Ben Lerner, The Hatred of Poetry (2016)

Elegant and substantive recent essay.

From the title and the tone, Lerner suggests that the questions he addresses pertain to poetry in general (and hence to humanity in general), however his discussion addresses the Anglo, and more specifically American, poetic tradition and the current political debate in the US.

This tradition is made to be speaking for poetry in general. Even though Lerner himself discusses at length what is at stake in pretending to speak for everyone, he replicates this tension. While including voices that are often said to be suppressed in the United States, his discussion is distinctively restricted to the forms and political questions of this country.

As such, his essay can be approached ethnographically: an anthropology of poetry reads these declarations as a symptom to understand what are the ideas about poetry that circulate currently in the US.

Lerner’s essay is organized around a distinction between Poetry with a capital P and the concrete poems that humans write. This distinction seems to come from the writings of A. Grossman, a literary critic and poet to whom Lerner is indebted (the essay reads like a dialogue with Grossman, or an eulogy for his passing).

For Lerner, Poetry with a capital P is an idea: the desire humans have “to reach the transcendent or divine” (p.8) –the desire to go beyond the historical, the finite, the actual. Concrete poems are the realizations of this desire, and as such are destined to fail. They cannot “reach” beyond, and are inevitably hated for this reason (by everyone, including Lerner, and other readers of poetry—one senses here that part of this hatred is self-loathing). Bad poets realize this failure literally, good poets (Keats, Dickinson, Whitman, Rankine) have different strategies to inhabit this failure as part of the act of poetic composition itself.

The essay operates via an explicit platonic logic that juxtaposes the idea (perfection, infinity, universality, eternity) of Poetry and its human realization (imperfection, finitude, particularity, history) in concrete poems. This is also inevitably, a theological argument about humans and the divine. God is impossible to reach, and yet humans strive to attain it (comprehend it, inhabit it, say it apophatically, see below).

To differentiate between the divine and the human order and their relationship, Lerner often uses the terms virtual and actual: virtual poetry and actual poems. It is unclear to me if this is a reference to the Bergson/Deleuze trajectory. Possibly, but the relationship that Lerner establishes between the two orders is distinctively different from B/D. Whereas in the B/D trajectory (especially in Deleuze via Spinoza – though there are certainly platonic echoes here as well) the virtual and the actual stand in a relationship of “expression,” Lerner seems to favor an argument about the impossibility of reconciling two parallel orders, where failure is the only possible relationship between an idea and its reconciliation. One cannot reach perfection, only possibly expressing this failure in good concrete poems that might appear “perfect” or at least fulfilling, only in retrospect.

In Lerner’s pages the idea that humans are fallible, somewhat lacking completion looms large: actual poems try to articulate what cannot be articulated and they work best when they express this impossibility to express.

[Interestingly, here Lerner seems to say something similar to Butler on performativity, even though for Lerner the question seems less about the idea of a fractured (psycho-analytically) un-reconciled self, and more about a theologically inflected paradise lost. There is a touch of psychoanalysis in Lerner, but so rarefied that it turns Freud into a theologian, and the “desire to transcend” is never quite unpacked. Lerner’s lack (of perfection and transcendence) is also quite unlike Lacan’s in that it is not strictly unsayable: in fact this is what “good” poets do all the time, it is all they can do, state the impossibility of saying what they are saying].

Lerner seems to be missing an intermediary-- “modal”-- passage whereby the infinitude of God/Poetry is turned into an existence into actual concrete instantiation. Reading concrete poems as signs of failure, he seems to deny the instantiation of what it is, and in someway reduce the “power of poetry” to a via negativa (=to evoke what cannot be evoked, to say what God is only by stating what is not).

In other words, Lerner seems to suggest that there is a difference between the idea and its expression in concrete poems. The expression seems to only takes place after the idea is already formed, this is why in certain passages he describes this process as one of “objectification” (from the point of view of the poet) or “identification” (from the point of view of the reader). Hence a model that (contrary to its theological underpinning and its debt to psychoanalysis) seems to be predicated on the idea of a stable unified self, guided by an internal cognition (or experience) which is then “expressed” in a movement from the inside to the outside: the autonomous, conscious individual. [This is not spelled exactly in these terms, but I feel that many elements point in this direction, even if at times Lerner interjects other trajectories that leave more room for alternative readings such as on Dickinson.]

