The Hatred of Poetry

Ben Lerner


Published 7 June 2016, French paperback with flaps, 120 pages

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In ninth grade English, Mrs. X required us to memorize and recite a poem, so I went and asked the Topeka High librarian to direct me to the shortest poem she knew, and she suggested Marianne Moore’s “Poetry,” which, in the 1967 version, reads in its entirety:

I, too, dislike it.
Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in
it, after all, a place for the genuine.

I remember thinking my classmates were suckers for having mainly memorized Shakespeare’s eighteenth sonnet, whereas I had only to recite twenty-four words. Never mind the fact that a set rhyme scheme and iambic pentameter make fourteen of Shakespeare’s lines easier to memorize than Moore’s three, each one of which is interrupted by a conjunctive adverb—a parallelism of awkwardness that basically serves as its form. That, plus the four instances of “it,” makes Moore sound like a priest begrudgingly admitting that sex has its function while trying to avoid using the word, an effect amplified by the deliberately clumsy enjambment of the second line and the third (“in / it”). In fact, “Poetry” is a very difficult poem to commit to memory, as I demonstrated by failing to get it right each of the three chances I was given by Mrs. X, who was looking down at the text, my classmates cracking up.

My contempt for the assignment was, after all, imperfect. Even now I routinely misquote the second sentence; I just Googled the poem and had to correct what I typed out above, but who could forget the first? I, too, dislike it has been on repeat in my head since 1993; when I open a laptop to write or a book to read: I, too, dislike it echoes in my inner ear. When a poet is being introduced (including myself) at a reading, whatever else I hear, I hear: I, too, dislike it. When I teach, I basically hum it. When somebody tells me, as so many people have told me, that they don’t get poetry in general or my poetry in particular and/or believe that poetry is dead: I, too, dislike it. Sometimes this refrain has the feel of negative rumination and sometimes a kind of manic, mantric affirmation, as close as I get to unceasing prayer.

“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 defenses 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 why don’t we ask: What kind of art is defined—has been defined for millennia—by such a rhythm of denunciation and defense? Many more people agree they hate poetry than can agree what poetry is. I, too, dislike it, and have largely organized my life around it (albeit with far less discipline and skill than Marianne Moore) and do not experience that as a contradiction because poetry and the hatred of poetry are for me—and maybe for you—inextricable.

[…]

No art has been denounced as often as poetry. It’s even bemoaned by poets: ‘I, too, dislike it,’ wrote Marianne Moore. ‘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.’
     In this inventive and lucid essay, Lerner takes the hatred of poetry as the starting point of his defence of the art. He examines poetry's greatest haters (beginning with Plato’s famous claim that an ideal city had no place for poets, who would only corrupt and mislead the young) and both its greatest and worst practitioners, providing inspired close readings of Keats, Dickinson, McGonagall, Whitman, and others. Throughout, he attempts to explain the noble failure at the heart of every truly great and truly horrible poem: the impulse to launch the experience of an individual into a timeless communal existence. In The Hatred of Poetry, Lerner has crafted an entertaining, personal, and entirely original examination of a vocation no less essential for being impossible.

‘The hatred of poetry, Mr Lerner shows, can suddenly and revealingly become a vehicle for bitter politics. Yet he also sees communal redemption in the strange bond people have with this ancient art form: if we constantly think poetry is an embarrassing failure, then that means that we still, somewhere, have faith that it can succeed.’
— The Economist

‘What results [from The Hatred of Poetry] is the ars poetica by one of America’s very best writers in any mode.’
Flavorwire

The Hatred of Poetry doesn’t have a problem with gravity; it’s a heavyweight belter which demands concentration and patience. This longform essay by the noted novelist, poet and academic on the doomed, but precious, enterprise of poetry does, however, reward effort.’
— Jane Graham, The Big Issue

Praise for 10:04

‘A generous, provocative, ambitious Chinese box of a novel, 10:04 is a near-perfect piece of literature, affirmative of both life and art, written with the full force of Lerner’s intellectual, aesthetic, and empathetic powers, which are as considerable as they are vitalizing.’ 
— Maggie Nelson, Los Angeles Review of Books

‘Ben Lerner is a brilliant novelist, and one unafraid to make of the novel something truly new. 10:04 is a work of endless wit, pleasure, relevance, and vitality.’
— Rachel Kushner, author of The Flamethrowers

‘Frequently brilliant ... Lerner writes with a poet’s attention to language.’
— Hari Kunzru, New York Times

Praise for Leaving the Atocha Station

‘Hilarious and cracklingly intelligent, fully alive and original in every sentence, and abuzz with the feel of our late-late-modern moment.’
— Jonathan Franzen, Guardian

‘A work so luminously original in style and form as to seem like a premonition, a comet from the future.’
— Geoff Dyer, Observer

‘[A] subtle, sinuous, and very funny first novel… There are wonderful sentences and jokes on almost every page.’
— James Wood, New Yorker

‘An extraordinary novel about the intersections of art and reality in contemporary life.’
— John Ashbery

Ben Lerner was born in Topeka, Kansas, in 1979. He has received fellowships from the Fulbright, Guggenheim, and MacArthur Foundations, and is the author of two internationally acclaimed novels, Leaving the Atocha Station and 10:04. He has published three poetry collections: The Lichtenberg Figures, Angle of Yaw, and Mean Free Path. Lerner is a professor of English at Brooklyn College.