Hating Poetry

Ben Lerner–poet, novelist, and McArthur foundation “genius”–has expanded his London Review of Books article into a “best-selling” monograph published by FSG entitled “The Hatred of Poetry.”  A catchy title, to be sure.  Indeed, that title is probably responsible for its #1 place in poetry criticism on Amazon.com.

Lerner is a fine  and witty writer and his essay begins with a nice discussion of the long tradition of hating poetry, particularly among accomplished philosophers and poets, starting with Plato, and most memorably epitomized by Marianne Moore’s poem “Poetry,” which begins, “I, too, dislike it.”  Lerner’s argument is that poetry attempts the impossible and is, therefore, bound to disappoint:

Poetry arises from the desire to get beyond the finite and the historical–the human world of violence and difference–and to reach the transcendent or the divine. You’re moved to write a poem, you feel called upon to sing, because of that transcendent impulse. But as soon as you move from that impulse to the actual poem, the song of the infinite is compromised by the finitude of its terms. In a dream, your verses can defeat time, your words can shake off the history of their usage, you can represent what can’t be represented (e.g., the creation of representation itself), but when you wake…you’re back in the human world with its inflexible laws and logic…. The poem is always a record of failure. (8)

Fair enough, as far as it goes (and I will argue it doesn’t go as far as Lerner thinks), but this is hardly new: “the mind is but a fading coal in creation” (Shelley); “the owl of Minerva flies at midnight” (Hegel);”a man [or a poet’s] reach should exceed his grasp or what’s a heaven for” (Browning) “heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter” (Keats, which Lerner quotes).  It’s a fundamental premise of Romanticism on both sides of the Atlantic from Emerson and Whitman to Byron, Keats, Shelley and Goethe. But Lerner gives it, in his elaboration, his own new twist.  It is this twist that leads him, I believe, into difficulties and an analysis that, while begun with wit and felicity, devolves into the staking of a place in the PC/culture “wars” that is tiresome in its regurgitation of the sort of poor reasoning and sloppy conclusions that have been the staple of graduate school literary analysis for the last couple of decades.

The twist: there is always behind any poem, the “virtual poem”–the one the poet heard in his dreams and is trying to write–“the abstract potential of the medium as felt by the poet when called upon to sing”–and the “actual poem,’ which necessarily betrays that impulse when it joins the world of representation.” (9) This virtual poem sounds a lot like Plato’s concept of the “forms” in which every object in existence is only a poor approximation of its ideal version (virtual version?) in the world of the forms.  Thus, every chair is only an approximation of the idea of the chair which exists only in the realm of the forms–abstract and supersensible, available only to the philosopher’s intellect. Every poem, for Lerner, is a poor and faded copy of this “virtual poem” that couldn’t be brought back from I’m not quite sure where into our reality of messy, historically contaminated language and the equally historically contaminated experience of self–that troublesome lyric “I,” as the critics like to say, i.e. the self of the poem.

But pretty soon “virtual” goes from being only an adjective, describing an ineradicable state of things–the inaccessibility of this pure poem–to a verb, as in, to “virtualize” a poem (Lerner’s locution, not mine). Hmmm.  It turns out the poet can do, well, stuff, to make the actual poem better approach this pure, virtual poem–by the way, somehow Lerner has gotten Plato’s terms reversed (perhaps on purpose), for “virtual” means, in essence, artificial or near to reality but not actually embodying it, but for Lerner, this “virtualism” is the genuine article an actual poem can only hope to partly unmask.  This unmasking, or virtualization, is done by various tricks that mostly add up to suggesting absence.  Thus Dickinson’s dashes or Claudia Rankine’s vergules help “virtualize” their poetry. “Vergule,” as Lerner takes pains to explain, is the technical term for the slashes used to suggest line breaks in the quotation of poetry, but which were also incorporated into the verse line of poets like Pound and Olson–whom Lerner mentions–and Etheridge Knight, who, unaccountably, given Rankine’s biography and subject matter as an African American poet, Lerner ignores.  Lerner’s readings of both Dickinson and Rankine are astute and illuminating, but they do little to convince me of the value of his analytical binary (virtual/actual). Pretty soon, this process of “virtualizing” seems to be the way to, at least partly, overcome the great gap between the “virtual” poem and the written one.

