‘The fatal problem with poetry: poems,’ writes poet and novelist Ben Lerner in his recently published monograph, The Hatred of Poetry. This May, as part of Frieze Talks in New York, Lerner and the legendary critic Hal Foster spoke about painting and poetry – two art forms that are repeatedly pronounced dead, only to be resuscitated time and again. In this edited version of their conversation, they discuss primal scenes, the twisted poetry of Donald Trump and the roles of poetry and criticism in our current moment of political emergency.
Hal Foster Let’s begin with your new book, The Hatred of Poetry. Can you tell me about the argument?
Ben Lerner A few years ago, Harper’s published an attack on American poetry for failing to realize its social potential and for having defaulted on the Whitmanic promise of uniting us in our difference. I was asked to respond and, instead of responding, I decided to write a monograph that asked why we love to hate poetry and why that rhythm of denunciation and defence is so central to the art. I also wanted to point out that poetry is an art that’s hated from without and within. There’s a similarity there with painting.
One reason we hate poetry, I think, is that we use it to name an impossible demand: that we make an alternative world out of the fallen materials of representation that we have. It’s a negative expression of a kind of idealism, like wanting to sing a song that can reconcile social division and can evade all the traps of language. Of course, every time you try to do that, you fail.
If you buy into this logic, all empirical poems are records of failure in a certain sense. But, there’s a way of hating on particular poems that actually enables you to to commune with the abstract possibility of the medium.
I’ve always had Marianne Moore’s poem from 1967, Poetry, stuck in my head. It begins: ‘I, too, dislike it.’ It’s a poem in which the poet says that you have to read poems with a perfect contempt in order to produce a space for the genuine.
HF So, how do you distinguish between poems that fail and poems that are actually failures?
BL This way of speaking is only effective for talking about incredible poems, like Emily Dickinson’s, and really, really bad poems. And, of course, there are all kinds of poems and traditions to which this way of talking doesn’t apply. So, I got interested in this Scottish guy, William Topaz McGonagall, who Wikipedia says is the worst poet ever. But he’s bad in a way that is better at producing community than many good poets. Even great writers think other writers are horrible – Leo Tolstoy hated Shakespeare – but everybody’s united in their hatred for McGonagall. When you read his poetry, you start to itemize the things you hate, so you are actually itemizing all the impossible demands we make of poetry. The extremity of the ambition plus the radicalism of his failure lets you experience what you want poetry to do. Whereas a good or mediocre poem is kind of self-sufficient.
HF Are you concerned that your argument might redeem almost anything? Or that all hatred of poetry could be understood as an upside-down love? Might that undercut the critical dimension of contempt?
BL I’ll try to answer that, and then I’m going to ask you that exact same question. I think this kind of hatred is a way of talking – it’s not really a truth claim. Poetry is actually an incredibly diverse practice, but I do think the logic it’s describing is persistent and can help account for some of the weird feelings people have about poems. But not all failure is the same, and not all modes of contempt are the same.
There’s one mode of contempt for poetry – lyric, in particular – that has to do with the way education works: you’re taught at a really young age that you can write a poem by virtue of being human. You have intense, individual feelings, and the way you make those shareable for others is to express them in poetry. So, people learn this romantic conjunction of personhood and poetry very early on, and later they fall away from poetry, or poetry falls away from them. Then, they have this guilty feeling about it because, when you don’t understand a poem or when you feel excluded from poetry, you feel your humanity is being challenged.
There’s also a way that hatred can be useful as a reading strategy or as a compositional strategy. For example, if you think all actual poems are failures, the question for a poet becomes: how do you keep your poem from being merely actual? What are the techniques that charge it with abstract possibility, even though they exist in a market or in time?
What about the relationship between criticality and contempt? Is contempt a useful emotion in your work? Is it an emotion? Do you feel like you write more powerfully out of a negative reaction as opposed to advocacy?
HF If I understand you correctly, denunciation of poetry often begins in disappointment about poetry, and that disappointment often begins in devotion to poetry. I think that affective structure is operative in a lot of criticism, too. Many critics sound as if they were betrayed by art.
In the early 1980s, at the most intense moments of the theory wars – in fact, as the theory wars morphed into the cultural wars – Barbara Kruger told me that we should never conflate the critical with the contemptuous.
