The Hatred of Poetry
by ben lerner
farrar, strauss and giroux, 96 pages, $12

Ben Lerner’s elegant, amusing essay turns on a distinction between Poetry and poems. Poetry is Caedmon’s dream, a virtual ideal that actual poems can’t live up to. “The fatal problem with poetry,” Lerner writes, is “poems.” Every poet is, inevitably, “a tragic figure.”

The hatred is for both Poetry and poems. Poets resent Poetry’s demands. Poems are expected to stop time and echo unheard music, but they are forced to use everyday words pockmarked by history. They must simultaneously express the poet’s individuality and draw together a nation or the world or the cosmos into one sweet harmony. They are supposed to elude the crass play of the market, but poets can’t make a living writing poems. “Poetry isn’t hard, it’s impossible.”

Poetry fosters contempt for the limitations of poems. Avant-gardists despise poems for lacking the political potency of Poetry, for not “becoming bombs.” Others hate poems out of nostalgia for a paradise of Poetry lost. Prose about poems and Poetry—like Lerner’s essay, like this review—appeal to us because they enable a writer “to describe the virtues of poetry without having to write poems that have succumbed to the bitterness of the actual.” Criticism too is infused with animus toward poems.

Perhaps the best we can hope for is a via negativa: Horrible poets like William Topaz McGonagall “unwittingly provide a glimmer of virtual possibility via the extremity of their failure.” Poems succeed only in that they mark the real absence of Poetry.

Lerner doesn’t want to dispel the “bitter logic of poetry,” and his essay isn’t a defense of poetry. Defenses become enmeshed in the same bitter logic, and besides, since the bitter logic is inherent in the art, he couldn’t sweeten it without abandoning the task altogether. Rather, inspired by Marianne Moore’s “Poetry,” the first poem Lerner ever memorized, he wants to fan our moderate hatred into a perfect flame: “Our contempt for any particular poem must be perfect, be total, because only a ruthless reading that allows us to measure the gap between the actual and the virtual will enable us to experience, if not a genuine poem—no such thing—a place for the genuine, whatever that might mean.”

Lerner might have said that poems, written as they are by mendacious poets, are susceptible to mendacity. But that’s not what he says. It’s not that we’re ignorant liars but that our words crack and break under the strain of their very use. No linguistic Eden ever existed. The fault is not in ourselves but in our syntax.

Lerner’s distinction between poems and Poetry suggests a Platonic world picture, which may seem ironic, since Plato excluded poetry from his Republic. For Lerner, though, there’s no irony: Plato is an early entry in a long queue of haters. His contempt for poetry rests precisely on the failure of actual poems by actual poets to tell ultimate Platonic truth.

But the Platonism leaves me seething with Hamannian suspicions, spiced with Wittgenstein. So, language is inadequate—for what purpose? If we grant that language is inadequate to express the virtual, whatever that is, why do we suppose that this is poetry’s job? Virtual poems could only be written in a language stripped of temporality, of historical resonance and reference. They’d be written by nobody for nobody, which suggests that Poetry isn’t all that different from silence. Lerner knows this and highlights the potent silences of ex-poets. He also knows that words have poetic potential only because of the same “limits” that prevent them from becoming Poetry. Why then chafe against the only tool in the poet’s toolbox?

What happens if we make more modest demands of poetry? Lerner anticipates this objection/alternative. Poems “can actually be funny, or lovely, or offer solace, or courage, or inspiration to certain audiences at certain times; they can play a role in constituting a community.” If we didn’t demand that poems reach for Poetry, there would be less room for contempt, perfect or otherwise.

Lerner’s rejoinder, I suspect, would be that no poet has ever been willing to accept this modest aspiration. The objection is another form of Poetry-hatred: One can stand up for the modest accomplishments of particular poems by discarding all aspiration for Poetry, but, since actual poets do aspire to Poetry, the suggestion that poets curb their ambition is an assault on the way actual poets have regarded their craft.

I wonder if that’s true: Do all poets aspire to Poetry? Or do some have other dreams? Have actual poets sometimes been content to dream of being craftsmen, content to say, when asked why they choose to write poems, “I’m good with words”?

Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute. He is the author most recently of Gratitude: An Intellectual History. His previous articles can be found here.

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