The Hatred of Poetry

by Ben Lerner
Fitz.cover_Ben-Lerner

Today is the publication day of the fifteenth book from Fitzcarraldo Editions: Ben Lerner’s The Hatred of Poetry. Buy the book from our website and read the first few pages of this essay below.

In ninth grade English, Mrs. X required us to memorize and recite a poem, so I went and asked the Topeka High librarian to direct me to the shortest poem she knew, and she suggested Marianne Moore’s “Poetry,” which, in the 1967 version, reads in its entirety:

I, too, dislike it.
Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in
it, after all, a place for the genuine.

I remember thinking my classmates were suckers for having mainly memorized Shakespeare’s eighteenth sonnet, whereas I had only to recite twenty-four words. Never mind the fact that a set rhyme scheme and iambic pentameter make fourteen of Shakespeare’s lines easier to memorize than Moore’s three, each one of which is interrupted by a conjunctive adverb—a parallelism of awkwardness that basically serves as its form. That, plus the four instances of “it,” makes Moore sound like a priest begrudgingly admitting that sex has its function while trying to avoid using the word, an effect amplified by the deliberately clumsy enjambment of the second line and the third (“in / it”). In fact, “Poetry” is a very difficult poem to commit to memory, as I demonstrated by failing to get it right each of the three chances I was given by Mrs. X, who was looking down at the text, my classmates cracking up.

My contempt for the assignment was, after all, imperfect. Even now I routinely misquote the second sentence; I just Googled the poem and had to correct what I typed out above, but who could forget the first? I, too, dislike ithas been on repeat in my head since 1993; when I open a laptop to write or a book to read: I, too, dislike it echoes in my inner ear. When a poet is being introduced (including myself) at a reading, whatever else I hear, I hear: I, too, dislike it. When I teach, I basically hum it. When somebody tells me, as so many people have told me, that they don’t get poetry in general or my poetry in particular and/or believe that poetry is dead: I, too, dislike it. Sometimes this refrain has the feel of negative rumination and sometimes a kind of manic, mantric affirmation, as close as I get to unceasing prayer.

“Poetry”: What kind of art assumes the dislike of its audience and what kind of artist aligns herself with that dislike, even encourages it? An art hated from without and within. What kind of art has as a condition of its possibility a perfect contempt? And then, even reading contemptuously, you don’t achieve the genuine. You can only clear a place for it—you still don’t encounter the actual poem, the genuine article. Every few years an essay appears in a mainstream periodical denouncing poetry or proclaiming its death, usually blaming existing poets for the relative marginalization of the art, and then the defenses light up the blogosphere before the culture, if we can call it a culture, turns its attention, if we can call it attention, back to the future. But why don’t we ask: What kind of art is defined—has been defined for millennia—by such a rhythm of denunciation and defense? Many more people agree they hate poetry than can agree what poetry is. I, too, dislike it, and have largely organized my life around it (albeit with far less discipline and skill than Marianne Moore) and do not experience that as a contradiction because poetry and the hatred of poetry are for me—and maybe for you—inextricable.

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