pops up a few times, my favorite being the following Shakespeare in the Park reference:
Since then, I’ve been attending outdoor theater when I can, less interested in the particular play than in watching, say, a police helicopter over Central Park drift into the airspace over the Forest of Arden – while, back in the historical present, I like to imagine, the suspect escapes.
There is an inherent recognition in Lerner’s essay that the oft-repeated maxim of poetry being evident in every human mind is true. Yes, I would agree with him that it doesn’t make sense: every other art form requires some element of practice and natural talent. But poetry is itself an attempt, more than anything else, to express the inexpressible about being human – and so it may manifest itself as a moment when you’re stopped still by light dappling through trees across a fire escape out an apartment window with conversation from the neighboring restaurant drifting through the breeze and an acoustic guitar strumming quietly through the closed door at the other end of the apartment. Or perhaps it manifests as the slight dizziness at the news of another shooting, another life or lives stopped short because a policeman or an extremist couldn’t stop themselves short, and the way that the muscles around your heart constrict and your palms get sweaty and the tears don’t quite make it into your eyes even though they did the last time but maybe the last time was already one time too many. You may not be able to express how these moments or any moments strike you, or you may choose to express them in means other than the poetic. But the experience of them is Poetry – and we hate poetry because it will never quite express the inexpressible.
At least we have the likes of Ben Lerner to help us think about it, though.
Rating: 5+ out of 5.