The Matter With Kansas: Ben Lerner Talks to Cyrus Console

By Ben LernerFebruary 26, 2012

Ben Lerner and Cyrus Console grew up together in Topeka, Kansas, and became poets. Here the two friends discuss their boyhood bedsheets, corn and irony, fundamentalism and pharmaceuticals, how they came to use words like “metonymic,” “horizontality,” and “syntagmatic,” and why they are in the habit of renouncing poetry.

     — Tom Lutz


BEN LERNER: IN YOUR FIRST BOOK, Brief Under Water, you deployed an almost Victorian prose sentence to describe the particulars of the America (Topeka, Kansas) we grew up in. Part of the pathos of the book derives from the ill fit between the highly literary prose and the content it’s attempting to organize. You described your Peanuts bedsheets, for instance, thus: “Many years later these bedclothes would retain the power to cheer me, both by the inimitable distress of their fabric and by the illustrations they bore, done in the boy-and-beagle style of Schulz…” In your second book, The Odicy, the measure is no longer the 19th century sentence but the pentameter verse line. My question is: Do you see the traditional prosody here as parallel to the Victorian prose — as a form that’s in conflict with the contemporary experience it’s supposed to track? Or is there a different relationship between form and content in this book? I guess the short version of the question would be: Is your relationship to pentameter ironic?


CYRUS CONSOLE: The short answer would be no, or not so ironic as in the first book, which disavowed its content in advance, mocking it in fancy prose. The Odicy approaches content in the spirit of an assay for which verse provides the metric. It wants to find out if available subject matter (the twinkie, as opposed to the daffodil) can be beautiful, and pentameter is the invariant measure against which rightness of form is to be judged. Often during the composition of this book I felt deaf or numb to poetry, and these constraints seemed the only guideline available. But do I understand what you mean here by “ironic” — that chintzy, fire-retardant linens containing no linen and functioning primarily as an advertisement for the Schulz franchise are somehow not worthy of lovingly elaborated treatment in language, whereas the Derwent really deserves it when Wordsworth says “Was it for this / That one, the fairest of all Rivers, lov’d / To blend his murmurs with my Nurse’s song” — that the ironist performs the assignment of worth to unbefitting objects, and that in these books irony aims to preserve valuation in a landscape that offers no apparent value?


BL: That’s a lovely way to put it. Except I want to emphasize that the formal irony in your work strikes me as very far from the vernacular sense of “ironic” as insincere. The ability of the Peanuts bedsheets to cheer is genuine, I believe, even if they are not genuine linen; it doesn’t seem to me that you’re disavowing that power even if you’re questioning the culture in which the objects we attach to (and dream on) in childhood are cheaply made advertisements, are screens. Irony here is a two-way street: you could just as easily say it’s literary prose that’s unbefitting of its object, that the available literary models are incapable of capturing this affection without rendering it absurd. Never in your work do I find the easy, self-congratulatory mode of detached cultural diagnosis that’s so common in our supposedly innovative poetry.


This leads me to ask about your relation to the religious rhetoric in The Odicy because my sense is that while you might sometimes mock the eschatological flavor of our culture’s Christian fundamentalism you are also honoring its power, or at least turning it to other purposes that are not primarily parodic.


I remember you were reading Pascal when we lived in Providence. I remember worrying at one point that you were heading in the direction of dramatic conversion. Or at least going to take Pascal’s Wager. Are you a religious poet?


CC: Maybe. A worker on a primate preserve told me the story of taking a chimpanzee to see Kalambo Falls for the first time. Freud (that was the animal’s name), when he saw the thing, went into a dominance display — hair standing on end, grimacing, hooting, swaying, pulling up saplings — an exchange that seems to me, insofar as the huge waterfall “spoke” to him, fundamentally religious. If religion is the difference between a world that merely appears and one that signifies, then I have glimpses of it. William James lists as the first psychological characteristic of religiosity a “new zest which adds itself like a gift to life, and takes the form either of lyrical enchantment or of appeal to earnestness and heroism,” and certainly I have experienced the writing of poetry either as the attempt to realize myself in a universe which has visited such a zest on me, or, more commonly, as an effort to recapture that zest, now absent, by returning to my mode of communion with it, which unfortunately is “lyrical enchantment” rather than heroism. And you were right about my dramatic conversion, except it took the form of what you’ve called “radical sobriety.”


