Reviewed by Randy Rosenthal
I first came across Ben Lerner’s work while sifting through piles of advance reader copies at the office of The Brooklyn Rail. Among the loot I took home was Leaving the Atocha Station, which I read with a curious amount of disgust. I could tell Lerner had an enviable mastery over the English language, but I found the novel unbearably self-indulgent; the pretentiousness of his protagonist made me cringe, and his other characters were basically cardboard cutouts. I planned to write an essay using Atocha as an example of how not to write first-person fiction. But I figured there’s never a reason to publish something nasty, and so I kept the piece to myself. Sometime later I was surprised to see James Wood’s fawning review of Atocha in The New Yorker. Suddenly, everyone was praising the novel, and Lerner’s work started to appear everywhere. I thought everyone had gone nuts.
When 10:04 came out a few years later, it really pissed me off. While reading the book I kept thinking: He’s so smart, but his writing is so stupid! A pastiche of vignettes and journal entries pandering to the identity politics that has captivated literary culture, I found 10:04 to be a fraud; to me it wasn’t a novel so much as an excuse for Lerner to get that fat advance he writes about in the opening chapter. Again, I passed on writing a nasty review. And as before, there was a parade of praise for Lerner’s second “novel,” which was lauded by many people whose opinion I otherwise respect.
By then I had developed a hatred of Ben Lerner. Yet I found myself able to tolerate his essays, and so when I saw he was coming out with a work of nonfiction titled The Hatred of Poetry, I had high hopes that one of Lerner’s books and I would finally get along.
I was not wrong. The Hatred of Poetry is Lerner at what he does best.
Poetry! Ugh. Like Marianne Moore (and Lerner himself), “I, too, dislike it.” In fact, I hate it. One of the toughest tasks of editing a literary magazine was finding poems worthy to print (which is why we usually went with Charles Simic). I admit poetry is beyond me, which is probably why I hate it. But for years I’ve been reading poetry every morning. My hope is that in a couple of decades I’ll maybe understand it. And now thanks to Lerner’s The Hatred of Poetry, I can at least formulate why I—and so many others—feel such animosity toward the art form while also holding it in such high regard. It’s because poetry as an ideal is perfect, but poems can never be. As Lerner writes, “Poetry isn’t hard, it’s impossible.”
Poetry is an impossible art, and we hate it because it cannot meet our standards. This is the “bitter logic of the poetic principle.” We have the idea that in the past poetry was capable of changing the world and speaking for humanity. In school we were taught that poetry has the power of transcendence, that it can connect us with the divine. We learned that poets can be dangerous, which is why they are jailed or banned by repressive regimes. And so when we grow up, we despise contemporary poetry for its utter impotence and self-absorption. Or when we simply don’t get it. But, Lerner argues, we shouldn’t knock poetry because of poems. Our contempt is actually a compliment: “Hating on actual poems, then, is often an ironic if sometimes unwitting way of expressing the persistence of the utopian ideal of Poetry.”
In other words, we hate poetry because we want to love it. Many of us want to be poets, but none of us can capture what’s in our mind. Even the best poems fall far short of what we feel they’re capable of achieving. And so Lerner says it’s time to get real: “The haters should stop pretending any poem ever successfully spoke for everyone.” He also reminds us that the usefulness of poetry lies in its very uselessness, and to expect poems to do something is to misunderstand their nature.
Even so, Lerner admits that poems can do something more than show us the gap between the ideal and the reality of poetry: they can make us feel less alone, or less unhappy, or less angry. Poems can cause us to smile. And we can find them inspiring. Perhaps that’s why there are over three hundred thousand websites devoted to poetry, even though we’ve heard poetry declared dead again and again. This means a hell of a lot of people still write poems. And that many of us still read them.