‘I sometimes think that proclaiming poetry and painting dead so they can be reborn is a way of not having to have a final definition.’Ben Lerner
BL How do you distinguish them?
HF It’s difficult because there is always a bit of contempt in criticism. In On the Genealogy of Morality , Friedrich Nietzsche is concerned that critique is too steeped in resentment, which, for him, is associated with all kinds of bad things – Jewish mentality above all. The irony, of course, is that Nietzsche was a great critic. But, I think we can twist his formulation a little and argue that a dose of social resentment is essential to cultural criticism. Certainly, it is for me.
Let me tell you my primal scene as a critic, which is, like all primal scenes, not entirely real: it’s a fiction that works for me. I grew up in Seattle, in an affluent middle-class family. My best friend was from a wealthier family, and they had this thing called ‘art’. I knew what paintings and sculptures were in principle, but I’d never seen one that wasn’t a reproduction. One day, when we were about 12, we were in his living room, a space where we never went, and I looked up at this thing on the wall. I knew it was a painting, I knew it was abstract, but that’s all. And I thought: that is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. And then I thought: why do they have it and we don’t? And I think if I had just stopped at the first thought, the aesthetic experience, I would have become an artist. But the second thought cut the aesthetic experience with a critical resentment, and that can’t be unlearned.
I’ve asked other art historians and critics, and they have similar scenes where that first moment of art is somehow tinged with a sense of class. The painting was a Mark Rothko, by the way.
BL To stay with Rothko as an example (although innumerable painters would work): despite the recent revision of the dark, late Rothkos as representing something other than just the end of painting, or despair about painting, the dominant reading of them still tends to be about a moment of suicide or exhaustion for the medium. I still think poetry wins out over painting in terms of being autopsied and having its death proclaimed more often in the general culture – but, like poetry, painting gets repeatedly certified as dead. Why?
HF Well, I was part of a critical clique that, at an early point in the debate over postmodernism, wanted to put painting to death. There is a revolutionary rush to the declaration of any end. The history of modernism is punctuated by the thrill of the fini!
Yet, for painting to be hated, it had first to be loved, and it wasn’t always – at least not in the Western tradition. For centuries, it was seen as a rather lowly craft. It wasn’t until after the Renaissance that this changed – even [Diego] Velázquez wasn’t sure of his status as a painter in the court of Philip IV.
Is painting a liberal art or just a crafted thing? That question made the discourse around painting aspirational: it had to be lifted up from mere work, material, embodiment, worldliness, and this meant that, like poetry, painting came to stress the transcendental. This aspirational rhetoric reached a high mark with great modernists like [Kazimir] Malevich and [Wassily] Kandinsky, and the discourse became so rarefied that it prompted its own avant-gardist counter-attack. Painting almost had to be taken down, hated on, made material, worldly again. And that’s the rhythm of the history of modern painting – first elevated and then dethroned – so that almost every end of painting is somehow also a new beginning.
Sometimes, the end of painting was also meant as a sign of the end of the class that supported it. For Aleksandr Rodchenko and others, painting was essentially individualistic – that is, essentially bourgeois – and so, to move beyond it, to open up to different kinds of production and reception, was a political act as well.
I’m not sure that poetry has that same dynamic. Or does it?
BL Yes. I think with poetry and painting both, more people hate it or figure out a way to denounce it than can agree what defines either practice. And I sometimes think that proclaiming it dead so it can be reborn is a way of not having to have a final definition.
There are two kinds of hatred of poetry. One is driven by nostalgia – this is the most politically reactionary. Usually, this is a kind of white male fantasy for Robert Lowell or Walt Whitman – a longing for a previous moment when there were supposedly poets who could speak for everyone. But then, the examples of these poets are always white men. It’s a nostalgia for a kind of unchallenged universality that supposes Whitman could actualize his poetic project: ‘I’m the poet of slaves, and of the masters of slaves’. Well, no, you’re not. That was a fantasy. But the nostalgist wants to say the weird Whitmanic project that was oriented towards the future was actually realized in the past.
George Packer – normally, I think, a really smart writer – was outraged that there was going to be a poem read at Barack Obama’s first presidential inauguration in 2009, because poetry had defaulted on its social promise: there are no poets who can move large crowds anymore. It was interesting that he chose poetry to single out for hatred, given that the opening blessing was being read by an avowed homophobe.