Indeed, we might remember that the Romantics understood the sublime as premised on an asymmetry of form–an incommensurateness that can be adumbrated but not fully illustrated.  Their solution to the problem, however, was not to “virtualize,” but to become open to a very deep experience of a particular moment–usually, admittedly, one in nature– and then to bring all their craft and skill to bear on the effort to bring as much of that experience back as possible.  The idea, simply enough, was to try to recreate in the reader the experience the writer had had. Technique was crucial and would have to work to serve this purpose–elliptical elements and clever punctuation could certainly be part of it (see that belated Romantic, and early modernist Mallarme) but were hardly the essence of it.  To be honest, I don’t really see any improvement of the analysis by shifting from the terms and understandings developed in the 19th century to the terminology Lerner is offering here, and I find his terminology confused.

But this is not my true objection.  Every generation invents its own terminology in poetry to say many of the same things that have been said in other words for centuries and even millenia. So it goes. The literary ego must make its mark–reinscribing over what has already been said its new way of saying it. But eventually, Lerner lets his virtual/actual slide over into a discussion of universal/historical, where the first term is the bad old boogeyman of hegemonic white males presuming to speak for a dehistoricized “us” (or, rather, Other) and “historical” refers to a poetry that deals with, well, history, the culturally determined self, not the pure lyric “I.”  I’m not really sure how this shift even happens since his “virtual” is clearly not the “universal” since he sees that as  only a hegemonic ruse.  But Lerner claims to get there by starting to discuss the “haters of poetry” who are nostalgic for a time when poetry was “universal” and are disappointed by how limited and personal most poetry–even very well crafted, well received poetry–has become. These “haters of poetry” seem to be categorically different from the “haters of poetry” that Lerner casts himself and Marianne Moore with–those who hate poetry because it cannot live up to its ideal promise to speak the genuine self. Lerner and Moore hate poetry because they know it well, have lived (and read) deeply into it.  These nostalgic haters, though, seem to see poetry as delivery system for a particular ideology and are unhappy to see poetry concern itself so much with personal details and historical experience.  They love Whitman and, we’re told, Robert Lowell who gave us a vision of an uncomplicated American “we” that dovetailed well with the totalizing discourse of politicians who are always ready to speak of and for “the American people.”

Stop the presses! Lerner’s characterizations of both Lowell and Whitman are retreads of similar caricatures offered in literary criticism in the last two decades.  While some of what Lerner says about Whitman (who gets much more discussion) is true (though none of it original), much of it is distorted.  I suggest that Lerner read Whitman’s _Specimen Days_ to get a much richer understanding of his poetic project and of his ambivalent feelings about the burgeoning American republic. As far as Lowell goes, his willingness to go to jail as a conscientious objector doesn’t even register as a protest to the powers that be, so strong is the ideological meme here of Lowell as that embodiment of hegemonic poetic authority: Boston Brahmin, dead white male.  Really, what more need be said?

In the end, Lerner’s analysis (save for its last ten wonderful pages, more on that soon) is a defense, it seems, of littleness in poetry.  If the virtual poem is unreachable, why even try that hard?  If universality is a hegemonic ruse, why shouldn’t poets shun it? Why not just “write what one knows”?  Thus, resentments, both those historically justified and those personal and petty, get lots of play as do small middle class observations about small middle class things.  Then “virtualize” this subject matter with craft and typographical innovations.

OK,now maybe I’m not being fair.

So let me put this another way. One of Lerner’s villains–one of those “nostalgists”–is the writer George Packer who argued in his New Yorker blog that having poets read at the President’s inaugural no longer seemed appropriate since “American poetry has become such a private activity, written by a few people for a few people” and no longer speaking to the nation as a whole. In particular, Packer faults the choice of Elizabeth Alexander for the 2008 inaugural:

Alexander writes with a fine, angry irony, in vividly concrete images, but her poems have the qualities of most contemporary American poetry–a specificity that’s personal and unsuggestive, with moves toward the general that are self-consciously academic. They are not poems that would read well before an audience of millions.

