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Sunday, July 3, 2016

Hatred of Poetry

Ben Lerner in his recent book of this title claims that we overvalue Poetry with a capital P, all of our dreams about what Poetry can be, and undervalue actual poems, those imperfect and hence detestable reminders of our failure.

The gap between poetry I (our ideal of what it is) and poetry II, actual poems, produces a syndrome called poetry hatred.

I would like to suggest a different twist. I believe Lerner is correct, but only partially. There is a poetry III: actual poems that do exemplify what we think of as poetry I. The hatred of poetry surges in me because of hundreds of poems one encounters, only a few are actually fully present enough to justify the grandiose claims of poetry I. Your friends' poetry is not going to be very good, on average, and neither is your own. The whole social aspect of poetry, the idea of having a community, falters on the fact that you are betraying poetry all the time by allowing poetry II to stand for poetry I and III, when it really does not.

Social and institutional pressures force us to recognize vast swaths of mediocrity by famous poets as poetry III when it is really poetry II. But poetry cannot exist at all unless we have enough of it, even the bad and mediocre stuff. We need it to produce the conditions in which real poetry can emerge.

Lerner admits at one point that he is not going to look at the actual good things good and great poems can do. That is the missing piece in his argument.


Leslie said...

I agree.

Thomas said...

The Paris Review interview is interesting. He suggests that our disappointment with poetry comes from wanting "a poem to do something that only a revolution could do". A bit further on, the interviewer mentions a recent piece in the Economist that, the interviewer says, "attacks" the idea of basic income. It’s not really a fair description of the piece, which strikes me a serious discussion of the idea, not an attack. It even mentions C.H. Douglas.

I take Pound’s view of the matter. It’s not so much that we need poems to bring about revolutionary change. Rather, we need revolutionary change (a sane monetary system that creates money by distributing the harvest, not hogging it) in order to enjoy poetry. Good poems symbolize a kind of pleasure that is unavailable to us because we are forced to work for things that should be given to us outright. Beyond these "basics" there are plenty of things to work for, of course. But we are unhappy because of that primary indignity. If we hate poetry it’s because it reminds us of the simple pleasures we are robbed of.

Jonathan said...

Pound is close to Adorno, when he says "In a false world all hedone is false." I reject both arguments because I think poetry actually to the real world, not to some utopia where it could be perfectly enjoyed.

Thomas said...

Thanks for that Adorno reference. (When I googled it, I found your chapter on Ana Rossetti.) I'll now have to think about the idea of art "emancipated from cuisine and pornography." And its reversal: poems that help us to enjoy food and sex. Simple pleasures.

I guess Lerner's "hatred" can still, on this view, be occasioned by a poem's failure to help us in this way. Also, I'd still say the difficulty ("beauty is difficult") is established not just by some "state of the art" but by the culture itself. Poetry may be awash in too much cheap cuisine and pornography?

I would insist that part of the beauty of a poem lies in the glimpse it gives of the "utopia where it could be perfectly enjoyed". And, again, maybe we "hate" the poems that tease us with a utopia that is too unattainable.

Jonathan said...

I completely forgot I used that in my Rossetti chapter. The cuisine and pornography bit comes from Kant, of course. Kant has to have a way of detaching aesthetic perception from appetites. So if you see a still life painting, your reaction shouldn't be hunger for the peach in the picture. The fear of beauty is such that people on left and right look askance at it. The catchy pop song has to be disdained because it has a melody that catches the ear. Adorno probably did more damage than the worst theorist of social realism.