by Eric Morris-Pusey
A couple of years ago, I briefly was a member of one of those hip speakeasy-inspired clubs that requires a password to get in. As the lowest membership tier cost only five dollars a year, and domestic tallboys there were fifty cents cheaper than in bars on the outside, I justified this expense as paying for itself.
One of the blanks on the brief membership form asked my occupation. At the time I was nominally employed pumping out listicles about chainsaw sharpeners and California divorce law for third-rate affiliate marketing sites, so I put down “writer.”
Even now that I’m gainfully employed not-writing, I’d still be tempted to call myself a “writer” when filling out a membership card for a hip speakeasy club. Drink for the job you want, not the job you have.
I would be hesitant, though, to call myself a “poet.” Why? Maybe it’s because I’m working on a novel, or because of my ongoing struggle to actually write any poetry. Maybe it’s because I’ve never made any money from poetry, though there are plenty of people I would consider poets, even successful ones, for whom this is also true.
In an interview with The Paris Review about his book The Hatred of Poetry, Ben Lerner talks about telling his dentist that he’s a poet and summarizes the way “poet” as an occupation is coded:
You [the poet] never grew up and took a job and you plan on being accommodated because you’re still in the space of the abstract potential of language or whatever.
The drivers of capital see most people as machines designed for work, art as a form of leisure those machines cannot afford. On one hand, I can certainly see why someone who does non-poetic work for a living might resent someone working as a poet. Writing poetry can be painful, but is it as bad as shoveling rat corpses out of a flooded pawnshop basement? I’ve done a bit of both, and poetry is usually far more comfortable.
But I recently attended a reading of Natasha Trethewey’s (from her recent collection of new and selected works, Monument) that epitomized the idea of poetry as labor. When reading, it’s easy to forget or overlook the hours of struggle with the self and language that went into the words on the page. Trethewey embodied that struggle with both the power of her performance and her unashamed displays of emotion.
“The hatred of poetry,” as Lerner terms it, often goes beyond a general discomfort with art-as-occupation. He notes people grouse about abstract art and atonal music. We’ve all heard opinions on rappers, painters, and novelists. But it’s rare that these arts, even those that are harder to access, are shunted to the side as quickly as poetry.
The hatred of poetry, then, may have something to do with education. That’s a sentiment I’ve often heard and expressed myself: the education system in our country has failed poets and potential readers of poetry with its forced word-by-word exegesis of the same Frost poem in grades four through twelve, the standardization of and lack of imagination in poetic interpretation, and the unrelenting focus on a few dead white guys who write mostly in formal verse.
There’s truth to this, of course. I fell in love with poetry in high school, as I was fortunate enough to have a teacher who assigned a wider array of texts—and I still didn’t think I should write the stuff. But Lerner’s look at education offers a bit more than the standard argument.
He says that we are taught of a “connection between poetry and personhood,” in other words, that poetry is often revered—from a distance, as most revered things are—as a signifier of humanity. While I hadn’t thought about my poetic education in this way before, not just in my public high school but well beyond, the truth of it shocks me.
Poetry is treated by many poets and critics as a marker and maker of humanity, rather than one art form of many. As Lerner says, to say you’re a poet can be read as telling another “you’re more human than they are.” I can understand that being taken as a bit of an affront.
This valorization of poetry as some ideal art form ties into the center of Lerner’s argument: the idea of the poem as expressing a universal truth. He doesn’t think that’s a bad thing for a poem to aim for—but it’s a terrible thing to expect from a poem or poet, or from any work of art.
He characterizes poetry as “a set of impossible demands.” The word impossible is important, as Lerner sees all poetry as aiming to achieve something that can’t be achieved:
The main demand associated with lyric poetry is that an individual poet can or must produce both a song that’s irreducibly individual—it’s the expression of their specific humanity, because it’s this intense, internal experience—and that is also shareable by everyone, because it can be intelligible to all social persons, so it can unite a community in its difference.
He believes every poem, even the very best, fails in this. While he is willing as a poet to try to create that experience and as a reader to try to have it with another’s work, he sees a danger in believing that any poem has truly succeeded in it.
He points to Whitman as an example, not of a bad poet, but of a poet whose very attempts at universality made his work more exclusionary: Whitman called himself “the poet of both the master and the slave” in his notebooks. Lerner calls Whitman’s work “a response to pressure to not take sides” and later says that “universalism is always corrupt.”
Faux-universality and a common nostalgia for a nonexistent time before poets “only [wrote] out of their own experience,” as critic Mark Edmundson said in the article Lerner intended to refute with The Hatred of Poetry, might be (in both Lerner’s view and mine) what ruins poetry for so many: when we are taught that the voice of the poet is the voice of all humanity, and shown only poems by dead white men, that sends a clear, reactionary message.
It’s similar to some of the most vehement criticisms of slam poetry, not This isn’t to my taste or This is a different type of poetry, but This isn’t poetry. The same as the people who were up in arms about Bob Dylan winning the Nobel, not because of his relative privilege or his Victoria’s Secret commercial or the considerably lower quality of his later work, but because he’s a popular musician.
Is this nostalgia as dangerous as the similar nostalgia we see in politics, for an idealized 1950s America when all the (white) men were real men with good manufacturing jobs? Probably not. But it is reflected in the way we read, write, and talk about poetry—and plenty of critics and educators who think themselves above looking to such a rose-colored past in the political sense do it without thought or hesitation in the poetic one.
The idea of poetry as a failed attempt to truly share consciousness with another, or to say everything at once, is a beautiful and powerful one not despite, but because of that failure. The interviewer speaking with Lerner in the Paris Review piece, Michael Clune, at one point says,
the encounter with the poem itself will transform your experience—we may not be the same before we enter into a relationship with a poem, but there’s this prospect of communion on the other side.
Lerner responds not with the absolutism of a poem creating a universal experience, because he’s already established that’s not only a shaky idea, but a harmful one. But there is, he says, a chance for some communication, for “testing what’s potentially social in literary practice,” and he assures the interviewer, me, and now you, that “people are doing that work.”
Eric Morris-Pusey has written a few poems, some of which appear in The Missouri Review, Driftwood Press, and 3Elements Review, among other places. He holds an M.F.A. from Vermont College of Fine Arts and works on the Nimrod Editorial Board. You can find him on the interwebs or on his stoop in Columbia, Missouri, staring wistfully at the moon.
Featured Image (cartoon): David Parkins / The Economist
Ben Lerner: MacArthur Foundation
Natasha Trethewey: Joel Benjamin / Poets.org