It’s true that parts of the book pay tribute to the power of contemporary fundamentalism. I was interested in Hell, for example: how powerfully our surroundings can take on meaning when we understand them as bearers of moral information; how Hell might differ from Topeka principally in that Hell exists for a reason. Other parts were motivated by indignation. At the time, we were finding out about things like Rumsfeld handing Bush the daily scripture-themed Worldwide Intelligence Briefing: “Open the gates that the righteous nation may enter, the nation that keeps faith,” (Isaiah 26:2), or how the Army and Marines bought tritium- and fiber-optic-enhanced rifle sights inscribed REV21:23 (“For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ”). I reworked Bible passages as if to evacuate them of all meaning, which seemed like a step in the right direction given their abject prostitution at my compatriots’ hands. At those moments I had less stake in scripture than in the national discourse that increasingly invokes the Christian god as part of a strategy to countervail arguments based on evidence and reason. Someone you call Jesus wants you to address Texas’ worst drought since 1895 by announcing a day of mass prayer (attendance: 30,000 including KS governor Sam Brownback) and fasting (attendance: unclear, given long lines at the stadium nacho stands). Someone I call Tony is telling us to check out of the Overlook Hotel.


BL: You mention the relationship between American fundamentalism and our habits of consumption, state-sponsored prayer and stadium concessions. This is an organizing concern in The Odicy. And Rumsfeld is a mediating figure, is he not? Before he became Secretary of State, didn’t he work for Monsanto?


CC: In Rumsfeld you see how formerly distinct regimes of consumption — food, drugs, arms — commingle, a status quo the book struggles to depict. Rumsfeld “leaves” the public sector, having been Ford’s Chief of Staff and then Secretary of Defense, and “enters” the private in 1977 to lead Searle, the pharmaceutical giant that had developed aspartame some years back. Reagan takes office (Rumsfeld moonlighting as a member of his transition team), they work together to make the FDA less “regulatory” and more “pro-business,” I guess is how we would put it, and that agency approves NutraSweet, not without controversy, for uses including sweetening carbonated beverages. Rumsfeld, already wearing the Presidential Medal of Freedom, is named Outstanding Chief Executive Officer in the Pharmaceutical Industry. Monsanto enters the picture when it buys Searle in 1985 (netting Rumsfeld personally $12m, so it is said). Monsanto got its start on soft drink money, and its first big product was the artificial sweetener saccharin, sales of which took off during World War I sugar shortages. But at the time of this writing the better part of their revenue comes from agricultural products, a market that opened for them during warfare in Vietnam, when they produced the so-called Rainbow Herbicides deployed in Operation Ranch Hand. Now the corn won’t grow without Roundup. All these powers converge at the soft drink. What is caffeine-free Diet Coke? None of its known ingredients qualify as “food” or “drug.” It is a pure distillate of the military-industrial complex. People drink it, I suspect, not out of thirst or hunger, but because they “like the taste.” Isn’t that what they’d tell you? What is the soft drink if not “the situation of politics which Fascism is rendering aesthetic” that Walter Benjamin worries about?


It’s a sign of how far sweetness has come that it should have Rumsfeld’s face, and that transformation yields the book’s main trope or tropaic problem. The “sugar is sweet, and so are you” paradigm goes at least back to Spenser: “She bath’d with roses red, and violets blew, / And all the sweetest flowres, that in the forrest grew” — but for Spenser, who died the year before the East India Company was founded, wildflowers connoted sweetness more readily than did table sugar! I tried to write lyric poems that contained sweetness and color without pretending that our favorite colors, fragrances and flavors aren’t grown in vats near Langley.


BL: So you’re turning against poetry as pastoral denial of ecological reality, but you’re also making contact with a traditional poetic and religious mode, a kind of prophetic denunciation. There are dangers here: your tracking of the corruption of water into soda, of color into artificial dye and flavor, etc., is utterly compelling. But I wonder if you worry about a strain of conservatism in the project in so far as it could be taken to imply a nostalgic longing for a lost organic unity of experience. Is there a fantasy that apocalypse is necessary in order to restore our palates to their supposedly original settings, so we can again experience the sweetness of fruit after the adulterations of soda?


