Ben Lerner

In ninth grade English Mrs X required us to memorise and recite a poem and so I asked the Topeka High librarian to direct me to the shortest poem she knew and she suggested Marianne Moore’s ‘Poetry’, which, in the 1967 version, reads in its entirety:

I, too, dislike it.
Reading it, however, with a perfect
   contempt for it, one discovers in
it, after all, a place for the genuine.

I remember thinking my classmates were suckers for having mainly memorised Shakespeare’s 18th sonnet whereas I had only to recite 24 words. Never mind the fact that a set rhyme scheme and iambic pentameter make 14 of Shakespeare’s lines easier to memorise than Moore’s three, each one of which is interrupted by a conjunctive adverb – a parallelism of awkwardness that basically serves as its form. That plus the four instances of ‘it’ makes Moore sound like a priest grudgingly admitting that sex has its function while trying to avoid using the word, an effect amplified by the awkward enjambment of the second line and the third (‘in/it’). In fact, ‘Poetry’ is a very difficult poem to commit to memory, as I demonstrated by failing to get it right on any of the three chances I was given by Mrs X, who was looking down at the text, my classmates cracking up.

My contempt for the assignment was, after all, imperfect. Even now I routinely misquote the second sentence, but who could forget the first? I, too, dislike it has been on repeat in my head since 1993; when I open a laptop to write or a book to read: I, too, dislike it echoes in my inner ear. When a poet (including me) is being introduced at a reading, whatever else I hear, I hear: I, too, dislike it. When I teach I basically hum it. When somebody tells me as so many people have told me that they don’t get poetry in general or my poetry in particular and/or believe poetry is dead because it is either hackneyed or obscure: I, too, dislike it. Sometimes this refrain has the feel of negative rumination and sometimes a kind of manic, mantric affirmation, as close as I get to unceasing prayer.

What if we dislike or despise or hate poems because they are – every single one of them – failures? The poet and critic Allen Grossman tells a story (there are many versions of the story) that goes like this: you’re moved to write a poem because of some transcendent impulse to get beyond the human, the historical, the finite. But as soon as you move from that impulse to the actual poem, the song of the infinite is compromised by the finitude of its terms. So the poem is always a record of failure. There’s an ‘undecidable conflict’ between the poet’s desire to make an alternative world and, as Grossman puts it, ‘resistance to alternative making inherent in the materials of which any world must be composed’. Writing about Hart Crane, Grossman develops his notion of a ‘virtual poem’ – what we might call poetry with a capital ‘P’, the abstract potentiality of the medium as felt by the poet when called on to write – and opposes it to the ‘actual poem’, which necessarily betrays the originary impulse. Grossman says actual poems are foredoomed by a ‘bitter logic’ that can’t be overcome by any level of virtuosity.

The fatal problem with poetry: poems. This helps explain why poets themselves celebrate poets who renounce writing. At university in the 1990s the coolest young poets I knew were reading Rimbaud and Oppen – two very great and very different writers who had in common their abandonment of the art (though Oppen’s was only temporary). Rimbaud stops at twenty or so and starts running guns; Oppen is silent for 25 years while living in Mexico to escape FBI inquiries into his labour organising. Rimbaud is the enfant terrible who burns through the sayable; Oppen is the poet of the left whose quiet is a sign of commitment. ‘Because I am not silent,’ Oppen wrote in a poem, ‘the poems are bad.’

I was reading Rimbaud, but I was also reading, savouring, the worst poets in English, in an anthology called Pegasus Descending, ‘a book of the best bad verse’, which, as James Wright put it, contained ‘nothing mediocre!’ To read abysmal poems is often hilarious, but there’s an element of idealism mixed into the hilarity: reading the worst poems is a way of feeling, albeit negatively, that echo of poetic possibility. Think of Plato’s ‘argument from imperfection’: in order to perceive a particular thing to be imperfect, we must have in mind some ideal of perfection. William McGonagall’s ‘Tay Bridge Disaster’ is famously considered one of the most thoroughly bad poems ever composed. In the winter of 1879 the Tay Bridge collapsed as a train crossed it, killing all the passengers. McGonagall’s poem begins:

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.

What I find terribly compelling about this poem is how, when called on to memorialise a faulty bridge, McGonagall constructs another one. Like any bad work of construction, the measurements are all wrong, its metre embarrassingly clumsy and irregular. It’s clear McGonagall is earnestly trying to gather the resources of a metrical tradition, not subvert it, but the mismatch of duple and triple measure in the first line alone means that, while it’s made of recognisable metrical feet, the line doesn’t feel like it belongs to any specific metrical pattern (iambic, dactylic, anapestic etc) or mode (pastoral, elegy or ballad). Suffice it to say that the mishmash of metres (and of rising and falling rhythms) makes the ostensibly tactical elision of the third syllable from ‘silv’ry’ truly preposterous.

