Ben Lerner, The Hatred of Poetry (2016)

Elegant and substantive recent essay.

From the title and the tone, Lerner suggests that the questions he addresses pertain to poetry in general (and hence to humanity in general), however his discussion addresses the Anglo, and more specifically American, poetic tradition and the current political debate in the US.

This tradition is made to be speaking for poetry in general. Even though Lerner himself discusses at length what is at stake in pretending to speak for everyone, he replicates this tension. While including voices that are often said to be suppressed in the United States, his discussion is distinctively restricted to the forms and political questions of this country.

As such, his essay can be approached ethnographically: an anthropology of poetry reads these declarations as a symptom to understand what are the ideas about poetry that circulate currently in the US.

Lerner’s essay is organized around a distinction between Poetry with a capital P and the concrete poems that humans write. This distinction seems to come from the writings of A. Grossman, a literary critic and poet to whom Lerner is indebted (the essay reads like a dialogue with Grossman, or an eulogy for his passing).

For Lerner, Poetry with a capital P is an idea: the desire humans have “to reach the transcendent or divine” (p.8) –the desire to go beyond the historical, the finite, the actual. Concrete poems are the realizations of this desire, and as such are destined to fail. They cannot “reach” beyond, and are inevitably hated for this reason (by everyone, including Lerner, and other readers of poetry—one senses here that part of this hatred is self-loathing). Bad poets realize this failure literally, good poets (Keats, Dickinson, Whitman, Rankine) have different strategies to inhabit this failure as part of the act of poetic composition itself.

The essay operates via an explicit platonic logic that juxtaposes the idea (perfection, infinity, universality, eternity) of Poetry and its human realization (imperfection, finitude, particularity, history) in concrete poems. This is also inevitably, a theological argument about humans and the divine. God is impossible to reach, and yet humans strive to attain it (comprehend it, inhabit it, say it apophatically, see below).

To differentiate between the divine and the human order and their relationship, Lerner often uses the terms virtual and actual: virtual poetry and actual poems. It is unclear to me if this is a reference to the Bergson/Deleuze trajectory. Possibly, but the relationship that Lerner establishes between the two orders is distinctively different from B/D. Whereas in the B/D trajectory (especially in Deleuze via Spinoza – though there are certainly platonic echoes here as well) the virtual and the actual stand in a relationship of “expression,” Lerner seems to favor an argument about the impossibility of reconciling two parallel orders, where failure is the only possible relationship between an idea and its reconciliation. One cannot reach perfection, only possibly expressing this failure in good concrete poems that might appear “perfect” or at least fulfilling, only in retrospect.

In Lerner’s pages the idea that humans are fallible, somewhat lacking completion looms large: actual poems try to articulate what cannot be articulated and they work best when they express this impossibility to express.

[Interestingly, here Lerner seems to say something similar to Butler on performativity, even though for Lerner the question seems less about the idea of a fractured (psycho-analytically) un-reconciled self, and more about a theologically inflected paradise lost. There is a touch of psychoanalysis in Lerner, but so rarefied that it turns Freud into a theologian, and the “desire to transcend” is never quite unpacked. Lerner’s lack (of perfection and transcendence) is also quite unlike Lacan’s in that it is not strictly unsayable: in fact this is what “good” poets do all the time, it is all they can do, state the impossibility of saying what they are saying].

Lerner seems to be missing an intermediary-- “modal”-- passage whereby the infinitude of God/Poetry is turned into an existence into actual concrete instantiation. Reading concrete poems as signs of failure, he seems to deny the instantiation of what it is, and in someway reduce the “power of poetry” to a via negativa (=to evoke what cannot be evoked, to say what God is only by stating what is not).

In other words, Lerner seems to suggest that there is a difference between the idea and its expression in concrete poems. The expression seems to only takes place after the idea is already formed, this is why in certain passages he describes this process as one of “objectification” (from the point of view of the poet) or “identification” (from the point of view of the reader). Hence a model that (contrary to its theological underpinning and its debt to psychoanalysis) seems to be predicated on the idea of a stable unified self, guided by an internal cognition (or experience) which is then “expressed” in a movement from the inside to the outside: the autonomous, conscious individual. [This is not spelled exactly in these terms, but I feel that many elements point in this direction, even if at times Lerner interjects other trajectories that leave more room for alternative readings such as on Dickinson.]

