Thursday Poetics: Ben Lerner on “Disliking Poetry”

So, I’m going to do something a little different today. Recently, I read a fascinating essay by Ben Lerner on Disliking Poetry, which is equal parts lovely writing and interesting thoughts about the nature of poems, so I actually wanted to take some time to respond to that. There’s a lot that he says and I don’t want to be too reductive here but I’m going to break it down into two main points (you should definitely read the whole thing, however) and then talk about what’s being said. The first is:

What if we dislike or despise or hate poems because they are – every single one of them – failures? The poet and critic Allen Grossman tells a story (there are many versions of the story) that goes like this: you’re moved to write a poem because of some transcendent impulse to get beyond the human, the historical, the finite. 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. So the poem is always a record of failure.

And the second is:

Even writers and critics allergic to anything resembling avant-garde rhetoric often express anger at poetry’s failure to achieve any real political effects. The avant-garde imagines itself as hailing from the future it wants to bring about, but many people express disappointment in poetry for failing to live up to the political power it supposedly possessed in the past.

Either subject is worth its own essay, but I don’t have much time or energy at the moment, so forgive my brusqueness. Here, in short, is my response: I think it’s true that poetry is by definition self-defeating, that no poem will ever completely capture the transcendent sensation or inspiration which first prompts the poet to put pen to paper, which sets the soul to spinning. There is no means of transferring the intangible into a fixed form without necessarily losing something in the process, so yes, when looked at this way, you can say every poem is a failure. This is also true, it must be said, of every artistic process; even the painter cannot replicate the sky as fully or as brightly as he or she might like, and even though a passerby might not be able to tell the difference between the two, the painter will always be dissatisfied, knowing the range of colours available are simply not comparable to the limitless array of pigments effortlessly used by the atmosphere. So it is with the poet – words will never be enough. We are simply no match for the poetry of the everyday; the river, the mountain, the refuse heap.

In terms, however, of poems failing as artistic products thereafter, of never achieving some expected unifying grandeur as extolled by the likes of Whitman, I disagree. This is blaming poetry for something outside of its power — largely, what we think of it and what it should be doing — as well complain about a vacuum cleaner which can’t fix your broken marriage. You might have thought it would when you bought it, but that it doesn’t is entirely your fault. The problem here is the notion that the poem is the end point, is finished when it is written, and so when there isn’t an immediate result thereafter – should the poem have a socially progressive or political message for example – it can seem as if it has failed. However, I — and I think many poets would agree — don’t see a single poem as the end point but rather the beginning. I don’t see it as finished, I see it as always being written.

A poem (with these lofty aims, and as Lerner says, not all have them) needn’t be the change or even the catalyst to dramatic action; I see it as the Kafkaesque icepick we use to hammer open frozen points in local, state, national and global conversations ongoing at any moment. I see it as dialogue, just one spark among many, the brighter and hotter it is, the better, but it needn’t be the sun. Don’t hate it for not being the sun, that way lies madness. Enjoy it instead for its temporary light, which like our lives, is made precious by its smallness, by the knowledge it will flicker out unless it touches something – someone – however briefly and sets off a mirroring flare.

Here is where it matters that poems are always being written; when you read a powerful poem, it carries on inside you, filtered through the lens of your experience and culture, mutating and changing until it comes out in another way, maybe not as a poem but an impromptu speech to a friend which moves them to vote in the next election, or maybe as an unasked for gift to your partner which is not a vacuum cleaner but a night spent appreciating each other or the night itself, or maybe as a painting, as an especially thankful day lost in the rewarding exertion of building houses.

In this way, it could be argued as well that the intangible otherness which first lent itself to the creation of the poem continues forever in others — the originating poet cannot experience it, it is beyond them now — and that its impact when looked at objectively is impossible to weigh. Just as we cannot measure a smile, or what it might offer to a stranger, so too, the same can be said for poetry, this endless evolution of language, this ephemeral light made solid and then not again, every day.

Now that I’ve got that off my chest, I would hate to leave y’all without a link to some excellent poetry I’ve read through the week, so just quickly, here are a couple of gems I came across:

1. The Robots Are Coming by Kyle Dargan (really, anything by Dargan, he’s great)

2. Three Poems by Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib (powerful & beautiful writing here).


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  1. ventadejoyas Reblogged this on hermosasalajas.

    June 19, 2015 at 6:09 am · Reply

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