And yet in marvelling at McGonagall’s radical failure – that hilarious hurried ‘very long time’, the terrible last couplet repeated three times as a refrain – I find myself imagining a poem that could be its opposite, a poem that manages to preserve particularity (empirical persons, a specific tragedy) while also dissolving it into a human community that persists across time. The demand I’m making, though, is impossible not only for McGonagall but for any poet. A little more than fifty years before McGonagall wrote ‘The Tay Bridge Disaster’, Keats was writing the six odes that many consider the closest thing we have to an actualisation of poetry’s music. Yet it’s worth noting how even in Keats’s most mellifluous odes he describes an ideal music the poems themselves cannot achieve:

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endeared,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone.

Michael Clune says that at the heart of Keats’s poetry are what he calls ‘images of a virtual music’ – a music Keats can describe but not play (and that nobody can play: it’s not difficult, it’s impossible). Literary form can’t achieve Keatsian music, it can only figure it: this is in a sense what McGonagall manages to do by being so bad; Keats’s formal accomplishment tempts us into believing that the impossible music is just out of reach. Neither presents the genuine and Keats, master that he is, doesn’t even pretend to: ‘A living death was in each gush of sounds,/Each family of rapturous hurried notes,/That fell, one after one, yet all at once’ – those are gorgeous lines of ekphrastic verse, but what they describe can’t be realised by any human instrument in time.

I’ve never found Keatsian euphony quite as powerful as Emily Dickinson’s dissonance. Her distressed metres and slant rhymes enable you to experience both extreme discord and a virtuosic reaching for the music of the spheres. The status of a Dickinson composition is itself up for grabs: is it a poem or some other kind of object? A work of visual art? What about, for instance, her ‘envelope writings’ – gently pried apart envelopes whose physical shapes, some have argued, interact purposefully with Dickinson’s language? Are her letters poems? What about her notes on advertising flyers? And those texts she gathered into fascicles – hand-sewn groupings – are full of variant words (which, as Susan Howe has argued, are part of the structure of the work, as are the crosses Dickinson uses to indicate them). Then there are the famous dashes, which I like to think of as markers of the limits of the actual, vectors of implication where no words will do. For all the effort of (primarily male) editors to standardise Dickinson, her work, especially if seen in facsimile, throws a wrench in the bitter logic of the poetic principle by causing us to shift between perceptual modes – we read one minute and look the next, the object refusing to become or remain a typical poem. It’s consonant with the emphasis across her work on potentiality over actuality:

I dwell in Possibility –
A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows –
Superior – for Doors –

Of Chambers as the Cedars –
Impregnable of eye –
And for an everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky –

Of Visitors – the fairest –
For Occupation – This –
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise –

Instead of a binary between poetry and prose, the former term is replaced with possibility – an immaterial dwelling, all threshold and sky. We might say that the poem dramatises the impossibility of actually gathering paradise. The poem goes out of its way to emphasise a disconnect between the short ‘i’ of ‘This’ and the long ‘i’ of ‘Paradise’ – a rhyme the previous patterning would lead us to expect – and so a disconnect between the writing of this poem on earth and whatever passes for Poetry in heaven. Long ‘i’s are in every stanza of the house – the poem begins with one – and the sound of ‘eye’ and ‘sky’ is preserved in ‘wide’, which, positioned above ‘Paradise’ in both the manuscript and typed version, draws our attention to the parallelism of the two terms, their vastness. But this can’t compensate for the failure of ‘This’ and ‘Paradise’ to rhyme because metre and rhyme are in tension at the end of the poem, at least to my ear, which keeps ‘Paradise’ from feeling like a true rhyme with ‘Sky’. ‘Paradise’ is normally dactylic (PARadise), but here the pressure to make it rhyme and scan requires promoting the final syllable (paraDISE or PARaDISE). That’s a common enough thing to do in a poem, but Dickinson is so precise and weird that I find myself worrying over that alteration: I feel that I’m either stretching ‘Paradise’, mangling it a little, in order to gather the rhyme, or letting the rhyme go in order to privilege pronunciation; I have to choose between ‘one after another’ – the accentual unfolding of the word in time – or ‘all at once’, the verticality of rhyme. All of this virtualises the house the poem is – with a mixture of virtuosity and willed dissonance that captures something of both Keats’s music and McGonagall’s collapsing bridge.

