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Essay

From “The Hatred of Poetry”

Does poetry make us human?

We were taught at an early age that we are all poets simply by virtue of being human. Our ability to write poems is therefore in some sense the measure of our humanity. At least that’s what we were taught in Topeka: we all have feelings inside us (where are they located, exactly?); poetry is the purest expression (the way an orange expresses juice?) of this inner domain. Since language is the stuff of the social, and poetry the expression in language of our irreducible individuality, our personhood is tied up with our poethood. “You’re a poet and you don’t even know it,” Mr. X used to tell us in second grade; he would utter this irritating little refrain whenever we said something that happened to rhyme. I think the jokey cliché betrays a real belief about the universality of poetry: some kids take piano lessons, some kids study tap dance, but we don’t say every kid is a pianist or dancer. You’re a poet, however, whether or not you know it, because to be part of a linguistic community — to be hailed as a “you” at all — is to be endowed with poetic capacity.

If you are an adult foolish enough to tell another adult that you are (still!) a poet, they will often describe for you their falling away from poetry: I wrote it in high school; I dabbled in college. Almost never do they write it now. They will tell you they have a niece or nephew who writes poetry. These familiar encounters — my most recent was at the dentist, my mouth propped open while Dr. X almost gagged me with a mirror, as if searching for my innermost feelings — have a tone that’s difficult to describe. There is embarrassment for the poet — couldn’t you get a real job and put your childish ways behind you? — but there is also embarrassment on the part of the non-poet because having to acknowledge one’s total alienation from poetry chafes against the early association of poem and self. The ghost of that romantic conjunction makes the falling away from poetry a 
falling away from the pure potentiality of being human into the vicissitudes of being an actual person in a concrete historical situation, your hands in my mouth. I had the sensation that Dr. X, as he knocked the little mirror against my molars, was contemptuous of the idea that genuine poetry could issue from such an opening. And Dr. X was right: there is no genuine poetry; there is only, after all, and at best, a place for it.

The awkward and even tense exchange between a poet and non-poet — they often happen on an airplane or in a doctor’s office or some other contemporary no-place — is a little interpersonal breach that reveals how inextricable “poetry” is from our imagination of social life. Whatever we think of particular poems, “poetry” is a word for the meeting place of the private and the public, the internal and the external; my capacity to express myself poetically and to comprehend such expressions is a fundamental qualification for social recognition. If I have no interest in poetry or if I feel repelled by actual poems, either I am failing the social or the social is failing me. 
I don’t mean that Dr. X or whoever thinks in these terms, or that these assumptions about poetry are present for everyone or in the same degree, or that this is the only or best way of thinking about poetry, but I am convinced that the embarrassment or suspicion or anger that is often palpable in such meetings derives from this sense of poetry’s tremendous social stakes (combined with a sense of its tremendous social marginalization). And it’s these stakes which make actual poems an offense: 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.

And when you are foolish enough to identify yourself as a poet your interlocutors will often ask: A published poet? And when you tell them that you are, indeed, a published poet, they seem at least vaguely impressed. Why is that? It’s not like they or anybody they know reads poetry journals. And yet there is something deeply right, I think, about this knee-jerk appeal to publicity. It’s as if to say: Everybody can write a poem, but has your poetry, the distillation of your innermost being, been found authentic and intelligible by others? Can it circulate among persons, make of its readership, however small, a People in that sense? This accounts for the otherwise 
bafflingly persistent association of poetry and fame — baffling since no poets are famous among the general population. To demand proof of fame is to demand proof that your song is at once utterly specific to you and exemplary for others.

