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The Hatred of Poetry

The Hatred of Poetry

Ben Lerner

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No art has been denounced as often as poetry. It's even bemoaned by poets: "I, too, dislike it," wrote Marianne Moore. "Many more people agree they hate poetry," Ben Lerner writes, "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 inextricable in ways it is my purpose to explore."

In this inventive and lucid essay, Lerner takes the hatred of poetry as the starting point of his defense of the art. He examines poetry's greatest haters (beginning with Plato's famous claim that an ideal city had no place for poets, who would only corrupt and mislead the young) and both its greatest and worst practitioners, providing inspired close readings of Keats, Dickinson, McGonagall, Whitman, and others. Throughout, he attempts to explain the noble failure at the heart of every truly great and truly horrible poem: the impulse to launch the experience of an individual into a timeless communal existence. In The Hatred of Poetry, Lerner has crafted an entertaining, personal, and entirely original examination of a vocation no less essential for being impossible.

EXCERPT


 


In ninth grade English, Mrs. X required us to memorize and recite a poem, so I went and asked the Topeka High librarian to direct me to the shortest poem she knew, and she suggested Marianne Moore’s “Poetry,”...

Reviews

Praise for The Hatred of Poetry

Praise for The Hatred of Poetry:

“Loathing rains down on poetry, from people who have never read a page of it as well as from people who have devoted their lives to reading and writing it . . . Mr. Lerner skates across this frozen lake of pique with delicate skill . . . The book achieves its goal in the most circuitous of ways: by its (lovely) last sentence, Mr. Lerner might get you longing for the satisfactions of the thing you’re conditioned to loathe.” —Jeff Gordinier, New York Times

The Hatred of Poetry does a brilliant job showing how poets ‘strategically disappoint’ our assumptions about what the medium should do . . . Engaging . . . Superbly written . . . [Lerner’s] granular, giddy analysis of Scottish bard William Topaz McGonagall, ‘widely acclaimed as the worst poet in history,’ fascinates as the negative expression of a Parnassian ideal. It’s also comedic gold.”
—Katy Waldman, Slate

The Hatred of Poetry is one of the best denunciations of the genre of lyric poetry I have read—and one of the more intriguing defenses . . . it offers two for the price of one, and this is its insight.”
—Meghan O’Rourke, Bookforum

“Lerner is a fine critic, with a lucid style and quicksilver mind . . . But perhaps most remarkable is just how entertaining, how witty and passionate and funny, The Hatred of Poetry is . . . Reading it is less like overhearing a professor’s lecture than like listening to a professor entertain a crowd of students over pints after class.”
—Anthony Domestico, The Christian Science Monitor

“Lerner is able to trace not just the many roots and motivations of the collective disdain for poetry (from Plato first defriending it, to the Italian Futurists trying to explode it), but also its function as a crucial fuel to push it forward.”
—Michael Andor Brodeur, The Boston Globe

“An important essay . . . it doubles as a self-conscious ars poetica from a major American writer.”
—Jonathon Sturgeon, Flavorwire

“With this book-length essay, novelist and poet Lerner demonstrates that hating on poetry is reserved not only for critics—it is also the national pastime of poets.”
—Jeremy Spencer, Library Journal

“Mr. Lerner’s essay becomes most interesting when he ventures into more contemporary territory, attacking with polemic zeal what he sees as confused critical assaults on modern poetry . . . Mr. Lerner shows if we constantly think poetry is an embarrassing failure, then that means that we still, somewhere, have faith that it can succeed.”
The Economist

“Perhaps The Hatred of Poetry is most compelling when reflecting on how poetry shapes our childhoods. Adults are eager, Lerner asserts, to return to that time of nursery rhymes, when language was rich in possibility, when meaning was still something to be discovered.”
—Ben Purkert, The Rumpus

"In lucid and luminous prose, poet and novelist Lerner (10:04) explores why many people share his aversion to poetry, which he attributes, paradoxically, to the deeply held belief that poetry ought to have tremendous cultural value. . . Lerner’s brief, elegant treatise on what poetry might do and why readers might need it is the perfect length for a commute or a classroom assignment, clearing a space for both private contemplation and lively discussion." —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"Lerner argues with the tenacity and the wildness of the vital writer and critic that he is. Each sentence of The Hatred of Poetry vibrates with uncommon and graceful lucidity; each page brings the deep pleasures of crisp thought, especially the kind that remains devoted to complexity rather than to its diminishment." —Maggie Nelson, author of The Argonauts

Praise for Ben Lerner:

