Clever Upstart Declares: You're All Doomed
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.”
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...