“I, too, dislike it.”
I never liked poetry. From Keats to Duffy at school, I didn’t like any of it. After many years working in a bookshop with one of the best poetry sections in the country, and in a city with as thriving (if that is the word) poetry scene as Norwich, I still didn’t like it. I still don’t. So seeing this title, from this writer, and from this publisher, I was excited. I thought, “Well this should be fun – come on then, Lerner.” But there it is, first page: “I, too, dislike it,” originally a line from Poetry by poet Marianne Moore but here used by another poet, who happens to have written some of my favourite fiction, and immediately catches me off-guard. A poet who dislikes poetry. Or better – this poet dislikes poetry. It’s oddly comforting.
Though why odd? What I think this book does so brilliantly is it gets why people do dislike poetry, and actually makes a thoughtful but very funny case for why people should dislike it. And yet, reading his argument, I finished this book understanding how, in a weird kind of a way, I might come to love poetry (if I don’t already), even if I continue to hate poems.
Lerner’s point is, for me, impressively nuanced without being fiddly. In any case, how much you enjoy the book will depend on how much you’re willing to accept the key distinctions he makes to build it on: the first being between poetry and poems, and the second between the virtual and the actual. Put them together and you’ve got most of it: that between the virtual of poetry and the actual poems there’s a gap so frustratingly huge that most people – poets, readers, anyone (everyone?) – find simply too huge to forgive. Hence, hate.
But that’s probably more or less true of but every art, or even every act. The crux of the point Lerner makes is that this gap is not just true of poetry, it is the truth of poetry, because the virtual – what we expect of it – is for it to speak for the individual and the universal simultaneously. Throughout the book, we’re given a whirlwind tour of poetry’s history – including Keats, Dickinson, Whitman, and the worst poet ever – to see whether or not that virtual has ever been actualised.
But please don’t mistake this for an accurate and/or complete summary of what Ben Lerner argues. The only way to do justice to the point of the essay is, of course, to read it for yourself. But even then this is only the argument of the book, and not even the argument in full – it doesn’t come close to accounting for why I’ve found the book so enjoyable and even, in a strange sense, thrilling. And I really have found it both of these things. I’m just struggling to tell you why.
Is it because it’s finally given me a way to begin to understand not just why I hate poetry (and I do), but why I hate poetry so much? (And I really do.) Is it just because it’s written by Ben Lerner, and written similarly enough to Leaving the Atocha Station and 10:04 for me to enjoy it in a similar enough way? Or is it because, within this essay, he gets to something with this particular ‘virtual/actual’ distinction that I find to be true and pressing even in something as banal as writing this blogpost?
(This is of course not to say that I’m writing poetry, or literature, or any art in writing this – though reading it back I may be suffering from pretensions – it’s just to maybe roll Lerner’s idea around in my mind like he explains he rolls words and sounds around in his mouth and in this way makes poetry, and more specifically to roll the idea around in the context of any writing, any communication, any act that uses words to make actual something that is virtually impossible, like this very blogpost. In deciding to write it at all – rather than, say, have another nap – it was with the expectation and hope that it would become something that would compel hundreds if not thousands to go out and buy it who would not have done so otherwise, that it would deftly combine the colloquial and informal with at least a flavour of the academic so it might hide the fact I’ve only read the book once and don’t even have it on me as I write this, that it would impress my colleagues who I assume will be the only people I will have to look in the eye and know that they know that I have done this, like flatmates after you’ve blocked the one toilet in your shared house, and that also, somehow, it might impress Fitzcarraldo, a publisher whose catalogue I find impressive to the point of intimidation and whose design I find honestly courageous – witness the over-reaching compliment in the first paragraph – not to mention Ben Lerner himself one day reading it – while at the same time knowing before I’ve written it that I would write this bit, and that those same colleagues whose toilet I am at pains to make clear I have only figuratively blocked (to my knowledge) will now be reading this with an accommodating smile that says, “Alright James, we see what you’re doing,” and hoping my mum’ll like it too.
When really, as I’m sure the curators of this blog will agree, all the virtual in this case needed to be was a simple post explaining the genuine pleasure of reading a book that puts you in the company of someone who’s just very clever and very witty and very warm and open and engaging, and writes like all of these things, and while he is writing about something I, too, dislike, it is very dear to him, and I think he can make it dear if not to the whole ‘universal’, then certainly to many more individuals that you’d probably think.
That’s what I should’ve done. I guess at least poets can blame poetry for their failure.)
Additionally, the book’s print is massive. So, y’know – bonus.
The Hatred of Poetry by Ben Lerner is out now, published by Fitzcarraldo Editions.
by James Elliott