Essay

Clever Upstart Declares: You're All Doomed

Dispatch from a reading by National Book Award finalist Ben Lerner.

by Travis Nichols
As Ben Lerner stood up in front of the obviously adoring crowd at Open Books, a poetry bookstore in Seattle, he wiped his hands on his sweatshirt and sniffed. Then his voice halted, jerked, and hiccuped through the dense, consonant-packed lines of Angle of Yaw, as his fingers flexed and contracted around the lectern.

Only 27 years old, Lerner is the youngest poet to be a finalist for the National Book Award since 23-year-old Marilyn Hacker won the thing in 1975. His work has been the subject of numerous magazine features, online discussions, and academic papers. He is often referred to as a “poet from the plains.” But this new voice does not have a Kooser-like reassurance, offering ye olde hope for a pleasant future. It is, rather, the voice of an assured and intelligent prophet of doom.

In his most recent book of poems, Angle of Yaw, Lerner writes of an American public obsessed with video games, Ronald Reagan, televised violence, and watery domestic beer. The book is a series of prose poems and long lyrics that seem to testify to a dying world.

And though this book speaks of the capital-P Public (alternately described by Lerner as “the collective,” “the audience,” “the masses,” “the crowd,” and, somewhat disingenuously, “us”), it is not for the Public per se. In Lerner’s work, the Public cheers insanely for its teams; it does not read poetry or willingly attend poetry readings—especially poetry readings by an awkward man talking about the actions and obsessions of the Public.

Those who attended the Open Books reading were not at first glance part of the Public in any true sense. They were friends, academics, undergraduate fans who’d read the book cover to cover. To willingly attend a poetry reading in America—and, to be clear, I do not mean an abject open-mike session or a quasi-populist slam, but a good old-fashioned book-promoting, lectern-having American poetry reading—is to claim a membership in an elite class, or an appreciation of a near-dead language.

People come to poetry readings to sit in folding chairs and be carried above and away from the Public by the charm, wit, and lyricism of the poems. And while not all of us do this maliciously (or even knowingly), we do often have a certain smugness about us as we nod to allusions and giggle at lines we’re not sure are actually all that funny. This smugness is, let’s face it, seriously irritating on a global scale. It’s one of the main reasons the Public stays away from poetry readings in droves.

At first, Lerner’s snarky condescension towards the Public (“Have you ever applauded,” he asks in one poem, “without being prompted by an illuminated sign?”) made him seem to be a proud booster for the elite, for nothing reinforces the separation between them and the unwashed masses, or unleashes the smug chuckles of the poetry public, like patronizing zingers.

“We are a mean and stupid people,” Lerner read in his particularly dead deadpan, “but not without smooth muscle.”

“One who would pursue a career as an assistant,” he said later, adjusting his glasses, “cannot be picky about what or whom she assists.”

What makes Lerner’s work interesting is not this self-congratulatory cleverness, but his willingness to indict: “This smugness,” he reads, “masks a higher sadness.” The issue of whether this higher sadness can redeem our smugness is not resolved in Lerner’s poems.

How to proceed to insight is, I suppose, the central question in Lerner’s work, and he provides no easy answers. Instead, he presents an uncanny space and leaves the final decision up to the reader. Who is culpable? As he said Thursday night, “When you window-shop, when you shatter a store window, you see your own image in the glass.”
Originally Published: January 31, 2007

COMMENTS (16)

On February 1, 2007 at 1:04pm Eric McHenry wrote:
I'm happy to see any appreciation of Ben
Lerner and his terrific work, but I was at this
reading and it wasn't like that. Ben isn't
awkward, halting or hiccupy -- he is, in fact, an
uncommonly poised reader. And there are a
number of other small errors and inaccuracies
in the piece, including the title of Ben's book.

On February 1, 2007 at 1:12pm Poetryfoundation.org wrote:
Thanks, Eric. We've fixed the book title.--The editors

On February 1, 2007 at 9:25pm Kristen Ride wrote:
I am sorry that Travis Nichols does not find in Ben Lerner's poems the resolution to which he is accustomed. I agree that *Angle of Yaw* provides little explicit reassurance. I am embarrassed even to address the hypothesis that a reader would go to a "real" poetry reading looking for reassurance and resolution. Is Mr. Nichols capable of articulating the source of the emotion evident in his judgments of smugness, awkwardness, cleverness, and self-congratulation on the part of Mr. Lerner? If his review were to perform this basic critical function, could it still comfortably blame Lerner for the present failure to "proceed to insight"? And can anyone corroborate the account of Lerner having appeared in numerous magazine features and academic papers, or having for that matter hiccoughed in ersatz public?

