Loads of Learned Lumber

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Ben Lerner, _The Hatred of Poetry_

A CURSORY SURVEY of online commentray suggests that quite a few people have one complaint or another about this book, but I thought it was very good--lucid, sensible, helpful.

Taking off, as anyone might expect, from Marianne Moore's most famous line, Lerner considers poetry's situation as one of those arts that, on the one hand, enjoys some prestige--prizes, professorships, hushed reverence within a few straitly-bound precincts--yet, on the other, gets routinely ignored even by people who pride themselves as keeping current with, say, film or fiction or  ambitious varieties of popular music. Like opera, ballet, and chamber music, poetry is sometimes dismissed as too abstruse, or antique, or solipsistic, or elitist...for some reason, no one loses much cred for saying they dislike poetry.

Lerner usefully points out that even poets themselves, like Moore, in a way dislike it, or are frustrated  with its or their own limitations. The poets we must honor today (Lerner mentions Dickinson and Whitman) were those who did their utmost to get beyond whatever the prevailing notion of poetry was in their own time. Poetry is language that tries to transcend the possibilities of language, as Lerner argues, and failure and disappointment await in nearly every attempt.

So the prestige, he says, in effect attaches to Poetry, the dislike (disdain, ridicule) to poems and, erm, poets: "Hating on actual poems, then, is often an ironic if sometimes unwitting way of expressing the utopian ideal of Poetry, and the jeremiads in that regard are defenses, too" (76). Given the frequency with which someone or other routinely gets a few thousand words in Harpers or The Atlantic or The [late] New Republic to lament that American poetry is moribund (even when, as Lerner points out, the someone or other betrays a near-perfect ignorance of contemporary poetry), I am glad to have Lerner's essay. The dislike--okay, the hatred--of poetry is, he shows us, the cradle of poetry, a kind of enabling circumstance, that helps bring forth the kind of work that at least some of us prize, even find indispensable.

No comments: