Essay

Clever Upstart Declares: You're All Doomed

Dispatch from a reading by National Book Award finalist Ben Lerner.
Introduction
At a reading at Open Books in Seattle, Travis Nichols listens as Ben Lerner either shows why he was nominated for a National Book Award, or why he lost.

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 31st, 2007

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...

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  1. February 2, 2007
     Eric McHenry

    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.

  2. February 2, 2007
     Poetryfoundation.org

    Thanks, Eric. We've fixed the book title.--The editors

  3. February 2, 2007
     Kristen Ride

    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?

  4. February 2, 2007
     Public Enemy

    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

  5. February 3, 2007
     yesandno

    hyper-ironized, not ionized

  6. February 3, 2007
     Public Service Announcement

    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.

  7. February 5, 2007
     Jon

    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.

  8. February 5, 2007
     Dan

    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.

  9. February 6, 2007
     Travis Nichols

    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/j...

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

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

    Here Comes Everybody http://herecomeseverybody.blog...

    Review in Publisher's Weekly 07/31/2006

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

    Rain Taxi http://www.raintaxi.com/online...

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

    The Morning News http://www.themorningnews.org/...

    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

  10. February 6, 2007
     Jon Link

    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.

  11. February 6, 2007
     Jon Link

    I should probably add that there is some good honest discussion here, but it seems like that is the minority.

  12. February 9, 2007
     daniel deleon

    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!

  13. February 13, 2007
     Friend of Poetry

    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.

  14. February 21, 2007
     Friend of Poetry II

    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.

  15. May 21, 2011
     Pibby Scott

    I think now, after all this, we can agree. Kids shouldn't take drugs.

  16. April 13, 2015
     Nick

    This interpretation of Lerner's work is quite wrong. He does not exonerate any one of us from participation in the "crowd," the "us" is genuine. He's in touch with and reproduces poetically many of the insights of Continental philosophy -- we applaud because we are signaled to do so, we are interpellated by mass forms of culture and desire, the language speaks us rather than vice versa. The stadium is symbolic of the only forms of collectivity open to us, today. We are fallen, perhaps from a never-existing Arcadia. But we have to work with what we have, and he wants to transform the stadium, the politician's speech, and everything else into a site of transformation or resistance. He's the smartest political poet writing today.