CC: You’ll recall that while writing this book I frequented SHTF and TEOTWAWKI threads online (I’ll leave those initialisms unglossed, since we’re still online, since four million results speak to their relevance better than I can), where the apocalyptic fantasy the book tries to inhabit has many active participants, and where its broadest appeal is how it promises to streamline ethics, reverting us to life in small bands within which survival demands total cooperation, whose members’ allegiances are few but ironclad, and for whom interaction with all the globe’s strangers is but a matter of shot placement. Certainly these approximate the paleolithic conditions in which our moral faculties evolved and toward which the conservative impulse ultimately bends.


Just as the mainstream fantasy moralizes violence (a fantasy about being a thoroughly good person in a world where goodness obliges you to liquidate anyone who gets in your way), the poetic version suggests that the path to salvation leads through collapse. It supposes that in olden days, things preceded names: the names of the animals arise long after the animals themselves. Nowadays names come into being before the thing: the speech of the boardroom, patent office, and factory floor indicates the Big Gulp or the night vision goggles before these objects appear. The essential difference between “product” and “resource” is that whereas resources occasion their own semantic fields, products originate in the word. As products supplant resources, the language/matter relationship we call “truth” erodes together with the precedence of thing and name. Apocalypse is the moment — the blink of an eye or a device — in which product is restored to the status of resource, and we become scavengers again.


I mean, the book is also a fantasy about poetry’s relevance as an art form that could survive the darkening of the grid. But I feel like I’m evading your real question about “danger” or “worry.” Is there a responsible way to look at the bright side of apocalypse? Or do you mean the fallacy of “lost organic unity” — maybe just the “lost” part — is itself problematic?


BL: I mean it risks being reminiscent of, say, Pound’s: “With usura hath no man a house of good stone.” Or Eliot’s Anglican reaction to “spiritual dryness.” And many other Modernist writers who flirted with right wing politics as a kind of restorative grace, as the political equivalent to the poet’s struggle to shore fragments against ruin and so on. Now, I don’t feel like there’s anything politically reactionary about your poems — on the contrary — but I’m trying to figure out how you escape that, given that we have here often magisterial apocalyptic writing about our fallenness.


Surely part or most of the answer is formal, returns us to the question of formal irony. Your book contains what is to my mind the finest suite of acrostics ever written in English (RAINBOW). But the acrostic doesn’t really lend itself to the kind of heroicizing claims Pound or Eliot made for their forms — or for that matter the kinds of claims Language poets made/make for theirs. I mean, is the acrostic not the candy of poetry: cloying, precious? Or a bit like advertising, like branding, in its tendency to naturalize (and serve as mnemonic for) metonymic relations? (It occurs to me that the verticality of the all caps term versus the horizontality of how its letters are reused could be considered a literalization of the paradigmatic and syntagmatic axes of linguistics, and so the drama of the acrostic is the recuperation of the latter by the former.) And yet the acrostic was originally a religious form: Ιησο?ς Χριστ?ς, Θεο? Υι?ς, Σωτ?ρ: JESUS CHRIST, GOD’S SON, SAVIOUR. But your poems don’t conceal any prospect of salvation. We don’t get Jesus, we get Ra(i)nbow: artificial coloring and flavor (“taste the rainbow”). So your acrostics could be said to follow the fall of a form from technology of metaphysical revelation into corporate wordplay and acronym.


Roundup®, the number-one selling

Agrichemical of all time

Is brought to you by people at Monsanto.

Nutrasweet: another of Monsanto’s

Bright ideas like putting caffeine

Or vanillin in the soft drink Coke

We drink Coca-Cola long time


Remarketing is what the language suffered

Agonies and died for, that we might

Inspirit dying products with the word

No barrier between food & drug

Blood & brain, flavors, colors, lines

Of sight, fire, product might withstand

What Godard said. It isn’t blood. It’s red.


CC: The acrostic had developed this cloying quality by 1852, year in which Melville describes manchild Pierre Glendinning as author of:


That world-famed production, ‘The Tropical Summer : a Sonnet.

      ’The Weather: a Thought.’ ‘Life: an Impromptu.’ ‘The

   late Reverend Mark Oraceman : an Obituary.’ ’ Honour :

            a Stanza.’ ’ Beauty : an Acrostic.’ ‘Edgar :

            an Anagram.’ ’ The Pippin : a Paragraph.’

