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Anxious gatekeeping

Analogous to nervous cluelessness is something we might call “anxious gatekeeping.”   This is desire to police the borders of poetry, or of...

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

The Hatred of Poetry

It seems that a lot of people are getting the argument of Ben Lerner's The Hatred of Poetry wrong.  I think his argumentation, as far as it goes, is unassailable.  He claims that the so-called hatred of poetry is the product of an excessive exaltation of poetry. If poetry is put on a pedestal, then actual poems will disappoint.  So there is a weird logic going on. He confesses that he himself participates in this logic, and subscribes to it. This is an honest position, and it doesn't mean that he "hates poetry" in any simplistic sense. In fact, by exposing this logic, he pretty much refutes it.

Poetry itself is somewhat ridiculous. It is really absurd that it even exists, and most of it will be disappointing. What I find missing in Lerner's argument is something about the pleasure of actually existing poems, those that work their magic not only through the via negativa.

There is a wall of mediocre poetry that prevents people from being interested in the good stuff. If what is presented most of the time to us as poetry were all there were, I, too, would dislike it. I conceive of poetry as the enemy of mediocrity itself.

A really good poem just is good, in itself. It doesn't need only to gesture to some poetry that it cannot quite realize.

When we study poetry as academics, we do so historically, so we have to include the mediocre in with everything else.  We can also study, historically, the development of ideas like those of Lerner.


JforJames said...

I don't think that Lerner's argument goes much beyond 'taste'. Taste is a tacit manifesto. To say 'I too dislike it' is to say I don't really have the capacity to read past my tastes.

Thomas said...


I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond
all this chewing.
Eating it, however, in perfect disgust with it, one
discovers in
it after all, a source of nutrients.
The hands find strength to grasp, the eyes
can focus, the hair grows, and shines
if it must, these things are important...


I don't know. To say "poetry is ridiculous" is like saying "food is disgusting". It seems to ignore the fact that the word "poetry" denotes the full range of quality. I can't hate poetry as such, any more than I can dislike food as such. At least not without a "disorder".

It's interesting that "reading disorder" seems to refer to a cognitive disability not, like "eating disorder", a mental illness. I think "the hatred of poetry" is probably the result of a trauma refined by habit. I think JforJames may be right that the symptom is a fetishization of "taste". Ben Lerner certainly has a great deal of taste. Maybe Jonathan is right that the relevant therapy is a return to pleasure.

Jonathan said...

Did you actually read the book? I don't think it has anything to do with taste

Jonathan said...

I do think that if we treated food like we do poetry, that I could safely say that food is ridiculous. Not food itself, but everything surrounding it.

Thomas said...

You're right, maybe I should read the book. And maybe food has become ridiculous (at the "haute" end) and even disgusting (at the "junk" end). And, yes, it's about everything surrounding it.

Jonathan said...

Yes, food is going where poetry is. Between pretentiousness and garbage.

Jonathan said...

He is not arguing on the basis of his particular taste (he like this kind of poetry, not the other kind) but from the basis of the trope of distrusting all actual poems, even good ones. I think his argument actually dismantles this trope.

Thomas said...

Lerner (following Grossman) says:

"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."

As I understand you, you're saying that Lerner's essay is a critique of the (romantic) trope that all poems are "noble failures" to "represent what can't be represented", to "transcend history". I think it was my sense that he wasn't dismantling this trope (as a "hatred of poetry") but deploying it that made me not rush out and buy the book.

My view is that Lerner's own poems (and his first novel) successfully accomplish their finitude (when they do). They are not, to me, essentially failures to "to reach the transcendent or divine". They do not get beyond history but extricate their emotions from it. They do not defeat time but "yaw" (to use Lerner's title) against it.

In that sense, I think I am still very much under the sway of Eliot's modernism. I was even able to read Flarf more or less "straight" this way.

It's true that you "rejoin your friends" after reading a poem. But you do so more articulately (articulate, from artus, from joint), with greater emotional precision. The poem was only trying to accomplish that precision, not offering you a temporary distraction from your friends for a while.

But, like I say, in order to have this conversation, I should probably read the whole book after all. I don't want to be stabbing at a straw man.