"Just how many singular reading experiences can one novelist serve up? . . . Lerner obviously loves playing with language, stretching sentences out, folding them in on themselves, and making readers laugh out loud with the unexpected turns his paragraphs take . . . Let Lerner's language sweep you off your feet." —NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross, Maureen Corrigan

"This is only Lerner's second novel (and he is only thirty-five), and yet to talk about mere 'promise,' as is customary with the young, seems insufficient. Even if he writes nothing else for the rest of his life, this is a book that belongs to the future." —Giles Harvey, The New York Review of Books

"Reading Ben Lerner gives me the tingle at the base of my spine that happens whenever I encounter a writer of true originality. He is a courageous, immensely intelligent artist who panders to no one and yet is a delight to read." —Jeffrey Eugenides, author of The Marriage Plot

"Ben Lerner is a novelist, poetry, and critic exploring the contemporary relevance of art and the artist to modern culture with humor, compassion, and intelligence . . . Lerner makes seamless shifts between fiction and nonfiction, prose and lyric verse, memoir and cultural criticism, conveying the way in which politics, art, and economics intertwine with everyday experience."
—The MacArthur Foundation - 2016 Fellowship citation

"One of the most important American writers to emerge in the new century." —Dan Katz, Textual Practice

Praise for 10:04:
“Just how many singular reading experiences can one novelist serve up? . . . 10:04 is a mind-blowing book; . . . Lerner obviously loves playing with language, stretching sentences out, folding them in on themselves, and making readers laugh out loud with the unexpected turns his paragraphs take . . . 10:04 is a strange and spectacular novel. Don't even worry about classifying it; just let Lerner's language sweep you off your feet.” —Maureen Corrigan, NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross

“Ingenious . . . Lerner packs so much brilliance and humor into each episode. . . . This brain-tickling book imbues real experiences with a feeling of artistic possibility, leaving the observable world ‘a little changed, a little charged'.” —Sam Sacks, The Wall Street Journal

“What is 10:04 by Ben Lerner? It is a book for people who like great writing--"great," here, meaning frequently brilliant, electrically hyper-conscious, extravagantly verbose, aggressively sesquipedalian throw-the-book-across-the-room-in-despair-that-you-will-never-invent-that-metaphor-because-he-just-did writing . . . Nothing much happens, except for writing. But let me tell you: The writing happens.” —Derek Thompson, The Atlantic, "Best Book I Read This Year"

“[10:04] is a beautiful and original novel . . . it signals a new direction in American fiction, perhaps a fertile one.” —Christian Lorentzen, Bookforum

“[Lerner's] concerns wrap around the modern moment with terrifying rightness . . . 10:04 describes what it feels like to be alive.” —John Freeman, The Boston Globe
“Lerner is talented at noticing his mind's feints and twitches, and thereby making the quotidian engaging . . . As I read 10:04 I began to feel life itself take on the numinous significance, the seriousness, or art.” —Gabriel Roth, The Slate Book Review

“Lerner, with his keen poetic eye, manages to fill 10:04 with deft, breathtaking observations and possibilities . . . If indeed, as many postmodern critics tell us, there is no longer the prospect of the certified masterpiece or the Great American Novel, Lerner has created a meaningful substitute: a thinking text for our time.” —Christopher Bollen, Interview
“The boundaries between 10:04 and real life are porous, and it's exciting. But none of it would matter if it weren't for Lerner's excellent prose, which is galloping yet precise, his humorous, complex scene-settings (including one of the best extended party scenes I have ever read), his charming obsessions, and poingnant world-view.” —Halimah Marcus, Electric Literature


10:04, with its slippery relationship between narrator and author, its beautifully wrought sentences, and its intricate network of leitmotifs, allusions, and recurring phrases--from a jar of instant coffee to time travel, to the speech Ronald Reagan gave after the Challenger exploded--demonstrates the pleasures and insights . . . literariness can still afford.” —Daniel Hack, Public Books


“Lerner writes rich, ruminative fiction . . . Like Whitman, and like W. G. Seabld and Teju Cole, Ben Lerner is a courageous chronicler of meditative ambulation, of the mind reflecting on its own vibrant thinking processes before they congeal into inert thoughts.” —Steven G. Kellman, San Francisco Chronicle

“Frequently brilliant . . . Lerner writes with a poet's attention to language.” —Hari Kunzru, The New York Times Book Review



“Lerner's perceptiveness makes his writing not only engaging but funny . . . Ben Lerner tells a story that moves and provokes.” —Maddie Crum, The Huffington Post

