All You Need Is Hate

Ben Lerner, The Hatred of Poetry

Fitzcarraldo Editions, 96pp, £9.99, ISBN 9781910695159

reviewed by Joe Kennedy

At the beginning of Ben Lerner’s The Hatred of Poetry, another of Fitzcarraldo’s nonfictional tenuities, the Midwesterner relates a grade-school anecdote. Asked to memorise a poem and perform it in front of his classmates, he seeks to steal a march on his peers and asks a Topeka librarian to find him the shortest poem she knows. This happens to be Marianne Moore’s ‘Poetry’, which opens ‘I, too, dislike it’. However, Moore’s brevity is a ruse concealing complex internal dynamics, and the young Lerner fluffs the task repeatedly, much to his friends’ mirth. The lesson for the reader has several facets: on the crudest level, it suggests that poems can be relied upon only insofar as they are unreliable, but we’re also supposed to realise that this trickery is somehow linked to the poet's personal ambivalence towards their medium. The Hatred of Poetry proceeds to elaborate on both of these themes, or, rather, the way in which they’re entangled. From this kernel of embarrassing memory unspools a piece of dialectic in which the ornery ambiguity of actually existing poems is presented as a vengeance the poet takes on the inadequacy of their material – language itself – when faced with the task of matching up to the ideal conjured by an abstract conception of ‘poetry’. All poems, in this view, are to be ‘read with perfect contempt’ in order to ‘clear a space for the genuine Poem that never appears.’

That the relationship between ‘poems’, ‘poets’ and ‘poetry’ describes an intractable standoff of antagonisms is likely something we come to take for granted if we’ve published poems, or been paid to write or teach people about them. Lerner’s decision to open this work with an anecdote set in the pedagogic scene might, even should, remind us that, for many of our students and readers, this complexity is by no means a given. For the benefit of occasional partakers and learners hanging on the edge of the discipline, the culture industry often presents poetry as a smooth highway to transcendence – think, for example, of the outlandishly wishful denouement to Ian McEwan’s novel Saturday, when a violent house invader is pacified by the truth and beauty of a recitation of Matthew Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’. When it turns out that the culture industry is, for whatever reason, more or less lying, we frequently see a ressentiment in which poetry is rejected as a species of self-aggrandising bullshit. Poetry’s potential constituency, then, is discouraged and even infuriated by none other than their lack of an appropriate ‘hatred’ or ‘dislike’ of poetry, which is to say that many come to reading having heard all the degraded Romantic rumours about bardic world-healing but nothing about the linguistic limitations poets try – and more or less fail – to engineer their way around and over.

The irony here, as I think Lerner sees it, is that holding out for transcendence until it becomes apparent that no such thing is possible, then indignantly refusing poetry, is to miss out on what really makes poetry interesting. Readers of his debut novel Leaving the Atocha Station (2011) will be familiar with this theme. There, his narrator was almost completely defined by his tetchy inability to have aesthetic experiences that live up to the way culture represents aesthetic experience: he fails, repeatedly, to be ‘blown away’, as the saying goes, by poems and paintings. This disappointment becomes a form of creativity, and by the end of the novel he has to a degree come to terms with his own ‘hatred of poetry’. Unlike Leaving the Atocha Station’s protagonist, though, most people don’t have the leisure afforded by poetry scholarships in Madrid to come to this conclusion, and this is perhaps where a volume such as this might come in.

While critiques of The Hatred of Poetry have been in many ways on-point in terms of how the intricacies of its argument reduce poetic experience to – potentially depoliticised – close readings of language, or language’s limitations, the relevance of such arguments rests on an audience having a certain amount of immersion and investment in the often viciously pedantic debates around Anglo-American poetry. Most undergraduate students don’t have this, although they do, by contrast, often arrive at university under the weight of the belief that poetry should shuttle towards transcendent meaning. I used to teach on a first year close-reading course where I’d set some of the Scottish modernist WS Graham’s thicketed early work, as exemplified by the following lines from ‘Over the apparatus of the Spring is drawn’:

Over the apparatus of the Spring is drawn

A constructed festival of pulleys from sky.

A dormouse swindled from numbers into wisdom

Trades truth with blue bells.
The result unknown

Fades in the sandy beetle-song that martyrs hear

Who longingly for violet cells prospect the meads 

If you’ve already got in touch with your hatred of poetry, this sliver of somewhat forced neoromanticism is interesting in several ways, not least in the questions its syntax asks us to ask: how, exactly, might one construct ‘a festival of pulleys’, or swindle a dormouse ‘from numbers into wisdom’? One response might be that these lines are ontologies –self-consciously ‘constructed’ – which belong only linguistically, giving us an almost categorical example of a poem getting its own back against an idea of unreachable extraverbal truth by furnishing a plane on which ‘truth’ is poetry’s exclusive prerogative. With a little hatred of poetry, such a claim might be quite easy to make. In class, though, Graham occasioned panic, as the students, haunted by the legend of ‘the genuine Poem’, scanned the text for the word which would lever open a hidden passage to ‘the’ ‘meaning’. In practice, this word was agreed to be ‘martyrs’, because it’s the most religious-seeming in those lines and therefore the one which is most semiotically hooked up to transcendence, and consequently it didn’t matter that, or why, these particular ‘martyrs’ were hard at work prospecting the meads longingly for ‘violet cells’, as one does.

