Stephen Lee Naish discusses the idea of ‘poetic justice’ and reviews Ben Lerner’s well received treatise on why we all hate poems so much.
Ben Lerner, The Hatred of Poetry (Fitzcarraldo Editions, McClelland & Stewart, 2016) 96pp.
I’ll be honest: poetry has never meant an awful lot to me. In a performance setting, it can be wild, invigorating, powerful, even life affirming; then almost instantly forgotten as the lights go up and people depart towards the exit. To read poetry takes patience, a knowledge of form, historical or factual knowledge of the poet is a benefit, there is an obtuseness that can be distancing, even distracting . I don’t hate poetry as such, like most, I acknowledge its existence, I believe in its necessity, though, also like most, I rarely engage with it. As a literary form, poetry’s impact and meaning on me is less than prose or essay. I require something more substantial to get my teeth into, so to speak. So when I stumbled upon a book entitled The Hatred of Poetry I was instantly intrigued. Who would admit publically that they actually hate poetry? Could this book be the outlet for which my own, or countless others, disinterest could find a voice. Author and poet, Ben Lerner’s concise book begins with an admission of hatred for poetry. Yet despite its compact size The Hatred of Poetry spirals into a welcoming defence of the form, that perhaps like the best forms of poetry, flows beautifully from one idea to another.
Lerner quite rightly points out that poetry has faced unbelievable odds, yet somehow still prospers. He comments: “What kind of art is defined – has been defined for millennia – by such a rhythm of denunciation and defence.” It is this prosperity of the form that is most interesting, and in need of further analysis. Lerner explains that: “we are taught at an early age that we are all poets simply by virtue of being human. Our ability to write poems therefore in some sense the measure of our humanity.” If poetry is indeed a representation of our humanity then hatred for the form is easily explained by the example set by Cædmon, the first known English poet, who Lerner uses in his text to further illustrate. According to Bede’s Historia, Cædmon leant his poetic craft in a dream in which he was instructed (possibly by God himself) to perform a piece. His ‘dream verse’ surpasses expectations, but the following morning, awake and inspired, the version of the poem he performs to his village folk is a “mere echo of the first.” Here lies the problem. In our minds we are poets, fluent in verse, but the verse that leaves our lips in the waking world is second-rate, at best. It’s a frustration we all, even the post fluid of poets, share.
Lerner unpacks a number of poems, breaking them down in interesting ways to learn the value of each, and the form as a whole. He starts with Marianne Moore’s “Poetry”, a verse of which as a schoolboy he chose to learn for an assignment by heart because the poem’s length made for an easy win. The first lines of Moore’s poem reads:
I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond
all this fiddle.
Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one
it after all, a place for the genuine.
And here lies the premise of The Hatred of Poetry. Reading with ‘contempt’ for the form allows the reader to find the ‘genuine’ thought within the lines. Poetry, at the very least, is an attempt at the truth, even if it never quite reaches it. He moves on, looking at seemingly bad poems that contempt for is easy to muster, pausing to savour doggerel poet, William McGonagal’s exquisitely awful “The Tay Bridge Disaster”, which opens:
Beautiful railway bridge of the silv’ry Tay
Alas! I am very sorry to say
That ninety lives have been taken away
On the last sabbath day of 1879
Which will be remember’d for a very long time.
Clunky is an understatement when discussing McGonagal’s poetry, yet Lerner deconstructs these words to explore and illuminate the pros and cons of poetics. Lerner has opened up the poetic form for all by allowing the reader the validation of their hatred towards poetry and poets alike. By using this premise as a starting point he allows for an embrace of poetry that no poem will ever allow. In a short space of time, The Hatred of Poetry changes the way in which poetry can be appreciated and enjoyed.
Stephen Lee Naish‘s writing explores film, politics, and popular culture and the places where they converge. His essays have appeared in numerous journals and periodicals, including Gadfly, The Quietus, Empty Mirror and Scholardarity. He is the author of U.ESS.AY: Politics and Humanity in American Film (Zer0 Books) and the forthcoming Create or Die: Essays on the Artistry of Dennis Hopper (Amsterdam University Press). He lives in Kingston, Ontario with his wife Jamie and their son Hayden.
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