Lerner faults Packer, in turn, for his desire for a poet “who could unite us in our difference, constituting a collective subject through the magic of language and prosody…an I that contains multitudes.”  But ideology might not save us here.  Packer’s analysis is clearly, pace what Lerner suggests about the nostalgists not really knowing poetry, nuanced and trenchant. I’ve read Alexander’s work and the description is apt (one might quarrel with ‘unsuggestive,’ but if we took her poems to South Central LA or the south side of Chicago and read them to folks at the laundry mat, I doubt they would catch many ears as resonant with their experience–academics on the other hand enjoy her very much).  Packer offers Walcott as someone who would serve better. Lerner demurs, saying “how, I’m not sure.” Well, here’s exhibit A:

…and I, Shabine, saw

when these slums of empire was paradise.

I’m just a red nigger who love the sea,

I had a sound colonial education,

I have Dutch, nigger, and English in me,

and either I’m nobody, or I’m a nation.

This is from Walcott’s magnificent long poem “The Schooner Flight.” History and universality are opposing forces, to be sure; but the poet’s job is to begin to reconcile them without failing to give either its due.  Contrary to Lerner’s simplistic schema, a great poet need not sacrifice history for a hegemonic self that serves the privileged; she voices all those specifics in a context whose amplitude still suggests a larger whole.  Walcott’s language, imagery, and dialectic inflections here (as well as his masterful repurposing of a Longfellowish dactylic tetrameter) all prove that what in lesser hands are only irreconcilable contradictions–parts with no coherence within a whole–can be forged into paradoxes of selfhood, where neither history nor a larger conception of the self need be sacrificed–at least, not within the understanding of the poem. To ask a poem for more (and Lerner seems to do so when he faults Whitman for the failings of subsequent Americans to fulfill his expansive historical vision) is indeed to learn to hate poetry, in earnest.  Indeed, Maya Angelou achieved much the same amplitude in her poem for the Clinton inauguration–“On the Pulse of the Morning.”  Alexander’s Inauguration poem reached for the same, but seemed to fall short.  I suggest this was more a matter of poetic gift (or, if you prefer, temperament) than of Alexander’s deeper understanding relative to Walcott and Angelou of the right relationship between the particular and the universal in the enterprise of poetry.

Finally, I just need to say–and this almost is the whole point–I  think great poems get a lot closer to that “virtual” poem than Lerner seems willing to credit–perhaps he is reluctant to do so because when such poems do this they themselves begin to play havoc with these neat little categories.  There are genuine show stoppers out there that given even a mildly attentive audience will capture the attention of just about everyone who understands the language in which the poem is read.  Read Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night” with conviction at a wake and see if it doesn’t turn every face your way.  Why did the sales of Auden’s poetry go through the roof after the success of “Three Weddings and a Funeral”?  Who doesn’t stand dumbstruck before a recitation of the 23rd Psalm in the King James version, regardless of his religious belief or lack thereof? Who doesn’t find themselves debating life choices in Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”?  Who isn’t taken off guard by the frank sexual wit of Sapphos (regardless of his/her sexual orientation) or the stunning word music of so many of Shakespeare’s sonnets?  The fact is that Lerner couldn’t even appreciate Rankine if there wasn’t some underlying “universality” upon which he might, even if only partially, meet her protest and her pain.  Great poets do make successful “raids on the inarticulate” (as Eliot called it).  When we hate poetry, we do so not because it fails to be virtual (I say, thank God for that!), but either because it has stopped trying to make such raids–become little and personable and career-able–or because we unconsciously hate that we have stopped even trying to hear the inarticulate and so turn a deaf ear to the attempt; like Rilke facing the angel, we cannot bear any longer the presence of such a combination of power and goodness.




Published in: on July 4, 2016 at 7:29 am  Leave a Comment