culture, literature

Poetry: to redeem or to love the world?

Featured on today is an article from The Atlantic with the provocative title of “why (some) people hate poetry.” It is a review piece of a new book by Ben Lerner, called The Hatred of Poetry.

Lerner attempts an explanation for the intense dislike, the disavowal, that some people express for poetry. It seems to be a variant of the ignorant and resentful masses argument – that poetry is life affirming, and some people have to make too many compromises so they look on poets with envy and the contempt that is reserved for your own shadow. So even if they might admit dallying with poetry when young and romantic, they will despise it as a waste of time in their busy and important lives now.

I suspect there is a simpler explanation, or two. One. No one thing is loved by all so why would we be surprised that there is a part of the spectrum that hates poetry? Two. So much modern poetry seems to want to be despised. It might be declaring bland and obvious political opinions on behalf of some identity. It might be dada with words. It might be scholasticism in short lines. It might be Joyce’s war on language. In most cases, it might have forgotten in its pursuit of the purification of language, the other half of Mallarme’s saying: of the tribe.

Lerner’s book, if I may take a mere review as a fair reading, goes on to contrast all poetry before the Romantics – which believed in natural laws and poetry as a craft – with all poetry since then, roughly 1800, which is rather some kind of channelling of the universal powers of creativity. So poems are lesser to Poetry, and craft, respect for tradition, love of the forms and patterns of rhymed verse are drowned beneath a great tidal wave of unbridled creative force. So Emerson (as quoted by Lerner) writes it

“is not metres, but a metre-making argument, that makes a poem,—a thought so passionate and alive, that, like the spirit of a plant or an animal, it has an architecture of its own, and adorns nature with a new thing.” (my emphasis)

Especially after 1900, Poetry gives birth to Invention, Creative Spirits and the Shock of the New. And the audience for poetry whimpered in the back rows, and headed for the exits.

What intrigued me most about this review, however, was the plans or perhaps dreams would be a better term, that Lerner has for the future of poetry. Craft is not enough. Hobby is beneath contempt (take that, Ted Kooser and the Poetry Home Repair Manual, a favourite guide for myself). Not even Romantic Invention! is enough. Lerner yearns for redemption through poetry, and that most peculiar form of redemption associated with cultural Marxism, and in particular the strange prophet Walter Benjamin. Prophetic writings, of course, can stimulate all kinds of imaginations. After all, this blog is inspired, at least in part, by Benjamin’s well-known by still mysterious thesis on the philosophy of history that describes the angel of history being blown by a storm:

 But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

And am I not looking for some form of redemption too? The word is in the strap line of my blog. But the utopianism of Benjamin and the cultural Marxists has a peculiar blindness to the real suffering of the world – a suffering given a voice in the poetry I love, such as Symborska, Herbert, Milosz. This peculiar world-blindness is both excoriated and understood in Roger Scruton’s wonderful Fools, Frauds and Firebrands: thinkers of the New Left, which has a grace and empathy rare among such leftist thinkers. Clearly, though Lerner has not read Scruton or Leszek Kolakowski or even much history, because he sees poetry rather like an unwritten chapter of Marx’s Das Kapital, with all its follies of the labour theory of value. He writes (as quoted by the review):

“ ‘Poetry’ is a word for a kind of value no particular poem can realize: the value of persons, the value of a human activity beyond the labor/leisure divide, a value before or beyond price.”

Oh deary me, can someone give the man on the left a good book to read, please?

The reviewer is quite savage at the end, and skewers the lofty impoverishment of poetry by Lerner, describing it “as an example of the dead end into which modern poetic theory has been led by its grandiose aspirations.” But grandiose might be a little wrong: misdirected is kinder. After all we do all yearn for redemption in some way – but to confuse redemption with the revolutionary overhaul of human affairs, the total transformation that Lerner and Benjamin and every utopian wishes for, must bring great personal torment. Redemption, to my spirit at least, can more easily be found in the love of the world, amor mundi, in all its strangeness and all its diversity. And this love cannot be without loss and sadness because we are losing parts of the world every day, and one day we will be lost to the world too. Poetry, at least in my practice, is more like this love of the world than redemption, and the reviewer closes this interesting piece by quoting Wordsworth in support of the idea that poetry can be a means of reconciling us to the world as we find it –

“the very world, which is the world

Of all of us,—the place where, in the end,

We find our happiness, or not at all.”


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