No Art: Poems – Ben Lerner

Review by Jess Cotton 

At the end of his recently-published defence on why everybody loves to hate poetry, aptly titled The Hatred of Poetry (Fitzcarraldo) a thesis which, as he laments, does not proffer examples too readily, Ben Lerner takes us with him to an outdoor theatre in Santa Fe, to teach us how to read the poetry that he is interested in. The theatre, he tells us, is “gorgeous” but he is bored by the art that is being enacted on this revolving stage. So he lets his thoughts drift off, allows the art to wash over him, and arrives at a state of trancelike boredom, as he comes to focus on two illuminating objects that flutter in and out of his sightline: a firefly that alights on the stage and a police helicopter that hovers in search of a suspect. Both provide a puncture on the screen of the Real that reminds the poet of the world that goes on as he continues to look at Art. Lerner’s poems continually circle back to this state of distraction, which is also a failure or inadequacy to accomplish what they set out to represent. Adopting Allen Grossman’s argument that poetry is unable to realise the possibilities that it promises, the poet is “both an embarrassment and accusation,” but his failures might, Lerner suggests, at least lead us to the right questions.

How to get around the embarrassment of working with and through a cultural form that seeks to provide consolation and to recreate value whilst remaining shot through with capital? How not to write a white, male, privileged poetics whilst wrestling with white, male, heterosexual poetic ideals? These are some of the questions that Lerner’s poems insistently pose, knowing that there are no ready answers, or unaccountable positions to consider them from. This  is surely one reason why he chooses to give voice to them in that most tentative form, the essay. But, as Lerner suggests, this lack of an answer – the inevitable failure inscribed in the poetic enterprise – might just be the starting point for building a more accommodating poetics, a kind of good-enough form that could become the most conducive holding place for poetry to do its cultural work. Lerner takes issue specifically with the kind of “aggressively mediocre” writing exemplified, but by no means confined to, Mark Edmundson’s 2013 Harper’s essay, which nostalgically laments the demise of poets like Lowell who are made to speak for “everybody.” But Edmundson is far from the only critic currently addressing poetic representation, or indeed the most vocal, and to take issue with his position seems to assign it more importance than it carries within poetic communities. Recent articles such as Cathy Park Hong’s “Delusions of Whiteness in the Avant-Garde” or Fred Moten’s “Blackness and Nonperformance” have created far more of a stir in the poetic climate in which we find ourselves and have, vitally, managed to say something new.

I think, too, of the possibility that Eileen Myles’s over-quoted but still invigorating poem “On the Death of Robert Lowell” gave – and continues to give – to a belated generation of poets: how she taught us that we, too, were free not to “give a shit” about Lowell and could instead concentrate on finding value in less sanctioned, less “universal" forms. I prefer Myles’s approach to Lerner’s, but that is, of course, a question of taste, and is not to say that The Hatred of Poetry does not attempt to lead us to an analogous space of poetic freedom. It simply does so within the white-male discourse with which it takes issue. Fortunately, Lerner’s selected poems, No Art, recently published by Granta, are the crucial examples that are missing from his essay and the most tentatively solid defence of this poetics of failure. The advantage of the poetic medium is that nothing needs to be stated too clearly. It therefore allows Lerner to refract the mediated language through which we move, offering in response a poetics that conveys a message that it simultaneously unravels.

Instead of a universalising poetic idiom, what Lerner gives us is a poetics that wanders in and out of the distracted mind; an attuned form of disattention that is, he suggests, the only route out of capital’s constant demand to make something of us. This is a kind of poetics of sleeping through the present, whereby the act of “sleeping” becomes a substitute for the act of constant self-“selling” inscribed within the publishing enterprise:

         Even as a child, I could sell

         look at me, as if to say, what is he

                  sleeping, what is Ben

         sleeping now. It is as good a word

                  as any

It is the good-enough word that Lerner takes hold of and through which he successfully synthesises a form of cultural critique with innovative poetics. Distraction is not only a response to the impossible demands of capital and the failure to make words “mean” anything exactly, but it also allows for a more open and generative reading practice that reminds us of the distinctive ways in which poetry thinks, and the particular pleasures that it can give us even if we are now only attending “carefully to Celan in the airport terminal.”

As Lerner knows only too well, writing about art is both a way of paying attention to the world and a distraction from it; a method of evading but also of feeling more acutely what Wallace Stevens terms the “pressure of the real.” If distraction is the way forwards as the negative ideal of contemporary poetics then it is so by virtue of what it is not: embedded in a mundane late capitalist economy. Distraction allows Lerner to posit a mode of attention that, though never outside of capital’s far-reaching tentacles, might at least provide a form of resistance – a curious out-reaching movement within it. This tentacular metaphor finds its visual analogy in the tree-like lightning field that runs across the cover of No Art, an image taken from the title of Lerner’s first collection, The Lichtenberg Figures (Copper Canyon Press). This debut collection is still the best introduction to Lerner’s work, exhibiting the exhilarating arguments, unexpected shifts of register, ironic flourishes and deep humaneness of a mind that is never not in the act of thinking hard about the claims that it is about to make and whose principle target is the brand of self-righteous liberalism whose failures are, he suggests, at once trivial and crucial: “The chicken is a little dry,” he writes with characteristic casual understatement in The Lichtenberg Figures, “and/or you’ve ruined my life.”