                              &c. &c. &c. &c.

                                 &c. &c. &c.

                                    &c. &c.’



Melville has designed this fictional frontmatter to be lightweight. Each title presents as its chief credential of seriousness the little rubric whose criteria it meets, and it is only through the intercession of a colon that we recognize the writing as ambitious, as in the academic model: “A House of Good Stone: Corporatism, the Body, and Possibilities of (re)Production in The Cantos.” We could define preciousness as a variety of irony in which writers are seen to join excessively abstract content (honor, beauty, the elements, a life) with excessively concrete (by that I mean palpable) literary form, serving the latter at the former’s peril. Instead of founding a vocabulary equal to, say, “love,” the poetaster composes a sonnet equal to other sonnets. Where verse form is a metonym for love, the lovers’ nouns are interchangeable: “where-e’er you find the cooling western breeze / in the next line it whispers thro’ the trees.” It seems like this would be a tragic thing, but given a language rapidly dedicated more or less exclusively to the production of lies, turning the lexicon into a kind of white noise, or the kind of meaningful but inarticulate noise a tryst or quarrel transmits through a wall, I mean, is that not a step in the right direction?


In this light the idea of content as “a flat spectrum over a defined band” (as you once put it) appeals to me. Evolutionary psychologists Leda Cosmides and John Tooby have developed an aesthetics that links equivalence/interchangeability to beauty. Mountains, for example, all look basically the same (do you remember the desk toy that sandwiched white and black sand in dyed water between two panes of glass, which when you inverted it produced a unique but instantly recognizable “landscape” of the sort epitomized in the paintings/teachings of Bob Ross?) According to Tooby and Cosmides, it is precisely because your seeing “landscape” doesn’t matter whose land you’re looking at, precisely because the sound of rain falling or water flowing or waves crashing doesn’t really change with time or place or distance or dimension, that you have evolved not only to appreciate but to seek these inputs. Their invariance over geologic time allows representations of them to evolve in the brain, and the existence of these hard-wired representations coupled with the continued availability of rivers and mountains allows the brain to confirm the fidelity of its perceptions of the more ephemeral things that make up our experience. The rainbow is perhaps the most striking example of such “invariant natural phenomena,” and in this context the doctrine of rainbow-as-covenant is poignant to me.


BL: You mention the manchild. You and I think a lot about the manchild as a form, a genre. We knew the same manchildren in Topeka: D— of Colins Park, flare gun tucked into his sweatpants, a finger blown off by a Silver Salute, always claiming his mysterious bruises were hickeys. I once saw him get beat badly by a group of adolescent skateboarders for reasons that were never explained to me. I remember J— in Potwin, how he claimed his dad designed the Empire State building, and tears start in my eyes as I recall the notebook of hastily made drawings he claimed were his father’s “blueprints.” We’ve known them and feared at various points in our twenties that we were turning into them. Sexual and economic outcasts, owners of improvised Nunchucks or potato gun, but ultimately harmless to all but themselves, the Midwestern Puer aeternus — I’m working my way to a question about “Tony,” a figure in your poems of great pathos. Who is Tony? What is he doing here?


CC: He caught hold of me in Westboro Park, down by the storm drain in whose chill waters preteens stashed Seagram’s Golden Wine Cooler — so it was no earlier than 1986, when Bruce Willis introduced that product in a famous commercialany volunteers [to be my friend]? I need one guy. A confident guy. I’ll do all the talking — and before an audience of these local youths he held his hunting knife (a Buck 120, which is to disclose my knowing the model name of this and other knives) to my neck and delivered a carefully prepared line: “want a haircut?” He was intact in those days. The manchild:


 • is sexually mature and thus prepared, in the most basic way, to act.

• does not romance, professionalize, or otherwise leave the arena of boyhood.

• is armed, but his weapon facilitates neither defense nor aggression. Instead, the manchild’s weapon catalyzes an ongoing fantasy of enemies and heroic deeds, just as a rosary or misbaha catalyzes a string of prayers.


