Don’t let the boy just loaf about;
If he writes verses, kick him out.
—Martial (c. 40–c. 103)
Poetry has been around forever. It predates literacy and perhaps even the gods, who, some say, were invented by poets. There are so many types of poems, ranging from the epic to the tiny haiku, that it took The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics 1,554 pages to list and describe them all. Though it has mutated over the centuries, with the lyric poem becoming in more recent times the favored mode of expression, it can still be defined as “language that sounds better and means more.”1 The miracle of poetry is that a three-thousand-year-old poem can still speak to us today. If there had been no continuity of some kind, poetry and poets would have been extinct long ago.
That this little-understood and often marginalized human activity has given the world some of the greatest works of literature, many of which have outlived the civilizations and the languages in which they were originally composed, is beyond dispute. “Poetry is indeed something divine,” Shelley wrote. Hearing an outburst like that, one is liable to conclude that the monkeys who came down from the trees cannot live without poetry, but a cooler head reminds us, “Bread is necessary; poetry isn’t necessary in the way cake isn’t necessary. Cake marks important occasions.” Still, Molly Peacock goes on to say, “Can you imagine living in a city without a bakery? Without cake?”2
Of course, poets and poetry have had enemies. Plato famously condemned poets’ propensity to pass off their fantasies as truth and banished them from his ideal Republic. That poets are not right in the head is a common belief. Who in their right mind would choose a lifetime of poverty and ridicule? Poets were accused of perverting morality and corrupting the young, of being blasphemous, unpatriotic, and dirty. It took extraordinary malice and determination over the centuries to destroy nearly every copy of every extant poem by Sappho. Even the enlightened eighteenth century of Hobbes and Locke with their elevation of reason as the primary source of authority and legitimacy denounced poetry, since a rational mind finds it intolerable to be in the company of imagination. Metaphor, the very soul of poetry, was demoted to a superfluous stylistic ornament.
The Romantic movement restored poetry and imagination, but now poets came to be viewed as either harmless eccentrics or crazed revolutionaries determined to overturn the existing order. In more recent times, neither the political right nor the political left has been a defender of poetry. Degenerate literature, the Nazis called much of it; bourgeois individualism was the Soviet name for it. The goal of every collectivist project in history being to wrestle away the self from the individual, it’s no wonder that the most innocuous poems became the subject of police inquiry and suppression.
In his polemical essay “Against Poets,” the Polish novelist and playwright Witold Gombrowicz made a claim that no one really gives a damn about poetry despite pretending that they do. When poetry appears mixed with other, more prosaic elements such as Shakespeare’s drama and the prose of Pascal and Dostoevsky, or simply as the impression of an ordinary sunset, one trembles as other mortals do. However, the pharmaceutical extract called “pure poetry” is a deadly bore. Sugar is good for sweetening coffee, Gombrowicz says, but not for eating by the spoonful. The excess of anything wearies, and so does the excess of poetic language, as well as the sentiment and piety that go with it.
What Gombrowicz is objecting to, many readers would agree with. Poetry is both the most natural and the most unnatural of arts. There’s undeniably something “contrived” about a sonnet or an epic, but to claim that all poems possess this same artificial quality is an astonishingly stupid thing to say, especially coming from a writer justly venerated for his intellect.
Ben Lerner is an extraordinarily fine writer, the author of three much-admired collections of poetry and two marvelous novels. In his new book, The Hatred of Poetry, which grew out of an article published by Harper’s and from the speculations on poetry of the poet-hero Adam Gordon in Lerner’s first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, he explores the subject further. He sets the stage by quoting Marianne Moore’s famous poem “Poetry,” in its shortened 1967 three-line version, and giving an account of how the poem had been given to him by the Topeka High librarian after he asked her for the shortest poem in the school library, so that he could memorize it and recite it to his ninth-grade English class as his teacher had assigned them to do:
I, too, dislike it.
Reading it, however, with a
perfect contempt for it, one
it, after all, a place for the
That opening phrase, Lerner says, keeps coming back to him every time he attends a poetry reading or when he teaches a class. “What kind of art assumes,” he asks himself, “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,” he answers, though he doesn’t experience it as a contradiction because poetry and hatred for poetry are inextricable for him.
He quotes Allen Grossman’s essay on Caedmon, the first English poet whose name we know, an illiterate cowherd who learned the art of song in a dream and awoke as a poet. But the poem he sang upon waking, the legend goes, was not as good as the poem he sang in his dream. Poetry thus “arises from the desire to get beyond the finite and the historical—the human world of violence and difference—and to reach the transcendent or divine…. Thus the poet is a tragic figure,” because a “poem is always a record of failure.” Lerner agrees with Grossman
that actual poems are structurally foredoomed by a “bitter logic” that cannot be overcome by any level of virtuosity, [that] only a ruthless reading that allows us to measure the gap between the actual and the virtual will enable us to experience, if not a genuine poem—no such thing—a place for the genuine, whatever that might mean.