It is in these vertiginous sensory networks and in the incessant vibrations of knowledge that span out across the page that Lerner suggests a way out of, by giving voice to, poetry’s failure to say anything meaningful in particular or to speak for everybody. As he tells us in his preface, “Index of Themes,” he “belong(s) to no school / of poetry” and his art is to “forg(e)t it by heart.” Lerner’s search for what Marianne Moore calls “a place for the genuine” in poetry amounts to figuring out what a poetry that has no allegiance nor nostalgia for universals might look like. In a recent collection, The Dark Threw Patches Down Upon Me Also (CBPA), which Lerner wrote during a residency in Marfa in 2011, this poetics of negativity, in which the poet himself is always implicated, continues with minor distinctions. There are references to Donald Judd, to the site of the first nuclear meltdown in 1961, to Lerner’s iconic film, Back to the Future, and there are presentiments in which we feel the near “future’s presence, not / absent” in the image of a president who “will be shot in a theatre,” where “actors will be presidents.” In his first collection, Lerner tells us that “The first female president was César Vallejo,” alluding to the Peruvian poet whose work confronts the complexity of speaking in universals. Here, we are faced with a poet who has “come from the future to warn you” of the tentacular forms that capital takes and which elects a president who “gropes women like an octopus.”

Against a backdrop of counterfactual political statements, corporate language, advertising discourse and reality fads, it is, as Lerner knows, hard to say anything exactly in a climate of “dark transparency.” One option, Lerner suggests, is to be (like Ashbery) a performer in his own poems. “I am Charlie Chaplin,” he writes in The Lichtenberg Figures, “playing a waiter embarrassed by his occupation.” This is a poetics in a “minor key” that opens out to “the broadest sense,” but it is also a poetics that runs the risk of not saying anything at all, parading an art of pure ambivalence, or wallowing in the shame that it pretends to perform. However, a light humour and an ironic wink to the reader ensures that the poems do succeed in spite of their qualms, and their consolations come accordingly in the form of affectless quips and mock manifestos:

         If it is any consolation, we admire the early work of John Ashbery.

         If it is any consolation, you won’t feel a thing.

The generosity of this humour is characterised in Mean Free Path as “Funny / Strange, not ha-ha funny” and it is the means, he suggests, by which “the black / Canvas grows realistic.” This funny-strange pitch punctures our anaesthetic, affectless experience and makes space for tenderness and feeling to circulate once again so that the poet might yet realise his “dreams of cutting an adjective and tucking it behind the reader’s ear like a flower.”

Another way that Lerner turns up the volume of this tender ambivalence is by taking the poem for a walk right “to the edge of the genre and looking out at nothing.” The result is not a crossing, but a collaboration of genres, a form that thinks out loud about both its limitations and its possibilities. What it creates is a first-person lyric that is constantly imagining what a good measure of sociality might look like, a form that might “humanise / the scale.” As in the “Dedication” section of Mean Free Path, which moves to a direct address to his partner, “For Ariana. // For Ari,” it is still the intimate address that walks the poet into his “recurring dream of waking with alternate endings,” which is to say, to a lyric of the possible. This is a poetics in which we might “be held, but contingently,” knowing that the possibilities of intimacy are not reduced by a knowledge of their inherent failures; or rather knowing that it is out of such contingencies that new forms of intimacy are envisaged. The possibility of imagining alternative futures is, Lerner suggests in a prose poem from Angle of Yaw, found in “A BRIEF, COLLECTIVE SHUDDER” through which “desire passe(s) into its opposite.” When Lerner is thinking about desire and about collectivity, Whitman's invocations are always to be found closely tucked, wrestling, between his lines, and this collective shudder might be thought accordingly as the means by which the contradictions inherent in Whitman’s poetic project – to claim to be doing the most important task and to spend the day “loafing” around; to claim to represent all, whilst remaining on the outside looking in – might be contingently, partially resolved. Turning desire inside out, is the means by which, Lerner suggests, the white, male, heterosexual poet can put his queer shoulder to the wheel, as Ginsberg writes in “America.”

The poetic spaces Lerner points to are ones in which everything that isn’t pure material might again begin to matter and in which questions about new forms of relationality might still be posed. In his first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station (Granta) Lerner’s protagonist, Adam Gordon, decides he will write poems “of such beauty and significance,” they will convince his friends “they had been in the presence of a poet who alone was able to array the fallen materials of the real into a song that transcended it.” These are poems of contingent beauty and significance that do not seek to transcend the limitations of their form, but they nonetheless prove that Lerner is a poet who knows not just how to acknowledge what Grossman calls the “bitter logic of the poetic principal” but is also able to channel the failures of poetry’s impossible demands into a form that is hospitable in its acknowledgement of its limitations and which points us to a space where alternates still reside.

Jess Cotton is a writer and editor who lives in London; she is currently finishing a PhD on queer childhood and American poetry.