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


The Faerie Queene, by Edmund Spenser

fq6In this week’s Really Like This book podcast scripts catch-up, I’m in the English Renaissance, pricking across the plain with the Red-Crosse Knight, in Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. This is the biggest and most elaborate courtly flattery ever written, and it’s not even complete. Edmund Spenser was a subject of Queen Elizabeth, the first of that name, and she was a very experienced, very wily old lady of 66 when he wrote the poem to gain her favour. No doubt she was flattered and mightily amused when he personified her as Gloriana, Belphoebe, the Fairie Queene and the Queen of Love in an epic on the moral virtues. It was planned as a poem in 12 books, with each book consisting of 12 cantos, and each canto consisting of 12 stanzas, which were verses of 9 lines each. Spenser only managed to write the first six books, which means he completed nearly 8000 lines of verse. And that was only half of what he had planned. Some fragments of later cantos exist, but the poem effectively halts at the end of book 6. The Faerie Queene is the western world’s longest poem from this period, an action epic, and a Renaissance version of the chivalric romance. Spenser wrote a long letter to Sir Walter Raleigh explaining what he meant with the poem, which is one of the easier ways to get to grips with it before reading.

fq2The first thing to notice is that it’s an allegory: a work where characters are not rounded personalities as we would expect them to be in novels, but flat, and unchanging. They represent qualities, symbols, abstract concepts. This makes the multitude of characters very easy to remember: they don’t change, and they are simple black and white personifications. The aim of the Faerie Queene is to show how a gentleman ought to behave, through a series of adventures where knights battle with monsters, and are frequently rescued by King Arthur.

fq-1Whoa. What is King Arthur doing in a Renaissance poem? Arthur was from the middle ages, the Dark Ages even, a character who emerged after the Saxon invasions and was established long before the Normans, 400 to 600 years earlier than Edmund Spenser. Arthur belongs to a literary tradition that began with relatively primitive poems about military muscle and ended with delicate philosophical discussions about love in a fantasy boudoir. He doesn’t fit in the Renaissance world of Sir Philip Sidney and the Earl of Essex. However, Arthur is also an allegorical figure. In Spenser’s day he was still thought of as the perfect knight, and was, obviously, very well known. As a figure in a poem dealing with the twelve moral virtues, he would have no ulterior motives, or be anything other than a perfect kingly paragon of virtue.

The plot of the poem is, broadly, that Prince Arthur is on a quest to find his beloved Faerie Queene, an allegorical portrait of Queen Elizabeth, and is continually interrupted by entering the adventures of other characters. Spenser separates the figure of Arthur completely from the ‘matter of Britain’ that we usually associate him with (by which I mean Lancelot, Guinevere, the Holy Grail) by transplanting him into a totally different fantasy landscape. Queen Guinevere doesn’t exist in this new incarnation of Arthur’s story: he’s a single knight in pursuit of a new lady as the object of his courtly love, the Faerie Queene herself. In the six different books of the poem, Arthur functions as the all-conquering knight to rescue those in need.

Britomart of Book 2
Britomart of Book 2

Each book is about one of the moral virtues. Book 1 is about Holinesse, the second is about Temperance, the third is about Chastity, with a female knight as the hero, the immortal Britomart. The fourth book is about friendship, the fifth is about justice, and the sixth is about courtesy. Each book tells the adventures of a different knight, and that knight’s lady, and the monsters they encounter, the temptations they struggle with, and how they embody their book’s particular virtue. The story is very stylized, and utterly unrealistic, which can be explained by thinking about how story, as tales told in poetry, was evolving in English literature. By the sixteenth century, when the Faerie Queene was written, readers of romances and poetry were a bit bothered about the apparent disinterest that much earlier writers, for instance Chaucer, had in noticing the difference between fact and fiction. Renaissance readers felt that romance needed to be quite clearly romance, and narratives of exploration and discovery needed to be believable and true, and usable as guidebooks. The form of the narrative wasn’t important: a poem about the exploration of the New World would have been quite acceptable as an emigrants’ guide. What mattered was the presentation of facts as facts, and fantasy as fantasy. So the characters in the Faerie Queene do not show anything like real-life behaviour. They are also unfazed at encountering cave-dwelling monsters, talking trees, processions of foul fiends in the wilderness, or dragons. This is all standard, and this is why the Faerie Queene is such fun to read, if you like that sort of thing.