Tony has a concealed weapon and a quest of no apparent import. I think whatever pathos he might have is that of the manchild. But what is that really? This is the kind of mystery I have long depended on you to elucidate. Does the manchild know that his true metier is pretend? Does he realize that his “climbing spikes,” let alone the ninjas whose technology they represent, are unreal? Does the violence that preoccupies him have real victims? Is his make-believe necessarily violent? What relation does the manchild have to isolates like Turgenev’s superfluous Tchulkaturin? What about a character like heartbroken Danny Harberts, who sets up his guitar amplifier out in the hills in Errol Morris’ Gates of Heaven? What does the manchild have to do with Topeka as distinct from Brooklyn or Berkeley? Why is he male?


BL: Much of the manchild’s power — and of course this is represented in the collapsed binary of his name, which really indicates a neither/nor relation, not a hybrid — derives from his existing at the threshold between two temporal orders, barred from inhabiting either. In his early essays like “The Metaphysics of Youth,” Benjamin makes a distinction between the temporality of childhood, a kind of “immortal time” of plenitude and purposelessness, and “developmental time”—the time of calendars, clocks, markets. These will grow into the categories of messianic time and bourgeois time in Benjamin’s work, and for Benjamin there’s a sense in which the revolution would make children of us all. But the manchild hasn’t left the first order of temporality enough to open the possibility of regaining it through revolutionary praxis or a madeleine soaked in tea or Bartleby-like non-participation. And yet his body has long surrendered to history: he has trouble managing his height or facial hair and when he injures actual children while demonstrating a wrestling move (clothesline, facehammer, DDT, elbow drop), it’s typically a result of his “not knowing his own strength.” He exists in profane time, but without the utopian or messianic possibility of time regained (hence theoktony?). Childhood is therefore even more lost to the manchild than to the man, while manhood is of course equally unobtainable. And the objects that make up his world are similarly suspended between realms: his alcohol — which he displays but does not really drink — is also soda, his weapons are toys, he will trade you two paper dollars for one of silver, valuing not credit but shine. We spot him more in Topeka than Brooklyn because he cannot drive (he could ride the subway alone, while most children aren’t allowed to, and so the subway would make a man of him, give him an adult relation to space; we picture him patrolling the suburban grid on a dirt-bike too small for him). We probably think, rightly or wrongly, that the “progressive” parents of Berkeley or Park Slope would either figure out a way to protect him from his endless string of humiliations or more likely would protect their children from him; he wouldn’t be allowed to show off his throwing stars or Playboys in the bushes, his court — where he’s a jester who thinks he’s a king — would be closed. He is not only male, he is white and able bodied: his pathos derives from being the perverted form of the empire’s privileged subject. If he were a woman or a racialized or otherwise othered body, he would be in immediate mortal danger from sexual predators and police violence; we’re talking about someone who is likely to inflict his only serious injuries on himself, to paraphrase a line of yours from Brief Under Water.


I read Tony as something like the manchild within the man writing these poems. Will you talk about Tony’s relation to the first person?


Like an animal sometimes he seemed

Full of emotion, other times inert

Wooden, neither sensible to pain

Nor to indignity. Later I wrote

A song cycle describing the ordeal.

Tony was a little boy that lived


In my mouth, among the candy shards

And varicolored solutes of that place,

Of middle height, having delicate

Nonrepresentational features

Like the features of a man who sings

In a language he don’t understand


CC: “Tony” is overdetermined in the poems — St. Anthony, for example, is the patron saint of swine and swineherds, and the book makes use of livestock, swine especially, in various figures: lord as shepherd; men as pigs (as on Circe’s isle); humankind’s almost incredible cruelty to animals (pig as lab animal or “other white meat”), cruelty that has grown more frequent and less visible since Dostoevsky or Nietzsche had their respective breakdowns at the sight of horses beaten. “Anthony” and “Tony” also metonymize the many dactylic and trochaic substitutions that intrude on the verse (I sometimes think the dactyl is what gives contemporary English its character: “Microsoft Office Professional® offers enhanced functionality.”)


