Unknown Sources of Lift

Ben Lerner, interviewed by Jana Prikryl

This article is part of a regular series of conversations with the Review’s contributors; read past ones here and sign up for our email newsletter to get them delivered to your inbox each week.

In the last few years The New York Review has published Ben Lerner in almost all his modes: poetry, a prose that hovers between poetry and fiction, and criticism. He is best known as a novelist—The Topeka School, his latest, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize last year, and his first two novels came out to rapturous reviews—but in rereading his poems recently I was surprised again by the coherence of the voice and themes radiating through his work. One gets the sense of an amazing facility—with language, concepts, narrative vignettes and reversals—yoked to (but somehow further freed by) the responsibility to capture reality accurately. As he puts it in a line from Mean Free Path, his third book of poems, “I decided to work against my fluency.”

Ben Lerner

Catherine Barnett

Ben Lerner

Lerner’s piece on W.G. Sebald in our October 21, 2021, issue is a meditation on the meaning and limitations of Sebald’s formal maneuvers as much as it is a review of Carole Angier’s new biography of the writer. Lerner wrestles with Sebald’s aesthetic choices in the face of his central subject, the memory of the Holocaust, but these questions are complicated by Sebald’s real-life trespasses, and Lerner ends up finding Angier’s account of all this as disturbing as the writer’s transgressions. The entanglement of formal and ethical systems is also central to his piece from last winter, on Erica Hunt’s Jump the Clock: New and Selected Poems, which considers the Black poet’s roots in Language poetry and the fruitfulness of some of her deviations from it.

This summer we published Lerner’s long, great poem “The Lights” and last year his prose poems “The Rose” and “The Son” were something like lessons in how to write irresistible (what’s called “propulsive”) narrative prose without any irritable reaching after fact and reason. In other words, one of the pleasures of working with Ben is seeing his ideas move from one kind of fluency to another.

Jana Prikryl: Your new piece, “The Storyteller,” in our latest issue is not just a deep look at W.G. Sebald’s work and Carole Angier’s new biography, but also a wider reckoning with the moral responsibilities that might attach to any writer. Sebald has obviously been important to you for a long time—I feel his influence most in your first two novels—and in the piece you circle the question of whether the power of his fiction is diminished by some of his misdemeanors (using others’ work without attribution, lying about the non-Jewishness of a Jewish character’s real-life model). I wonder if your immersion in all this has shifted your own view of him in some way you weren’t able to address in a critical essay?

Ben Lerner: I think there’s an understandable but perilous tendency to conflate art and artist when the artist in question uses autobiographical elements in their work. And part of what disturbed me about Sebald’s misrepresentations is that they seem to invite or justify this conflation. I still don’t really understand what he thought he was doing when he lied about his models. I no doubt reacted strongly to this tangle of issues because I’ve written books where people who resemble me tell lies I didn’t tell and even flirt with fabricating correspondence. And then Sebald, whom I’ve long admired, appeared to be doing something like that in his actual life, as if it were inside his fiction, leading a biographer to defend him in ways that can easily be used to condemn him! So that personal angle is something I didn’t address. But while I think he did some confusing and dubious things, I don’t feel as if I have a view of the man. There is a lot of polarization in the reception of Sebald, he is portrayed either as some kind of saint or villain (more often it’s the former). I think idealization and villainization—one so easily passes into the other—diminish the power of his or any art.

Last winter you wrote deftly on Erica Hunt’s Jump the Clock. You mention above a personal motivation for your Sebald piece. Was there also something personal—in the sense of related to your own writing—that motivated you to think through the legacy of Language poetry and its relation to race? Are there other poets you’re reading who, like Hunt, are “genuinely experimental [and] whose work cannot be captured by the old but still influential vanguard futurisms that, under the sign of making it new, are so often conservative: reinscribing a distinction between form and content, conserving the normativity of whiteness”?

I’m still unlearning some of those avant-garde pieties and my evolving appreciation of Hunt’s writing has something to do with that. And I am still reckoning with how my understanding of the history of American poetry (but not just poetry) might be organized by assumptions about the normativity of whiteness. It’s also personal because I admire many writers associated with Language poetry.


I’ve been reading Dionne Brand and I think Brand is a writer who, like Hunt, both illuminates the historical and linguistic forces that shape us and produces these startling, lyric passages. I wonder if Hunt and Brand read each other. I came to Brand’s work through Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, by the way, which is itself a trenchant and beautiful and unsettling book. And the intimate relationship between Sharpe’s criticism (although I think of In the Wake as a work of curation and poetry in its own right) and Brand’s writing, that ongoing conversation, is powerful. I’m probably also thinking of In the Wake because Sharpe’s use of images and her way of constellating personal and historical materials to get at pasts that are not past have a kind of affinity with Sebald.

Last year we got to publish “The Rose” and “The Son,” two prose poems from Gold Custody, your new collaboration with the artist Barbara Bloom. How did those pieces emerge? Do you think of them as a third mode, somehow distinct from your fiction and poems?

One thing I love about Barbara’s work is her sensitivity to dramas of framing, how the meanings and emotions associated with an image change as the context of its presentation changes. These prose poems are full of recombinations where a word or phrase keeps returning with a difference, the grammatical equivalent of reframing. And sometimes the prose becomes more narrative, tiny stories about frames of reference giving way (e.g., a woman learning that all of these “proverbs” that her father quoted, sayings she always thought connected her to a long intergenerational past, were just things he made up). So I guess it’s a third mode that involves the alternation or the blurring of the other two?

It’s interesting how—in talking about Sebald, Hunt, and the prose poems—you’re returning to the idea of freeing art from some imposed frame: of biography, of those “vanguard pieties,” of the stories we’re locked into. The poem we published this summer, “The Lights,” also involves some reframed or collaged language. It brings in the recent news of UFOs (or UAPs, to use the term of art) and seems collaged from various sources:

No notable exhaust from a known propulsion system in other words
I want to know what it would do
to the art if they are not Russian
What I mean by “erratic” is
unknown sources…

Somehow the use of collage and disjunction and repetition seemed especially evocative of the way many of us experienced the last year and a half. Did you find the pandemic especially conducive to writing poems, or did it change your relationship to them in some way?

I can’t recall if I was conscious of the pun I now see in your question—the pun on “unknown sources,” which can be both the “unknown sources of lift,” that gorgeous phrase they use to describe the mysterious propulsion systems of these flying objects, and the unknown sources the poem collages. (“Anonymous sources,” another beautiful phrase. Or the lovely “unacknowledged sources,” a problem in Sebald.) I like it especially because collage is the lifting—I know it really means “gluing,” but still—of language from one context to another. And it hopefully gives the language a lift—makes the “I” choral, releases new meaning and music from the words as their relations are reconfigured. A way to avoid notable exhaust, exhaustion.

Anyway, I don’t know if it’s been conducive to writing poetry, but I think it’s helped me read or made me hungry to read poetry. I recently read Hannah Zeavin’s fascinating book The Distance Cure, which is about the history of teletherapy, and she uses the phrase “distanced intimacy” to describe the kinds of communication that might happen through various specific media, despite or even because of the loss of embodied presence. “Distanced intimacy” strikes me as a really good phrase for what reading always offers, that books are also technologies for being together alone or alone together, including with the dead. But it feels even more apt in a pandemic. Unknown sources of distanced intimacy—they are out there, just beyond the frame.

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