(At the turn of the millennium, when I was the editor of a tiny poetry and art magazine, I would receive a steady stream of submissions — our address was online — from people who had clearly never read our publication but whose cover letters expressed a remarkable desperation to have their poems printed anywhere. Some of these letters — tens of them — explained that the poet in question was suffering 
from a terminal condition and wanted, needed, to see his or her poems published before he or she died. I have three letters here that contain the sentence “I don’t know how long I have.” I also received multiple letters from prisoners who felt poetry publication was their best available method for asserting they were human beings, not merely criminals. I’m not mocking these poets; I’m offering them as examples of the strength of the implicit connection between poetry and the social recognition of the poet’s humanity. It’s an association so strong that the writers in question observe no contradiction in the fact that they are attempting to secure and preserve their personhood in a magazine that no one they know will see. It is as though the actual poem and publication do not matter; what matters is that the poet will know and can report to others that she is a published poet, a distinction that nobody — not Death, not the social death of exclusion from the Law — can take from her. Poetry makes you famous without an audience, an abstract or kind of proto-fame: it is less that I am known in the broader community than that I know I could be known, less that you know my name than that I know that I am named: I am a poet / and you know it.)

And when you are foolish enough to identify yourself as a poet your interlocutor will often ask you to name your favorite poets. When you say, “Cyrus Console,” he squints as if searching his memory and nods as if he can almost recall the work and the name, even though of course he can’t (none of the hundreds of non-poet acquaintances who have asked you this sort of question ever can). But I have decided — am deciding as I write — that I accept that look, that I value it; I love that the non-poet is conditioned to believe that the name and work are almost within reach even though the only poems he’s encountered in the last few decades have been at weddings and funerals. I love how it seems like he’s on the verge of recalling a 
specific line before he slowly shakes his head and concedes: I’ve never heard of him; it doesn’t ring a bell. Among other things this is a (no more than semiconscious) performance of the demands of poetry, at this point almost a muscle memory: the poem is a technology for mediating between me and my people; the poem must include me, must recognize me and be recognizable — so recognizable I should be able to recall it without ever having seen it, like the face of God.

Exchanges of this sort strike me as significant because I feel they are contemporary descendants, however diminished, of those founding dialogues about poetry that have set, however shakily, the terms for most denunciations and defenses in the West. Plato, in the most influential attack on poetry in recorded history, concluded that there was no place for poetry in the Republic because poets are rhetoricians who pass off imaginative projections as the truth and risk 
corrupting the citizens of the just city, especially the impressionable youth. (Socrates’s questions in the Republic are so leading and full of traps that he might as well have his hands in his interlocutors’ mouths). One difference between Plato’s Socrates and Dr. X is that Socrates fears and resents the corrupting power of actual poetic performance — he thinks poets are going to excite excessive emotions, for instance — whereas Dr. X presumably fears and resents his inability to be moved by or comprehend what passes for a poem. Still, Socrates’s interrogations of poets — what do they really know, what do they really contribute — will feel familiar to many of my contemporaries. Plato/Socrates is trying to defend language as the medium of philosophy from the unreason of poets who just make stuff up as opposed to discovering genuine truths. The oft-remarked irony of Plato’s dialogues, however, is that they are themselves poetic — formally experimental imaginative dramatizations. We might say that Socrates (“He who does not write,” as Nietzsche put it) is a new breed of poet who has found out how to get rid of poems. He argues that no existing poetry can express the truth about the world, and his dialogues at least approach the truth by destroying others’ claims to possess it. Socrates is the wisest of all people because he knows he knows nothing; Plato is a poet who stays closest to poetry because he refuses all actual poems. Every existing poem is a lie and Plato “reads” the claims made on behalf of those poems and refutes them in order to promote the endless dialectical conversation that is reason over the false representation that is an actual poem. Socratic irony: perfect contempt. Plato’s famous attack on poets can be read, therefore, as a defense of poetry from poems. Socrates: “Of that place beyond the heavens none of our earthly poets has yet sung, and none shall sing worthily.”

