March 3, 2017KR BlogBlogCurrent EventsLiteratureReading

We Love to Hate Poetry Because We Need It

On a Sunday night, June 12, Lin Manuel Miranda, creator and star of Hamilton, stood onstage to accept the Tony Award for Best Original Score Written for Theatre. Aware that America—grieving over the mass shooting in Pulse, an Orlando gay club, just hours before—was watching and listening, he didn’t go through the usual motions of an awards ceremony acceptance speech. No litany of names. Instead, he read a sonnet that he had written. He turned to the fourteen-line poem we associate with Shakespeare and love to say what needed to be said: “We chase the melodies that seem to find us until they’re finished and songs start to play / When senseless acts of tragedy remind us that nothing here is promised, not one day.” Then, the poem reached its climax: “Love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love cannot be killed or swept aside.” He used poetry—amidst tragedy, in the middle of LGBT Pride month, in the middle of Ramadan—to distill a message to a national audience vacillating somewhere between desperate and bereft.

No one seemed to think his turn to poetry—to the sonnet, even, that staple of Renaissance Literature courses—was odd or out of place or trying too hard. Even though Miranda’s “sonnet” does not fit the traditional form of the sonnet, and some may debate whether Miranda’s words actually work as poetry, the impulse to look for language that reaches beyond the cadence and banality of everyday speech or awards ceremony platitudes through the art of poetry suggests its cultural importance, suggests that we need it perhaps now when we are bleeding, broken, or preparing to bury.

So why is poetry not a staple of American daily life? Why do we tend to turn to poetry to attempt to say the unsayable, but at few other times? Weddings, funerals, Presidential Inaugurations—those “big moments” have us Googling a trail to something that will work for us when we need it most. We tend to suspend any lingering PTSD from high school classroom recitations, the agony of AP exams with questions about anapests and spondees, the Robert Frost references at commencement ceremonies when we reach for a poem because poetry, we believe, gives us exactly the right words in exactly the right place. But, as Ben Lerner points out, the nature of poems is to fail our unrealistic ideas of what Poetry may be.

In his new book, The Hatred of Poetry, an extended essay, Lerner charts and examines cultural treatments of poetry from Caedmon and Plato to Elizabeth Alexander and Claudia Rankine. He points out a dialectical pattern of denouncement and defense that fuels constant debate and dissatisfaction with poetry’s place within whatever culture produces it—ancient, modern, Greek, American. In the process, Lerner takes us on an aesthetic trip that hits high points along a few thousand years of one of the most ancient art forms, and we realize that, though its place in culture may change and its “relevance” may be relative to the person speaking, poems, poetry, and poets persist.

Lerner’s title becomes a driving force for his essay along with Marianne Moore’s poem, “Poetry,” which begins with the famous line, “I, too, dislike it” before asserting that it—poetry, the art form—creates “a space for the genuine.” Lerner is quick to note that Moore does not say that poetry ushers in the genuine, but instead makes a space for the genuine—the potential. But this dislike—or hatred, as Lerner says—is not a terminal hatred; never has the struggle with poetry or the denouncement of it stopped its production, consumption, or removed it from classrooms, public utterance, or publication in books or blogs. The hatred that Lerner mentions is generative and curious; he says that Moore’s opening line becomes for him “a kind of manic, mantric affirmation, as close as I get to unceasing prayer.”

Just as unceasing prayer is directed toward a highly contested notion of god or the divine, as Lerner points out, even defining what poetry is—and having others agree—can prove futile. But the hatred of poetry is shared; people can agree to hate before they can agree on what they are hating. In poetry’s case, “Haters gonna hate.” Lerner, too, is slow to offer a hard-and-fast definition of poetry in his defense; he knows that his experience of poetry is exactly that—his. However, his essay is not limited to a particular school or type of poetry in his historical overview. He’s not exhaustive by any means; a slim volume such as this does not claim to be or aim to be comprehensive, but it does make a claim and welcome further discussion.

Lerner addresses several times what animates poetry and why humans keep coming to it, attacking it, attempting it, and failing at it. Early on he says, “Poetry 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.” The problem for those attempting to create Poetry or poetry, even, is that we are finite beings with experiences contextualized by a history plotted along the axes of violence and difference (a look to the Orlando massacre is all the reminder we may need). Though we may venture to reach the level of Poetry between these axes, there is an asymptote—our unshakeable limits—that may be our own humanness or maybe time, which keeps us away from whatever “ideal” we may strive for. Lerner adds that the “poet is a tragic figure,” and the poem is “a record of failure.” Seeing that failure again and again, then, incites dislike, which prompts denouncement, which breeds a defense (such as Lerner’s own). Wash, rinse, and repeat every generation or three.

In recent years, poetry has been disparaged for being limited to the “ivory tower” of the academy—poets (supposedly) finding refuge in MFA programs, artist colonies, and drinking tenure-track salaries on cheap whiskey in dive bars (the abject sublime, perhaps). Lerner attributes part of this criticism to the fact that the public generally does not know how to perceive “poetry” when it comes to our obsession with work and vocation. Is poetry work or leisure? Where does it fit on this binary? Or is it something queerer that exists in a space that calls into question our binary and, thus, complicates yet another aspect of existence we feel strongly about in the same way that trans*, genderqueer, and nonbinary folk complicate or destroy the gender binary along which much of society imposes structure? Perhaps poetry’s queerness incites our hatred.

