Poetry News

"You’re a poet; don’t you hate most poems?": Tao Lin Interviews Ben Lerner

By Harriet Staff

Check out this Believer exclusive, in which Tao Lin interviews Ben Lerner.

Here's a sample of them talking about the (possible) fraudulence of poetry, among other things:

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. That’s part of what Benjamin is arguing about Baudelaire, I think—that he makes a lyric out of lyric’s impossibility in modernity. Or you might say that even the failed attempt to write a successful poem makes us aware of having the faculties, however atrophied or underdeveloped, for such an undertaking in the first place, and so keeps us in touch with our formal capacities for imagining alterity even if we can’t achieve it.

BLVR: What about your own poems—not Adam Gordon’s but Ben Lerner’s—how do they fit into this idea that all actual poems are failures?

BL: Well, my last book of poems, Mean Free Path, can be read as seeking out a form that never quite becomes actual—the way lines in some of the poems are out of order, or belong to several possible orders simultaneously, creates a kind of suspension, a kind of “choose your own adventure” for the reader, who is invited to collaborate in the articulation of the stanzaic space. More generally, the failure of the poem to reach the objective right margin of the page is for me one of the almost definitional ways poetry makes absence felt as a presence.

Full interview here.

Originally Published: September 11th, 2012