In his discussion of Dickinson and the materiality of her poems (the fantastic envelopes) Lerner seems to undo part of his own “idealistic” argumentation by foregrounding the notion that the idea of poetry itself is retrospective in relation to the writing – but then seems to retract this trajectory by claiming that Dickinson’s is yet another strategy to defy the impossible demands of Poetry: in other words the “call to transcend” preceeds any poetic engagement.

After having discussed Keats and Dickinson, and having somewhat neutralized the political pretensions of the “avant-guarde” (Futurists) to erase the question of Poetry/poems, Lerner goes himself “political” (with a light touch) in discussing Whitman. Here the failure of poems is linked with the failure of American democracy, or rather the failure of Whitman’s pretense to turn the self into a multitude, the I into a you-we. Lerner seems to suggest that Whitman “succeeded” in articulating Poetry via his concrete poems, but that the “Poetry” of his politics has miserably failed in retrospect (so is this rather different from his argument above?).

Lerner concludes that what poetry can do is to highlight current racial violence and impossibility of reconciliation by highlighting racial fissures as for example in the writings of C. Rankine who enacts depersonalization via prose that evokes the loss of poetry [there follows an interesting discussion of the sign / “virgule” in contemporary American poetry].

Politics here is mostly an affair of “identification.” Notable in this discussion is the analysis of pronouns :I, you, we-- as if what matters is to identify who you are/who am I. This view of politics culminates in an idea of the person as the supreme enactment of Poetry (“…a person is someone who can find consciousness shareable through poetry” p 77) and the counterpoint to a sense of community. So one finds here the politico-theological paradigm discussed by Esposito deployed in its fullness. There seems to be an empasse here. An empasse that might reflect the current state of political discussions in the US.

Denis Tedlock has already addressed the partition between poetry and prose, which in Lerner’s case would be the one between Poetry and concrete poems. See my post on Tedlock.

Towards the end of the essay, Lerner starts to use the expression “virtual poem.” This also seems to go beyond his own assertions above, recognizing that there are indeed concrete poems that can “reach beyond” – what or who decides when a poem is virtual? 

How does not talk about the power of poetry ?

Interestingly, Lerner’s answer seems to be that this can only happen via poetry itself. The last few pages of the essay (78-86) diverge from the terse argumentation of the preceding sections and move toward a more exploratory terrain, more personal but also more lyrical. It is prose, but --as Lerner has suggested through out-- it is in prose (as a negation of the failure of concrete poems) that Poetry can find its place, in poems that are virtually rather than actually so. Here the act of naming the world mixes with reminiscences of the awe and the sublime (hypermarkets and movie theaters as site of primordial experience). Even though the mantra of the essay is repeated once more-- “there is no need to go on multiplying examples of an impulse that can produce no adequate examples – of a capacity that can’t be objectified without falsification” (85)—one senses that now this has become a solid rhetorical figure Apophasis or preterition. A place of possibility of love, as the last sentence suggests with poetic elegance.

Though Lerner puts the collective at the center of his “political” reflections, and writes at length about the civic potential of poetry (he does not use the word civic, though it is evoked throughout, as for example in Withman or in Rankine’s piece titled Citizen), he seems to avoid the narrative, fabulative dimension of poetry. After all Plato’s concern with poetry, as Lerner notes, was the preoccupation that poets feed the imagination (as opposed to the truth of philosophy).

There is no discussion of myth, of the relevance of poetry as a sense making (or unmaking) narrative. This is probably a symptom of the current US political climate in which narrative itself cannot be but evoked in terms of failure (and this is what Lerner implicitly suggests, though on the other hand he seems quite straightforward in his own political narrative which could be labeled mannerist).

On the margin:
It would be interesting to juxtapose Lerner’s approach to one inflected by Vico, as both discuss poetry in relation to theology but in quite different directions. I am not referring here only to those who read Vico in relation to his “civic” theory (the New Science as a “reasoned civic theology” in which poetry plays a central role). Rather it might be useful to think about Vico’s idea that poetic knowledge, a human necessity, provides self-sustaining narratives to make sense of the world. It might be that this is only a reversal of Lerner’s statement that poetry is by default apophatic (it can only say what it is not). But in Vico this is a statement of fact, of necessity: poetic (i.e. non scientific) discourse emerges as a necessity of being in the world, it is not an effort to “reach beyond it” but to make sense of it (an empirical desire if you wish—a desire that is linked to animality and naturality but also to the need for communication). So poetry is not a “place of possibility” but the imperfect, rough outcome of a necessity (as desire is a necessity). Vico’s empiricism displaces Lerner’s idealism and locates desire in necessity rather than transcendence.