On February 2, 2007 at 12:18am Public Enemy wrote:
This Public which Travis Nichols claims to have
discovered everywhere in Lerner's work
reminds me very much of another empty
collective figure, "Americans," wielded in
"public" in order to justify the occupation of
Iraq or to provide fictive support for the
publishing of stultifying poetry these ordinary
"Americans" could re-relate to (cf. everything
John Barr and Dana Gioia have ever said about
poetry's accessibility). It's therefore pretty
unsurprising that a writer for the Poetry
Foundation would find this Public under threat
in Lerner's poetry, would find it condescended
to there, despite its not being a group at all but
a mode, a form of unthought, passivity,
complicity "we" are all mean and stupid enough
to pass through regardless of class or
occupation. This Public is not Lerner's creation
but Nichols' and this is not a review of a
reading but an opportunity for the Poetry
Foundation to stay on-message, not an
innocent message but a "dispatch" from a front
of the culture war. A dispatch titled "Clever
Upstart Declares: You're All Doomed." Watch
FoxNews much? Would that this smugness
masked a higher sadness rather than just
conservatives, their money, and their desire to
hang onto it. You'd have been a good Poetry
Foundation if there'd been someone to break
your storewindow every minute of your
institutional life. Failing that, I'll take Lerner's
laments from the heart of spectacle and
imperial atrocity over tonedeaf poems about
angels and gardens.
Citizen X

On February 2, 2007 at 2:47pm yesandno wrote:
Travis Nichols is not criticizing Lerner for a failure to proceed to insight, nor does he bemoan the poems abstaining from resolution or easy answers. Nichols merely pinpoints the central question of Lerner’s work, and goes on to say that Lerner isn’t about answering that question so much as asking it, and leaving the answer-making to the reader. It’s a fair and neutral observation. I don’t find Nichols’ representation of Angle of Yaw here either harsh or inaccurate. I admire Lerner’s courage to write political poems, poems that tackle the spiritually anesthetizing effect of consumer culture. I’m sure that many, if not most, poets passionately share his frustration, but channeling that dissatisfaction into a poetry that is both critical and pleasurable (or barring pleasurable, at least interesting), usually proves misguided. While Lerner, for me, is more successful than many on this front, the poems in Angle of Yaw do come from a “speaking for the enlightened here? place that is rather off-putting. The poems suffer from the imitative fallacy--you want to write about the robotic, one dimensional, spiritually deadening consumer machine that is our society; however, you do not want the poems themselves to be robotic, one dimensional, or spiritually dead. Which these poems were, often, for me. The large chunks of slightly modified commercial jargon become monotonous; and the interchangeability of many of these lines or whole sections (try it) can make the poems feel almost cavalier. Whether Lerner’s real manner is as disaffected I can’t say, having never heard him read. But I can’t really quibble with the note of distaste Nichols conveys in this dispatch; though, to his credit, having read a number of his extremely thorough and insightful reviews, I do not think this piece was intended as a true critical review of Lerner’s work--it was, indeed, a dispatch on a reading.

What I can’t help quibbling with a little: Nichols’ grievance with smugness here has a bit of the pot calling the kettle black to it. I’ve read Nichols’ poetry, and I’ve also seen him read, once, with his buddies Anthony McCann, Matthew Zapruder, and Anselm Berrigan as part of the Wave Poetry Bus tour. The lot of them could not have been more “too cool for school? if they had tried, and believe me, they were trying. Berrigan’s look kids, no connections! arbitrary word spam-spew was insulting. The whole reading was insulting. It was the po-mo, hyper-ionized, too cool for lyric, too cool for feeling, too cool for meaning or accessibility thang, to an extreme. The poems were full of “patronizing zingers,? and a lot of juvenile “Donald Rumsfeld is my sandwich, Donald Rumsfeld is Sinatra? nonsense (I made this up, there was a Rumsfeld poem in this fashion) that was decidedly unfunny, but which unleashed endless “smug chuckles? from Nichols and team. The fellows were working the poet-as-rockstar delusion so hard, and so ungraciously, that they came across, very much like their poems, as caring very little for their readers or listening audience. They seemed, in a word, smug. And as Nichols points out, smugness in poets or poems does not make for pleasant reading(s).

