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Ben Lerner's view of poetry is bracing, smart, original and humbling. All poetry must fail, he posits, because language is too limited to express our deepest feelings. We can dream we've written the perfect poem, but when it comes to setting it down, we fail (or, as Coleridge claimed, some jerk from Porlock comes along to spoil our ecstatic vision). Non-poets complain that poems are too complicated or abstruse (or they were ruined for poetry by a high school teacher insisting on meaning and memorization); traditional poets bemoan the loss of rhyme and meter; post-modern poets argue for purity of sound, and total freedom of form. That is, everyone hates poetry because it cannot possibly succeed, regardless of type. Yet, as Lerner's presiding genius, Marianne Moore, wrote:
I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle. Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in it after all, a place for the genuine.
That is, we should read poetry with no illusions, even with contempt for its failure, but to recognize that so many poems stir something in us, give solace in bad times, delight elsewise. Robert Frost said a poem should begin in delight and end in wisdom. We shouldn't expect any more.
I read The Lichtenberg Figures some weeks ago and was impressed. When I heard the Lerner was releasing a book title The Hatred of Poetry I had to pre-order it. It arrived yesterday and I finished reading this evening. I am not disappointed. An essay centering on Mariann Moore’s “Poetry,” he quotes the 1967 version—the short version. Her collected poems starts with the line, “Omissions are not accidents.” I have always loved that line. It indicates that the volume has blank spaces. It is this space that Lerner defines as Poetry. We hate it because it does not and cannot exist. Learner explores the gap between what poetry is as a dream and what it is in reality. He explicates what Moore means when she tells us that if one reads poetry with perfect contempt “one discovers in/it, after all, a place for the genuine.” While I think of poetry as entertainment (because I am such an audience), I appreciate the exacting efforts poetry practitioners bring to their art—how seriously they think about it. Lerner is a fine poet and has interesting ideas about his art.
The author entertains various notions regarding the profundity of poetry with a keen insight that can only live within a true lover of poetry. His thoughts serve more as a warning to those that treat poetry with less respect than what it truly deserves. To be a true poet and connoisseur we must strive to avoid the many pitfalls of mediocrity and realize that even our best intentions may fall short. A fantastic read by a poet that realizes the limitations of his craft, and suffers as he desperately seeks a proper cure or solution to his seemingly insurmountable task. Yet, there is hope... therein lies the beauty of poetry--