At one point in his defense, Lerner addresses George Packer’s criticism on the New Yorker’s blog of Barack Obama’s choice of having an inaugural poet at all and Elizabeth Alexander in particular at his 2009 inauguration (where she delivered “Praise Song for the Day”). Lerner relays Packer’s criticism: “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 settings.” Lerner does an excellent job of pointing out the flaws in Packer’s limited, ambiguous argument. Nonetheless, Packer’s critique is not unique. Contemporary poetry is often criticized for being “too specific” to a person’s experience, but when a poet makes a universal, abstract statement, it is, of course, “too general.” Again, the nature of the poem (and the poet) is to fail.

Lerner suggests that, in the case of the American public’s attitude towards Poet and Poetry, we are still searching for someone who, like Whitman, supposedly “contains multitudes.” That’s the person we are anxious to see deliver an inaugural poem in order to clarify the peaceful change of power that is the result of the American democratic experience. Of course, President Trump did not turn to poetry to mark his transition to into the office. He, instead, turned to his “America First” rhetoric and crowd photos on Twitter.

Interestingly, the first instance of integrating poetry into this political event was John F. Kennedy’s selection of Robert Frost to read at his inauguration. That particular moment could be judged a failure as well. The aged Frost with failing eyes could not read the poem he had written for the occasion; instead, he recited “The Gift Outright,” which probably was the better of the two poems, but nonetheless not exactly “the occasional poem.” Not until President Clinton’s 1993 inauguration, and Maya Angelou’s memorable delivery of “On the Pulse of the Morning,” did we see another inaugural poet. Since Angelou, Miller Williams, Alexander, and Richard Blanco have filled this very public role for poetry and America. A Republican has yet to include a poet at an inauguration.

When we think of Whitman’s poetry and Whitman as poet, we do conjure ideas of a truly American poet, a pillar of the American canon and staple of American literature syllabi. As Lerner says, “The American experiment—its newness, its geographical vastness, the relative openness of its institutions, its egalitarianism, its orientation toward the future and not the past—all of these necessitated, in Whitman’s view, an equally new and expansive poetry: plainspoken, unrestrained by inherited verse structures, just as the country would be unrestrained by monarchic traditions, and so on.” And, to a large degree, Whitman succeeds, but in so doing, Whitman’s lines certainly approach prose, Lerner notes, and in similar fashion his use of the “I” becomes less about Whitman the person than Whitman the construct, Whitman the fiction, Whitman the “space for something genuine” perhaps. When we hold up Whitman as an American ideal, to some degree we praise the idea of possibility, an unending optimism, rather than something realized or actual.

While Whitman’s “I” seeks to be inclusive and expansive, contemporary poet Claudia Rankine, author of the bracing book Citizen, questions the inclusiveness of the American experience. Rankine’s books Citizen and Don’t Let Me Be Lonely share the same subtitle: An American Lyric. Lerner shows that, in many ways, Rankine writes a sort of anti-lyric. He notes that “The ‘lyric’ is traditionally associated with brevity, intensely felt emotion, and highly musical verse….Rankine’s work is extremely personal, but primarily in the sense that she frankly explores the experience of depersonalization—numbness, desensitization, media saturation.” Lerner smartly puts Rankine’s Citizen in conversation with Whitman: “Citizen’s concern with how race determines when and how we have access to pronouns is, among many other things, a direct response to the Whitmanic (and nostalgic) notion of a perfectly exchangeable “I” and “you” that can suspend all difference.” The American experience is a limited one; the ideals of America are not as all-inclusive as we might think: A failure of sorts, like the poem, but one we still denounce, defend, and keep attempting to create.

Even though Lerner sees the consistent “failure” of poetry throughout history to be indicative of its “impossibility,” he notes that there is something that is remarkably essential about poetry. Again, the hatred that motivates this defense (and countless others) is not an end; it is strangely, continuously generative. Perhaps there’s something to be said for the fact that a book whose title contains the word “hatred” ends on the word “love.” The whole symphony builds to this one, final, resonant idea that we tend to position in a dialectical relationship with the titular hate. Lerner points out again and again the dialectic at work between the denouncement and defense of poetry (poems created in the space between). He never announces exactly the dialectic between love and hate, but it is there all along. One can’t help but think of the Roman poet Catullus, who at the beginning of perhaps his most famous two-line poem, says “Odi et amo” or “I hate and I love,” twin forces that frame the human experience, that charge our poetic and human failures.

Lin Manuel-Miranda focused on love in his sonnet at the Tony Awards; Lerner ends his defense, begun in hatred, with love. And poetry provides us the space for this genuine hatred and its twin. After all the debates over the years, we still come back to poetry—to hate it, love it, denounce it, and defend it. We keep coming back because, it’s safe to say, though we may not know why, we need it.