In The Hatred of Poetry, Ben Lerner posits that many people dislike poems for falling short of an ideal. We hold a vision of the glory that poetry could be: we want crackling verses that would, per Rilke, inspire us to change our lives; we want phrases that speak to all without resorting to postcard platitudes; we want poems to be universal, yet firmly rooted in a particular writer’s lived experience.
But the particular is never universal. The catacombs of memory ensure that words convey slightly different meanings to us all; the best poems revel in this private language. And we, the readers, are stubborn, inertial creatures. It is unlikely that any page’s worth of written words will change us, no matter how magnificent.
And so actual poems fail. The ones we read seem little different from any other set of words. As do those we write – if you are one of the few people who reached adulthood yet still writes poems. All children do, just as all children draw, but the world trains us to slough off artistic expression as we age. What’s worse, many of us are taught in elementary school that poetry – the ideal again – is the deepest possible expression of self. Language is the medium of thought, and poetry is the art of language. Lerner suggests that, in giving up on poems, there comes a nagging sensation that we are giving up on ourselves.
Why wouldn’t we hate an art that hurts us this way?
In Lerner’s words,
Great poets confront the limits of actual poems, tactically defeat or at least suspend that actuality, sometimes quit writing altogether, becoming celebrated for their silence; 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 did. … one thing all these demands share is that they can’t ever be fulfilled with poems. Hating on actual poems, then, is often an ironic if sometimes unwitting way of expressing the persistence of the utopian ideal of Poetry, and the jeremiads in that regard are defenses, too.
I can understand why a published poet like Lerner would put forward these arguments. But I don’t agree, in large part because most people I’ve talked to sincerely enjoy poetry – ever since graduating from high school, that is, when poems were hated for being foisted upon us. Among adults, I’ve found a dislike of poetry to be exceedingly rare.
Not many people gravitate specifically toward lyric poetry, though, especially not the sort that is featured alongside Lerner’s bio for the Poetry Foundation website. But I believe the unpopularity of this type of poetry, with lines like “Emulsions with / Then circled the lake like / This is it.” (from Lerner’s “[By any measure]”) or “jumpsuits, they have changed / painting, I / behind the concertina wire / can’t look at it anymore …” (from Lerner’s “[jumpsuits]”), is not caused primarily by dissonance between actual poems and a reader’s pedestaled ideal. I’d add an asymmetry of trust to the litany of offenses of which poetry stands accused in Lerner’s monograph.
I do not mean to impugn asymmetry in general. For instance, consider this beautiful passage from Jana Prikryl’s “Thirty Thousand Islands”:
Because the moon’s mass is a considerable fraction
of the earth’s, it exerts a gravitational force
on oceans as it orbits overhead, producing the
tides, or put another way, you can stand
on the shore twice daily and witness the very
water flinging itself upwards.
This verse is secretly a paean to asymmetry. Water has an electric dipole moment – it is asymmetric – with oppositely-charged ends attracting each other like so many microscopic magnets. This allows water to move and flow cohesively, one molecule tugging the next along their shared path. But the physicist and Nobel laureate Philip Warren Anderson, who made great advances in our understanding of asymmetry, writes that, as a graduate student, “this seemed very strange to me, because I was just being taught that nothing has an electric dipole moment.”
“The professor was really proving that no nucleus has a dipole moment, because he was teaching nuclear physics, but as his arguments were based on the symmetry of space and time they should have been correct in general.
“I soon learned that, in fact, they were correct (or perhaps it would be more accurate to say not incorrect) because he had been careful to say that no stationary state of a system (that is, one which does not change in time) has an electric dipole moment.
“In quantum mechanics there is always a way, unless symmetry forbids, to get from one state to another. Thus, if we start from any one unsymmetrical state, the system will make transitions to others, so only by adding up all the possible unsymmetrical states in a symmetrical way can we get a stationary state.”
According to the laws of physics, the world should be symmetric. And in the long run – on time scales that leave us dead and the Earth barren and the sun cold, impossibly far from any other source of light – the world is. At any moment, however, objects may exhibit a temporary asymmetry (with this temporary state sustained perhaps for billions of years). This asymmetry gives us our world. Water that flows. Water capable of “flinging itself upward” with the tides.
The very stars in the sky depend upon asymmetry. According to the laws of physics, the Big Bang should’ve birthed equal amounts matter and antimatter, rapidly coalescing into nothing. And yet, in our universe, matter predominates. We live.
But asymmetry in human relations can be harder to bear than the (world-enabling) asymmetries of nature. At first blush, we thought the internet would be a great equalizer, giving a voice to all. Instead, the increasing quantity of stuff out there has served to concentrate attention further on a dwindling number of foci. So many in the modern world flail, shouting into the void, aspiring to fame. The Orlando shooter checked Facebook during his crime, verifying that his humanity (at its worst) had finally been recognized. For a moment – gun in his hand, eyes on his phone – he was as important as Beyonce.