I remember first reading Plato at the Topeka & Shawnee County Public Library and feeling poetry must be a powerful art if the just city depended on its suppression. How many poets’ outsized expectations about the political effects of their work, or critics’ disappointment 
in what actual poems contribute to society, derive from Plato’s bestowing us with the honor of exile? Of course, many poets under totalitarian regimes have been banished or worse because of their writing; we must honor those — like Socrates himself — who died for their language. But the Republic’s attack on poets has helped sponsor for thousands of years the vague notion that poetry has profound political stakes even in contexts where nobody can name a poet or quote a poem. Anybody who reads (or reads the SparkNotes for) the Republic is imbued with the sense that poetry is a burning social question. When I declared myself a poet, I knew it was an important 
calling not because I had seen the impact of actual poems, but because the founding figure of the Western tradition was convinced that poets had to go. (The difference between what Socrates and I meant by “poet” or “poem” never occurred to me; the point was my work would be revolutionary; I, like many poets and critics, acquired my idealism via Platonic contempt).

It didn’t stop, of course, with the Greeks; when I read around in the Renaissance, there were more assaults on poetry, the assailants often deriving their authority from Plato — poetry is useless and/or corrupting (somehow it’s at once powerless and dangerous); it’s less valuable than history or philosophy; in some important sense it’s less real than other kinds of making. Philip Sidney’s famous and beautiful and confusing The Defense of Poesy — a work that helped establish the posture of poets and critics of poetry as essentially defensive — is the 
assertion of an ideal of imaginative literature more than an exaltation of actual poems. Poetry, Sidney says in his wonderful prose, is superior both to history and philosophy; it can move us, not just teach us facts; the poet is a creator who can transcend nature; thus poetry can put us in touch with what’s divine in us; and so on. But Sidney doesn’t worry much about specific poems, which often suck: we shouldn’t say “that poetry abuseth man’s wit, but that man’s wit abuseth poetry” — we shouldn’t knock poetry because of  bad poems. At the end of the defense, instead of supplying examples of great 
poems, Sidney just pities people who “cannot hear the planet-like music of poetry.” (I, too, can’t hear it).

Even the most impassioned Romantic defenses of poetry reinscribe a sense of the insufficiency of poems. Percy Bysshe Shelley: “the most glorious poetry that has ever been communicated to the world is probably a feeble shadow of the original conceptions of the poet.” A feeble shadow of an original conception sounds like Plato, although Plato didn’t think a poet could really conceive of much. In Plato’s time poetry was dominant relative to the new mode of philosophy he was attempting to advance; by the nineteenth century, defenses of poetry had to assert the relevance of the art for a (novel-reading) middle class preoccupied with material things, what Shelley calls the “excess of the selfish and calculating principle.” To defend poetry as an alternative to material concerns is both to continue and invert the Platonic critique. It is to accept the idea that poems are less real — less truthful, according to Plato — than other kinds of representation, but to recast this distance from material reality as a 
virtuous alternative to our insatiable hunger for money and things, credit and cattle. This enables poets and their defenders to celebrate poetic capacity — “original conceptions” — over and against the “feeble shadow” of real poems.

Reading in my admittedly desultory way across the centuries, 
I have come to believe that a large part of the appeal of the defense as a genre is that it is itself a kind of virtual poetry — it allows you to describe the virtues of poetry without having to write poems that have succumbed to the bitterness of the actual. Which is not to say that defenses never cite specific poems, but lines of poetry quoted in prose preserve the glimmer of the unreal. To quote the narrator of my first novel who is here describing an exaggerated version of my own experience:

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.

Many of the periodic essays worrying over the state of American poetry have — despite their avowed democratic aspirations — an implicit politics that makes me uneasy. Consider one of the most recent 
high-profile jeremiads, Mark Edmundson’s “Poetry Slam: or, The decline of American verse,” which appeared in the July 2013 Harper’s. Edmundsons’s essay contends that contemporary poets, while talented, have ceased to be politically ambitious. The primary problem is that, while many poems are “good in their ways,” they “simply aren’t good enough”; this is because “they don’t slake a reader’s thirst for meanings that pass beyond the experience of the individual poet and light up the world we hold in common.” Once again, the problem with poets is their failure to be universal, to speak both to and for everyone in the manner of Whitman, who Edmundson of course evokes. (Why Whitman should be considered a success and not a failure is never addressed; again, it’s as if  Whitman’s dream was realized in some vague past the nostalgists can never quite pinpoint.)