In his discussion of Dickinson and the materiality of her poems (the fantastic envelopes) Lerner seems to undo part of his own “idealistic” argumentation by foregrounding the notion that the idea of poetry itself is retrospective in relation to the writing – but then seems to retract this trajectory by claiming that Dickinson’s is yet another strategy to defy the impossible demands of Poetry: in other words the “call to transcend” preceeds any poetic engagement.

After having discussed Keats and Dickinson, and having somewhat neutralized the political pretensions of the “avant-guarde” (Futurists) to erase the question of Poetry/poems, Lerner goes himself “political” (with a light touch) in discussing Whitman. Here the failure of poems is linked with the failure of American democracy, or rather the failure of Whitman’s pretense to turn the self into a multitude, the I into a you-we. Lerner seems to suggest that Whitman “succeeded” in articulating Poetry via his concrete poems, but that the “Poetry” of his politics has miserably failed in retrospect (so is this rather different from his argument above?).

Lerner concludes that what poetry can do is to highlight current racial violence and impossibility of reconciliation by highlighting racial fissures as for example in the writings of C. Rankine who enacts depersonalization via prose that evokes the loss of poetry [there follows an interesting discussion of the sign / “virgule” in contemporary American poetry].

Politics here is mostly an affair of “identification.” Notable in this discussion is the analysis of pronouns :I, you, we-- as if what matters is to identify who you are/who am I. This view of politics culminates in an idea of the person as the supreme enactment of Poetry (“…a person is someone who can find consciousness shareable through poetry” p 77) and the counterpoint to a sense of community. So one finds here the politico-theological paradigm discussed by Esposito deployed in its fullness. There seems to be an empasse here. An empasse that might reflect the current state of political discussions in the US.

Denis Tedlock has already addressed the partition between poetry and prose, which in Lerner’s case would be the one between Poetry and concrete poems. See my post on Tedlock.

Towards the end of the essay, Lerner starts to use the expression “virtual poem.” This also seems to go beyond his own assertions above, recognizing that there are indeed concrete poems that can “reach beyond” – what or who decides when a poem is virtual? 

How does not talk about the power of poetry ?

Interestingly, Lerner’s answer seems to be that this can only happen via poetry itself. The last few pages of the essay (78-86) diverge from the terse argumentation of the preceding sections and move toward a more exploratory terrain, more personal but also more lyrical. It is prose, but --as Lerner has suggested through out-- it is in prose (as a negation of the failure of concrete poems) that Poetry can find its place, in poems that are virtually rather than actually so. Here the act of naming the world mixes with reminiscences of the awe and the sublime (hypermarkets and movie theaters as site of primordial experience). Even though the mantra of the essay is repeated once more-- “there is no need to go on multiplying examples of an impulse that can produce no adequate examples – of a capacity that can’t be objectified without falsification” (85)—one senses that now this has become a solid rhetorical figure Apophasis or preterition. A place of possibility of love, as the last sentence suggests with poetic elegance.

Though Lerner puts the collective at the center of his “political” reflections, and writes at length about the civic potential of poetry (he does not use the word civic, though it is evoked throughout, as for example in Withman or in Rankine’s piece titled Citizen), he seems to avoid the narrative, fabulative dimension of poetry. After all Plato’s concern with poetry, as Lerner notes, was the preoccupation that poets feed the imagination (as opposed to the truth of philosophy).

There is no discussion of myth, of the relevance of poetry as a sense making (or unmaking) narrative. This is probably a symptom of the current US political climate in which narrative itself cannot be but evoked in terms of failure (and this is what Lerner implicitly suggests, though on the other hand he seems quite straightforward in his own political narrative which could be labeled mannerist).

On the margin:
It would be interesting to juxtapose Lerner’s approach to one inflected by Vico, as both discuss poetry in relation to theology but in quite different directions. I am not referring here only to those who read Vico in relation to his “civic” theory (the New Science as a “reasoned civic theology” in which poetry plays a central role). Rather it might be useful to think about Vico’s idea that poetic knowledge, a human necessity, provides self-sustaining narratives to make sense of the world. It might be that this is only a reversal of Lerner’s statement that poetry is by default apophatic (it can only say what it is not). But in Vico this is a statement of fact, of necessity: poetic (i.e. non scientific) discourse emerges as a necessity of being in the world, it is not an effort to “reach beyond it” but to make sense of it (an empirical desire if you wish—a desire that is linked to animality and naturality but also to the need for communication). So poetry is not a “place of possibility” but the imperfect, rough outcome of a necessity (as desire is a necessity). Vico’s empiricism displaces Lerner’s idealism and locates desire in necessity rather than transcendence.

poetry as non-knowledge

Nowadays there seems to be two utterly opposite but parallel dispositions at work in the art of writing.