“The bitterness of poetic logic is particularly astringent,” Lerner says, “because we were taught at an early age that we are all poets simply by virtue of being human.” Undoubtedly, his teacher in Topeka had been reading Emerson and Whitman, but Lerner further alleges that this belief is one of the underlying reasons why poetry is so often met with contempt rather than mere indifference and why it is periodically denounced as opposed to simply dismissed. Most people, according to him, carry at least a weak sense of a correlation between poetry and human possibility that cannot be realized in poems. The poet, by his very claim to being a maker of poems, is therefore both an embarrassment and an accusation. I never heard anything that makes me believe this to be true. If poetry is of no interest to people, it’s because they were frightened off it in school and have not bothered to read any since, not because poets failed their ideal of poetry.
Neither do I buy Shelley’s lament that “the most glorious poetry that has ever been communicated to the world is probably a feeble shadow of the original conception of the poet,” which Lerner brings up in support of his theory of the impossibility of poetry. Of course, there’s some truth to it. In Leaving the Atocha Station, his young poet agonizes about the “incommensurability of language and experience.” It’s no news that words fail to do justice to what we see or feel; that we find ourselves struck dumb by too much beauty or horror. What Lerner regards as a tragic flaw of poetry is a given, the way not being able to make a rooster’s crow heard in a painting is. While a feeling of impotence paralyzes anyone who becomes fixated on language and starts thinking about finding the right word not as an aesthetic problem, but as a theological one, it’s a false quandary. Lerner fails to mention the part that poetic images, metaphors, and symbols play in circumventing the limitations of language.
“Poems come out of wonder, not out of knowing,” Lucille Clifton once said. When we sit down to write, we know we don’t have a guarantee, framed and hung over our heads and signed by every philosopher from Plato to Derrida, that what we are about to do will bear fruit and lead to the truth; we face a risk and a gamble every poet either knowingly or unknowingly takes. American poetry is a kind of do-it-yourself metaphysics. If we have a tradition in poetry—and we do—it goes back to the Transcendentalists and their empirical approach to experience, the idea that you eschew abstractions and begin with something concrete, what William Carlos Williams called “no ideas but in things.” After that, you are on your own.
In order to demonstrate that even when we read a bad poem we experience its radical failure by measuring it against an ideal poem, Lerner takes a close look at “The Tay Bridge Disaster” by the nineteenth-century Scottish poet William Topaz McGonagall, “widely acclaimed as the worst poet in history,” and employs Plato’s so-called argument from imperfection, which says that in order to perceive a particular thing to be imperfect, we must have in mind some ideal of perfection; and we must come to the foregone conclusion that it is much harder to agree on what constitutes a successful poem than it is to agree that we’re in the presence of an appalling one. Not just McGonagall, but John Keats and Emily Dickinson, according to Lerner, “make a place for the genuine by producing a negative image of the ideal Poem we cannot write in time.”
Marianne Moore would have lost her patience with this kind of argument. She knew what she meant by the genuine and what a poem is and so would have Lerner and his readers had he quoted the longer version of “Poetry” that she tinkered with from 1919 to 1967 and not only republished from book to book, but allowed to be widely anthologized, instead of basing his own book on her final condensed version of the poem, which both her readers and fellow poets regarded as a big mistake. The version quoted by Lerner shrugs off poetry, and we nod yes because, of course, we think we know what she is talking about, but as it turns out, we don’t. Does she have a particular kind of poetry in mind, or is she condemning all poetry? Without seeing the longer version, a reader has no idea. Here’s the whole poem that she appended in the notes to the 1967 Complete Poems with the heading “Original Version”:
I, too, dislike it: there are things
that are important beyond all
Reading it, however, with a
perfect contempt for it, one
it after all, a place for the
Hands that can grasp, eyes
that can dilate, hair that can
if it must, these things are
important not because a
high-sounding interpretation can
be put upon them but because
useful. When they become so
derivative as to become
the same thing may be said for
all of us, that we do not
we cannot understand: the bat
holding on upside down or
in quest of something to
eat, elephants pushing, a wild
horse taking a roll, a tireless
a tree, the immovable critic
twitching his skin like a horse
that feels a flea, the base-
ball fan, the statistician—
nor is it valid
to discriminate against
“business documents and
school-books”; all these phenom-
ena are important. One must
make a distinction
however: when dragged into
prominence by half poets, the
result is not poetry,
nor till the poets among us can
insolence and triviality and
for inspection, “imaginary gardens
with real toads in them,” shall
it. In the meantime, if you
demand on the one hand,
the raw material of poetry in
all its rawness and
that which is on the other hand
genuine, you are interested
Moore is pleased to encounter mention of real things in poems, not because a higher meaning can be imputed to them, but because they recall the delight we experience every time we notice something we failed to notice before, making such moments in our lives, and the lessons that can be drawn from them, useful. Though she doesn’t define “genuine,” we know what she means and recognize it when we encounter it in a poem. It has nothing to do with honesty, of course, but with the way the poet engages with the world. In the case of Moore it would be her extraordinary curiosity and openness to experience, her readiness to include even business documents and school books among the raw materials of a poem. Asking poets to be “literalists of the imagination” means taking literally what one imagines, which poets have always done, as a peek at Greek myths and Dickinson’s poems will immediately confirm. “Imaginary gardens with real toads in them” is her definition of what a poem is, a fenced enclosure in which a bit of reality sits like an ugly creature or like Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost, as some critics have suggested.