Edmundson makes a few silly claims, e.g. that contemporary writers haven’t responded to the influence/language of popular culture (maybe he didn’t read any of the Ashbery he criticizes?), or that the poets he singles out — mainstream, celebrated poets such as Jorie Graham and Frank Bidart — have never attempted to take on issues of national significance. Whatever you think of these poets, these claims are merely false. Putting that aside: according to Edmundson, the problem with contemporary poets is that they’re concerned with the individual voice.

Contemporary American poets now seem to put all their energy into one task: the creation of a voice. They strive to sound like no one else. And that often means poets end up pushing what is most singular and idiosyncratic in themselves and in the language to the fore and ignoring what they have in common with others.

Seamus Heaney is criticized for sounding like Seamus Heaney and not everyone; “John Ashbery sounds emphatically like John Ashbery”; etc. Individuals are too individual to speak for everyone. Who is at fault? The university.

How dare a white female poet say “we” and so presume to speak for her black and brown contemporaries? How dare a white male poet speak for anyone but himself? And even then, given the crimes and misdemeanors his sort have visited, how can he raise his voice above a self-subverting whisper?

Well, how dare he or she? Edmundson raises these questions as if it were obviously PC cowardice not to claim the right to speak for 
everyone. But then, his essay strongly suggests that he considers speaking for everyone the exclusive domain of white men. He praises Sylvia Plath, for instance, but note how her work — singled out as an example of the ambitious writing we currently lack — turns out only to speak for women:

Sylvia Plath may or may not overtop the bounds of taste and transgress the limits of metaphor when she compares her genteel professor father to a Nazi brute. (“Every woman adores a Fascist.”) But she challenges all women to reimagine the relations between fathers and daughters.

Edmundson apparently cannot imagine a father reading the poem and feeling challenged. When Robert Lowell writes, however, he is “calling things as he believed them to be not only for himself but for all his readers.” Somehow, according to Edmundson, “Waking Early Sunday Morning” — one of Lowell’s most famous anti-war poems — speaks for everyone: “Lowell speaks directly of our children, our monotonous sublime: few are the consequential poets now who are willing to venture that ‘our.’” Plath helps daughters reimagine their relationships with their fathers; Lowell is everybody’s father. Lowell’s specific cultural allusions — the title echoes Wallace Stevens, the prosodic structure recalls Andrew Marvell — apparently make him universal (Whitman, by the way, would have rejected these techniques as too exclusive and staid for the American experiment).

The weirdest moment in the essay might be when Edmundson, probably eager to give an example of a nonwhite person who can speak for the collective, discusses what he calls Amiri Baraka’s “consequential and energetic political poem,” “Somebody Blew Up America.” The poem received widespread attention because Baraka — who was then the poet laureate of New Jersey — included the following quatrain:

Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed
Who told 4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers
To stay home that day
Why did Sharon stay away?

The poem was “consequential” in the sense that it caused New Jersey to dissolve the position of poet laureate — Baraka refused to resign and it turned out there was no constitutional mechanism for his removal — and the poem earned a place in the Anti-Defamation League archive. I can imagine cogent arguments praising or excusing or bashing Baraka’s poem, but I am startled by Edmundson’s claim that this poem is at least “an attempt to say not how it is for Baraka exclusively but how it is for all.” It’s true that Baraka’s poem is not concerned with the particulars of his individual experience, but it is not at all true that the poem isn’t unmistakably in Baraka’s voice; regardless, how do lines like the following speak for “all”:

They say its some terrorist,
some barbaric
A Rab,
in Afghanistan
It wasn’t our American terrorists
It wasn’t the Klan or the Skin heads
Or the them that blows up nigger
Churches, or reincarnates us on Death Row
It wasn’t Trent Lott
Or David Duke or Giuliani
Or Schundler, Helms retiring

Most of the poem is devoted to cataloging the violence done to people of color by white Americans. Since Edmundson evokes Baraka’s intentions, we might as well quote Baraka’s account of his own poem:

