The Sunday Magazine

A poet explains why he hates poetry — and why you probably do too

English professor, novelist and poet Ben Lerner says even great poets are doomed to fail, because they yearn for the divine which cannot possibly be grasped. His book is called, "The Hatred of Poetry".
Ben Lerner, professor of English at Brooklyn College, author of '10:04,' 'Leaving the Atocha Station,' and three collections of poetry. His newest book is 'The Hatred of Poetry.' (MATT LERNER)

We expect a lot of poetry. We expect that it will crystallize the familiar and the intimate and make it universal. That it will inspire, move and delight us. That it will sound true even if we don't really understand it. 

So when we actually encounter a poet or a poem, it's bound to be a bit of a letdown.

And for many people, poetry is also a source of hatred and fear. 

"Plenty of people are indifferent to poetry. I'm not interested in that. I'm interested in why so many people who don't read it are upset about not reading it, or why so many people who haven't looked at a poem in 20 years, if you give them a poem, they'll say, that's not poetry. And they'll get angry, or they'll get nervous," says novelist and poet Ben Lerner

His new book, The Hatred of Poetry, explores our complicated relationship with poetry - and why, as Lerner puts it, writing poetry is "an exercise is repeated disappointment."

He argues the limitations of language mean poems can never live up to the ideals we associate with poetry. "I have this sense that the impulse that gives rise to the poem, the thing that moves me to write, is always betrayed by the actual poem I end up with," Lerner says. 

Basically, you're moved to make a poem because you want to transcend the world as it is. But you always end up with only the materials of this world to work with. You want to make a poem that can transcend history, or that can imagine a world where the individual and the social exist in a perfect equilibrium. But you don't get that. You get this world, and you get this poem. - Ben Lerner

Because we're taught from an early age that poetry is an expression of our innermost emotions and identities, when we don't understand a poem, it feels like we don't understand something about the human experience — and that makes us angry, says Lerner. 

"One of the reasons why poetry as a word can produce contempt, anxiety, hatred, is because we feel uneasy about not 'getting' poetry," he says. 

The idea is that everybody — by virtue of being human — can write a poem. We have really intense internal feelings, that's what makes us a human... And so when we encounter a poem from which we feel excluded — like, let's say the poem is too hard, or too difficult, or too weird. We don't just say, oh, that's like weird, experimental atonal music. We feel that our very belonging in the human community is a little threatened.- Ben Lerner

That same uneasiness is part of why it can be off-putting to hear someone else describe themselves as a poet. "It can sound like they're saying 'I'm more human than you are. I'm more feeling than you are. I'm more sensitive than you are,'" says Lerner. 

Click the button above to hear Michael's conversation with Ben Lerner. 

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