The Hatred of Poetry – Ben Lerner (Review)

By expecting it to live up to its platonic ideal, created by mythologising expectations of things it can supposedly do — produce transcendental feelings; change the world; speak to an individual and universal experience at the same time; restructure and reform society through shock — we learn to hate poetry.

That’s the central premise of Lerner’s monograph. It’s one I find myself broadly supporting.

I’ve always thought I hated poetry. It used to frustrate me and make me feel stupid, when it failed to move me to rapture. I alternated in blaming myself, ‘is there something wrong with me? Why don’t I ‘get it?’ and blaming the poem, ‘is it broken? it must be a bad one’. In reality, I simply had unquestioned assumptions about what poems did, which didn’t match what poetry can actually do.

There are poems I love, in the way I love books — because they brought me to new ideas, or they provoke a certain feeling; Wild Geese and Stopping by woods on a snowy evening spring to mind — but what I was expecting them to do was to produce rapture, enlightenment, transcendence.

This might be a little unfair, says Lerner, highlighting poetry’s ability to only figure feelings and experiences we expect it to replicate and capture. When we demand that poetry makes us feel the love the poet felt when he wrote, we really confuse the map for the terrain. It’s this gap between the actual and the virtual that we should seek to see when we read poetry. He gives readings of certain poems to support his theory, both great and bad and dives into the reason for our raised expectations, from platonic ideal to nostalgic expectations that themselves hearken to a world that never really existed.

Lerner’s book — another in an illustrious history of defenses of poetry — is less a fiery defense with sword and shield, and more a request to examine our collective hatred of poetry, to see if we aren’t expecting it to perform magic it’s not capable of, and suggesting that it’s not only a normal, but useful, part of poetry.

I’ve certainly been enjoying hating poetry more since I read it.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

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