On February 2, 2007 at 2:52pm yesandno wrote:
hyper-ironized, not ionized

On February 2, 2007 at 4:32pm Public Service Announcement wrote:
Well done, Travis, for several insights into Lerner's work and, also, for leaving your interpretation up for criticism, of which you have recieved plenty now. I praise you for your motioning towards Lerner's underlying self-indiction, which I feel is one of the most core components to his work. However, I do believe that most of this article revealed your own personal beliefs rather than justified interpretaion of Lerner's poetry. In both Angle of Yaw and Lichtenberg Figures, I find Lerner's chief snarky condencension only tends to fall upon himself--a crafty device in which the reader responds to similarly, then, through whatever brand of guilt their conscience prescribes. Calling Lerner's lines "patronizing zingers" seems to me to neglect his equally critical approach to academia, elitism and the language of theory. His body of work proves he neither intends to patronize nor zing as much as promote a moderation between grandiose scholarship and the open-mics you call "abject" or the careers as an assistant. When Lerner criticizes "us," it in no way is disingenuous. He's no Old Testament prophet lamenting our doom. However, while he writes understanding the value of both pop culture and academia, it's not without warning that both are hazardous if not balanced.
Having said that, I turn from these lofty polysyllabics to smother myself in name brand jellies and People magazine.
Thanks again for the article, Travis.

On February 5, 2007 at 12:08am Jon wrote:

I have heard Lerner read at lease four times
and I cannot imagine a less accurate
description of his manner. And, one need look
no further than the title of this article to realize
that all the snarky condescension is on Nichol's
side--"Clever Upstart." You've got to be kidding
me. I would think the Poetry Foundation could
find a better use for its considerable resources
than insulting one of our finest young poets.

On February 5, 2007 at 12:59pm Dan wrote:
First, can Travis point me to the "numerous
magazine features...and academic papers"
about Lerner's work? I'd love to see them.
While I think Lerner should be the subject of
such discussions, I don't think they exist. I've
seen the SF Chronicle feature. What else?

Second, as an attendee of Lerner's open books
reading, I must agree with Eric McHenry's take
on this dispatch--it's patently false. "His voice
halted, jerked, and hiccuped"--ask anybody
who was there: this is inaccurate to the point of
being offensive.

Third, when a factually inaccurate report
insulting (look at the title of the article!) a
young poet appears on this page, is there
perhaps another motive? Lerner's putting John
Barr in his place in a recent review in Jacket
for example? Perhaps Nichols has tried to
publish in NO?

I say the Poetry Foundation posts the audio of
Lerner's Open Book's reading. I say Travis
Nichols should respond to the comments on this
page.

On February 5, 2007 at 3:30pm Travis Nichols wrote:
Hello Everyone,

I appreciate the discussion generated here. I think Lerner is a fascinating poet and his work does deserve to be talked about at length. And of course it's good to keep the nattering nabobs like myself honest. To that end, a quick collection of magazines and journals discussing Ben Lerner:

Jacket Interview with Kent Johnson http://jacketmagazine.com/26/john-lern.html

Boston Review http://bostonreview.net/BR30.5/micros.html

Denver Quarterly Volume 40, Number 4 2006 A Conversation Between Aaron Kunin and Ben Lerner

Here Comes Everybody http://herecomeseverybody.blogspot.com/2005/03/ben-lerner-is-from-topeka-kansas.html

Review in Publisher's Weekly 07/31/2006

from 42 Opus http://42opus.com/v5n1/benlerner

Rain Taxi http://www.raintaxi.com/online/2006winter/lerner.shtml

A little mention but a mention in Slate tp://www.slate.com/id/2155003/

The Morning News http://www.themorningnews.org/archives/digest/books/20_april_2006.php

The November 2006 issue of Cold Front Magazine

This doesn't even get into the numerous blog entries and such, but I'll leave that to everyone else to search out.

