Review Essay: Ben Lerner's 'The Hatred Of Poetry' And Our Reaching For The Divine

There is a moment, in Ben Lerner's novel Leaving the Atocha Station, in which the poet protagonist makes this observation about his passion for his chosen craft: "I tended to find lines of poetry beautiful only when I encountered them quoted in prose, in the essays my professors had assigned in college, where the line breaks were replaced with slashes, so that what was communicated was less a particular poem than the echo of poetic possibility."

It is this "echo of poetic possibility" that Lerner, himself a poet and novelist, explores in his most recent book, a beautifully-written, meandering extended essay titled The Hatred of Poetry.

I picked up The Hatred of Poetry, ironically, around the time my own chapbook of poems, Accomplices, went up for preorder on Amazon.com.

A former journalist, I have always dabbled in poetry. The craft's compression of language and concise constructions have always appealed to my journalistic sensibility. While my own poems veered heavily towards concrete imagery and action, I have, over time, grown to appreciate even the most abstract of styles.

Only in the last year did I begin to think about collecting some of my recent poems into a chapbook. And then I had the good fortune  or perhaps the misfortune  of reading Lerner's conflicted exploration of poetry's place in contemporary life.

It's no spoiler to tell you that poetry hasn't really a place at all, and yet a handful of writers, I no doubt the least among them, dare to write and publish something few people will ever read, something for which they themselves  like Lerner  express their hatred, or at least their dissatisfaction.

“As soon as the poet moves from the poetic impulse to the actual poem, the song of the infinite is compromised by the finitude of its terms.”

So what is the problem with poetry? Lerner argues that poetry is "hated" because it can never achieve that which it aspires to: namely, to "get beyond the human, the finite, the historical, and to reach the transcendent or divine," as Lerner said in an interview with The Believer magazine.

To support his argument, Lerner relies heavily on his mentor Allen Grossman, who once said that poetry fails because it aims at the "virtual".

"Poems are virtual for Grossman because there is an unbridgeable gap between what the poet wants the poem to do and what it can actually do," Lerner said in the same interview. "...As soon as the poet moves from the poetic 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 because you can’t actualize the impulse that gave rise to it without betraying it."

Thus "the echo of poetic possibility" always seems to ring hollow and emerge, absent a spark of the divine, a "record of failure."

According to Lerner, poetry is the Tower of Babel to the writer's attempt to reach the divine with language, rhythm, rhyme and verse.

When I finished Lerner's The Hatred of Poetry, I was tempted to despair. After all, if a poet like Lerner feels his work is a failure and ultimately is unable meet readers' expectations, there is certainly no hope that my own poems will accomplish what even history's greatest poets could not.

But what if poetry need not aim for the divine?

What if our poems need only to depict a truth artfully? This sounds to me more reasonable. 

Taking nothing away from Lerner's thought-provoking analysis of the "hatred of poetry," I prefer to encounter poems with more realistic expectations. When I do this, I find I fall in love all over again with the craft.

Charlie Shifflett is the author of numerous works of fiction as well as the forthcoming poetry chapbook Accomplices, now available for pre-order.

The Hatred of Poetry by Ben Lerner
Illustration by Charlie Shifflett

Illustration by Charlie Shifflett