The Hatred of Lerner: Caleb Klaces on his struggle with Ben Lerner’s poetics

Ben Lerner
The Hatred of Poetry
Fitzcarraldo, £9.99

My two-year-old daughter has a frustrating habit of asking for orange juice, then objecting to every way she might drink it. The juice is right, the cup and bottle are wrong. The juice ends up on the floor.

Ben Lerner’s short and tasty book is a wonderfully simplifying story, floating from Caedmon to Claudia Rankine, about the distance between expectation and experience. It makes two arguments, often as if they were one. The first is about Poetry’s promise of the unsayable, something which you can thirst for but can never drink. The second is Poetry’s promise of the universal, also a sweet fiction. One argument is about poems, the other about pronouns. Poets and readers have always longed for Poetry to reach beyond the human, or at least beyond their own tribe of humans, and have always been disappointed. Disappointment breeds hatred of poems for failing to do the impossible: express the inexpressible; speak for everyone. Lerner loves hating poems as much as he loves poems, because ‘[h]ating on actual poems […] is often an ironic if sometimes unwitting way of expressing the persistence of the utopian ideal of Poetry, and the jeremiads in that regard are defences, too’.

In 2009 a friend passed me The Lichtenberg Figures, a sonnet sequence by a very young poet who my wife said had a clever-looking head. In the book a child could die and no tears would be shed, yet ‘with the invention of the camera, we began to cry’. The poems went on and on about poetry in ways that seemed shrill and contradictory: both hating it and investing it with an impossible power. Every line was memorable and by the next line forgotten. The cultural references were mostly familiar; the implicit preferences baffling. I couldn’t stomach the ugliness of phrases such as ‘a jargon of ultimacy’. I hated the book.

But there was something about the strength of my reaction, the way I didn’t just want to set the book down but ruin it with orange juice and then burn it, that made me curious. Lerner was a (hateful) fan of John Ashbery and, living in America, it was time I stopped pretending to have read him. When I came across the lines below I realized exactly what frightened me:

The Rhone slogs along through whitish banks
And the Rio Grande spins tales of the past
The Loir bursts its frozen shackles
But the Moldau’s wet mud ensnares it.

(‘Into the Dusk-Charged Air’)

The violent relationship between Ashbery’s poem and the great number of real-life rivers it lists shocked me. I was amused by the satire of the travel writer’s weirdly unpicturable observations. But that couldn’t fully explain the poem’s power. This poetry’s relationship with the world was different from that of more familiar poems, which generally tried to describe the world by describing it. In Ashbery’s poem, the tension between the descriptions of the rivers, and what I knew about the rivers, produced a third thing, flickering between experience and imagination.

I realized what scared me was the way Lerner’s poems flaunted their status as language. The chastened poet writes as though it’s discourse all the way down. When I got the hang of this apparent contradiction – that the communication which best understands its distance from the world might get closest to it – the tone I had read as ironic detachment now seemed like philosophical, searching honesty. He looked me in the eye and told me he was blind. Suddenly, the poems rewarded my learning. The anguished questions I harboured about the ethics of writing were, apparently out of necessity, elevated to the status of primary text.

I bought The Lichtenberg Figures along with Angle of Yaw and Mean Free Path, which had just come out. The collections do lots of different things, and give the pleasing impression of arguing with and compensating for one another – each subsequent book revealing the last one’s secrets. They all spookily fixated on images I dimly intuited had special resonance for the culture at large. I cared about terrorism and climate change, but the political poems I knew sounded like notes in the margins of newspapers. Their authors were connected to politics by their strong reactions to political events. Lerner connected the personal and the political in a way that seemed uniquely contemporary. The planes flew through the towers and straight into me. This was possible because of Lerner’s relationship with language. The poems didn’t describe victims, they dramatized discourse.

I was moved by a magical kind of pun Lerner had invented, a pun which turned me into language and inside out (the following examples are all from The Lichtenberg Figures):

Then bullets tore through the soft tissue of our episteme.

A suspicious white powder is mailed to the past,
forcing its closure.