Lerner describes the objections that avant-garde movements had to poetry. The Italian Futurists, who like the Dadaists were geniuses when it came to scandalizing the cultivated, shouted from the rooftops that life is a lie and poems the flowers of that lie, while movements on the political left seethed at the failure of poetry to move the masses to action. As Lerner points out, even those denouncing contemporary poetry in this country act as though at some unspecified point in the past it was widely popular and appreciated, failing to mention that the poems that at one time appeared in every newspaper from coast to coast and that were presumably read by millions were so uniformly awful that we thankfully never had to lay our eyes on them again.
Lerner quotes George Packer in a New Yorker blog post asking whether it is too late to convince president-elect Obama not to have a poem written and read at the inauguration:
For many decades American poetry has been a private activity, written by few people and read by few people, lacking the language, rhythm, emotion, and thought that could move large numbers of people in large public settings.
Packer seems to be as uninformed about the United States as he can be about the Middle East and the rest of the world. Poetry readings, with crowds sometimes numbering into hundreds, have been a staple of colleges and universities for the last fifty years, with those taking place in New York City listed in the magazine he works for. Those attending them do so eagerly and clearly enjoy themselves, because they keep coming back. They hear a great variety of poets and even purchase their books afterward. To be unacquainted with something so commonplace and still pontificate on a subject one knows nothing about is what all those who disparage poetry sound like.
A far more substantial objection Lerner cites comes from Mark Edmundson, a professor of English at the University of Virginia, in his piece on the decline of American verse in Harper’s. Edmundson “contends that contemporary poets, while talented, have ceased to be politically ambitious…. They don’t slake a reader’s thirst for meanings that pass beyond the experience of the individual poet and light up the world we hold in common.” In other words, they have become too self-absorbed to notice other people. Edmundson has a point, of course. The misery of the homeless in this country and the horrendous lives of our working poor, to give just two examples, are rarely, if ever, noticed. The problem is that one can make that sort of complaint about the poets in any historical period and in every country of the world. “Poetry is neither politics nor philosophy,” Wallace Stevens said. “Poetry is a poetry, and one’s objective as a poet is to achieve poetry.”3 I agree wholeheartedly, and yet some awareness now and then of the suffering that goes on in the world won’t hurt a poem.
Lerner’s book describes his conflicted feelings about poetry. It is both a defense of poetry and a defense of those who hate it. He regards this contradiction as the dialectic of a vocation no less essential for being impossible. I don’t think this feeling is as universal among poets as he believes. What his book lacks is a broader survey of what our poets have thought about poetry. Leaving out the views of every one of our major figures, starting with Emerson and going on to the Modernists and the generations that followed, makes American poetry look like a parochial affair involving a handful of people and just a few ideas. If he had broadened his range and engaged with some of the writings of Pound, Stevens, Williams, Creeley, O’Hara, Levertov, Duncan, and others who challenge his view of poetry, he would have had a fuller discussion of the subject and a better book.
As for the hatred of poetry, here’s what I think. In the late 1960s, I participated in the Poets in the Schools program in New York City. It involved going to different high schools, visiting one or more classes per day, and being paid as little as fifty dollars. Since I was always broke, I went. I’d get there at the appointed time, find the principal’s office where someone would escort me through noisy hallways to some classroom where equal pandemonium reigned and where I would be introduced to a teacher who would then quiet down the students by shouting: “We have a poet with us today!” It was news received with incredulity, with kids asking each other and the teacher if they heard it right. Once I got a chance to say something, I asked the class if they liked poetry, a question that made many shake their heads, some pretend to gag, and one or two even spit in disgust.
Since that was the answer I had learned to expect, I asked them next if they ever wrote love letters. Their embarrassed silence told me that of course they did. Now that I had their full attention, I asked them whether they would like to hear a love poem. They said nothing, so I’d read them poems by E.E. Cummings, Dickinson, Millay, and a few others, asking after each one whether they wanted to hear more. And they did. After I was done with love, I read them poems on other subjects and they not only paid attention, but started making perceptive remarks.
After class, a few would linger to ask me where they could find some poem I had read. This I found to be the case with college students too. If one asks them if they like poetry, they say no, but once they hear a poem they like, their interest is aroused, leading in severe cases to paternal panic and inner torments such as Ben Lerner describes in his book.
Charles Wright in Quote Poet Unquote: Contemporary Quotations on Poets and Poetry, edited by Dennis O’Driscoll (Copper Canyon, 2008), p. 6. ↩
Joyce Wadler, “Having Her Cake and Eating Her Couplets, Too,” The New York Times, April 20, 2000. ↩
In Louis Untermeyer’s “Departure from Dandyism,” Saturday Review, December 19, 1942. ↩