Poetry Book Club: The Hatred of Poetry by Ben Lerner
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No art has been denounced as often as poetry. It's even bemoaned by poets: "I, too, dislike it," wrote Marianne Moore. "Many more people agree they hate poetry," Ben Lerner writes, "than can agree what poetry is. I, too, dislike it and have largely organized my life around it and do not experience that as a contradiction because poetry and the hatred of poetry are inextricable in ways it is my purpose to explore."
In this inventive and lucid essay, Lerner takes the hatred of poetry as the starting point of his defense of the art. He examines poetry's greatest haters (beginning with Plato's famous claim that an ideal city had no place for poets, who would only corrupt and mislead the young) and both its greatest and worst practitioners, providing inspired close readings of Keats, Dickinson, McGonagall, Whitman, and others. Throughout, he attempts to explain the noble failure at the heart of every truly great and truly horrible poem: the impulse to launch the experience of an individual into a timeless communal existence. In The Hatred of Poetry, Lerner has crafted an entertaining, personal, and entirely original examination of a vocation no less essential for being impossible.
“Loathing rains down on poetry, from people who have never read a page of it as well as from people who have devoted their lives to reading and writing it . . . Mr. Lerner skates across this frozen lake of pique with delicate skill . . . The book achieves its goal in the most circuitous of ways: by its (lovely) last sentence, Mr. Lerner might get you longing for the satisfactions of the thing you’re conditioned to loathe.” ―Jeff Gordinier, New York Times
“The Hatred of Poetry does a brilliant job showing how poets ‘strategically disappoint’ our assumptions about what the medium should do . . . Engaging . . . Superbly written . . . [Lerner’s] granular, giddy analysis of Scottish bard William Topaz McGonagall, ‘widely acclaimed as the worst poet in history,’ fascinates as the negative expression of a Parnassian ideal. It’s also comedic gold.”
―Katy Waldman, Slate
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