The Art of Hating: Ben Lerner’s ‘The Hatred of Poetry’ Revels in Paradox

Ben Lerner hates his own poetry. And yours, too.

For a poet who professes to hate poetry, Ben Lerner has a generous view of its territory. And this can be said even if a critic wonders whether his hatred of poetry accounts for his repeated turn to prose: the cover of his new essay-book, The Hatred of Poetry, cites, after all, his two novels (and not his poetry). Still, 10:04 and Leaving the Atocha Station are acts of poetic revenge against the novel. In an interview with Tao Lin that preceded the publication of 10:04, Lerner hinted (or forewarned) that a novel may be “a kind of virtual poem.” A few weeks ago, when he read the final prose section of The Hatred of Poetry in Brooklyn, I heard several audience members remark that his delivery of the essay was indistinguishable from spoken lyric. After reading it myself, I no longer doubt which house he believes the fairer.

Nor is there any doubt that the author of The Hatred of Poetry hates the art he prefers. The essay opens with young Lerner’s sorrows: a high school freshman, he is forced to memorize a poem for class. He asks the school librarian to direct him to “the shortest poem she knew,” and (having never read A.R. Ammons “Their Sex Life”) she offers Marianne Moore’s “Poetry” (an event I suspect is a useful fiction). And though he fails to recite the poem correctly after three attempts, its opening line — “I, too, dislike it” — acts as a refrain for the later poet-novelist, one that “has the feel of negative rumination and sometimes a kind of manic, mantric affirmation.” In short, he repeats it to himself a lot; it’s the nearest he gets to “unceasing prayer.” Lerner’s hatred of poetry allows him, like Moore, to discover within it “a place for the genuine.”

The above outline should not give the impression that The Hatred of Poetry is a personal essay about Lerner’s hatred of poetry. It is that, in parts, but it’s also an argument — smoothed out by a confident prose stylist and worn-in teacher of students — about what poetry could be and isn’t. More than most writers, Lerner likes to fix ideas or emotions on the opposing shores of paradox, where they might camp forever (or until a bridge to the future is hallucinated). Here, following Allen Grossman and Michael W. Clune, he sets the virtual against the actual, in the sense that an actual poem will inevitably fail to satisfy its unrealizable, virtual, originary impulse. The poet’s dream of the poem will always be thwarted, and this is the source of his hatred of poetry:

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 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, when you rejoin your friends around the fire, you’re back in the human world with its inflexible laws and logic.

The gap between the poem we imagine and the thing subject to “inflexible laws and logic” — the poem written — is endemic to the art of “Poetry,” which Lerner describes as “a word for a kind of value no particular poem can realize.” In this way, the hatred of poetry is a function of poetic labor. And if, as he suggests, everyone has the capacity to write a poem (which he calls “always a record of failure”), it means he has joined both readers and poets in the commonist project of hating poetry.

It’s not a matter of convenience for Lerner that poems both terrible and great have a way of rehearsing the staring match between virtual and actual. The minute variability of his poetic analysis means it’s fortunate that he’s an expert close reader of “actual” poems. His line-by-line analysis of William Topaz McGonagell’s “The Tay Bridge Disaster,” “one of the most thoroughly horrible poems ever composed,” is among the funniest I’ve ever seen. And his interpretation of Dickinson’s dashes (“vector[s] of implication”) and Rankine’s (abandoned) virgules (“sign[s] of banished possibility”) is impressive.

There are small problems with The Hatred of Poetry, even if you can’t fault Lerner for his lack of analytic variety. (The book is a single essay, and he admits the lack.) The narrative sections are weaker than those found in his fiction, and their gestures at relatability come across as didactic: they preordain the book for college classrooms in a way that borders on the commercial. These bids for the reader’s attention also exaggerate the pervasiveness of the hatred of poetry; the more glaring problem would be readerly indifference to it. Even if I’m sympathetic to the way Lerner addresses the issue of disinterest — by hitching it to the social — his argument is rushed and incomplete. And though I think his observations about poetic labor are generally brilliant, his ideas about the exchangeability between poetry and money are confusing. Maybe it’s because he misquotes Wallace Stevens, who said “Money is a kind of poetry” and not “Poetry is a kind of money.” Those lines don’t mean the same thing.

But The Hatred of Poetry is an important essay because it doubles as a self-conscious ars poetica from a major American writer, one who is not uncommonly cast in an Adamic light. (Few other writers are compared to Whitman by major critics, or hailed as “the future.”) Lerner here points to his ambivalence about this tradition; even as he sticks closely to readings of great American poets, he wastes no time dispelling the empty nostalgia of bad Whitman worship. In this way his theory of poetry narrowly avoids the postlapsarian mania for a long ago Eden, an originary American dream. I bet he hates that, too.