What is it about poetry that puts so many people off? That’s the question posed by Ben Lerner, a 2015 MacArthur genius grant winner who performs double duty as a novelist (“10:04”) and poet (“Mean Free Path”), in his essay “The Hatred of Poetry.”
It’s a question he’s thought about ever since ninth-grade English class, when his teacher asked students to memorize a poem. Lerner selected Marianne Moore’s “Poetry” because he thought its short length would make it easy to learn. It wasn’t, and that wasn’t the only surprise: I, too, dislike it (the poem’s famous opening line) “has been on repeat in my head since 1993,” he writes. From this charming opening, Lerner tries to understand why poetry provokes extreme reactions.
The answer depends on whom you ask. Members of the avant-garde, “intense poetry haters” who liken poems to “an imaginary bomb with real shrapnel: It explodes the category of poetry and enters history,” hate poems “because they are part of a bankrupt society.”
Others “express anger at poetry’s failure to achieve any real political effects” or harbor “nostalgia for a poetry that could supposedly reconcile the individual and the social.”
Those are pretty heavyweight demands, and that may be the problem. Readers want poems to express universal truths, but Lerner argues that there’s no such thing. The intensely personal poem that speaks for everyone “is an impossibility in a world characterized by difference and violence.” Not even Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass,” which Lerner calls “a kind of secular bible for American democracy,” achieves that poetic ideal.
That, says Lerner, is the tragedy of poetry. A poem committed to paper never matches the transcendence of the verse in a poet’s head. “In a dream your verses can defeat time,” but, when you wake, “you’re back in the human world with its inflexible laws and logic.” Even Shelley wrote that the greatest poetry is “a feeble shadow of the original conception of the poet.”
Lerner’s tone can be overly formal, as when he says that the use of pronouns in Claudia Rankine’s “Citizen” is “discomfiting and a compelling refutation of the nostalgist fantasies of universality discussed above.” Yet he can also be wonderfully funny. He calls William Topaz McGonagall’s “The Tay Bridge Disaster,” a “prosodic train wreck” and “one of the most thoroughly horrible poems ever composed.”
Despite his criticisms, Lerner is clearly on poetry’s side. He writes of terminal cases who write poems out of a need to express themselves before they die, and of Philip Sidney’s “The Defense of Poesy,” with his contention that poetry “is superior both to history and philosophy; it can move us, not just teach us facts.” As feeble shadows go, poetry is one of the best.
Michael Magras is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. His work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Houston Chronicle, Philadelphia Inquirer and Miami Herald.
The Hatred of Poetry
By: Ben Lerner.
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 86 pages, $12.