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Tuesday 28 June 2016

The Hatred of Poetry - Ben Lerner

This week at Messenger’s Booker will be a little different than usual. I’m going to dedicate a week to poetry. Recent reading has included dystopian futures, short stories from Bulgaria, Hebrew Zen Buddhist thought and detailed analysis of literature’s Masters. A breather was required, so instead of picking up pulp fiction or a graphic novel (which I did contemplate) I settled for the melancholic search for meaning…poetry.

Today I’ll look at the recent Fitzcarraldo Editions release “The Hatred of Poetry” and follow up later in the week with reviews of at least three poetry books from around the globe.

The title alone and the marketing blurb that contains the line “Many more people agree they hate poetry’ Ben Lerner writes, ‘than can agree what poetry is. I, too, dislike it and have largely organized my life around it and do not experience that as a contradiction because poetry and the hatred of poetry are inextricable in ways it is my purpose to explore.”, lead you to believe this is going to be a read that gives you the ammunition to discredit poetry to your heart’s content.

“Poetry”: What kind of art assumes the dislike of its audience and what kind of artist aligns herself with that dislike, even encourages it? An art hated from without and within. What kind of art has as a condition of its possibility a perfect contempt? And then, even reading contemptuously, you don’t achieve the genuine. You can only clear a place for it – you still don’t encounter the actual poem, the genuine article. Every few years an essay appears in a mainstream periodical denouncing poetry or proclaiming its death, usually blaming existing poets for the relative marginalization of the art, and then the defences light up the blogosphere before the culture, if we can call it a culture, turns its attention, if we can call it attention, back to the future.

But if you are looking for an essay that will give a barrow full of stones to throw at the poetic art, you will be sadly disappointed. Ben Lerner’s essay brings up all of the usual arguments of hatred and then staunchly defends the art against each of the accusations. This is an essay that analyses the social contempt, yes contempt as it is more than simply indifference, of being a poet. When a poet is asked “what do you do for a living”, why do they stumble to answer? Why is there embarrassment in an admission of being a poet? Why can’t your poetry be performed out loud at will? Why don’t you “grow up and get a real job”? All of these phenomenon, unique to poets, explored.

This work is very much an American essay, even though it is a United Kingdom release, with references to Barrack Obama bringing back the Poet Laureate for his first inauguration in 2009 (Elizabeth Alexander became the fourth poet to read at an American presidential inauguration, after Robert Frost in 1961, Maya Angelou in 1993 and Miller Williams in 1997), critical comments on Sylvia Plath and Walt Whitman, and a substantial part of the book being dedicated to refuting Mark Edmundson’s criticism of American poetry in his article “Poetry Slam: Or, The decline of American verse” which appeared in the July 2013 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

“I am large, I contain multitudes,” Walt Whitman wrote in “Song of Myself,” and Packet’s nostalgia, as with many American nostalgists, is clearly shaped by the figure of Whitman, who desired his book, Leaves of Grass, to be a kind of secular bible for American democracy. The American experiment – its newness, its geographical vastness, the relative openness of its institutions, its egalitarianism, its orientation toward the future and not the past – all of these necessitated, in Whitman’s view, an equally new and expansive poetry: plainspoken, unrestrained by inherited verse structures, just as the country would be unrestrained by monarchic traditions, and so on. “There will soon be no more priests,” Whitman wrote, “their work is done.” What was needed was a poet who, in the absence of a common tradition or metaphysical system, could celebrate the American people into existence, who could help hold the nation together, in all its internal difference, through his singing.

My concern with the American centric view, or even English language view, is the poetry “hatred” assumption may not be as universal as Lerner assumes, as an example, look at ingrained popularity of Persian verse in a nation such as Afghanistan; “The vast majority of Afghans, even those who are illiterate, have a deep appreciation for poetry and most have a colourful variety of poems stored in their memories.” (“Load Poems Like Guns: Women’s Poetry from Herat, Afghanistan”). As I also highlighted in my review of Mushtaq Ahmed Yousufi’s “Mirages Of The Mind” (translated by Matt Reeck and Aftab Ahmad) poetry plays a significant role in the literature of the region (in the case of “Mirages of the Mind” the Pakistan/India border).

Another concern I had with this “book” is the size, there are 107 pages of text, the font is huge, the spacing large and the margins massive, if published in a “standard” format it would be hard pressed to be 30-40 pages. As an essay it would probably be the feature work in a journal such as “Music and Literature” and wouldn’t be out of place, however as a stand-alone publication priced at £9.99??? I thought the Jean-Phillipe Toussaint 88 page effort was overpriced at £12.99, this one is an even flimsier offering.

Besides the size and the English language (USA) bias, this is a very informative essay, although more an opinion piece, Lerner’s commitment and love of the art shines through, assisting the reader in finding joy, celebration in the poems they chose to read, painting a vivid enough a case to entice the reader to pick up a book of poetry soon after finishing. Personally I did so, using Lerner’s reference to political poems, “and if they are weapons”, to lead me to the Afghan collection that was recently shortlisted for the 2016 Best Translated Book Award (Poetry) “Load Poems Like Guns: Women’s Poetry from Herat, Afghanistan” edited and translated by Farzana Marie, a book that I will review here shortly.

Postscript: One negative I also forgot to mention was the lack of a "Bibliography", with numerous works referenced a listing would have been nice. I would have been failed in Grade 6 for not providing one!!!

Fitzcarraldo Editions have also kindly contacted me to advise that if their usual layout (font size, spacing etc) was used, this would have been an 88 page book, weighing in at 16,000 words. They also advised that the cost of "Football" was higher as they had to fully fund the translation. Thanks for the update Fiztcarraldo, most appreciated)

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Unknown said...

Interesting comments Tony. Lerner always ruffles some, even in his fiction but I heard him interviewed about this book on the radio this weekend and He managed to sound completely obnoxious without managing the defense of poetry he claims to be making.

I'm reading a collection of off the cuff essays called Proxies American poet Brian Blanchford and although he talks about everything from owls to gay dating sites in these pieces, there are some startling observations about poetry. He's realistic about the poet's place in the world but he is passionate about language and meaning... Lerner comes across as irritable and negative by comparison.

Messy_Tony said...

Thanks for stopping by, your views have resulted in "Proxies" jumping into the on-line shopping cart and I look forward to reading Brian Blanchford's essays. As always I am led by your much more learned opinions.

I actually found Lerner quite readable and it did light a poetic spark that had been dormant for quite a few months. A few reviews are forthcoming of poetry collections, one an outstanding book indeed.