If you’re a poet, it’s easy to spend a lot of time worrying about how people feel about poetry. It’s also easy to dismiss how people feel because if you were to consider the blithe indifference with which most audiences actually regard poets and their poems, it would be depressing — and not depressing in the poetic way that, for instance, mortality is depressing, but depressing in the way that, Oh my goodness, we totally forgot you were even here, have you been sitting in this little cubicle all afternoon?
The novelist and poet Ben Lerner’s new book, THE HATRED OF POETRY (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, paper, $12), has a title that will strike some readers as provocative and others as simply puzzling. Is poetry, after all, really hated? Why yes it is, Lerner says. Contrary to what I suggested above, he maintains that poetry is “often met with contempt rather than mere indifference,” which has the fortuitous consequence of implying that there must be something rather special about it. Indeed, a more accurate title for this extremely short book would be “The Roundabout Specialness of Poetry.” In this, it resembles any number of essays about poetry over the past hundred years, all written by poets and all making much the same point with varying degrees of explicitness: Contrary to your possible expectations, poetry is in wonderful shape and is actually still one of the most important art forms and is maybe the most meaningful of human activities.
That Lerner would choose to publish such an essay is both intriguing and ironic. Intriguing because Lerner is a canny, charismatic writer who seems likely to bring something fresh to the form. Ironic because while he began his career as a poet, Lerner made his literary reputation as a fiction writer, one whose books are centered on a poet protagonist (at times indistinguishable from the author) who spends a lot of time thinking about poetry. The early publicity material for “The Hatred of Poetry” included Lerner’s citation from the MacArthur Foundation, which concentrates on his two novels but not his poems, as well as several pages of quotations from reviews of those same novels. So poetry, you know, it’s fascinating stuff, as you can see from all this prose.