1. Communicability has become, or maybe always was, a moral imperative. To explain, to make sure everyone understands and provide accounts that everyone understands (who is everyone?). Dare not write something that does not communicate. What you communicate matters much less than the sense that there is a “will to be understood.” Communicability also means that what can be communicated has to be already known, or if it is not already known and digested, that it can be effortlessly understood, processed, swallowed without a gulp. Everything that challenges or questions what is already known is unacceptable, because “it does not communicate”. I am referring to writing, but visual arts are also affected by this will to communicability. One can easily see how the urge of communicability is related to exchange value. Only what can be communicated has (exchange) value. Proposal writing is the epitome of this disposition, but there are many other genres that operate under this guise and millions of zealous policemen ready to ensure that the law of communicability is enforced.

2. As a reaction to disposition 1, the opposite also circulates. Enigmatic statements that are tautological in their self-referential character. The more impossible the better, as they stand as icons. They signify by presence would be another way of putting it. What is being said does not matter, or even how it is said, as long as an undecipherable enigma is its hallmark. It is quite easy to realize that these writings are in some way as opposed to non-knowledge as those of disposition 1, even if they pursue the opposite strategy. By obfuscating any semiotic relationship, they equate knowledge and non-knowledge usually as a celebration of the miseries and glories of a self. In this regard, it is interesting to notice how certain writers are subsumed by way of their form into this disposition (Deleuze for example): by mimicking their prose (or poetry) and voiding it of any argumentation, they neutralize the power of these narratives by turning them into a collection of meaningless words that are supposed to reproduce affective states. It is puzzling how such a disposition is at times as successful as its opposite, whereby the moral police of communication allows writings in disposition 2 to circulate and actually to receive praise in those quarters where they would be usually despised. And I am not just arguing about writings in disposition 1 in which one or two sentences nod to disposition 2 and are therefore below the threshold of suspicion. I am actually arguing of entire bodies of writing (scholarship) in disposition 2 mode. One can attribute this to the fantastic power of capitalism to morph everything, I suppose. But an ethnographic inquiry would be needed to understand better what is at stake.

The task is to develop (nothing new in this regard) a 3rd disposition to knowledge, a disposition that takes seriously the question of non-knowledge. I would call this disposition “poetic wisdom.”

poetic/scientific knowledge (vico)

Vico seems to draw a distinction between poetic and scientific knowledge. While poetic knowledge is built out of ignorance and is a way for humans to orient themselves in a world they cannot control, scientific knowledge provides reasoned explanations of natural phenomena and is a hallmark of civilization. And yet, such apparent opposition gives way to a more complex relationship.

The relationship between poetic and scientific knowledge is historical: the two forms of knowledge are predicated on each other and cannot quite be thought apart, even if poetic knowledge is for Vico the “first” kind of knowledge. Poetic knowledge by projecting anthropomorphic imaginative descriptions distorts things as they are, but marks the necessary sensorial moment out of which further elaborations may proceed. The more scientific knowledge becomes, the less poetic (and sensorial). The refinement of knowledge determines increased complexity, but also loss of the embodied and imaginative aspects of knowledge.

Vico’s historical process is not unilinear, it is characterized by comings and goings (corsi e ricorsi), and cannot be described as properly dialectic, even if it has been often characterized this way. Poetic and scientific knowledge do not clash in a superior synthesis, but rather intertwine like waves on a sea shore.

To the extent that they can be conceptualized as separate, poetic and scientific knowledge are not two distinct forms of rationality, each occupying a separate domain (the famous “two cultures”). Nor are they two forms of the same thought (mythical and scientific thought in Levi-Strauss). They are historically contingent human productions whose difference and repetition structures the relationship humans have with the world. This is not to say that the world is made by humans in their image (anthropocene). On the contrary, both poetic and scientific knowledge are ways to make sense of a world that follows its own path. (For Vico, this path was God).