This is in no way a criticism of the students in that group: I would have been doing exactly the same thing ten years previously, when I took the same course at the same university and our tutor challenged us with Frank O’Hara and HD. (‘Does the sick rose mean, er, death?’) British secondary school English teachers have enough on their hands without taking the gamble of actively encouraging their students that hating poetry might actually be useful. But I wonder if The Hatred of Poetry might do the trick of giving students the requisite competence in suspicion to focus on what language is actually doing, rather than on its questionable beyond.

There can be something hard to like about close reading – Amiri Baraka argues that it’s a cover for an essential political conservatism, Isobel Armstrong that it is only ever selectively close – but most arguments against it are made by people who have already learned how to do it. In other words, repudiations of close reading often are founded on an act of close reading: Armstrong’s work on how the approach fails ‘Tintern Abbey’ is, predictably, a masterclass in textual attentiveness which verges on showboating. I have a hunch, however anecdotal its basis might be, that the only way to get students to a point where they’re likely to be interested in having a debate about the virtues or otherwise of this critical strategy is to show them that the mechanics of poetic language are, well, exciting and that there’s something empowering about getting into the midst of them. This doesn’t mean adopting a stiffly Empsonian approach to ambiguity or aggressively rejecting politicised readings, as the New Critics did at their most egregiously ascetic. It means little more than proving that poems happen in language, and that any enquiry into them is predominantly a linguistic exercise.

By shunting the issue of poetry’s constitutive failure into the foreground, Lerner achieves this, and the slenderness of the essay makes it a useful teaching asset if nothing else. His own close readings invoke thoughts of virtuosity without ever fully succumbing to its temptations, and, even if you’re not that sold on the overall thesis, contain plenty worthy of consideration. I particularly enjoyed the attention he pays to William McGonagall, the 19th-century Scot whose badness was matched only by his persistence, the latter affording him an oddly Banquo-esque, part-of-no-part place in the canon. McGonagall’s primary ‘achievement’ is probably his eponymous lament on the Tay Bridge Disaster of 1879 which, as the poem reminds us several times, ‘will be remember’d for a very long time.’ Lerner rightly points out how odd it is that the ‘horribleness’ of this writing ‘is evident even to those of us who don’t read poetry’, hypothesising that perhaps this is because the jarring refrain seems ‘a way of sheepishly hedging on the traditional claim of a poem to persist across generations’. In other words, we all know what poetry is supposed to do even if we don’t read it, and McGonagall undermines its claim to memorialise events in their true dignity by pointing out that people will remember the disaster ‘for a very long time’ on their own watch.

For The Hatred of Poetry, any power poetry has – and Lerner aggregates even ‘truly horrible poets’ to this – lies in its capacity to remind us of the provisionality of the form. He discusses a childhood sensation, a ‘feeling that sense was provisional and that two people could build around an utterance a world in which any usage signified’ which is lost as the status and authority of a particular verbal construction is fixed. A dialectic here seems to be at work between a Poundian insistence on the absolute necessity of a poem’s verbal decisions and those decisions’ ability to remind us of their ultimately contingent nature when confronted with ‘the genuine poem’. Again, I can see the validity of objections to this in the wider poetry community – it all sounds a bit like grad-school Derridean wistfulness. But there also seems to be a potential use of it for teaching, in an environment where it’s becoming increasingly essential to try and encourage students to think about the relationship between the words on the page and the strange experience of reading them.

Lerner’s recourse to provisionality does, like his more recent novel 10:04 (2014), have a politicised dimension, most clearly visible when he discusses Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. Here, the politics of Rankine’s attritional, experimental protest against American and European racism are shown to exist not only on the level of open proposition but in the writing’s microforms, such as its play of pronouns which discomforts with a ‘compelling refutation of […] nostalgist fantasies of universality’. The point here is that ‘the genuine Poem’ is credited with a universalism which would supercede all political questions, meaning that its (inevitable, necessary) absence can generatively force us back to the political. If the pedagogic value of this book is to keep on bringing its reader back to the formalist notion that poetry is language which is always already estranged, Lerner resists a mandarin aloofness and cajoles us to realise that formalism is not apolitical by definition. As such, then, there is a routemap in The Hatred of Poetry, albeit a slightly haphazard one, which might show students how it is possible to do what they seem so often to struggle with, namely giving equal weight to text and context and showing how these two categories work on one another.