Ben Lerner’s ‘The Hatred of Poetry’ Revels in Paradox

Heads up, Poets. This review in Flavorwire (6/9/16) of Ben Lerner’s recent book-length essay on the disappointments and shortcomings of poetry is worth reading.

Says reviewer Jonathan Sturgeon, “The Hatred of Poetry is an important essay because it doubles as a self-conscious ars poetica from a major American writer, one who is not uncommonly cast in an Adamic light. (Few other writers are compared to Whitman by major critics, or hailed as “the future.”).”

Hmmm. I don’t know if all that’s hot air or not.  Check back in a hundred years or so.  But the points Lerner makes in his book about the process of writing poetry as experienced by the poet–the dynamic interplay of the poet’s mind, imagination and emotions–ring a bell.

If you have ever experienced that vague unease and sense of inadequacy that often afflicts poets after they have given a poem their best shot and revised it half to death, and then suddenly feel deflated, all the wind gone out of their sails, you will instantly get what Lerner is after here.  Marianne Moore‘s oft quoted poem “Poetry” that begins, “I, too, dislike it,” is the launching pad for this bottle rocket reverie on the false hopes for transcendence that beguile poets in the full flush of early inspiration. The ideas are nothing new but worth re-examining.

Here is an excerpt:


Poetry arises from the desire to get beyond the finite and the historical — the human world of violence and difference — and to reach the transcendent or divine. You’re moved to write a poem, you feel called upon to sing, because of that transcendent impulse. 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. In a dream your verses can defeat time, your words can shake off the history of their usage, you can represent what can’t be represented (e.g. the creation of representation itself), but when you wake, when you rejoin your friends around the fire, you’re back in the human world with its inflexible laws and logic.

About Margaret Jean Langstaff

A lifelong critical reader with literary tastes, a novelist, short story writer, essayist, book critic, and professional book editor for many years. A consultant to publishers and authors, providing manuscript critiques and a full range of editorial services. A friend and supporter of all other readers and writers. A collector of signed modern first editions. Animal lover and tree hugger. Follow me on Twitter @LangstaffEditor
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4 Responses to Ben Lerner’s ‘The Hatred of Poetry’ Revels in Paradox

  1. David Ruaune says:

    It reminds me of something Bob Dylan said in an interview –

    Yes, he still matters, but not as much as the lifers want to believe. Clearly, he was incandescent for a time, and his youthful inspiration ran much deeper and lasted much longer than most. But as he admitted to Newsweek’s David Gates in an interview for last week’s cover story, that could never last.
    “I can get there, by following certain forms and structures,” Dylan said. “In the early years, I was trying to write and perform the sun and the moon. At a certain point, you just realize that nobody can do that.”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. David Ruaune says:

    Thanks for following, I’ve reciprocated – You’re my first genuine follower! I’ve got 4 others, but they don’t seem to be “real”.
    I think that faith in the creative power of poetry, and one’s on creative power, wanes, but remains as a sort of background radiation, a faith-in-principle. Its younger form might be partly demonic, and it develops into a more general faith in creativity, becoming less of a will-to-power. Just musings.

    Liked by 1 person

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