Book Diary: The Hatred of Poetry (Ben Lerner)

Ironically, I picked this essay up at a poetry reading.  I bought it, and then had to sit with it in my lap all through the reading, as if I were in silent protest. Hopefully those present knew that Lerner himself is a poet.

I’m really a big fan of Ben Lerner and so I was very excited to happen upon this book.   The premise of the essay is painfully beautiful: that poetry is problematic for poets and readers alike because it cannot ever really achieve its desired purpose, which is to reflect and faithfully record moments of sublime beauty and elevation.

In Lerner’s essay he used the example of Caedmon to explain this paradox: “…the first poet in English whose name we know, learned the art of song in a dream.”  Caedmon wanted to be able to sing with his fellow goatherds, but felt unable.  One night some sort of God visits him in a dream, and in the dream Caedmon is able to sing words of great beauty and he awakes as a poet.  However, when he tries to recreate the dream-song in the waking world, although still beautiful, it is not transcendent as was the dream-version.  Thus:

Poetry arises from the desire to get beyond the the finite, the historical – the human world of violence and difference – and to reach the transcendent or divine.  You’re moved to write a poem, you feel called upon to sing, because of that transcendent impulse.  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.

I thought about this a lot.  And then – as seems to happen to me frequently – I coincidentally had it reflected back at me in section 23 of Rayuela, which I’m making my way through at the moment.  Cortázar’s Oliveira talks of exactly that impulse, the experience of that dream state, where everything is beautiful and meaningful, but is also fleeting, and becomes ever so tricksy at the moment of trying to translate it into reality:

Pero todo eso, el canto de Bessie, el arullo de Coleman Hawkins, ¿no eran ilusiones, y no eran algo todavía peor, la ilusión de otras ilusiones, una cadena vertiginosa hacia atrás, hacia un mono mirándose en el agua el primer día del mundo? … Oliveria … sentía ahora que la verdad estaba en eso, en que Bessie y Hawkins fueran ilusiones, porque solamente las ilusiones eran capaces de mover a sus fieles, las ilusiones y no las verdades.  Y había más que eso, había la intercesión, el acceso por las ilusiones a un plano, a una zona inimaginable que hubiera sido inútil pensar porque todo pensamiento lo destruía apenas procuraba cercarlo.

But all that, Bessie’s song, Coleman Hawkin’s coo, were they not just illusions, and were they not even worse than that, the illusion of other illusions, a vertiginous chain going all the way back to a monkey looking at himself in the water the first day of the world? … Oliviera .. felt now that the truth was in that, in that Bessie and Hawkins were illusions, because only illusions were capable of moving to faith, illusions and not truths.  And there was more that that, there was the intercession, the access through the illusions to a plane, an unimaginable zone that would have been useless to think about because all thought destroyed it as soon as you tried to get near it (my translation).

Towards the end of Lerner’s essay he presents his way of assimilating this gap between waking and dreaming, between vision and reality, between poetry and the dream-song, by exploiting that very gap, using it to imbue language with an odd, different kind of beauty and meaning:

If you are five and you point to a sycamore or a idle backhoe or a neighbor stooped over his garden or to images of these things on a television set and utter “vanish” or utter “varnish” you will never be only incorrect; if your parent or guardian is curious, she can find a meaning that makes you almost eerily prescient – the neighbor is dying, losing weight, or the backhoe has helped a structure disappear or is glazed with rain water or the sheen of spectacle lends to whatever appears onscreen a strange finish.  To derive your understanding of a word by watching others adjust to your use of it: Do you remember the feeling that sense was provisional and that two people could build around an utterance a world in which any usage signified?  I think that’s poetry.

Much in the same way as Adam, Lerner’s character in Leaving the Atocha Station reinvents the act of listening in a language that is not native to you:

I formed several possible stories out of her speech, formed them at once, so it was less like I failed to understand than that I understood in chords, understood in a plurality of worlds.

In the end, I found in all this a balance that, for me- perhaps ironically – is beautiful. And that speaks of an alignment, of an harmony, both artistically and emotionally that I for one, am happy to live within.


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