Review: Ben Lerner’s The Hatred of Poetry

by Bess Cooley, Managing Editor

It makes sense to begin where Ben Lerner begins The Hatred of Poetry—with an excerpt from Marianne Moore’s poem “Poetry.” She writes, “One discovers in / it, after all, a place for the genuine.” Lerner writes that there’s “no such thing” as a genuine poem. Poetry only offers a place for it, and maybe that’s at the root of hatred for it—a hatred this book understands and tries to permeate rather than diffuse.

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It’s Moore’s “a place for the genuine” [emphasis added] that Lerner lights on as a fairer expectation to put on poetry. He cites historical uses for the poet that, like a court jester, no longer exist, but are still sometimes expected from non-poets. In crisis, some of us look to poetry, which is both great and not so great for poets, who are read but are expected to save the world, to be activists when they’re not trained as such.

Lerner writes:

It’s these stakes which make actual poems an offense… “Poetry” denotes an impossible demand. This is one underlying reason why poetry is so often met with contempt rather than mere indifference and why it is periodically denounced as opposed to simply dismissed: most of us carry at least a weak sense of a correlation between poetry and human possibility that cannot be realized by poems. The poet… is therefore both an embarrassment and an accusation.

 

For poets, it seems like some kind of practical joke that a relatively unpopular medium (compared to novels, movies, and television, for example) has too much on its shoulders and is therefore unpopular. But Lerner isn’t convinced that this rock and a hard place is detrimental to poetry itself. “Poetry,” he writes, “becomes a word for an outside that poems cannot bring about, but can make felt, albeit as an absence, albeit through embarrassment.” And because Lerner’s holding on to the idea that a poem can make something, anything, “felt,” his readers certainly are, too.

This book might well be called The Failure of Poetry or The Desire for Poetry but its Ultimate Failure. But Lerner’s done a better job with The Hatred of Poetry, which could make non-poets, and even poetry haters, pick the book up. And they’d do well to. I don’t know that it would make them hate poetry any less, though it might. But Lerner’s plea to take off poetry some of the weight of expectation rings true for all. The mere desire for a poem is enough. It’s what makes poetry. For Lerner, poetry is all about “creating a space for possibility.” Perhaps it means that poetry does work for opening that space.

Per Lerner, poets, non-poets, readers of poetry, poetry haters, are welcome to hate it. They’ve joined the club:

O when you people say you hate it I want to gather you into my arms as you beat my chest and scream I hate it I hate it I hate it and I want to whisper to you over and over again that I, too, hate it until we put our tongues in each other’s mouths.

 

That’s enough for us. Poetry still works.

The Hatred of Poetry

96 pages, $12

ISBN: 978-086547-820-6