“BY ONE OF THE ironic perversities that often attend the course of affairs, the existence of the works of art upon which formation of an esthetic theory depends has become an obstruction to theory about them.”
— John Dewey, Art as Experience
If you call a film or a film director’s instincts “poetic,” you’re paying a compliment verging on the superlative. Your interlocutor, unaware of the work, now inclines toward it. But if, in mixed company, you let it be known that you have written a poem, or if perhaps you express the wish to read the poem aloud, or if you assert that you yourself are a poet, you are testing the limits of patience and of tact. You risk suspicion that your claim is at once overbold (you’re a poet — says who?) and pitiably minor (you’ve written a little poem, likely to matter to exactly no one else except by way of charity). After all — and in my life poets have told me this somewhat more than non-poets — “no one reads poetry.” (Depending on chosen metrics and definition of terms this assertion is either wildly unsupported or essentially self-evident.)
Somehow saying something is like a poem serves as a better advertisement than identifying something as a poem. Aren’t we supposed to prefer the actual to the resembling? We circle a weird problem: the sense that by “poetry” we somehow mean more than just poems, that by “poetic” we mean something more than “like or pertaining to what poems do.” How can poetry be at once disregarded, even disparaged, and still call to mind a kind of arch-condition of art? What is poetry, anyway, that it has such an outsized life relative to its actual instances, so many of which seem to have little to do with what one wishes the word “poetry” would refer to? Why does the idea of poetry remain so attractive when poems are so often so bad?
In his short new book The Hatred of Poetry, Ben Lerner glosses the problem like this: the poet wants to say more than can be said, wants language to do more than it does, wants to transcend. (The poet who merely wants to communicate would do better, in Richard Hugo’s advice, to use the phone.) The consolidation of this ambitious but diffuse impulse into a verbal act — the arrival at actual terms fixed on the page — is an unacceptable circumscription of the impulse, a failure. But the failure is unavoidable. It inheres in the activity of putting words on paper. Lerner writes: “Poetry isn’t hard, it’s impossible.”
“Poetry” here names that utterance which would somehow surpass the limits of speech: a conceptual category that, though by definition empty of examples, tempts the history of literary production like the ghost of some God or father we could have known or might know yet but can’t humanly grasp. The poet feels the dull memory of other knowledge of the tongue and can’t reproduce it. She has to use the words there are for such things as have names — language is the fallen medium, built of worn material — but what she wants from an act of reference exceeds what any amalgam of communicable content can actually do. She wants to make moonlight felt, not speak again the name of the moon. Actual terms, whatever their number and glamour, are always too few and too many, always wrong. Poems become the tokens of unrealized desire. Poetry is the name for what poems never became.
The impossible dynamic is mirrored on the reader’s side. Our lives happen in the hum of language, which mediates individual consciousness and social life. We know how easily the bandwidth narrows, struggles to resist compulsive repetition, goes nowhere new. The reader comes to poetry wanting to escape this tedium and enlarge the frame. What the reader gets is “creative language” let loose on the page, without much consequence or power. Dissatisfied and unimproved by the experience, the reader may turn away from the form and resent either poetry itself or the naïveté that allowed his apparently flimsy investment of earnest hope. Those who remain under the spell can seem subject to a romance of their own imagining, but those who abandon or are unavailable to the impulse that would bring one to poetry in the first place appear over-hard, on the outside of something essential. There’s nowhere good to stand.
Poetry, then, implies a vexed ground where profound ambitions are joined to inadequate means of realization. This, in capsule form, accounts for both the persistent aura and disappointment of the art.
The late poet and scholar Allen Grossman, whose importance to Lerner’s thinking is repeatedly acknowledged, called this structural disappointment “the bitter logic of the poetic principle.” Poetry’s a funny thing. It admits enormous freedom, energy, and desire, but its achievement is uncertain. Any kind of culture war can be waged on its terrain, any concern can seek prestige or force in its rhetoric, any “radical innovation” deployed to rend or repair its potential, but the revolutions wash out, leaving fundamental dynamics as they were, unameliorated. The feeling (apart from any economic reality) that poetry leaves the poet poor has a long history. One was in awe of poetry, wrote poems, but something never quite added up or gathered in the hand. Wallace Stevens, hardly among the more depressive of famous poets, said that “poetry is a form of melancholia.” For Lerner:
[T]he poet is a tragic figure. The poem is always a record of failure. There is an “undecidable conflict” between the poet’s desire to sing an alternative world and, as Grossman puts it, the “resistance to alternative making inherent in the materials of which any world must be composed.”
The exalted art is, then, so often an unlikeable one, subject (since Plato) to varieties of derision from without, and moodiness and defensive stance from within. The three lines of Marianne Moore’s final version of her poem “Poetry” are a famous instance of the latter, in part because they waste no space or apology: “I, too, dislike it. / Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in / it, after all, a place for the genuine.”
Lerner’s remarks on Moore’s poem are worth citing at length because they show the core of his concern:
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 […] What kind of art is defined — has been defined for millennia — by such a rhythm of denunciation and defense? Many more people can agree they hate poetry 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 for me — and maybe for you — inextricable.