Like philology (the knowledge of languages and cultures) and philosophy (the study of concepts), poetic and scientific knowledge are never quite the same, nor entirely different. Only their shifting combinations, the terrain of history, provides a new science.

Today the distinction between humanities and sciences is the expression of a certain political economy. Something akin to the dictum: divide et impera.

Poetry as a Mode of Existence

Mode of existence here refers to a way of being.

Not so much in relation to Latour, but to the idea of ethos.

Following Greek etymology ethos is a mode proper to existence --at least as interpreted by Bollack and Wismann in relation to Heractlius:

“l’être de l’homme, c’est avant tout une certaine façon d’être”.
(Bollack and Wismann, Héraclite ou la separation, Paris: Minuit, 1972, p. 329)

A certain way of being. The question is therefore not an ontological one, nor even in the sense of a modal ontology, but one about the specificity that articulates a modality.

Deleuze said nothing different when using the term “mode of existence.” For him a mode of existence meant an assemblage of many different parts characterized by varying degrees of power, expressing itself in different series of relationships --all these relationships determined extrinsically.

Hence what matters are these relationships and their movements. The question one asks in relation to a certain way of being is: what can a body do? What are the relationships and the movements that a body effects in varying degrees of power, in varying degrees of “affection”? (Deleuze, Spinoza et le problème de l’expression, Paris, Minuit 1967, p. 183-196; 213).

 Bateson is also relevant here.

What is poetry’s mode of existence? What can poetry do?

If it is an ethos, it is not an ethic. Kierkegaard posed a drastic aut/aut: either a poetic (K uses the term aesthetic but many of his descriptions and discussions revolve around the figure of the poet) mode of existence, or an ethical one. But the aut/aut is also a path to be walked, and each of these modes of existence has its compelling articulations: in order to be ethical one has to engage the poetic, if nothing else in order to take distance from it, to recognize it as something that it is not ethical. At the same time for K these different modes of existence corresponded to different, in some way incompatible, perspectives, which could only be examined by constructing avatars/authors that could write from their singular point of view. There is no possible reconciliation between the poetic and the ethic.

Current discussions of ethics in anthropology seem to long for a stoicism that should be put in perspective rather than embraced. As if existence could only be taken into account in relation to means and ends. An ethos is not an ethic.

This is the long running ambivalence of religion and philosophy towards poetry (Plato, Qur‘an) replicated today in Alain Badiou’s approach.

Geertz called this the ambiguity of poetry: “not sacred enough to justify the power it actually has and not secular enough for that power to be equated with ordinary eloquence (Geertz, “Art as a Cultural System,” in Local Knowledge, Basic Books 1982, p 117).

“Half ritual song, half plain talk,” for Geertz Moroccan oral poetry sits "in between," and makes sense of this “in between,” gives a unique voice to it. For Geertz recognizing this ambiguity means discussing poetry as semeiotic, provided that signs here are considered not just as expressions (art for art’s sake), but “for their impact,” their use.

Geertz however seems to gloss over the very ambiguity (or shall we say ambivalence) of poetry he has just asserted. Turning meaning into use, arguing that poetry as semiotics should be studied not in abstraction but towards a study of signs in their “natural habitat – the common world in which men look, name, listen and make” (Ibid. 119) Geertz reabsorbs the “in between” status of poetry.

The untimeliness of Geertz only corresponds to his subterranean ever-present influence in contemporary anthropology. Discussions of meaning and signs are so saturated that no one dares to address them anymore, but Geertz looms large in the practice of anthropological thought.

Pleading for the study of signs in action, for poetry in its use, Geertz divests poetry from its relationship with the sacred. However, in so doing, following his own discussion, he ends up neutralizing the power of poetry he has just asserted. Rather than “naturalizing” poetry, recognizing its power as a modality of existence, Geertz neutralizes it.

The present task is therefore to try to offer a description of poetry as a mode of existence that brings the power of its ambivalence to the foreground. In other words, rescuing the ambivalence of poetry from the Protestant trajectory that juxtaposes sublimated pleasure to individual commitment, the current research shall open up a different understanding of the ambivalence and its suspension.