McGonagall, Keats, Dickinson – they make a place for the genuine by producing a negative image of the Poem we cannot write in time. The very bad and the great (and the silent) have more in common than the mediocre or OK or even pretty good because they rage against the merely actual, have a perfect contempt for it (or, in the case of the earnest McGonagall, at least readily inspire such contempt), in order to approach on a via negativa that imaginary work that could reconcile the finite and the infinite, the individual and the communal – that can make a new world out of the materials (language) of this one. That ‘too’ in the Moore is important – poet and reader of poetry are united in a suspicion of the song of any earthly poet and that suspicion is the ground for an intuition of the ideal.

There’s an important class of intense poetry-haters who would probably hate my description of poetry as providing an inverted and necessarily limited glimmer of poetic potentiality: the avant-garde. It’s their hatred of poetry that gives rise to the poem in which formal experiment is going to eviscerate existing canons of taste and help bring about the revolution. So Marinetti advocates a language that’s broken free of syntax (‘Parole in Libertà’) and that experiments with typography (‘Immaginazione Senza Fili’; ‘Analogia Disegnata’) and pure sound (‘Zang Tumb Tuuum’), and these works obliterate what passed for culture in the past, obliterate the category of art itself. The problem is – and here’s where a second kind of avant-garde hatred comes in – these artworks, no matter how formally inventive, remain artworks. They might redefine the borders of art, but they don’t destroy those borders; a bomb that never goes off, the poem remains a poem. And they hate that. The avant-garde is a military metaphor that forgets it’s a metaphor. The Futurists – ghosts of the future past – enter the museums they wanted to flood.

I’m offering this aggressively cursory summary of avant-garde hatred – a particularly bitter poetic logic – because I think it gets at something crucial about the disdain for poetry. Even writers and critics allergic to anything resembling avant-garde rhetoric often express anger at poetry’s failure to achieve any real political effects. The avant-garde imagines itself as hailing from the future it wants to bring about, but many people express disappointment in poetry for failing to live up to the political power it supposedly possessed in the past. This disappointment with the political feebleness of poetry in the present unites the futurist and the nostalgist and is a staple of mainstream denunciations of poetry.

When Barack Obama announced that he would revive the practice of having a poem read at his 2009 inauguration – Clinton had done it twice; Kennedy had done it in 1961 – many scoffed. George Packer wondered on the New Yorker’s website: ‘Is it too late to convince the president-elect not to have a poem written for and read at his inauguration?’ He explained: ‘For many decades American poetry has been a private activity, written by few people and read by few people, lacking the language, rhythm, emotion and thought that could move large numbers of people in large public settings.’ He mourns the lost unifying power poetry supposedly formerly had. He doesn’t have to do much more than glance at a website to realise Elizabeth Alexander isn’t up to the task: she is, after all, writing actual poems.

‘I am large, I contain multitudes,’ Walt Whitman wrote in ‘Song of Myself’, and Packer’s nostalgia – as with many American nostalgists – is clearly shaped by the figure of Whitman, who desired his book, Leaves of Grass, to be a secular bible for American democracy. The American experiment – its newness, its geographical vastness, the (relative) openness of its institutions, its egalitarianism, its orientation towards the future and not the past – necessitated an equally new and expansive poetry: plain-spoken, unrestrained by inherited verse structures, just as the country would be unrestrained by monarchic traditions, and so on. ‘There will soon be no more priests,’ Whitman wrote, ‘their work is done.’ What was needed was a poet who, in the absence of a common tradition or metaphysical system, could celebrate the American people into existence, who could help hold the nation together, in all its internal difference, through his singing:

Thou Union holding all, fusing, absorbing, tolerating all,
Thee, ever thee, I sing.

Thou, also thou, a World,
With all thy wide geographies, manifold, different, distant,
Rounded by thee in one – one common orbic language,
One common indivisible destiny for All.

Whitman’s search for a poetic correlative to the American political project is reflected in (at least) two formal characteristics of his work: the length and inclusiveness of his lines and the capaciousness of his pronouns. Whitman’s famous catalogues – his long lists – model federalism in their very structure, uniting in a single extended syntactic unit all the differences (of people’s class, race, gender, geography etc) that threaten the coherence of ‘the people’; his lines are always ‘holding all’, always unenjambed. In fact, the unconventional extension and lack of traditional verse patterning of Whitman’s lines makes them approach prose, as if Whitman, in pursuing his poetic ideal for the United States, was getting rid of actual poems – replacing them with something more like journalism or oratory.