To sort this tangle of phenomena and attitude, Lerner sets to work a distinction taken from Grossman’s difficult, sometimes incandescent essays: the “virtuality” of capital “P” Poetry (“the abstract potential of the medium as felt by the poet when called upon to sing”) and the actual poem “which necessarily betrays that impulse when it joins the world of representation.” The best poems preserve our amorphous notions of what a poem might do. They open “a place for the genuine.” But — and Lerner makes of his close reading Moore’s koanic poem a kind of mantra — they have no traffic in the genuine itself.
In this “rhythm of denunciation and defense” Lerner sketches a dialectical constancy visible across the vagaries of rhetoric and era. The potential of Poetry is either explicitly formulated and affirmed, or preserved in the abstract by complaining about how some (or all) poems fail it. The hating too is proof of value: “an ironic if sometimes unwitting way of expressing the persistence of the utopian ideal of Poetry […] the jeremiads in that regard are defenses, too.” What’s traced by our dissatisfaction (overt or repressed) is the dimension of our desire, somehow untrammeled, glowing still. And so, whatever evidence and good sense to the contrary, when the poet hears Lerner say that poetry isn’t hard but instead impossible, she wants to beg, from the depth or delusion of her vocation: “Yes, but aside from being impossible, it’s also hard.”
The Hatred of Poetry proceeds by a sequence of exemplary readings which foreground the centrality of virtual strategies in poetic making. In Lerner’s schema the best poems are those which hold space for a thinking or a music which they will not enact or even exactly describe, a strategic withdrawal by which the reader’s imagination is called out and given space in which to operate. We could say Stevens offers something like the feeling of epiphanic philosophical discrimination (not philosophical program itself). Keats casts, in Michael Clune’s reading, “images of virtual music” (“spirit ditties of no tone”). Dickinson’s dashes are a virtual strategy: “vectors of implication where no words will do.” By such maneuvers virtual possibility is recuperated, unimpinged within the bounds of actual poems. But in this sense writing poems may not even be necessary. The defense of poetry as a genre can be glossed as virtual poetry, since “it allows you to describe the virtues of poetry without having to write poems that have succumbed to the bitterness of the actual.” Sidney and Shelley, in canonical instances, address themselves to varieties of hypothetical literary act. This bent is stronger still in Emerson’s essay on “The Poet,” in which an opulent description of poetic vocation is broken to complain: “I look in vain for the poet whom I describe.”
The book’s most moving intimation of poetic capacity is an extended analogy to language acquisition in childhood:
I remember speaking a word whose meaning I didn’t know but about which I had some inkling, some intuition, then inserting that word into a sentence, testing how it seemed to fit or chafe against the context and the syntax, rolling the word around, as it were, on my tongue. I remember my feeling that I possessed only part of the meaning of the word, like one of those fragmented friendship necklaces, and I had to find the other half in the social world of speech. I remember walking around as a child repeating a word I’d overheard, applying it wildly, and watching how, miraculously, I was rarely exactly wrong. If you are five and you point to a sycamore or an idle backhoe or a neighbor stooped over his garden or to images of these things on a television set and utter “vanish” or utter “varnish” you will never be only incorrect; if your parent or guardian is curious, she can find a meaning that makes you almost eerily prescient — the neighbor is dying, losing weight, or the backhoe has helped a structure disappear or is glazed with rainwater or the sheen of spectacle lends to whatever appears onscreen a strange finish. To derive your understanding of a word by watching others adjust to your use of it: Do you remember the feeling that sense was provisional and that two people could build around an utterance a world in which any usage signified? I think that’s poetry. And when I felt I finally mastered a word, when I could slide it into a sentence with a satisfying click, that wasn’t poetry anymore — that was something else, something functional within a world, not the liquefaction of its limits.
That’s the oldest knowledge of the tongue, that, to cite Emerson, “every word was once a poem,” that “language is fossil poetry,” that though we trade in the coins of codified meaning — the embossed faces now indistinct, worn down by use — cash value floats somewhere still, intercalated and real.
Let’s state the core issue another way: poetry’s ultimate referential object is the ineffable and its materials consist of the sayable alone. These are hard conditions. For some poets or some poems or in rare moments of reading these conditions, miraculously, are made equal. The glimmer of such possibility or accomplishment is an actual experience, of no lower status than experience of other kinds. It can inspire devotion both adolescent and complex. Like all faith, it can be fallen away from when subsequent experience fails to be confirmative.
Lerner’s long essay is lucid and useful and finally overreliant on a distinction which settles less easily than he would like it to. The mind’s pleasure is exactly that plane on which the virtual and actual interpenetrate, hunt as a pair. It is by hewing to this tension that poetry remains a live mode. Such rifts — approached by a wager of work and risk and a degree of enabling delusion — may be loaded with ore. The gaps are, in certain theological models, God’s own home. The impossible is a proper object of creative work.
Despite its title, The Hatred of Poetry belongs to one of the genres it describes: the defense of poetry. Rarely have entries in that venerable line so insisted on poetry’s essential vulnerability, and rarely have they made such value of the felt insufficiency of participation in the form. (Harold Bloom did something like this and for many the distaste hasn’t faded.) I’m not sure Lerner’s conceptual equipment will be found likable enough for our times, which seem to require likability. But in a poetry world well-inured to harmlessness, in which naïve boosterism proliferates a lot of non-credible talk about how good poems are and about the good poems are assumed to do, it’s nice to be reminded that there are other roads — one of them via negativa — to the glory of made things.