A preliminary move is to recognize that rather than a property of poetry itself, the power of poetry as a mode of existence stems from its extrinsic relationships or rather in the power to turn extrinsic relationships into a certain mode of existence, a certain way of being: a sort of operation of capture that creates the power of ambivalence.

It is legitimate to wonder how this rather esoteric disquisition might be relevant for an ethnographic approach to poetry. These reflections apparently go towards higher and higher degrees of abstraction, but instead they try to articulate something concrete, something that happens in the practice of poetry. In order to grasp the ethnographic (Geertz would say “natural”) power of poetry one has to provisionally try to analyze the way of being proper to poetry (a "certain" way of being). Where does the power of poetry come from? And what does it affect?

To articulate this juncture, the ways in which poetry captures relationships and turns them into its own power, one can turn to poetry itself, and use one of the most classical articulations of the relationship among poetry, desire and pleasure as a way to elaborate the terms of the analysis.

Poetry is made of words and these words are already relationships, not just among themselves, but with the world (suffice here to recall Malinowski’s discussion of language as action, followed by the whole pragmatic tradition).

Relationships are mechanisms (dispositives, apparata), connections, lines that connect points and trigger certain fields/diagrams. These relationships are themselves traps for capture, but they also constitute desire, again as a modality of existence.

impersonal poems

There is a tendency today to “animate” poetry and use it as a bridge between life-worlds. To me this would be akin to thinking about metamorphosis, about the changing forms that life takes. It is an effort to reconstruct the power of metamorphosis in an age where everything seems to have stabilized in categories that presuppose a distinction between life and death. The idea of metamorphosis is somewhat transversal to this.

I think this approach is very fruitful, but I am also tempted by another route, that instead accentuates the thingness of things, their meaningless necessity. This maybe is a different kind of kinship, one that is predicated on silence, rather than animation. Things are the way they are. And they are meaningless, or void of “human meaning” (Wallace Stevens, Of Mere Being).

This is also what French poet Francis Ponge tried to articulate, in his Parti Pris des Choses. In Ponge, this is the effort to elaborate formulas that are clear and impersonal (My creative Method, in Méthodes, Gallimard 1961, p.35). A way for him to come out of the “old humanism” he writes (Ibid p.36).

This to me is also a way to sidetrack interiority, or personhood, and even in some way subjectivity. All these folds seems to be gripping existence in such a way as to leave no respite for what is not meaningful, for what cannot be linked to a self, even a disjointed one.

One element these approaches have in common is the way in which they find a logic, in what otherwise appear either irrational or unnamable. (see Lapoujade on the idea that Deleuze was interested in “aberrant movements”). So for me Ponge, and Stevens, and others are not at all trying to name the unnamable, but precisely the opposite, they list what is there, what is already there, what can be named, but will not be subjected to an interiority. (Oulipo also in this way).

I call this the impersonal, or “passages into the impersonal.”

There seems to be such a demand for “sense” for “feeling” that is to say a demand for recognition (who am I?). And poetry is part of that. Poetry as what gives sense.

Passages to the impersonal might be related to such drives/desires, but they do so in a way that suggests that there is no sense, no meaning, if not what is constructed in poetry, via poetry, or through other means.
This is also a way to reinterpret the conundrum between the usefulness and the inutility of poetry, between its consumption and its inconsumability.

poetic knowledge as sensory knowledge: a metaphysics of transformation

For Vico poetic knowledge is a sensory affair, based in intuition and fantasy.

In discussing the semantic, but also formal aspects of poetic knowledge (what Vico here calls poetic “logic") he underlines how metaphor is predicated on the experience of the body, on "human senses and passions” .

Using ethmology, Vico argues that, in poetic logic, inanimate things (and in some way abstract concepts) are expressed through words that refer to the human body and its parts. Metaphors as “condensed fables:” they are accounts of these bodily experiences and relate concrete body elements to inanimate things. They make sense of inanimate things through bodily experiences. 
This argument entails suggesting that everything has modest (“rustic”) beginnings, and that poetry far from being a later artifice is the very texture upon which any knowledge is built.

This kind of knowledge is not theologically “true” (i.e. it is not Christian), but it is solid and logical.