Whitman radically democratises pronouns in order to attempt to make room for any reader in his ‘I’ and ‘you’, so that a celebration of the former is also a celebration of the latter, as in three of the most famous lines in American poetry, the opening of ‘Song of Myself’: ‘I celebrate myself, and sing myself,/And what I assume you shall assume,/For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.’ In many ways ‘Walt Whitman’ is less a historical person than a kind of placeholder for democratic personhood. In the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass, ‘Walt Whitman’ doesn’t appear on the title page. It’s only in ‘Song of Myself’ that the reader encounters the author’s name: ‘Walt Whitman, an American, one of the rough, a kosmos.’ The effect is to signal that ‘Walt Whitman’ is an enabling fiction produced by the poems themselves – a figure with whom readers can identify, whether in 1855 or in the future. And Whitman in fact divulges very little personal information – particulars that might get in the way of our ability to exchange atoms. We hear almost nothing about the contingencies of his experience; if his individuality were too differentiated, we wouldn’t find ourselves exchangeable. Instead, what’s predicated of Whitman’s ‘I’ is a series of general contradictions (‘Do I contradict myself?/Very well then I contradict myself’). He is (or supposes himself to be) the poet of man and woman, the poet of good and the poet of wickedness, asserting the humanity both of the master and the slave etc. And the things he sees and enumerates in his poems are things that pretty much anybody might see. In ‘Crossing Brooklyn Ferry’, one of his many explicit addresses to the future, he notes light in the water, some ships, buildings, flags – particulars general enough to be almost anyone’s percepts. ‘[A] hundred years hence, or ever so many hundred years hence, others will see them.’ Walt Whitman is himself a place for the genuine, an open space or textual commons where American readers of the future can forge and renew their sense of possibility and interconnectedness. No doubt part of the reason Whitman addressed himself relentlessly to the future was so that his actual historical person – the Walt Whitman of the title page – would be dead and gone, freeing him to function as a kind of messianic figure within the poems.

But the Whitmanic programme has never been realised in history, and I don’t think it can be: Whitman comes to stand for the contradictions of a democratic personhood that cannot become actual without becoming exclusive. To quote Grossman again: Whitman announces ‘the presence of the person prior to all other characteristics’. Whitman’s dreamed union has never arrived, but his vision determines the nostalgist’s call for a poetry that could supposedly reconcile the individual and the social and so transform millions of individuals into an authentic people. Whitman deferred poetic realisation into the future (‘I stop somewhere, waiting for you’), but many poetry-haters act as though the project was realised at some unspecifiable moment in the past and then lost as the art and/or its public declined. This allows them to repudiate poems in the present while reasserting a Whitmanic belief in the power of poetry (if also thereby betraying Whitman’s belief in future perfectibility over any longing for the past).

Many cultural critics, with a kind of macabre glee, proclaim ‘the death of poetry’ every few years: our imaginative faculties, we fear, have atrophied; the commercialisation of language seems complete. The actual number of poems being written and read – a decade ago, James Longenbach reported there were more than 300,000 websites devoted to poetry – appears to be irrelevant to the certification of poetry’s death, because what the pronouncement reflects is less an empirical statement about poems than a cultural anxiety about our capacity for ‘alternative making’ or a longing for (an impossible, supposedly lost) universalism.

Great poets disdain the limits of actual poems, tactically defeat or at least suspend that actuality, sometimes quit writing altogether, becoming celebrated for their silence; bad poets unwittingly provide a glimmer of virtual possibility via the radicalism of their failure; avant-garde poets hate poems for remaining poems instead of bombs and nostalgists hate poems for failing to do what they wrongly, vaguely claim they once did. There are varieties of interpenetrating demands subsumed under the word ‘poetry’ – to defeat time, to still it beautifully; to express irreducible individuality in a way that can be recognised socially or, like Whitman, to achieve universality by being irreducibly social, less a person than a national technology; to propound a measure of value beyond money, to defeat the language and value of existing society etc – but one thing all these demands share is that they can’t ever be fulfilled with poems. Hating on actual poems, then, is often an ironic if sometimes unwitting way of expressing the persistence of the demand of Poetry, and the jeremiads in that regard are defences, too, protecting the urgency and purity of the poetic impulse towards alterity from the merely real.

Poems can, of course, succeed in any number of less grand ambitions than the ones I’m describing (they can be funny or lovely or offer solace or courage or inspiration to certain audiences at certain times; they can play a role in constituting a community; and so on), but I’m attempting to account for a persistent if mutable feeling that our moment’s poems are bad, that we hate them or at least strongly dislike them, and that it’s their fucking fault. If they are impenetrable, they are elitist, only allowing some brainy elect into the community of persons because, as we all sense, a person is someone who can find consciousness shareable through poetry; if they are clichéd, they embarrass us badly, showing internality to be communicable only through language that’s been deadened, depersonalised by its popularity; and if they are weapons in a revolutionary struggle, they seem only to shoot blanks. Poets are liars not because, as Socrates said, they can fool us with the power of their imitations, but because identifying yourself as a poet implies you might overcome the bitter logic of the poetic principle, and you can’t. You can only compose poems that, when read with perfect contempt, clear a place for the genuine Poem that never appears.