What is most striking about the Tony of The Shining — Danny Torrance’s clairvoyant imaginary friend — is that he should reside not in Danny’s ear but in his mouth. For Danny, prophesy is not about being able to see things others can’t; it’s about having exclusive access to a mode of address. Danny’s relationship to language is the reverse of his father’s: Danny says much more — tells, in fact, the essential story of his past, present and future — by crooking and uncrooking a single finger than this father can say with all ten fingers. Jack Torrance’s writer’s block — crystallized in Kubrick’s image of him at the typewriter beside literal reams of the repeated phrase “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” — is madness that ends in his attempt to axe-murder his family. Danny’s (Tony’s) volubility is their salvation.


The Tony of the poems is also less a character than a form of deniability. You describe the manchild as “a jester who thinks he’s a king”; there is the cliche of the fool who alone tells the truth, as in King Lear. And that play contains a more particular and maybe more pertinent example of the perverted subject’s speech: Edgar’s recourse to third person when he feigns madness in order to address Lear and later Gloucester: “Take heed o’ the foul fiend: obey thy parents; keep thy word justly; swear not; commit not with man’s sworn spouse; set not thy sweet heart on proud array. Tom’s a-cold.” It’s as though the trauma of his circumstances not only depersonalizes his subjectivity, but also derealizes the language of the commandments (what must have been for him a very fundamental region of the language as a whole). Edgar (as Tom O’Bedlam) is not issuing these imperatives, but quoting them as if in disbelief. The madman or “Abraham Man” relates both to himself and to his language as if in the third person. And throughout The Odicy there is language (found, melodramatic, religious, corporate) that I really want no part of. I think “Tony” is expedient not as a mouthpiece for such language, but as a fiction or gesture towards fiction (or away from lyric) that opens up room for this language in the text. I could generalize from this to say that it’s poetry as a whole I don’t want any part of, and that “Tony” represents an effort to delegate that responsibility.


BL: We’ve known each other for as long as we’ve been writing poetry and we’re always talking about giving it up. Meanwhile we’ve largely organized our lives around it. As our friend Aaron Kunin has pointed out in a discussion of Pound’s Mauberley series, renouncing poetry is a familiar trope within poetry: “The January eclogue in The Shepheardes Calender ends with Colin destroying his instrument, the oaten pipe, and vowing to sing no more songs. In the first poem in his first collection, Spenser says farewell to poetry: hello, I must be going. The gesture is conventional — Spenser got the idea from Virgil.” Should I believe you when you say you want no part (or part of you wants no part) of “poetry as a whole”? Do you believe me when I say this (I say it a lot)? What is it about poetry that lends itself to these statements? Is something wrong with us? And how would we even know if we’d really given it up? If I never write another poem, do I stop being a poet?


CC: This is a complicated question. Colin destroys the pipe because his songs find no favor with Rosalind. The oath he speaks at that moment, viz. that both pipe and Muse “shall sore the while abye,” is unclear. To me it seems less like he’s renouncing poetry and more like he’s giving it the silent treatment—the whole point of which treatment is that it ends. I think we share Colin’s frustration that poetry seems to have no effect on its readers, ourselves included, but I wonder if when we say “giving it up” we really mean “waiting it out.”


Then there is the vocational despair common to our entire servant class: “Oh, you hate your job? Why didn’t you say so? There’s a support group for that. It’s called ‘Everybody,’ and they meet at the bar” (Drew Carey). Weariness is part of the very concept of work. One elegant remedy against insomnia is for the insomniac simply to assign herself the task of staying awake, a responsibility that promptly becomes unendurable.


There is also the more specific question of the gulf between poetry and poem (a question you take up brilliantly in your recent novel, Leaving The Atocha Station). In all my talk about giving up poetry, I don’t think I’ve ever said to myself, “I never want to write another poem.” On the contrary: writing a poem would do wonders for my outlook. If it didn’t, it wouldn’t be a real poem. Maybe what grieves us is the sensation of having assumed the style of Poet without having the poem to show for it. The various postures vis-à-vis poetry — scorn and defiance, slight regard, contempt — could function as a way of holding out the possibility of writing that poem. “Truly, there is none so assured as the bad poet” (Martial).



LARB Contributor

Ben Lerner is the author of three books of poetry: The Lichtenberg Figures, Angle of Yaw, and Mean Free Path, all published by Copper Canyon Press. His first novel was Leaving the Atocha Station, from Coffee House Press. In 2011 he became the first American to win the Preis für International Poesie der Stadt Münster. His new novel is 10:04.


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