Also: casual knowledge that Angle of Yaw is part of the reading list for MFA courses at Umass and Iowa, and that students have written papers on Angle of Yaw led me to believe there are a few academic papers floating around out there--plus some interesting discussion on the SUNY Buffalo Listserv. But I have never held any of these academic papers in my hands. So I shouldn't have mentioned it. I apologize for that.

And until a recording surfaces, I recall not only a little hiccough, but a teeny weeny belch as well! And many jittery hand motions, sweat, ers and ums. Hazards of reading surely, but enough to justify my subjective take on his awkwardness? I would like to think so, but of course it is my take and only one of many from folks at the reading.

Thanks for reading and caring enough about poetry to write in.

XO,
Travis

On February 5, 2007 at 5:51pm Jon Link wrote:
Wow, I can't believe this is how people try to have a conversation.

Between leaving silly names like "public enemy" (yes, we get it you are very clever, "Citizen X") to hide your identity and making wild, hostile, and paranoid accusations like, "this is not a review of a reading but an opportunity for the Poetry Foundation to stay on-message," I can't imagine any reason to even read these comments. They are nearly useless.

Seriously, discussion is good, debate is good, but this is mostly crap. If this is how people want to talk about poetry then I don't want to talk about poetry. Disagree, sure, but don't do it like this. You are shooting yourself in the foot by sounding ridiculous, rude, and cowardly, but what's worse you're showing people that sharing an honest opinion will not be tolerated.

On February 5, 2007 at 5:54pm Jon Link wrote:
I should probably add that there is some good honest discussion here, but it seems like that is the minority.

On February 8, 2007 at 3:42pm daniel deleon wrote:
Okay, okay! But how about some poems with easy answers to life's questions? If you're going to take the trouble to raise significant questions in your poems, please understand that we readers want you to include the easy (back of the book, approved solution) EASY ANSWERS! For every Q and A!

On February 13, 2007 at 8:43am Friend of Poetry wrote:
As a friend of poetry in general, I must say that this discussion is interesting, even if some rubbing of elbows causes skin rashes. I haven't read A.o.Y., and maybe I will. I suspect his method will make me prefer Coleridge, though maybe his book is a good update to Society of the Spectacle.

How can we destroy the spectacle, a good question, research project, and goal. Certainly attentive writing goes against scientific and disgusting advertising. Let's do it.

On February 20, 2007 at 11:27pm Friend of Poetry II wrote:
Dang I'm a newby on these poetry forums but it's pretty Kewul! Mostly I stick to car audio forums but I been trying to broaden my horizons. I googled Ben Lerner and lo and behold! I seen this guy Ben Learner perform once a couple years back in Richmond after he took some acid and he was fricking amazing! It was like a saint or angel or something was channelling through him. Even though he seemed pretty hyped up and junk he still seemed a little nerve-wrecked. Like a rush! I guess you can't get away from getting a little nervous, like Travis was saying, or at least he noticed and some other people didn't. Stupid point to argue about IMHO. The thing is who am I and can I even write and how the heck am I - just some dude named Lita trying to avoid laying down the offensive language, wishing I could change alot of things and divide into multiple conscious and physical beings and wishing I hadn't exposed Ben Learner [sic] and the whole acid afair which may not even be true. I consider myself a member of the public and Ben really really helped me expose my brain to alot of things since that day I seen him. I still like alot of the old stuff like full throttle burnout, supercharging light rides (Miata's my ultimate FAVE) and junk but I feel like he flipped a switch in my brain allowing me the ability to tune into my energy chakras and parrallel existence and access the lyrical brilliance which is inside my mind in like a river's unbrokeness and I can swim in it when I want to.

On May 21, 2011 at 4:29am Pibby Scott wrote:
I think now, after all this, we can agree. Kids shouldn't take drugs.

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Biography

Travis Nichols is the author of two books of poetry: Iowa (2010, Letter Machine Editions) and See Me Improving (2010); and he is the author of two novels: Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder (2012) and The More You Ignore Me (2013). He has contributed to The Believer, Paste, The Stranger, and the Huffington Post, and his work has appeared in a range of magazines and journals, such as the Boston Review, Crowd, Lungfull!, and . . .

Continue reading this biography

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