When is poetry bad? Ben Lerner’s The Hatred of Poetry

lerner-1As regular readers will recall, I bought this book on spec before Christmas from a wily book catalogue. Reading it – it is a long essay on why people hate poetry – is an unfolding sequence of stimulants, a nuggetty book about what poetry is and does, from the perspective of those who hate it. Lerner, as a practising poet and novelist, teaches the stuff, so he does not hate it. But he is frequently addressed by those who do, so his accumulation of encounters produced this book.

‘What kind of art assumes the dislike of its audience and what kind of artist aligns herself with that dislike?’

Does poetry seem as though it expects to be disliked? It all depends on the company it keeps, I think. Very few harassed parents running busy households will welcome the prospect of a home-made poem flourished at them by an adolescent child (who ought to be revising for exams), when they don’t read poetry themselves, could not get on with it at school (if they were ever shown any), and don’t think that it bodes well for gainful adult employment. The poet as waster is a familiar character in novels of the misunderstood.

Lerner points out that Plato considered poetry to be both useless and corrupting: at once powerless and dangerous. As a political tool, poetry is definitely dangerous and hopelessly irrelevant, to particular sectors of society. It’s a ceremonial thing to be read at an inauguration, and an easy read on the Tube in between interminable stops. It’s not the stuff of daily tabloid nourishment, or something we hear read aloud as a matter of course in between TV programmes. Poetry is special, not normal, for most of the British population; half-remembered on Remembrance Sunday, but otherwise not part of their daily lives.

Lerner 2.jpgUnderstanding about good and bad poetry is also a puzzle. ‘It is much harder to agree on what constitutes a successful poem when we see it than it is to agree that we’re in the presence of an appalling one.’ Bad poetry is easily spotted, Lerner thinks, and spends a useful section in this book explaining why William McGonagall was a bad poet. The very recent announcement of a poem to celebrate the forthcoming Presidential inauguration proves Lerner’s point. That poem is of a McGonagall order of dreadfulness, because of the office it was intended to assume, as well as its painful obliviousness to poetic nuance or art. It uses Victorian Scottish rumty-tumty rhythms and rhymes that wave flags at you to be noticed: it has a pleased and terrible eagerness to display all the rhymes the poet found.

Lerner does admit that bad poets and their poems have a purpose.

‘Truly horrible poets unwittingly provide a glimmer of virtual possibility via the extremity of their failure; avant garde poets hate poems for remaining poems instead of becoming bombs; and nostalgists hate poems for failing to do what they, wrongly, vaguely, claim poetry once was or did’.

This is more like it. Lerner acknowledges that poetry has many audiences. The beyond-bad Inaugural poem will have a pleased reception, and the poet will be glad. This will not excuse its badness, but it will make some people happy, and perhaps encourage others not to hate poetry any more. Once you’ve found your way into poetry, you learn what you like and dislike: that’s good if it dispels a hatred of poetry. Dangerous poetry that corrupts is not necessarily bad for prosodic reasons, because it has to reach a technical level of skill to work its persuasion. Bad poetry, like the Inaugural poem, is unlikely to corrupt because its inadequacies and its inability to tackle prosodic challenges are easily spotted. I think there’s a metaphor there.

Ben Lerner, The Hatred of Poetry (2016, Fitzcarraldo Editions), ISBN 978 1 910695 15 9