Ben Lerner’s sharp, learned, and thrilling new book is called The Hatred of Poetry. Yet this book – really a long essay – is equal parts defense and critique, and both defense and critique begin for Lerner from a simple premise: every poem, from Keats’s sensuous lyrics to Dickinson’s gnomic puzzles to William McGonagall’s horrid doggerel, is a failure.
Percy Shelley described poetry as “the record of the best and happiest moments of the happiest and best minds.” Why does Lerner, an accomplished poet with three collections to his name, instead see poetry as a record of “radical failure”? Because, he argues, there is an irreconcilable tension between poetry’s potential and its actualization, between what it dreams of doing and what it actually can do.
“Poetry arises from the desire to get beyond the finite and the historical,” Lerner writes, “to reach the transcendent or divine.” But all it has to accomplish this flight is human language, and “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.” As T. S. Eliot put it, “Words strain,/ Crack and sometimes break, under the burden.”
The fact that words strain, crack, and break might serve as the grounds for criticism: look at how this poem fails to reach perfection! But Lerner convincingly argues that the failures of individual poems – of all individual poems – also serve as the grounds for celebration. We only come to sense poetic perfection, Lerner argues, by measuring how far actual poems fall short: “When we experience a poem’s radical failure, we must be measuring it against some ideal, some Poem.”
In fact, in a counterintuitive wrinkle, Lerner argues that poetic perfection can be felt most powerfully in the least successful of poems. Take William McGonagall’s “The Tay Bridge Disaster,” often cited as the worst poem in the English language. Lerner performs a brutal dissection of McGonagall’s striving after poetic effects that seem not just out of his grasp but out of his zip code. But for Lerner, McGonagall’s failures serve a salutary purpose: “A less bad poet would not make the distance between the virtual and the actual so palpable, so immediate … the more abysmal the experience of the actual, the greater the implied heights of the virtual.” This is an argument straight out of negative theology (think St. John of the Cross), and it’s one that Lerner effectively repurposes for poetic ends.
Lerner is a fine critic, with a lucid style and quicksilver mind, and there are suggestive readings scattered throughout this book. Lerner speaks technically but clearly about Walt Whitman’s elongated poetic line and about Claudia Rankine’s use of the second-person “you” in her recent work. His reading of Dickinson’s “I dwell in Possibility – ,” only a few pages long, contains the richness of an essay many times its length.
But perhaps most remarkable is just how entertaining, how witty and passionate and funny, "The Hatred of Poetry" is. The book is polemical, no doubt, but reading it is less like overhearing a professor’s lecture than like listening to a professor entertain a crowd of students over pints after class.
Like many good entertainers, Lerner begins with a story. In ninth grade, he was asked to memorize and recite a poem for English class. Now, Lerner is a poet and novelist. Then, he was a bit of a wise guy, and he responded to the assignment by asking the school’s librarian for the shortest poem she knew. She suggested Marianne Moore’s “Poetry”:
I, too, dislike it.
Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one
it, after all, a place for the genuine.
It’s an amusing anecdote, not least because, when the time for recitation comes, Lerner got the poem right. Try reading it out loud and you’ll see why: no rhyme scheme, surprising line breaks, a weird reticence, signaled by the repeated “it,” that Lerner describes as “like a priest begrudgingly admitting that sex has its function while trying to avoid using the word.”
But this comic story serves a serious argumentative purpose. After all, Moore suggests that it is only when we approach poetry with “perfect contempt”– with, Lerner would say, an awareness of how it must always fail – that we can create “a place for the genuine.” Moore’s claim has stuck with Lerner, and it’s the kernel of this gem of a book. Only by attending to the many and inevitable failures of actual poems, Lerner suggests, can we come to sense the supreme success of the ideal poem. Only by hating poems can we come to love poetry.