“Reading Ben Lerner gives me the tingle at the base of my spine that happens whenever I encounter a writer of true originality. He is a courageous, immensely intelligent artist who panders to no one and yet is a delight to read. Anyone interested in serious contemporary literature should read Ben Lerner, and 10:04 is the perfect place to start.” —Jeffrey Eugenides, author of The Marriage Plot

“Ben Lerner is a brilliant novelist, and one unafraid to make of the novel something truly new. 10:04 is a work of endless wit, pleasure, relevance, and vitality.” —Rachel Kushner, author of The Flamethrowers



Praise for Leaving the Atocha Station
“A work so luminously original in style and form as to seem like a premonition, a comet from the future.” —Geoff Dyer, The Observer on Leaving the Atocha Station


“Lerner's writing [is] beautiful, funny, and revelatory.” —Deb Olin Unferth, Bookforum on Leaving the Atocha Station

“[A] subtle, sinuous, and very funny first novel . . . There are wonderful sentences and jokes on almost every page.” —James Wood, The New Yorker on Leaving the Atocha Station

“One of the funniest (and truest) novels . . . by a writer of his generation.” —Lorin Stein, The New York Review of Books on Leaving the Atocha Station

“Flip, hip, smart, and very funny . . . Reading it was unlike any other novel-reading experience I've had for a long time.” —Maureen Corrigan, NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross on Leaving the Atocha Station

“Remarkable . . . a bildungsroman and meditation and slacker tale fused by a precise, reflective and darkly comic voice.” —Gary Sernovitz, The New York Times Book Review on Leaving the Atocha Station

“The overall narrative is structured round [these] subtle, delicate moments: performances, as Adam would call them, of intense experience. They're comic in that obviously, Adam is an appalling poseur. But they're also beautiful and touching and precise.” —Jenny Turner, The Guardian on Leaving the Atocha Station

Leaving the Atocha Station is a marvelous novel, not least because of the magical way that it reverses the postmodernist spell, transmuting a fraudulent figure into a fully dimensional and compelling character.” —Sam Sacks, The Wall Street Journal on Leaving the Atocha Station

“An extraordinary novel about the intersections of art and reality in contemporary life.” —John Ashbery on Leaving the Atocha Station

“Utterly charming. Lerner's self-hating, lying, overmedicated, brilliant fool of a hero is a memorable character, and his voice speaks with a music distinctly and hilariously all his own.” —Paul Auster on Leaving the Atocha Station

“Last night I started Ben Lerner's novel Leaving the Atocha Station. By page three it was clear I was either staying up all night or putting the novel away until the weekend. I'm still angry with myself for having slept.” —Stacy Schiff on Leaving the Atocha Station

“A character-driven ‘page-turner' and a concisely definitive study of the ‘actual' versus the ‘virtual' as applied to relationships, language, poetry, experience.” —Tao Lin, The Believer on Leaving the Atocha Station

“Ben Lerner's Leaving the Atocha Station is a slightly deranged, philosophically inclined monologue in the Continental tradition running from Büchner's Lenz to Thomas Bernhard and Javier Marías. The adoption of this mode by a young American narrator--solipsistic, overmedicated, feckless yet ambitious--ends up feeling like the most natural thing in the world.” —Benjamin Kunkel, New Statesman's Books of the Year 2011 on Leaving the Atocha Station

Praise for Lichtenberg Figures

"[A] funny, nervy volume."—The New York Times Book Review
"Charged with wit and abstraction... An impressive debut."—Library Journal
"Like the intricate patterns of 'captured lightning' to which the book's title refers, the poems in Ben Lerner's The Lichtenberg Figures make their mark in bursts of invention and surprise. The languages of critical theory and television collide, often with titillating and telling results: startling, gnomic ingots are scattered throughout; clichés are ripped apart and reassembled fresh and strange. While each of the poems in the book-length sequence is composed of 14 lines, the governing unit is less the sonnet than the sentence, and Lerner spring-loads one after another in order to deliver his splendidly calibrated punch... This debut is sharp, ambitious and impressive."—Boston Review
"Each [Lerner] sonnet [is] a nuclear explosion in a thimble."—New Orleans Gambit Weekly, Top 10 Books of 2004
"One of poetry's achievements, if it's lucky, is to forge connections among neurons by creating new pathways, memorable patterns, and compelling figures. The Lichtenberg Figures is lucky. And skillful. And, especially for a first volume, brilliant in its flashes."—Rain Taxi
"We have here a twenty-four-year-old poet whose ludic genius is unintimidated by the ludicrous. He romps in the English language, sometimes shooting down cliché after cliché through syllepsis such as we haven't seen since Alexander Pope."—Beloit Poetry Journal
"The Lichtenberg Figures, Ben Lerner's first book, is a series of brilliantly contrived poetic crash tests... The Lichtenberg Figures is at once highly literary and highly personal, formally subtle and shockingly frank. Dark, hilarious, obsceneit is a reading experience nearly impossible to forget. And the book's exploration of the very possibility of forgetting is one of its notable accomplishments... The most memorable part of this audacious and accomplished first book might be its exploration of memory itself."—New Orleans Review
"Lerner captures the surreality of modern culture better than anyone... The beauty of language and image reminds us why we crave this vision."—Pleiades
"Ben Lerner's brilliance has a toothy gleam. Indeed that’s the only reason to read this book. That, and... that it’s also very funny... This brash young voice [spins] literary talk back on itself, spoofing it all to smithereens.”—Poetry Flash

