On the Ground in a Quiet War: Ben Lerner’s The Hatred of Poetry

Reviewed in this essay:

Ben Lerner, The Hatred of Poetry
FSG Originals
June 7, 2016
$12; 96 pp.

In his fragmented, tantalizing Biographia Literaria, Coleridge makes some extraordinary claims about poetry’s capacity to transfigure the world. The poetic imagination, he declares,

reveals itself in the balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities: of sameness, with difference; of the general, with the concrete; the idea, with the image; the individual, with the representative; the sense of novelty and freshness, with old and familiar objects; a more than usual state of emotion, with more than usual order; judgement ever awake and steady self-possession, with enthusiasm and feeling profound or vehement; and while it blends and harmonizes the natural and the artificial, still subordinates art to nature; the manner to the matter; and our admiration of the poet to our sympathy with the poetry.

This magic dialectic was the sort of power that the Romantics claimed for Poetry. Less than a decade later, Shelley would deem poets “the unacknowledged legislators of the World” in the final line of his “Defence of Poetry,” written in response to the now-forgotten Thomas Love Peacock’s lame theory that science, not poetry, was the language of the modern world. Peacock in turn was working from the playbook established by Plato, who in The Republic charges poets with being liars and counterfeiters dangerous to the well-ordered state. Jump forward to the present, and you’ve got George Packer griping in the New Yorker about the putative decline of poetry’s ability to speak for all Americans.

The quiet war over poetry has been going on for a long time. Indeed, for Ben Lerner, in his marvelous long essay The Hatred of Poetry, a “rhythm of denunciation and defense” is endemic to the art (6). Uniting millennia of claims and counterclaims is a conviction that the form has immense powers which actual poets rarely (or never) use safely, wisely, or fully. “Hatred” is complicated flavor, and curiously, it is felt even by those who actually like poetry, to say nothing of the majority who don’t bother with it at all. As Marianne Moore’s speaker quips in in the three-line lyric “Poetry,” “I, too, dislike it.”

So what gives? Is the poet always “a tragic figure” (8)? What makes poetry, like the humanities in general, “at once powerless and dangerous” (20)? Is it true, as Auden says in his elegy for Yeats, that “poetry makes nothing happen”? What individual text accomplishes all that Coleridge claims poetry can?

Lerner’s thesis is that “the fatal problem with poetry” the grand concept is actual poems (23). In other words, the ideals for which poetry, especially lyric, strives—to halt time, to conquer death with exact language, to give an account of the universe at once particular to the poet’s consciousness and germane to the lives of all possible readers—are, like most ideals, unreachable. (Sounding a bit Romantic himself, Lerner suggests toward the essay’s end that childhood leaves us with a residual memory of imaginative powers that seemed endless, particularly in contrast to the socially contingent language-practice of adulthood.) This frustration sparks polemics like Plato’s; it stirs up hazy nostalgia for a time when a poet supposedly could speak for everyone (tendentious critics, Lerner shows, often presume this writer to be Whitman); it provokes mighty defenses, by nature more theory than practice; it compels irony like Moore’s; and it motivates Keats’s longing in “Ode on a Grecian Urn” for “unheard” melodies and “ditties of no tone.” “‘Poetry,’” concludes Lerner, “is a word for a kind of value no particular poem can realize: the value of persons, the value of a human activity beyond the labor/leisure divide, a value before or beyond price” (53). Great poems get close to the “virtual” potential of Poetry. But they don’t touch it, not quite. Not even Shakespeare speaks with a perfect tongue.

About that world of labor and price: the universe of late-capitalist, televisual consumerism. Lerner argues that because a poetic impulse is vestigial in most people, we associate the idea of verse with the sacred; there is an “implicit connection between poetry and the social recognition of the poet’s humanity,” and by extension the humanity of whoever is moved by poetry (15). When he claims that “Most of us carry at least a weak sense of a correlation between poetry and human possibility,” I feel the pressure of agreement in my chest (13). But like Lerner, I’m a poet, critic, and teacher, part of the choir, whatever reservations I have about the poetic vocation. Ultimately, this is a book for residents in the shrinking colony of print culture, who know Whitman and Plato and actually argue about them, when it strikes me that most literate Americans find few things duller than poetry, if they think about it in the first place. Perhaps the hatred theory doesn’t apply when utter indifference short-circuits the fertile “contempt” (Marianne Moore’s term) fostered by the perceived gap between Poetry and poems. I hope I’m wrong. I just wish that Lerner had given a more concretely historicized, culturally embedded account of poetry’s status.

To be fair, these objections are beyond the essay’s scope. They do, however, suggest questions that subsequent critics might try to answer; a more detailed ethnography of poetry’s cultural import would be fascinating, though probably also depressing. For now, a reader might look to Lerner’s debut novel Leaving the Atocha Station, whose narrator, an American poet in Spain, meditates obsessively on the social, political, and psychological roles of art in a digitizing civilization.

Lerner practices a genial, accessible criticism, the kind of stuff that Dwight Macdonald, Lionel Trilling, and Auden once published, and which George Scialabba and Emily Nussbaum still do. (Kudos to Poetry magazine for recently excerpting Lerner’s demolition of Mark Edmundson’s claim that current poets are not living up to the standard Whitman supposedly established.) Working within a canon that stretches from Greek antiquity to Sir Philip Sidney’s defense of “the planet-like music of poetry” to Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, and richly informed by scholarship—the late Allen Grossman is an acknowledged influence—Lerner’s criticism is for enthusiastic non-specialists, for general humanists, however small that audience may be. This is a vivid and generous account of “the dialectic of a vocation no less essential for being impossible” (85). The essay invites and gratifies the reader, the prose itself an aesthetic experience.

Reading The Hatred of Poetry, I kept thinking of the late Wallace Stevens poem “The Planet on the Table,” whose title echoes Sidney’s “planet-like” metaphor. Ariel, representative of the poetic impulse, acknowledges the limits of his songs, but rather than resist this, he treats it as the founding condition of art—that it is neither self-enclosed and timeless nor capable of numinous, universal clarity:

It was not important that they survive.
What mattered was that they should bear
Some lineament or character,

Some affluence, if only half-perceived,
In the poverty of their words,
Of the planet of which they were part.

We might, ironically, need more haters, because the hatred of poetry is not mere dislike, and lyric “poverty” isn’t always penniless. One wishes the planet would listen to its beggars.

—Ryan Boyd