Beauty in Contempt: Ben Lerner Lets Us Hate Poetry

By Kassandra Thatcher

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Within the first few pages of The Hatred of Poetry (FSG Originals 2016) noted novelist, essayist and poet Ben Lerner asks, in what will unfold as a pocket-style (or, aptly, bible-style) long form essay on the denouncement of poetry, “What kind of art is defined—has been defined for millennia—by such a rhythm of denunciation and defense?” This art he speaks of is poetry; the sole contender of an unusual dichotomy of reproved and defended, or idolized, at once. Often when people ask what I studied in college, and I tell them poetry, they scoff at the insufficiency of poetry. “Did your parents really pay for you to study that?” they ask me.

Lerner, rather than simply explicating reasons as to why one should appreciate and love poetry, defends its hatred. In one moment he articulates how a particular poet “succeeds by failing, because his failure can be recognized more or less universally and does in this sense produce community.” The sacrosanct reputation of poetry resigns it as misunderstood or inaccessible, but through a lens of error Lerner allows us to reverse our trepidations. Quickly, Lerner spells out his biggest preoccupation with poetry, “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…and do not experience that as a contradiction because poetry and the hatred of poetry are for me—and maybe for you—inextricable.” I can certainly say that yes, for me, like Lerner, I have found an inability to separate my devotion to and admiration of poetry from my hatred and often frustration in writing and experiencing it. No one seems to speak about this inaccessibility, or rather this bifurcation, in experiencing poetry. Throughout the essay Lerner’s spends his time discussing poetry’s pitfalls, its disappointments, the times when the work we put in leaves us empty handed. In this way, Lerner demonstrates to the novice, and on contrast the expert, reader or writer of poetry how to visualize the bad as the good, how to use what one dislikes to reconstruct a foundation of poetry where the non-poet and poet alike can thrive.

Lerner poignantly recognizes how poetry is often hyper-valued as a form of expression; people want it to affect others, to reinvigorate public action, becoming some sort of intoxicating rhythmic force to alter the course of our history. He writes, “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.” Yes, absolutely. Poetry arises from this principle, but it does not have to remain here. It seems this is where people become cemented in “poetry;” many become unable to surpass an antiquated, yet still relevant, definition of poetry (think Romantics).

And yet, we have all experienced poetry. I think back on the education of my hazed youth and remember a moment in third grade when Mr. T (no joke) sent us off to our assigned seats on a mission to construct our first poems. We all did this; our parents told us we were poets, our poems were hung on the fridge, maybe this was our first instance of feeling our voice, or some recognition of creative power. “Since language is the stuff of the social and poetry the expression in language of our irreducible individuality, our personhood is tied up with our poethood.” From an early age this teaching becomes etched into our personhood, taking shape throughout our lives through different creative processes. We always remember that we were, are, or can be poets, or maybe just that we once wrote a poem. The personal relationship we foster with poetry through education captivates us, we become certain that poetry has within it “transcendental or divine” abilities, we believe are capable of creating it, and yet when we reach adulthood, we begin to denounce its relevance in our world.

In his effort to explicate on both the poet and non-poet’s tendency, or inclination, to denounce poetry, Lerner looks closely at Claudia Rankine’s text, Citizen. He quotes a poem from the lyric that speaks to the universal “you” Rankine possesses in a passage: “…And though you back up a few steps, you manage to tell her you have an appointment. You have an appointment? She spits back…” Initially, the “you” is presumed to be Rankine herself, but, as a reader, the “you” feels personal, as if Rankine is speaking directly to us, the readers, and in turn, we become “you.” This image is quickly dispelled. We realize “we” cannot be “you.” Universality cannot truly be achieved. Rankine utilizes “you” to demonstrate the depersonalization of black bodies—in that moment on recognition, some of us, the white readers, are able to understand (perhaps experience through relation?) that objectification. Rankine’s decision to write a “lyric,” as she calls it, is comprehended through these moments, when the reader is forced to recognize their own body and its relation to other bodies, different from their own, different from their own experience and the experience of another.

The failure of poetry to seize the moment, to instill an uprising, to catalyze productive and emotional thought within the reader, is quashed by Rankine. She is one example of how we inspire a revolution through poetry—we use our knowledge of syntax, of the malleability of language, of our own personal experience, to speak more sharply than our words can read in a purely articulated space.

Isn’t this what sets poetry apart from prose? Our relationship between language and the world, between the self and “I” or “we” or “you,” and the choice of how to thread them into a work of emotional, personal, and relatable poetry? There are endless tasks of poetry, yes, but how we can use it moving forward in a world of hate and catastrophe, to inspire people to rise to the occasion, or just to inspire others; this is our task now, isn’t it? I don’t mean to say that our poetry must shift into a political atmosphere, I will admit I don’t tend to write of these topics myself, I intend to say is that poetry can become a platform; poetry doesn’t have to fail us.

In a final note to the reader, Lerner writes “All I ask the haters—and I, too, am one—is that they strive to perfect their contempt…where it will be deepened, not dispelled, and where, by creating a place for possibility and present absences (like unheard melodies), it might come to resemble love.” When we think poetically or write poems, we must recognize our contempt, because we all have it, and use it to strengthen our convictions, to highlight the beauty of mundane experience or make beautiful experiences mundane; when we approach poetry not with the intention to inspire others, hurt others, blame others, but to reflect these experiences within our own framework of language and personhood, poetry, the poetic experience, might come to resemble love.

Kassandra Thatcher wouldn’t opt to call herself a writer, but let’s be real that’s what she does. You can find her living between Montauk and NYC, juggling multiple books at once and hoping to eventually be reincarnated as a Spanish woman.