In fine, it could move through
my body’s DMZs without detection.

In order to avoid saying ‘I,’ the author eats incessantly.

It was exhilarating to sense a flipped truth in the emphatic lies. The poems spoke in every voice I thought of as my own, and glorified the transatlantic culture I shared with their author, by reserving for it a special disgust. I aspired to live in the poems’ dimensions. I had hated Lerner’s poems because I had known I would have to throw away my own and start again.

In his 2010 review of Ashbery’s Collected Poems, Lerner suggests that words, like rivers, can become too full. There is only so much room in a signifier, and it is constantly under attack – from bombs and capital, but also from flowers and urns. ‘Limiting the poem to its referents threatens to arrest the flow of language and fix its source’: the reader can only swim in the ‘Moldau’ when it is dragged from the mud of reference to the Moldau. Lerner praises the way Ashbery gets out of the way in his poems, to let the reader in.

It’s interesting, then, that Lerner’s novels, Leaving the Atocha Station and 10:04, stay so close to their author’s life. He doesn’t want to try to throw his voice, to describe from someone else’s point of view. To be more than he is, then, Lerner must use language in such a way as to suggest a multiplicity of worlds within his own experience: to understand in chords, as he memorably describes a conversation in bad Spanish. A substantial part of the fiction is the commentary on its production. His poetry aspires to absence, the poet and Poetry never quite arriving at the scene; his prose fiction requires his watchful presence.In his 2010 review of Ashbery’s Collected Poems, Lerner suggests that words, like rivers, can become too full. There is only so much room in a signifier, and it is constantly under attack – from bombs and capital, but also from flowers and urns. ‘Limiting the poem to its referents threatens to arrest the flow of language and fix its source’: the reader can only swim in the ‘Moldau’ when it is dragged from the mud of reference to the Moldau. Lerner praises the way Ashbery gets out of the way in his poems, to let the reader in.

Lerner is the outstandingly original master of the paraphrase. His novels are brilliant glosses, commentaries, take-downs, collages, full of invisible inverted commas. Many allusions are literary: ‘I, too, dislike it’, Marianne Moore’s judgment on poetry, appears as dialogue in Leaving the Atocha Station, and is upgraded to hate in the most recent book’s title. But more often, he is quoting from ordinary speech: ‘I arrived at what they call a scene of mayhem’; all weather is ‘unseasonable’. There are gripping descriptions of dramatic, original events – a bombing and a super-storm – which clear some room in the clichés. His characters don’t live in Brooklyn but between Brooklyn and representations of Brooklyn. His writing represents spaces inside representation. Its proposal is to make mediation inhabitable.

In 10:04 two friends try to conceive a baby. How might sex might be separated from reproduction: can you conjoin without touching? The narrator is diagnosed with Marfan, and death hangs over the attempt to create life. For the first time in Lerner’s work, the discourse is rooted in something stubbornly material. Sometimes it’s difficult to separate the desire for Poetry from the desire for an identity tied to a physical presence.

It’s here that The Hatred of Poetry’s second argument, the one about the ability of one voice to speak for others, comes in. The world of experience is made up of representations. It flickers between what can be said and what can’t, and what has been said and what hasn’t. Lerner’s is a modular oeuvre. The Hatred of Poetry was trailed in the London Review of Books and Poetry, and rehearsed in different and the same forms in pretty much everything Lerner has written, and has the feel of a TV programme reproduced entirely in its trailers.

Then there is a coda: ‘Remember how easily our games could break down or reform or redescribe reality?’ His personal spots of time are disarming and beautiful, in part because of their generic impropriety. It’s as though an excess of rhetoric leads inevitably to the memory of childhood. The core argument of The Hatred of Poetry about the impermeable barrier between the actual and the virtual belongs to critic Allen Grossman. The way the book, in its coda, makes me feel as though I am moving across that barrier is all Lerner. What to do with that feeling – how to share it meaningfully with people who don’t live in my white, male body – is an open question.


Caleb Klaces is the author of Bottled Air (Eyewear, 2013) and the chapbook All Safe All Well (Flarestack Poets, 2011).