By Andrew Bomback
Ben Lerner’s The Hatred of Poetry begins with his ninth grade English teacher, Mrs. X, requiring him and his classmates to recite a poem from memory. Lerner asks his local librarian for the shortest poem she knows, and that is how he first encounters Marianne Moore’s “Poetry” (“I, too, dislike it/Reading it, however, with a perfect/contempt for it, one discovers in/it, after all, a place for the genuine.”) These few lines, serendipitously discovered by a ninth grader looking for a short-cut, have shaped the way Lerner, a poet now better known as a novelist, has come to view poetry in general. The Hatred of Poetry defends a specific (Lerner’s and, maybe, Moore’s) way of reading poems: approach the text with hesitation and skepticism, “with a perfect contempt for it,” and only then will you have the opportunity to notice something beautiful.
My tenth grade English teacher was not named Mrs. X, and she did not assign my class to memorize a poem. Her name was Ms. Bassett, and her poetry assignment was simpler. “Bring me your favorite poem by Friday,” she said on the first day of our poetry unit, “so I can read them over the weekend and get to know your tastes.” On Monday morning, she told us that her weekend had been wretched. I remember how she said that word – “wretched” – as if she were trying to cough something out of her system. “I couldn’t believe the garbage you brought me,” she said. “Someone in here brought in Dr. Seuss, and three of you had the nerve to hand in something by Shel Silverstein.” The only poem worth reading that weekend, she continued, was Robert Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay.” My friend, Steven, perhaps as a way to commiserate with the rest of the outraged class, confessed it was his favorite poem because of its use in The Outsiders. There were tears from at least one of the Shel Silverstein fans. A few students had the courage to ask her why she didn’t like their poems, some of which came straight from our textbook and included the works of Whitman, Dickinson, Keats, and Frost (apparently, the only poem of his she liked was “Nothing Gold Can Stay.”) “Because they’re garbage,” Ms. Bassett insisted. “They’re dreck.” We passed an awkward week spent entirely devoted to “Nothing Gold Can Stay” and Wallace Stevens’s “The Emperor of Ice Cream,” Ms. Bassett’s favorite poem. The following Saturday, our teacher broke her hip and never returned to class. I’ve been wary of reading poetry ever since.
People expect too much out of poetry, Lerner argues midway through his essay. The poems we’re told to love supposedly speak for a generation, a population, a collective mass. These poems – Whitman is the model Lerner uses – speak of “we” and “us” in optimistic tones. Modern poems, on the other hand, which often use “I” and “my,” employ too specific a voice for more than just a select few to identify with. Those of us outside the select few react with a hatred fueled by disappointment. Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, the rare popular book of contemporary poetry, has escaped this kind of scorn, perhaps, by speaking in a 2nd person (singular? plural?) voice of “you” and “your.” Citizen is also, notably, written almost entirely in prose. It’s poetry in disguise. It’s poetry that, at least in its format, is not trying to make the reader feel excluded.
Part of the problem is limited exposure to poetry. Most of us, Lerner notes, after our time with a Mrs. X or a Ms. Bassett, only read or hear poems at weddings and funerals and high school graduations. We have very limited experience with the art form and therefore lack the tools to do anything but hit back at its deficiencies. Reading The Hatred of Poetry, I thought of the Hal Hartley movie, Henry Fool, in which a garbage man writes “the great American poem” and achieves dizzying success and popularity. I also recalled the Martin Amis short story, “Career Move,” in which screenplays are submitted to obscure literary magazines while poems are jotted down quickly, faxed to powerful agents, and immediately sold for small fortunes. These works of satire are built upon a distrust and uneasiness with poetry. It’s more fear than hatred.
What am I to make of Ms. Bassett, then? Did she hate poetry the way only a lover of poetry, like Lerner and Moore, can? Or did she fear poetry like the rest of us? I don’t know the answer. I do know, however, what I’d do if, somehow, I could repeat her assignment and give her my favorite poem. Since it’s an imaginary exercise, I’m giving myself some license. I’d hand in nothing. Instead, I’d show her the YouTube clip of Robert Frost reading at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration. The 87-year-old poet had written a new poem, “Dedication,” for the event. The text had been typed on his hotel’s typewriter the night before. The wind that afternoon, coupled with the reflection of sunlight off the snowy ground, made reading too difficult. Frost stopped after a few words, muttered an apology, and then recited from memory his poem, “The Gift Outright.” That performance is my favorite poem.
Lerner worries over “how inextricable ‘poetry’ is from our imagination of social life”:
“If my seatmate in a holding pattern over Denver calls on me to sing, demands a poem from me that will unite coach and first class in one community, I can’t do it. Maybe this is because I don’t know how to sing or because the passengers don’t know how to listen, but it might also be because “poetry” denotes an impossible demand. This is one underlying reason why poetry is so often met with contempt rather than mere indifference and why it is periodically denounced as opposed to simply dismissed: Most of us carry at least a weak sense of a correlation between poetry and human possibility that cannot be realized by poems. The poet, by his very claim to be a maker of poems, is therefore both an embarrassment and accusation.”
Frost’s recitation of “The Gift Outright” is the answer to that seatmate in the airplane, the rebuke to Ms. Bassett’s accusations of “garbage” and “dreck.”
Lerner concedes that it’s much easier to define, and write about, the hatred of poetry than to define, and write about, poetry itself. Only at the end of this short book does he offer a definition of poetry, and it’s a good one, too, but the community of potential poetry lovers (or, at least, non-haters) is better served by performances like Frost’s than any codified or acceptable definition of the art form.
“To derive your understanding of a word by watching others adjust to your use of it,” is how Lerner eventually defines poetry. Interestingly, this definition comes almost immediately after a concession that his idea of poetry may be too narrow and miss an important non-hatred of poetry in close relatives like hip-hop or spoken word. Lerner does not mention social media (Facebook posts, Twitter tweets, Instagram captions), but here too we may have a more democratic version of poetry. With its character limits, Twitter could emerge as this era’s haiku. On my feed recently, someone quoted @goftyler’s tweet – “The dog’s got a butt funk and he’s been shunned from the couch” – and commented, “most grotesque tweet I’ve seen in a long time….also a poem?” Yes, according to Lerner’s definition.
A teacher (Mrs. X) starts The Hatred of Poetry, and a teacher ends the monograph, too. Allen Grossman, Lerner’s mentor in all-things-poetry, dies “today” at the end of the essay. Indeed, the reader is moved to believe that Grossman’s death has prompted Lerner to re-examine his feelings about poetry and share them quickly – “today” – in this slim volume. Leading up to the announcement of Grossman’s death, Lerner cites his mentor’s analyses of various poems and poets throughout the essay. Grossman’s view of poetry emerges as open, inviting, democratic, as eager to love as to hate. It’s hard to imagine Grossman, based on Lerner’s portrait here, using a word like “dreck” to describe any poem, and far easier to imagine this scholar praising the way @goftyler uses the word “shunned.”
“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?” Lerner asks at the end of his essay, and answering for himself, adds, “I think that’s poetry.” It’s a beautiful sentiment, an homage to his teacher, and a fitting description for the art form that he’s come to love and hate in equal measures. The surest sign of his success in this argument is that, after finishing The Hatred of Poetry, I went back and re-read “Nothing Gold Can Stay” and “The Emperor of Ice Cream.” I also read my kids Shel Silverstein and Dr. Seuss as bedtime stories.
Andrew Bomback is a physician and writer in New York.