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Fear and Loathing in the Postmodern English Department

By: A.M. Juster
July 22, 2016

en Lerner, a Brooklyn College English professor, is a literary phenom who at 37 has published three books of poetry and two novels. He has won Fulbright and Guggenheim fellowships, and in 2015 he received a MacArthur Foundation “genius” award. He publishes regularly in top journals and has an ongoing relationship with a prestigious publisher, Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

The Farrar, Straus & Giroux marketing department has done a superb job of promoting Lerner’s first book of criticism, The Hatred of Poetry. It has placed excerpts in many journals and created an impressive buzz around the book.      

Despite my own eager anticipation, The Hatred of Poetry is the worst book about poetry I have ever read. My assessment does not rely as much on disagreements with its arguments as on the fact that the book fails to articulate and defend meaningful statements about its subject matter. It is uneven in tone, self-indulgent, intellectually lazy, and bizarrely unfocused.  

Blessedly, it is brief—so brief that it raises a question as to whether it should count as a book rather than a draft essay needing compression. Even with extremely small pages, a large font, and excessively long quotations, the text is just eighty-three pages. Moreover, The Hatred of Poetry includes twenty effusive (and frequently long) blurbs for this and other Lerner books, which makes it a contender for the poetry book with the densest blurb-to-text ratio.

The Hatred of Poetry begins with the author’s recollection of choosing, memorizing and reciting a poem in the ninth grade. He asked the librarian for the shortest poem she knew, which turned out to be the 1967 version of Marianne Moore’s “Poetry,’ which 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.

Despite the brevity of his choice, Lerner confesses that he botched his recitation. He follows this classroom anecdote with a paragraph in which he states that the first line of Moore’s poem has become a refrain in his life. It is a strange reaction for someone who spends so much of his time writing and teaching poetry.

Lerner moves immediately from his classroom tale to a paragraph that boils down to this fallacy of narcissistic logic: since Lerner hates poetry, we all hate poetry.

“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?…Many more people agree that 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.

After a paragraph jammed with questions and assertions, one expects data or argumentation. Instead, the paragraph abruptly ends, and the book moves on to several pages about the Anglo-Saxon poet Caedmon.

The purpose of the Caedmon section seems to be a defense of the proposition that the poem in a poet’s head is doomed to fall short of the poem the poet can put on the page. That proposition is untrue, of course. Poets often start a poem with just one fragmentary image and then write a poem that outstrips the original impetus for the poem. Some poems also turn out be much richer than the poet originally appreciated because the subconscious was working in tandem with the conscious to add dimensions to the poem that their creator does not recognize.

Lerner follows his Caedmon discussion with another grandiose but untrue statement:

The bitterness of poetic logic is particularly astringent because we were taught at an early age that we are all poets simply by virtue of being human.  

This sentence incorporates a failure of logic common in our universities. Rather than debating the merits of a concept or a person, academics tend to apply a label—whether it fits or not—then cite their definition of that label to prove a point about whoever or whatever they have just labeled. That technique obscures the difference between every literate person having the potential to write poetry and saying “that we are all poets.” Calling everyone “a poet” is like calling everyone “a chef.” We can all learn to cook, albeit badly in my case, but we are not all chefs.

Lerner immediately restates his point more broadly, and in an indefensible fashion:

Our ability to write poems is therefore in some sense the measure of our humanity.

As much as I love poetry, it does not come close to making the cut as “the measure of our humanity.” The depth and consistency of our compassion is perhaps the best candidate for a measure of our humanity. 

Lerner drops this complex topic quickly in favor of a long complaint about how socially awkward it is to tell other people that you are a poet. He goes so far as to say that “‘poetry’ denotes an impossible demand” and a poet “by his very claim to be a maker of poems, is therefore both an embarrassment and accusation.” Much of the rest of the book meanders in a chapterless fashion with a mix of random oracular comments about canonical poets and irrelevant recollections of his boyhood in Topeka.

What is happening in this book is a familiar midlife crisis. Like the gymnast who tires of the drudgery necessary for a world-class ranking or the young lawyer who piles up billable hours only to discover that becoming a partner involves more soul-sucking paperwork, Lerner has worked very hard and received extraordinary recognition for his work, yet the work and all the honors—by his own admission—do not give him the satisfaction to which he feels entitled. 

In Lerner’s manifesto what seems to be stifled, although just barely, is the likely cause of his discontent. The reason he cannot connect with the people who sit next to him on planes is that he speaks in the arcane and intellectually barren language of academic post-modernism. In other words, Lerner addresses only his small number of peers who hand out tenure, awards, and glowing blurbs.

Consider the opening to Lerner’s poem “[By any measure]”:

                   By any measure, it was endless

                             Winter. Emulsions with

                   Then circled the lake like

                   This is it. This April will be

                   Inadequate sensitivity to green. I rose

                   Early, erased for an hour

                             Silk-brush and ax

                   I’d like to think I’m a different person

                             latent image fading

Two clichéd techniques instantly jump out: the eccentric use of punctuation in the title, and the suggestion in the last line that we look at the poet as if he were being filmed. In fact, the poem does not gain a valuable idea or image with this gimmickry. The fractured non-sentence that spans lines two through four is incoherent to a reader not “in” on an extrinsic explanation, an implicit expression of elitism. Line five reminds us that Lerner cannot write for very long without writing about himself.

The poem’s second stanza continues in familiar ways despite its obscurity:

                   around the edges and ears

                             Overall a tighter face

                   Now. Is it hard for you to understand

                   From the drop-down menu

                   In a cluster of eight poems, I selected

                   sleep, but could not

                             I decided to change everything

                   Composed entirely of stills

                             or fade into the trees

Lerner’s random capitalization makes the same tired declaration as the unnecessary brackets in the title. At the end of stanza, he continues the cinematic device. He again quickly inserts himself into the stanza, but this time more arrogantly with the snide intellectual elitism of “Is it hard for you to understand” (even without the dropped question mark). Moreover, there is a delusional godlike attitude reflected in the poet having selected sleep rather than just sleeping; that attitude intensifies with the next line’s “I decided to change everything.”

The concluding stanza contains more disjointed incoherence:

                   but could not

                             remember the dream

                   save for one brief shot

                   of a woman opening her eyes

                   Ari, pick up. I’m a different person

                   In a perfect world, this would be

                             April, or an associated concept

                   Green to the touch

                             several feet away.

There is a flash of humor in “or an associated concept,” but it remains unclear what point he is trying to make, and the joke he does not fully share begins to feel almost as patronizing as the “Is it hard for you to understand” from the previous stanza.

“[By any measure]” is toward the high end of accessibility among Lerner’s poems. Often, they are totally impenetrable, as in the second of his “Three Prose Poems” (quoted in its entirety):

WE ARE PLEASED TO OFFER A LAMP that turns on and off when you clap your eyes. A lamp that lets you see in the dark without distorting the dark. A lamp producing natural light. A lamp that when you clap turns on and on.

Once one gets past the signature arbitrary capitalization, there is not much that one can say about this piece except that it does not try to communicate anything meaningful.  It is no wonder Lerner baffles random people on airplanes.

The Hatred of Poetry unintentionally provides ample evidence that a leading practitioner of academic postmodern poetry loathes his own work, and yet fears the return to craft and accessible meaning that can reinvigorate love of poetry—if not for him, at least for today’s poetry audience.