Praise for Angle of Yaw
"The poems in Angle of Yaw compact layers of thought into a language of emergency. The juxtapositions are as striking as they are in commercial media except the upshot is to exacerbate instead of conceal differences. The words are not easy on the ear, but the pressure to listen is unmistakable. The sights are not welcome to the eye, as it is our ‘radical emotional incapacitation’ being shown. Violence absorbs the background. No offhanded commentary, no prophesies, no reassurances are given here. Instead, a sane voice orbiting the failed authority of a culture. Instead, the radiant sanity of dissent." —National Book Award judges' citation

"Employing the language of aphorism, advertising, parable, personal essay, political tirade, journalism and journal, the collage-like poems of Lerner's second collection express the ennui of American life in an era when even war feels like a television event. Two sequences of untitled prose poems weave public and private discourse, yielding often absurd yet frighteningly accurate observations... this collection places Lerner among the most promising young poets now writing” —Publishers Weekly

"[Lerner's] prose poems can dazzle; they achieve reciprocity between theory and poetry, enlisting and rewarding a reader who wants a crack at critiquing our cultural codes."—Book Forum

"Lerner's second book, Angle of Yaw, is a stunner... I have spent a good week, a very good week, re-reading and mining this remarkable volume, but I... don't expect to exhaust its riches."—Beloit Poetry Journal

"Lerner's free verse flows easily from a personally logical structure into publicly proclaimed metaphysic. Words become vehicles to launch the reader into an alternate consciousness... The modern world provides Lerner with countless opportunities to search out mankind's psyche with the clinical scalpel of prose poetry."—Home News Tribune

Praise for Mean Free Path

"Lerner seems to have engineered a form that enacts a balance between the recuperative and the mournful, a kind of hobbling of thought and sentiment whereby he invites a phrase into the poem only to have enjambment cut off the engagement before it is fully expressed. Often the phrase will reverberate in later lines and stanzas, a kind of poetic afterlife or Doppler effect."—Boston Review
"[Lerner's new book] is sure to be among the best collections published in 2010. The world of Mean Free Path is fragmented and recursive... The poems are charged with the full force of Lerner's monumental talent, which begins with the finely chiseled line and extends to the architecture of the book entire. Images and phrases suddenly break off, disappear, and then later resurface in new contexts, colliding with or collapsing into one another, recombining to make themselves and the whole world new again, albeit through a process that bears an uncanny (and unsettling) resemblance to endlessly flipping through TV channels in the deep ditch of insomniac night."— Poetry Foundation
“In his third collection, [Ben Lerner] continues and deepens his exploration of how contemporary mass culture taints language, testing the border where words transition from expressing real feeling to being so overused they mean almost nothing... Lerner keeps refining his techniques and remains a younger poet whose work deserves attention.”—Publishers Weekly
"Lerner maintains a continuity of voice that proposes a flexible integrity of being that is formed by, and exists through, interruption and collision. Gaps, stutters, and redirections do not interrupt us, they constitute what we are."—The Constant Critic
"Lerner seeks to deliver an experience of simultaneity, interruption and disjunction throughout [Mean Free Path]."—Fanzine

Reviews from Goodreads

About the author

Ben Lerner

Ben Lerner was born in Topeka, Kansas, in 1979. He has received fellowships from the Fulbright, Guggenheim, and MacArthur Foundations, and is the author of two internationally acclaimed novels, Leaving the Atocha Stationand 10:04. He has published three poetry collections: The Lichtenberg Figures, Angle of Yaw, and Mean Free Path.Lerner is a professor of English at Brooklyn College.

Ben Lerner

© Matt Lerner

Ben Lerner

Read an interview with Ben Lerner at the Believer