Una and the Lion, from Book 1
Una and the Lion, from Book 1

Book 1 is a self-contained epic on its own, and is thus the one book most widely studied in university classes. The story is also very attractive: the Red-Crosse Knight (who represents Holinesse) begged the Faerie Queene at her court to be allowed to undertake his first quest. He was weary of hanging around the court as a junior untried squire: he wanted action. So, graciously, the Faerie Queene, or Gloriana, agreed that the next quest to be announced at court would be his. The next day, a maiden of great purity arrived, asking for help from a brave knight to rescue the kingdom of her father, the Emperor, which was being terrorized by a dragon. Gloriana announced that she had just the knight for the job, a most experienced and doughty warrior; may I introduce the Red-Crosse Knight?

You will have spotted that Gloriana was not telling the maiden what the knight had told her, and I’m not quite sure why: I haven’t looked deep enough into the critical literature to see what the experts think of this apparent continuity flaw, or deliberate falsehood by the queen of truth and beauty. Anyhow, the maiden, whose name was Una, gladly accepted the knight’s service, and off they went. Almost immediately (because this story does not hang around, each canto has quite a bit of action) Una and the Red-Crosse Knight are misled and separated by a wizard called Archimago, disguised as a holy friar, and a strangely smiling lady called Duessa. These two are better known to Spenser’s original readers as Satan and Duplicity, and they force the two holy heroes to endure many trials and terrors, all connected with belief, and with chivalry, and the terrible lure of Catholicism, before being rescued by Prince Arthur. That ends Book 1, and we enter Book 2 with gusto, appetite whetted for more fantastical adventures.

fq7To understand the odd religious bias again Catholicism, we need to remember the persecution dealt out to Catholics during the reign of Elizabeth, and the persecution dealt out to Protestants during the reign of her elder sister, Mary I, or Bloody Mary, a generation earlier: practical effects of the history of the Protestant reformation in England. Spenser was aiming to please his own particular Protestant queen, so he packed this first book of the poem with spectacularly simplistic, negative messages about Catholicism. These too are part of the poem’s fascination, in decoding and untangling what Spenser’s audience would have understood immediately.

We do not need to read the Faerie Queene in translation: it is remarkably accessible in Elizabethan English. If you can understand Shakespeare you’ll be able to understand this. But I suggest that you try it as an audio book or CD, if you’re nervous about antiquated spellings putting you off your stroke. English has changed much less in sound from Elizabethan times than it has in its spelling, so focus on what the words sound like. On the other hand, if you can get hold of one of the lovely nineteenth- or early twentieth-century facsimile editions of the Faerie Queene, you can enjoy the classic layout of the stanzas of each canto in double columns, and the helpful rhymes at the start of each canto that summarise the action.





Sorrow and anger: Books I couldn’t finish or wished I hadn’t started

I don’t usually write negative reviews of books, because (1) it’s usually not fair on a writer to pillory them in public, (2) why waste the reader’s time? But sometimes writing a reasoned critical appraisal for the record can be a public service. For those searching online to find out if anyone else hated this book as much as they did, even a negative review can be reassuring, to confirm they they’re not the only ones who gave up. Here are seven of my recent duds that you may wish to avoid.

ingsSimon Ings, Hot Wire (1995, 2014 Gollancz edition) Cyber-punk. I wish I had taken the time to look inside before I wasted £8.99 on this. After a saccharine opening scene set on a beach, this novel moves on to a revolting and lengthy description of how two addicts open up an old man’s skull to extract his hard wiring, while he’s only mildly sedated, and then rape and mutilate his grand-daughter. I can read horror if the story justifies it, but this was gratuitous, and its intention to shock was successful. Also, misogyny seems to be a recurring theme in the novel, since all the women encountered in my half hour of reading were defined as sexualised objects, associated with violence I didn’t want in my head. The cyberpunkishness is wearying, not stimulating. The cover art is gorgeous. I should have known better to judge this book solely by that.

