It is impossible to say just what I mean!
But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen:
Would it have been worth while
If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,
And turning toward the window, should say:
“That is not it at all,
That is not what I meant, at all.”
— T. S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”
IT IS A BASIC PRINCIPLE of storytelling that failure is a condition of success. Narration is an exercise in masochism, requiring its authors to intentionally withhold pleasure for the purpose of postponing release: a plot’s failure — the deferral of its resolution — is its entire point. In his new monograph The Hatred of Poetry, Ben Lerner suggests that poems, too, succeed only insofar as they fail. In Lerner’s view, a poem in its purest form is an intimation of the divine, an orgasmic convergence of words and meanings. But this conception of poetry issues a hopelessly tall order, and no actual poem can help but disappoint in practice. Poems work best, Lerner argues, when they sketch out potentialities, leaving us to imagine what true transcendence might feel like. “[T]he poem is always a record of failure,” Lerner writes, a betrayal of “the abstract potential of the medium.” It is for this reason that poetry chronically inspires hatred: it is an art form defined more than any other by “a rhythm of denunciation and defense.” The Hatred of Poetry begins with a reflection on Caedmon, “the first poet in English whose name we know.” According to Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, Caedmon is purported to have “learned the art of song in a dream,” when he encountered either God “or an angel or a demon” (“the text is vague,” Lerner notes parenthetically) and obeys this deity’s command to “sing the beginning of created things.” An untutored cowherd, Caedmon is surprised to find himself capable of producing “gorgeous verses praising god.” But the lyrics that Caedmon can muster upon awakening are impoverished echoes of his former fluency. Following the literary critic Allen Grossman, Lerner suggests that the story of Caedmon is an allegory for a greater poetic failure. If we hate poetry, it is often because poems are tragically inexact translations from a purer language, a dialect we can hauntingly half-remember. “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,” Lerner writes. “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.” Indeed, the more significant or comforting or expressive a poem aspires to be, the more dramatic its inevitable failure — the greater and more palpable the gap between its intentions and its achievements.
At various points in its history, Lerner observes, poetry has failed or disappointed its readership in other ways, too. In the 1700s, it was dismissed as an impractical pursuit — a claim that prompted romantic apologists like Shelley to position its “uselessness” as an antidote to bourgeois materialism. A century later, Whitman’s followers felt that poetry betrayed its central mission by failing to unite the diverse American populace. In the 20th century, the Surrealists and other writers aligned with the avant-garde insisted that poetry was incapable of effecting concrete political changes or challenging the structures of capitalism. From this brief history, it emerges that we make many conflicting and stringent demands on poetry: it is supposed to summon the divine, to provide a conduit for the expression of individual experience, to shatter the existing political order, and to unify fragmented populations by capturing some sort of universal attitude. What is common to all these views is that poetry is supposed to represent or even instantiate an alternative to reality — and this global expectation provides further ammunition for poetry’s detractors. Radicals hate poetry for failing to change the status quo, and conservatives hate it for trying. “[H]ating poems,” Lerner writes,
can either be a way of negatively expressing poetry as an ideal—a way of expressing our desire to exercise such imaginative capacities, to reconstitute the social world — or it can be a defensive rage against the mere suggestion that another world, another measure of value, is possible.
Poetry, then, elicits hatred on virtually every front: we hate it both because it attempts to alter the world and because it fails; because it does not unite us and because it does not cater to the vagaries of idiosyncratic experience; because it is too political to transcend political differences and because it is not political enough to incite revolution. The only consensus is that poetry, which is damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t, is definitely damned.
Lerner is himself a poet: he published three volumes of poetry before his debut novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, made him a literary celebrity in 2011. But in The Hatred of Poetry, he seems to regard “poetry” as something of a stand-in for literature or art more broadly. He writes, for instance, “we are all poets simply by virtue of being human. Our ability to write poems is therefore in some sense the measure of our humanity.” One of the problems with the essay is that Lerner does not explain why poetry’s failure is any more spectacular than our broader failure, endemic to all art and perhaps all interpersonal interactions, to communicate with absolute clarity.
