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Tao Lin Interviews Ben Lerner for The Believer
Tao Lin, who just sold his next novel to Vintage for five figures, has interviewed Ben Lerner for The Believer. Lerner has, himself, just published a novel as well. It’s called Leaving the Atocha Station (an excerpt can be downloaded as a PDF from The Physiocrats, an amazing small press which published selections from the novel in a pamphlet last year); and is just out from Coffee House. The novel is about, as Lin puts it, “…a young writer on a poetry fellowship in Spain. It spans the 2004 Madrid train bombings and is, among other things, a character-driven “page-turner” and a concisely definitive study of the “actual” versus the “virtual” as applied to relationships, language, poetry, experience. It’s funny and affecting and as meticulous and “knowing” in its execution of itself, I feel, as Ben’s poetry collections are.”
After talking a bit about Lerner’s recent trip to Germany, where he was lauded with an unnamed prize by poet Monika Rinck, Lin asks about the novel.
BLVR: After three books of poetry, you’ve written a novel whose protagonist—Adam Gordon, a young American on a one-year poetry fellowship to Spain—views himself as a fraud on many levels. He considers, even, at one point, that maybe only his fraudulence is fraudulent. Do you think of your novel as arguing for the existence of poetry or exposing its fraudulence? Or something else?
BL: I think the novel both celebrates and savages poetry—or you might say that the novel celebrates poetry but savages poems. Early on Adam says something about poetry quoted in prose. Let me find the passage:
I tended to find lines of poetry beautiful only when I encountered them quoted in prose, in the essays my professors had assigned in college, where the line breaks were replaced with slashes, so that what was communicated was less a particular poem than the echo of poetic possibility.
I don’t think this is just an admission that he’s not interested in poetry, or a confession of fraudulence. He does find lines of poetry beautiful, but what he tends to find beautiful is an abstract potential that’s betrayed by actual poems. I can sympathize with this kind of negativity. It captures something about why poetry retains its power in the face of so many failed poems. You’re a poet; don’t you hate most poems?
BLVR: I wouldn’t say “hate,” but I get what you’re saying.
BL: My thinking about all of this is indebted to a position that Allen Grossman develops in his weird and beautiful essays. Have you read The Long Schoolroom?
BL: He describes what he calls “virtual” poetry. Poems are virtual for Grossman because there is an unbridgeable gap between what the poet wants the poem to do and what it can actually do. For Grossman, this arises out of a kind of contradiction at the heart of poetry that’s always been with us, what he calls “the bitter logic of the poetic principle.” Poetic logic is bitter because the poem is structurally foredoomed. The lyric poet is moved to make a poem because she is dissatisfied with the human world, the world of representation. But the stuff of poetry, language, invariably reproduces the structures it aspires to replace. According to Grossman, poetry issues from the desire to get beyond the human, the finite, the historical, and to reach the transcendent or divine. But as soon as the poet moves from the poetic impulse to the actual poem, the song of the infinite is compromised by the finitude of its terms. So the poem is always a record of failure because you can’t actualize the impulse that gave rise to it without betraying it.
BLVR: So given all this about poetry’s inevitable failure, why not just allow the “transcendent” to exist, pre-language, within each of us?
BL: I don’t think there is something “transcendent” that exists within us—I think poetry can arise from a desire to transcend the given, the actual, and that desire can be described in a variety of ways—the desire to think something outside capitalism, for example; it doesn’t have to be about divinity or the noumenal, as it seems to be for Grossman. It’s not that the poet has something inside him he wants to express (which is one model of lyric poetry), something that would just be there if he left it alone, but that poetry is an attempt to figure—with the irreducibly social materials of language—possibilities that have not yet been actualized.
BLVR: But it fails?
BL: Yeah, but a failure can be a figure, can signify. Maybe poetry can fail better than other art forms, because poems can point to what they can’t contain—that desire for something beyond what’s actual.
Read the whole thing here.