Catherine Carswell, Lying Awake (1950, 1997 Canongate Classics) Memoir of Scottish author known mostly for her championship of D H Lawrence’s writing. I’m not sure that this should ever have been published, since it’s an hommage to a minor literary figure by her uncritical son. It’s in three parts: the first is a patchwork memoir of growing up in Victorian Glasgow, and reads pretty much like all the others I’ve read of that genre. The second part, of scraps and gnomic phrases from Carswell’s papers, carefully assembled by her son after her death, is meaningless without context. The third section, of letters from the author to a friend during the Second World War, has mild interest for ‘women writing in wartime’ historians, but, again, unless you’re interested in Carswell, there is very little here.

Vonda McIntyre, Superluminal (1983). SF space opera. When I realised that I had never actually read Superluminal, McIntyre’s third novel, since I had been confusing its plot with that of her short story ‘Aztecs’, from which she says it was developed, I bought this with huge anticipation for summer reading. I can only think that it might have been a very early novel that she published after the successes of Dreamsnake and The Exile Waiting, which are both superb. There are some very good ideas, but I cannot believe in her star-crossed lovers, nor in her space port or flight protocols, or indeed anything technical and machine-based since this is just dated in a way that her other novels soar past effortlessly. The novel’s plot matches Anne McCaffrey’s The Crystal Singer (1982) too closely, and her intra-dolphinate human subspecies is a great idea abandoned. It is SO disappointing.

woolfVirginia Woolf, The Waves (1931). Major literary landmark. I read this because it’s the second-last Woolf novel I haven’t read, and in my line of work one needs to have read them. I hated it. I could teach it as a text demonstrating significant literary innovation, as a modernist challenge to the realist novel, for close reading of the techniques of the stream of consciousness. But as a novel to enjoy, for pleasure? Nope.

China Miéville, Un Lun Dun (2007). YA fantasy adventure in alternate London. This is advertised as Miéville’s answer to / version of Gaiman’s Neverwhere, and it certainly sticks very closely to the basic concept. Miéville’s trademark inventiveness is fully present, but I got annoyed by the derivative plot and decorative details. He reuses very famous bits from Tolkien, Chris Riddell, C S Lewis and J K Rowling, for instance, without much bothering to twist or recolour them, and for a YA readership, that’s lazy. The Marxist politics underlying the plot are blatant and enjoyable, but overall this novel feels predictable and flabby. Miéville can do YA fantastically well: Railsea was as hard and sharp as Perdido Street Station. Un Lun Dun is too long for its inevitable plot, which is worth reading only for the superlative inventions and the quest plot reworked.

priestleyJ B Priestley, Jenny Villiers (1947). Novel of the theatre that would rather be a play. Priestley had become a successful playwright and a radio broadcaster speaking for the common man by the time this work came out (when he was on a bit of treadmill), and this novel is an uncomfortable mash-up. Its woodcut illustrations in this edition are too good for the pedestrian storytelling, and the plot is transparently inevitable, even though it’s a ghost story. The plot is a little too clichéd, and the mechanics of narration are told us, not shown. It reads like a novel written by a tired man with one idea and no interest in letting it develop. If you feel like reading London theatre fiction read Josephine Tey or Ngaio Marsh, or even David Copperfield, because Priestley stole all his characters from there.

Amber Reeves, A Lady and her Husband (1914, 2016 Persephone Books). Feminist Edwardian melodrama. Full credit to Persephone for reprinting this as a historical landmark, and a novel exposing exploitation in tea-shops and the slippery slope to penury for a working-girl who makes one mistake. But it’s boring. Very, very dull. Full credit also for reprinting a novel in which the lead character is an ‘older’ woman (though she’s only about 40), but why couldn’t Reeves have made her interesting? I get that she’s a fragile, dominated creature who is learning how to negotiate the frightening world outside her open cage, but for a novel, more gumption would have made her a character to root for. I just wanted to slap her. The most interesting character is her sharp secretary Miss Percival, who won’t live with her own husband and strains to pull her dim and conventional employer even only a little way towards emancipation and freedom.