For Lerner, “poetry” appears to be defined by its transformative uses of language. Semantic satiation — the effect achieved by repeating a word until it is hollowed out, reduced once again to a sound without a meaning — is one example. “Your parents enforce a bedtime and, confined to your bed, you yell, ‘Bedtime’ over and over again until whatever meaning seemed to dwell therein is banished along with all symbolic order, and you’re a little feral animal underneath the glowing plastic stars,” he writes. “Linguistic repetition […] can give form or take it away, because it forces a confrontation with the malleability of language and the world we build with it, build upon it,” he continues. Poetry employs this tactic, among others, to undo its constituent language. It strips words away from themselves, allowing us to come into fleeting contact with the reality behind them.
In this way, poetry creates a sense of possibility that Lerner likens to the moment just before a movie begins to play in a cinema. In the anticipatory darkness, before any particular film flickers across the screen, an unbounded range of “other worlds were possible.” Poems, for Lerner, mimic the “little clearing the theater makes”: they impugn normal usages and point toward words used otherwise. Like visual art, religion, sex, and drugs (“fucking and getting fucked up,” as Lerner puts it in the monograph), poems are supposed to help us dissolve into other people: to “liquefy the particulars of perception into an experience of form.”
Fiction, too, creates these clearings. It is, in its essence, an alternative to the fixity of life — a phenomenon we might uncharitably describe as an evasion of reality or commitment. But what Lerner so flatteringly frames as the preservation of possibility can also constitute an aversion to actuality — and in his own fiction, the calculated suspension of commitment often amounts to moral irresponsibility. Adam Gordon, the twentysomething protagonist of Leaving the Atocha Station, languishes aimlessly in Madrid, where he has been awarded a prestigious fellowship for the purpose of researching and writing a poem about the Spanish Civil War. Instead of working on this project, however, he battles crippling anxiety, nurses minor drug addictions, and half-dates a series of women to whom he is unfailingly inconsiderate. As he smokes spliff after spliff, Gordon meditates on the terrifying “disconnect between my experience of actual artworks and the claims made on their behalf” and wonders whether it’s possible to write affecting poems at all. Too terrified to commit but too committed to withdraw, he settles for indefinite procrastination.
Lerner’s second novel, 10:04, follows an unnamed middle-aged Brooklynite who has recently been diagnosed with a “potentially aneurysmal dilation of my aortic root” that may spontaneously kill him at any moment. Like Adam, the pathologically self-loathing narrator of 10:04 allows his doubts about the emotional force of art to creep into his interpersonal relationships: he can only bring himself to go on the kind of dates “you could deny after the fact had been a date at all.” His friend accuses him of drinking as “a way of hedging. So that whatever happens only kind of happened.” But the narrator’s hedging is also the source of his creative power, his obsession with a world that is “as it is now, just a little different” — a Hasidic saying that appears in the book’s epigraph and a refrain that recurs throughout the novel. And 10:04 itself, with its bizarre blend of fact and fiction, autobiography and falsification, is the same but different: alongside it, the world that Lerner and his readers actually inhabit becomes only one in an expansive series of possibilities. “I felt acutely how many different days could be built out of a day, felt more possibility than determinism, the utopian glimmer of fiction,” Lerner writes. The narrator applies this same logic in interpersonal contexts, emphasizing that anonymity — the explicit failure of self-determination and individuation — can yield a strong sense of connections or unity. Recalling Ronald Reagan’s powerful speech in the wake of the Challenger disaster, he remarks that the address was “briefly available to everyone” because it “wasn’t written by anyone.” If the narrator appears indecisive, it is because he, too, aspires to be the same but different, self but other, able to slip, however briefly, into other lives.
10:04 and Leaving the Atocha Station are nervously solipsistic novels, excruciatingly first-personal. They are often more essayistic than narrative, and part of what they treat is their protagonists’ inability to join the narrative fray, to insert themselves into the vibrantly lived experiences they imagine everyone else to enjoy. By jealously guarding their potentiality, Lerner’s characters absolve themselves of the difficult task of enacting any particular iteration of their own futures. But they also prevent themselves from participating in their own lives, connecting honestly with other people, or undertaking projects they fear might fail.
