Thursday, 17 November 2016

The Hatred of Poetry

I've been skimming through the American poet Ben Lerner's recent long essay The Hatred of Poetry (Fitzcarraldo Press).

Her gets off to a wobbly start on the first page:

In ninth grade English Mrs. X required us to memorise 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," [punctuation sic] 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.

The Topeka High librarian might have gone one better and recommended Arem Saroyan's one-word poem 'lighght' (about which you can read more in a very good piece by Ian Daly here).

But back to Marianne Moore: in what is regarded by some as the worst case of poetic revision in literary history, the poet reduced a far longer work to these three lines in The Complete Poems of Marianne Moore (1967), the volume in which this version first appeared to the dismay of many of her admirers. She spent half a century worrying away at the poem and many variant drafts exist, some of them published, others not. The version below (which is pretty much accepted as the standard full-length 'Poetry') culminates in her justly-famous definition of poetry as 'an imaginary garden with real toads in it', a phrase she may have placed in inverted commas to suggest an attribution to some other poet, although there's every reason to suppose these are her own words.

Here is Moore's 'Poetry' in full, which I'm sure you'll enjoy. Then we'll get back to Lerner.


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. Hands that can grasp, eyes that can dilate, hair that can rise if it must, these things are important not because a high-sounding interpretation can be put upon them but because they are useful. When they become so derivative as to become unintelligible, the same thing may be said for all of us, that we do not admire what we cannot understand: the bat holding on upside down or in quest of something to eat, elephants pushing, a wild horse taking a roll, a tireless wolf under a tree, the immovable critic twitching his skin like a horse that feels a flea, the base- ball fan, the statistician-- nor is it valid to discriminate against “business documents and school-books”; all these phenomena are important. One must make a distinction however: when dragged into prominence by half poets, the result is not poetry, nor till the poets among us can be “literalists of the imagination”--above insolence and triviality and can present for inspection, “imaginary gardens with real toads in them," shall we have it. In the meantime, if you demand on the one hand, the raw material of poetry in all its rawness and that which is on the other hand genuine, you are interested in poetry.


© The Estate of Marianne Moore


Lerner has presumably read a lot of poetry but in assembling his case cites a narrow range of mostly American authors - Whitman, Moore, Lowell and a handful of others unknown to me. There's no room here for the big guns - Yeats and Auden and Eliot do not feature at all, Pound barely. Apart from passing references to Rimbaud and Cocteau all the quotations are from Anglophone poets and the author's choice of contemporary American writers is dispiriting:  Cyrus Console, Claudia Rankine and the hateful anti-Semitic New Jersey Poet Laureate Amiri Baraka, now deceased.  

Lerner writes amusingly on the peculiar mystique that surrounds and adheres to the idea of being a published poet, at least in the public imagination. To be a published poet is, in the popular view, to have a firm purchase on immortality denied to the rest of humanity (but try telling that to the shade of Coventry Patmore). There is, Lerner says, a bafflingly persistent association between poetry and fame - baffling since no poets are famous among the general population.

He's quite wrong about that, I think. Poetry and fame are associated because, as far as that general population is concerned, the only poets they are likely to be able to name are the kind who crop up on the telly - Pam Ayres, say (at least in Britain). And to be on the telly is to be famous, QED. That 'being a poet' (whatever that means) implies a more direct and fruitful engagement with 'life' is another stubbornly enduring myth. As Lerner puts it, the loss of interest in poetry after school or college 'chafes against the early association of poetry and self', as if the non-poet is by definition existentially underachieving and incapable of fulfilling his or her full potential as a human being. The idea of poetry as a form of self-expression is an idea that no amount of argument or evidence will dismantle. It is that, of course, but it's more than that.

Is it not the case that, in our hyper-commodified late capitalist culture, poetry - real poetry, not the stuff that happens noisily in festival tents to whooping audiences - is marginalised because it cannot be monetized and commodified, because it is personal, private (up to a point) and quiet? Also because any given majority will always regard any given minority (when it comes to a taste for something 'unpopular') as a self-conscious, self-electing and self-regarding elite.

Lerner claims that 'actual poems are structurally foredoomed by a "bitter logic" that cannot be overcome by any level of virtuosity. Poetry isn't hard, he admits; it's impossible'. What kind of art, Lerner asks, assumes the dislike of its audience, and what kind of artist aligns herself with that dislike, even encourages it?

Any kind of art, surely? Any, that is, not aimed cynically or opportunistically at low common denominators. Real artists do whatever it is they do because they have no choice in the matter. They write for themselves, not for others. If what they write attracts a readership that's something; if a large readership that's something else again. But Cyril Connolly was surely on the money when he said: "Write for yourself and have no audience; write for an audience and have no self'.

Lerner considers at inordinate length William McGonagall's Tay Bridge Disaster. He is an attentive close reader but seems to me entirely to miss the point of McGonagall (which is largely that McGonagall is pointless). It is a bold claim to assert that a greater understanding of an art form can come from the painstaking study of its worst examples - would we appreciate Rembrandt more or less after exposure to Thomas Kincaid? Lerner's view that poetry is bound to fail because it can never reach a hypothetical (and presumably desirable) state of perfection is hardly worth investigating; poetry is a process, surely - not a product. 

As somebody who reads quite a lot of contemporary poetry, I'll admit that there are poets (and poems) I very much dislike, although hatred might  not be the right word. Some I admire, some I ignore. The ones I dislike I don't read. 

Back in the 1970s, at the height of the so-called Poetry Wars (lofty establishment versus rowdy upstarts, as always) somebody compared the dispute to "a kite-fight in a phone booth" which captures perfectly both the viciousness, the intimacy and - as in most literary disputes - the low stakes. Why that degree of intensity, of animosity? Perhaps because poetry is something about which we all feel obliged and entitled  to have an opinion.  

Lerner's essay is not, as I lazily assumed before reading it, a philistine assault on cultural shibboleths - it's something far more considered, thoughtful and reflective. I was more than once reminded of Flaubert's lines (attributed to Prudhomme) about spinach: 

 Je ne les aime pas, j’en suis bien aise, car si je les aimais, j’en mangerais, et je ne puis pas les souffrir.

       (I don't like it, and I'm glad I don't like it, because if I liked it I'd eat it, and I can't stand it,)

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