This asymmetry is stark in poetry. The greatest poets use language in idiosyncratic ways: they bend the rules of grammar, they use words as though their definitions were somewhat skew to those organized dissections found in dictionaries. And readers of these poems work to understand why. Readers at times treat great poems as puzzles: told that this combination of words is beautiful, a reader might dust and scrape with the care of an archaeologist, searching for the wellspring of that beauty.
Consider the lines I quoted from Lerner’s own work above, with constructions like “emulsions with then circled the lake” and “they have changed painting, I behind the concertina wire can’t look at it anymore.” This is not the grammar of high school English teachers.
Lerner, of course, has reasons for employing these constructions. Just as Jack Gilbert had reasons for his choice of the adverb “commonly” in the line, “commonly I prepare for death” (from “In Between Poems”). Just as William Shakespeare had reasons for inventing language when no existing words fit his needs.
But if average people – the uncredentialed readers of poetry – were to use words in these ways, their choices would be considered mistakes. They are taught to trust established poets, to presume positive intent and tease out why a published poem sounds the way it does, but their own idiosyncrasies would not receive the same presumption.
This seems especially true for the people with whom I read poems most often. Twice a week, some dozen inmates at the county jail join a co-teacher and me for poetry class. Not every poem we bring has immediate, intuitive appeal. But even when discussing difficult material, the men work to understand why a piece might have been written the way it was. Then, when given paper and pencils, these men pour themselves into their own writing, for reasons Lerner well understands:
I also received multiple letters from prisoners who felt poetry publication was their best available method for asserting they were human beings, not merely criminals. I’m not mocking these poets; I’m offering them as examples of the strength of the implicit connection between poetry and the social recognition of the poet’s humanity. It’s an association so strong that the writers in question observe no contradiction in the fact that they are attempting to secure and preserve their personhood in a magazine that no one they know will see.
Incarcerated writers do dream that their words could allow someone to see them as human. During one of our recent classes, TC told me that he’d seen a commercial on the jail television showing caged dogs in the pound with a voiceover saying “No animal deserves to be treated this way.” He looked left, looked right, and started wondering: where is our commercial?
And I’m by no means arguing that the poems written by men in jail are all great, or even good. Drug addiction in southern Indiana has swept up all sorts, but people with money can bond out, lawyer up, and fight their cases from the outside. They tend to win, landing treatment instead of time. Our pay-to-play criminal justice system reserves jail for the poor. Given the paucity of services our nation offers to impoverished children, and the underfunded state of our public schools, shunting un-aided kids straight from uncomfortable desk to uncomfortable cell, jails are full of luckless individuals who never had much scholastic success.
When inmates write, many of their poems are utter clunkmonsters, vague and sloppy and misspelled. The men force rhymes, having conflated the concepts “poem” and “children’s book.” Sometimes they’ll pour out saccharine repentance as though my co-teacher and I were allied with the state, rather than volunteering our time simply because this country inflicts mass incarceration on our behalf and has made us feel ashamed. And it can be a battle convincing dudes who’ve been told over and over again “You’re bad!” that when we suggest they revise a poem, it means we liked it.
But sometimes their work is lovely.
On a Friday afternoon last August, the men were in a particularly rotten mood. Technological doodads break in the jail just like anywhere else, and a security camera on the fritz meant they’d been on lockdown all week. Usually they have access to a common area and can play cards or pace back and forth, but “lockdown” means being confined to those little cells twenty-four hours a day.
Tensions were high. And when we decided to take a few minutes for a writing prompt, they snapped.
“Nobody’s gonna read anything I write! This won’t change shit!”
Grim. And arguably untrue. But…
“They’re not gonna do anything till we pull some ISIS shit, start taking off people’s heads!”
At which point my co-teacher flipped: “Fuck you, man, no. You say shit like that, they’re gonna cancel this class. And it’s not even fucking true. I mean, look at this… we’re here, right? And Frank and I are here because of shit we read. You write it well, people will read, it will change things.”
I was nodding, although I have to admit: there’s a lot out there to read. It’s hard for any writer to be noticed, let alone somebody pegged as an uneducated fuck-up – a criminal from southern Indiana – right off the bat. The battle for attention can be nightmarish, giving rise to phenomena like that Orlando shooting… or the election of Donald Trump.
I have to admit: even if people do read the poems written by incarcerated men from our classes, nobody will work to understand. These men are forced to write with one hand behind their backs, so to say. Linguistic flourishes that would seem striking from another would be considered mistakes.
A reader must extend trust to be willing to work. But if we trusted these men, they wouldn’t live like they do: mired in cages not fit for dogs. Then booted out broke, job-less, home-less, med-less, into a probationary existence with far more rules than other citizens must abide by.
And yet these men dig poems.
Lerner is correct: they’re not always keen on the abstruse lyrical sort. That distaste seems fair. I pray that they can one day write compelling narratives that will help change the world. But if these uncredentialed, MFA-less men wrote tricksy lyrics, flaunting rules like Lerner does? Then they’d be right. Nobody would read their shit.
In their shoes (lace-less orange crocs, hosed down and issued to some new sap straight from the off-putting feet of the recently released), I too might hate lyric poetry.