In Leaving the Atocha Station, Adam disintegrates precisely because he lazily conceives of himself as an eternal tourist. His life in Spain is indefinitely preparatory: whenever he begins to worry that he has not achieved enough — not integrated fully enough into the Spanish community, not worked hard enough on his heretofore nonexistent poem, not cultivated meaningful enough relationships with his friends and lovers, and so on — he consoles himself with thoughts of his situation’s impermanence. The looming threat of his imminent departure serves as a convenient excuse for his emotional impotence, especially when it comes to his romantic interests. Around Teresa and Isabel, the two women he is half-heartedly “seeing,” he remains intentionally reticent, hoping that profundity “could be read into my silences.” He speaks vaguely, “in a way I hoped confirmed incommunicable depths had opened up inside me.” Rather than committing fully to either woman, he maintains unsatisfyingly liminal relations with both:
I never attempted to initiate anything with Teresa, but this was in part because I always assumed I could, that she was, if not exactly waiting for my advances, open to them, and that keeping such a possibility alive was for both of us, at least for the moment, more exciting than any consummation.
Undergirding this strategy is the assumption that imagined consummation will prove more fulfilling than any actual intimacy would. The same principle extends to Adam himself: terrified that he will disappoint, Adam compensates for his deficiencies by exhorting others to dream up an ideal identity for him. Leaving the Atocha Station is a game of Mad Libs in which we, along with Teresa and Isabel, are called upon to fill in Adam’s many blanks.
This defensive tactic — using silence to invoke shadowy intimations of speech — prefigures the aesthetic theory that Lerner advances in The Hatred of Poetry. On the level of form, a poem’s maddening restraint, its deliberate failure to realize or instantiate its potential, is the source of its mysterious power. But on the level of character, Adam and the unnamed narrator of 10:04 display cowardice when they refuse to trade possibility in for choice. When is failing — deferring, delaying — an art, and when is it merely a cop-out? Adam goes so far as to explicitly suggest that his personal “fraudulence” can be redeemed if we read it as a kind of interpersonal poem:
“Poem” is understood as referring to a failure of language to be equal to the possibilities it figures; only then could my fraudulence be a project and not merely a pathology; only then could my distance from myself be redescribed as critical, aesthetic, as opposed to a side effect of what experts might call my substance problem.
And 10:04 embodies this eternally preparatory posture all over again: it is itself a preparatory project, a novel about the composition of a novel. The unnamed narrator, who operates at every moment under the threat of spontaneous death, cannot quite bring himself to believe in his life, much less in his fiction. Instead, he resorts to the cheap tactics of skepticism, joking that the moon-landing was faked and playing with the idea of writing a story about a character who feigns cancer symptoms for attention. Tormented by the suspicion that art is inevitably underwhelming, the narrator hesitates in selecting a book to read to his dying mentor. If he were in the moribund man’s position, he reflects, he “wouldn’t even think about literature, would just be asking for morphine and distracting myself, if possible, with reality TV.”
The passivity of Lerner’s protagonists can seem like a concession to despair in the face of adversity. But the very existence of 10:04 and Leaving the Atocha Station implies that their narrators got it right in the end: these antsy records of failure attest to, even constitute, success. Lerner’s fiction is a rejoinder to its own doubts, a tacit affirmation of art’s worth in spite of its shortcomings. After performing at a poetry reading, a proceeding that makes him excruciatingly uncomfortable, Adam writes,
when I imagined, with a sinking feeling, a world without even the terrible excuses for poems that kept faith with the virtual possibilities of the medium, without the sort of absurd ritual I’d participated in that evening, then I intuited an inestimable loss, a loss not of artworks but of art, and therefore infinite, the total triumph of the actual, and I realized that, in such a world, I would swallow a bottle of white pills.
What Adam intuits here, and Lerner intuits beautifully and compellingly in The Hatred of Poetry, is that art’s failures matter precisely because its task is so vital. There is nothing more essential to the human project than the fraught negotiation of privacy and publicity, circumscribed loneliness and raw self-exposure. How can we access the privacy of others without violating it, exposing what is by definition unexposed and unexposable while preserving the tremulousness that makes it worth exposing in the first place? The answer, of course, is that we can’t, but we have to try anyway.
Becca Rothfeld will begin her PhD in philosophy at Harvard in the fall.