Logic, but also language, are the product of encounters with the world, in which the body plays a crucial role as both matter and form of the signifying process. The descriptive list of how body parts are used to metaphorize the world exemplifies this incarnation: the body is the language of the world. This relationship is not limited to naming (every opening is called a mouth, a stretch of river is called an arm, wine is called the blood of grapes), but extends to actions (plants fall in love, grapes fall into madness).

In paragraph 401, preceding the one quoted above, Vico had already assembled a vast etymological configuration of terms around logos: language-throught-fable-idea-fact-action-body. In the paragraphs quoted here he goes on to exemplify how this configuration is enacted in language.

The incarnated use of language for Vico can be related to a principle (“axiom”) he had already enunciated, and to which he returns in the passage immediately following the long exemplification of how the body signifies the world.

This dense passage –whose layering the translation can only partially convey— outlines the relationship between self-conscious and unreflexive knowledge.

At the center of the passage is a play on sameness and difference

Homo intelligendo fit omnia
Homo non intelligendo fit omnia

At first, these two principles seem to contradict each other: either humans become everything through understanding (non intelligendo) , or they become everything without understanding (non intelligendo). But this apparent opposition opens up to a thick layering.

At the center, unchallenged, rests the idea that homo fit omnia.

Fit is an impersonal intransitive verb, so here its meaning and form is stretched to encompass a relationship that it not as simple as it might appear: it is neither active nor passive [this also becomes clearer in the follow up just below trasformandovisi].

But how do they transform into everything?

On the surface the contrast is between an informed, and therefore “rational” approach to the world, and an ignorant, and therefore “fantastic (fable-like)” one. Between an approach that, out of ignorance, places humans as the rule of the universe, and an approach that knows that in fact humans are not the measure of the universe.

And yet, in a subtle twist, deploying rhetorical arts, the following sentence turns this opposition around (e forse con più di verità detto questo di quello—maybe there is more truth in the principle that asserts that humans become all things "without understanding" than in the principle that asserts that humans become all things "with understanding"). Note how this statement, questions the degree of truth of what the previous sentence had just outlined, at least according to a “reasoned” metaphysics. So reasoned metaphysics is in a certain way less truthful than “fantastic” ("imaginative" in English. trans.) metaphysics.

This is because, Vico goes on to explain, humans can explain themselves and the world (things themselves) through understanding, but “without understanding” they make themselves into those things (egli fa di sé esse cose Eng. trans "he makes the things out of himself"). 

Here Vico seems to go beyond the “axiom” he just reiterated above (humans take themselves as measure of the world), to assert that in fact this poetic, fantastic metaphysics is an approach of mutual engagement and transformation in which world and humans are both becoming in transformation.

The English translation, in an effort to streamline a spiraling rhetorical style, seems to cut short this “transformation” (of humans and the world, but also of the very language of the passage) by giving more agentive power to humans as such, and underlying how this is done because of “non-understanding.” However, in Italian, the expression col non intendere does not have a negative, privative connotation, but rather refers to the modality of knowledge outlined above. Likewise, humans here, cannot really be said to be the subjects of (both as active agents or passive recipients) this transformative action.

Désir de l’autre

If it were possible to read “désir de l’autre” less as a psychoanalytic mechanism and more as a formula to think about the ways in which one (impersonal) craves, wants, moves and is moved.

Of Spinoza one would retain the idea that desire (here the word in less important than the spectrum to which it refers: will, drive, push, conatus) is perseverance in being.

This force of perseverance has a tautological kernel, one (again impersonal, not a subject but a situation) desires to desire.

This tautology, what in other epochs has been named the “aesthetic”, cannot be disjointed from capitalism as a form of constant increased accumulation (M-C-M1).

The enactment, emplotment, efficacy of the tautology of desire works by the formula “désir de l’autre.”

A poem can only be desire when it is desire of the other.

As a footnote, other should be read an-other, just one (indeterminate, a) among many others. Does it matter which one? Yes because it so happens to be that one and not another. No because any other would work under certain circumstances.

One desires a poem an other desires. one cannot but desire an other, or rather, the desire of an other.

Here the tautology reappears but as a mechanism, as a transition, a transaction. That poetry itself is the sign and the matter of this transaction, makes it clearer that this transaction is the site of a mediation.

The erasure of mediation, and thus the end of the tautological force, might be the end of the poem, both in the sense that it makes the poem end, but also that it is its scope, its telos, that towards which it strives.