The poem’s underlying theme focuses on how Black Americans have suffered from domestic terrorism since being kidnapped into US chattel slavery, e.g., by Slave Owners, US & State Laws, Klan, Skin Heads, Domestic Nazis, Lynching, denial of rights, national oppression, racism, character assassination, historically, and at this very minute throughout the US. The relevance of this to Bush’s call for a ‘War on Terrorism,’ is that Black people feel we have always been victims of terror, governmental and general, so we cannot get as frenzied and hysterical as the people who while asking to dismiss our history and contemporary reality to join them, in the name of a shallow ‘patriotism’ in attacking the majority of people in the world, especially people of color and in the third world.

The “we” here is purposefully not “all”; indeed, Baraka’s point is explicitly to refuse the false “we” politicians are attempting to deploy — a “we” that tactically forgets the history of anti-Black violence as it attempts to constitute a unified front in the “War on Terror,” which in turn involves killing more people of color. To suggest that Baraka’s “we” is an attempt to speak for “all” is therefore to repeat the dismissal of “our [people of color’s] history and contemporary reality.”

I can forgive Edmundson for his bad examples only in the sense that there are no good examples of “superb lyric poetry” that at once “have something to say” utterly specific to a poet’s “experience” and can speak for all. (Edmundson might say what he demands is that a poet attempt that impossible task and fail, but his readings lead us to suspect he believes that white men will fail better.) The lyric — that is, the intensely subjective, personal poem — that can 
authentically encompass everyone is an impossibility in a world characterized by difference and violence. This is not to indict the desire for such a poem — indeed, the word we often use for such desire is “poetry” — but to indict the celebration of any specific poem for having achieved this unreachable goal because that necessarily involves passing off particularity as universality. Edmundson lacks a perfect contempt for the actual examples he considers.

The capacity to transcend history has historically been ascribed to white men of a certain class while denied to individuals marked by difference (whether of race or gender). Edmundson’s (jokey?) acknowledgment of the “crimes and misdemeanors” white men have committed in their effort to speak as if they were everyone can hardly count as an engagement with — let alone a refutation of — this inequality. As Beth Loffreda and Claudia Rankine put it in a recent essay:

What we want to avoid at all costs is ... an opposition between writing that accounts for race ... and writing that is “universal.” If we continue to think of the “universal” as better-than, as the pinnacle, we will always discount writing that doesn’t look universal because it accounts for race or some other demeaned category. The universal is a fantasy. But we are captive, still, to a sensibility that champions the universal while simultaneously defining the universal, still, as white. We are captive, still, to a style of championing literature that says work by writers of color succeeds when a white person can nevertheless relate to it — that it “transcends” its category.

What makes Walt Whitman so powerful and powerfully embarrassing a founding figure for American poetry is that he is explicit about the contradictions inherent in the effort to “inhabit all.” This is also what makes it so silly to imply Whitman’s poetic ideal was ever accomplished in the past and that we’ve since declined — because of identity politics — into avoidable fractiousness. “I am the poet of slaves, and of the masters of slaves,” Whitman wrote in his journal, indicating the impossible desire to both recognize and suspend difference within his poems, to be no one in particular so he could stand for everyone. You can hate contemporary poetry — in any era — as much as you want for failing to realize the fantasy of universality, but the haters should stop pretending any poem ever successfully spoke for everyone.

  • Born and raised in Topeka, Kansas, writer and editor Ben Lerner earned a BA in political science and an MFA in creative writing from Brown University. He has served as a Fulbright scholar in Madrid and as a Guggenheim fellow. In 2015 he was awarded a prestigious MacArthur fellowship.   Lerner is the...

Essay

From “The Hatred of Poetry”

Does poetry make us human?
  • Born and raised in Topeka, Kansas, writer and editor Ben Lerner earned a BA in political science and an MFA in creative writing from Brown University. He has served as a Fulbright scholar in Madrid and as a Guggenheim fellow. In 2015 he was awarded a prestigious MacArthur fellowship.   Lerner is the...

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