Review of The Hatred of Poetry by Ben Lerner
The Hatred of Poetry
by Ben Lerner
It’s with no regret, but some shame, that I admit I’m not a fan of poetry, and that I actively avoid teaching it. I use poems in my classes, when we’re talking about other subjects. But I avoid teaching the mechanics and technique of poetry, analyzing the metre and rhythm, looking into the intricacies of imagery and similes and repetition. I do this largely because, as a reader, I am not comfortable with poetry, and that translates then into my teaching.
I avoid poetry for the same reason I avoid graphic novels: there’s something about the way I read that precludes me from really absorbing the meaning, or enjoying the message, of a poem. Oh, I can sit down, read a poem, mull over it, study it, write an essay on it—if I have to. But give me the choice between a nice, juicy novel and a slim volume of poetry, and I will choose the novel every day of the week. There is no contest. There is just something about prose, about sentences linked together into paragraphs stacked on atop another and squished into pages of exquisite storytelling, that gets me going in a way that poetry and comics and even movies and TV and music just do not. Nothing gives me a high as good as a novel does.
And I’m a hypocrite, because even though I might say it’s totally OK to prefer reading one form over another, I definitely judge people who say, “Oh, I don’t read novels.” Then again, I also have some fairly mixed feelings about the way we teach novels.
But I digress.
Ben Lerner tries to tackle some of these common mixed emotions regarding poetry in The Hatred of Poetry, and he does a fairly good job. He describes the weird relationship that we have with poetry, in the way it is foisted upon us in schools, the way writing (and writing, in particular, poetry) is seen as a less serious occupation, the way poetry occupies a weird space within art itself.
I liked the part where he describes how people react to learning that he is a poet:
If you are an adult foolish enough to tell another adult that you are (still!) a poet, they will often describe for you their falling away from poetry: I wrote it in high school; I dabbled in college. Almost never do they write it now…. There is embarrassment for the poet—couldn’t you get a real job and put your childish ways behind you?—but there is also embarrassment on the part of the non-poet, because having to acknowledge one’s total alienation from poetry chafes against the early association of poem and self.
I like this, because if you replace “poet” with “mathematician” and “poetry” with “mathematics”, you get exactly my experience telling people I study/teach math. “Oh that,” they say, “I haven’t taken that since high school. Algebra was fine, but I didn’t much care for trigonometry. Never touch it now. I just don’t have that ‘math brain’, you know?”
(So much facepalming.)
Poetry, like math, is something that everyone can learn and do and that kids do with joy. As we age, we relegate it to an Else, and you are marked by your choice to participate or not participate in the activity. People who do math are fundamentally different from people who don’t; people who write poetry as a serious occupation are somehow different from those who do not. Full stop, end of story.
Except it’s not, as Lerner goes on to explore. He touches on the “bafflingly persistent association of poetry and fame” that he finds baffling precisely because “no poets are famous among the general population.” According to Lerner, this is because poetry, if it does its job correctly, sinks into the brain until your mind makes it your own. For poetry to truly work its magic, it must subsume itself into the reader/listener, until it becomes a part of their being. So when poetry affects you, the identity of the author might not be something you remember—even the words might fade away—so much as the feelings associated with the poem itself.
In case you can’t tell, The Hatred of Poetry is not so much about poetry itself so much as poetry’s place in our society. Lerner meanders through history in a search for differing attitudes towards poetry. He holds up Plato as history’s first poetry hater; Plato regards poets as dangerous liars. He takes us through the French Revolution and poetry’s decline in the nineteenth century as the novel becomes the rising star of the literary scene. He compares Keats and Dickinson in a way that I’m sure could cause total flame wars if he were to post it on a poetry subreddit. And he spends some time with Walt Whitman, looking at how poetry can be an exercise in timelessness and identity.
Despite being only 84 pages, this is a very ambitious book. Lerner sets out to accomplish much, and for the most part, I think he achieves it. My friend and former coworker Emma gave this to me as the response to my gift to her of For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood… and the Rest of Y’all Too. At the end of the book, she has written: “Well. Twas a bit dense at times and I felt his argument a wee repetitive, but overall I’m glad I read it.” I concur. I don’t necessarily think that The Hatred of Poetry is going to make you jump up and go read the nearest poetry anthology to hand (and yes, I have several sitting on the shelves around me, including a complete collection of William Blake’s poetry I received as a gift from my dad…).
Moreover, despite being white and male (like myself), Lerner displays a healthy awareness of issues of gender and race and how these play into the reception of poetry. He draws on the work of Claudia Rankine, explaining the context:
…Rankine confronts—as an African-American woman—the impossibility (and impossible complexity) of attempting to reconcile herself with a racist society in which to be black is either to be invisible (excluded from the universal) or all too visible (as the victim of racist surveillance and aggression).
before then quoting at length from Citizen and analyzing:
My privilege excludes me—that is, protects me—from the “you” in a way that focuses my attention on the much graver (and mundane) exclusion of a person of color from the “you” that the scene recounts (how could you have an appointment. Citizen’s concern with how race determines when and how we have access to pronouns is, among many other things, a direct response to the Whitmanic (and nostalgist) notion of a perfectly exchangeable “I” and “you” that can suspend all difference.
This is where I think The Hatred of Poetry gits gud, so to speak. Lerner avoids the pitfall of trying to present poetry, poets, or poetical activities as monolithic and functioning to serve a single greater artistic or cultural good. Indeed, he freely admits that poetry is a fractured exercise, that there are as many philosophies towards poetry as there are poets (and thus, people). I respect and appreciate his attempt to dive deeper than whether or not we should “like” poetry and attempt, rather, to look at why it is so persistent despite its failure to find purchase in mainstream popularity.
Even though it’s a new year, I won’t be so silly as to spout off some resolution about reading more poetry. I am defiantly and unapologetically not going to do such a thing. Without question, I will read and consider some poems this year, for they will come across my desk in my research and lesson-planning, or simply because cool people I follow on Twitter might share them. Nevertheless, my abiding passion and obsession must remain novels. Lerner’s essay is erudite and interesting, but poetry … sorry, still not a fan.