HF I actually love the poem that was read at the first inauguration.
BL The Elizabeth Alexander poem? Really? Praise Song for the Day ?
HF Maybe I should delete that from the transcript.
BL No, no, I’m interested. Because what can she do? She’s been asked to write a poem that’s going to overcome difference, and you can’t overcome difference in poetry. You have to overcome difference through revolution.
HF That’s one difference between poetry and painting: painting never purported to be democratic in the Whitmanic way, or human in the sense of a universal address. Maybe that’s a fundamental difference between poetry and visual art.
BL Poetry also becomes a word for a kind of marginal position relative to the market. But, of course, it isn’t autonomous.
I grew up with this kind of avant-garde language-poetry orientation. Language poets claimed that the political function of poetry, through disjunction and non sequitur, was to be an ideological jamming machine that would stop the smooth functioning of the language of capital. But non sequitur, agrammaticality and those other avant-garde techniques have been recuperated by people like Donald Trump. He speaks a post-semantic language.
If you look at a transcript of a speech by Sarah Palin or Trump, it is very reminiscent of certain language experiments of the American poetry avant-garde in the 1970s and ’80s. I think the poetry of Trump is a kind of evacuation of language that’s so extreme it both lets you be nostalgic for the strong father of the past while also releasing you from the burden of having to make any kind of sense within the existing regime. It’s very frightening.
‘What are artists supposed to do when not only are there no clear rules in language, but no clear rules in law in terms of how governments behave?’ Hal Foster
HF My wife follows Senator Elizabeth Warren on Twitter, and she pointed out that Warren’s tweets mimic Trump linguistically. She absorbs his garbling and shoots it back at him. She picks up his monosyllabic rhythm and the way he ends tweets with an insult, like ‘weak’ or ‘lame’. So, mimetic troping might be one critical strategy.
BL This seems to be relevant to the art world. We live in a moment when, if we think of artists having a critical function, many of the things we want to criticize seem to outpace parody. One reason why it’s hard to get scared of Trump in the right way – or, at least, it was for a little while – is that he contains his own parody. He’s like a clown. It’s not Hitler, it’s like Charlie Chaplin making fun of Hitler. It’s pre-parodied.
HF Yes, if first it’s tragedy and then it’s farce, what’s the next worst thing? Or, put another way, what comes after the banality of evil?
BL I think this is also a problem for artists, or people who want to be critical of a market while knowing that they are part of the market and that critique could be re-assimilated into the market. Can you throw language at that?
HF Yes. Our age is often called post-critical and, for many people, that’s a good thing. Not me. But I understand the fatigue with critique, especially when it becomes reified as criticality, as if it were just a matter of contemp-tuousness, of resentment tout court. Critique is also associated with judgement and authority – with things one doesn’t necessarily want to assume anymore. But I resist the idea that we should ditch it. We need more critique, not less, and now more than ever.
What some artists have done in response to the predicament you just sketched is to go excessive: Thomas Hirschhorn talks about making work out of ‘the capitalist garbage bucket’; Isa Genzken exacerbates the ‘junkspace’ around us; Rachel Harrison takes bad, kitschy things and makes them even worse.
But, as you say, maybe with Trump we are post-parody, and that mimetic strategy might have reached its limit. The other move is the counter one, which is to insist on form, on its distance – to go with Theodor Adorno rather than Hirschhorn and the others. The strategies seem mutually exclusive, but maybe they’re not.
We live in a time of political emergency, although we don’t say it very often. What are artists supposed to do in that situation, where not only are there no clear rules in language, but no clear rules in law in terms of how governments behave?
Another question: are we now so phobic about hate – about hate speech, about hate crimes, even about the hating of Trump – that there’s no way to redeem it?
BL Redeem hate, you mean? Well, I think we need to move beyond being mildly entertained and mildly disgusted by the ‘stuplimity’ of Trump (to repurpose a word coined by Sianne Ngai) and fully hate it. Hate it without irony or detachment.
HF It’s really important now to take him seriously, and to hate on him fiercely, and make sure he loses, and loses badly. In my own little redemption of hate, lots of political theorists have argued that there’s no politics without hate. Political theorists on the Right, like Carl Schmitt, said there’s no politics without an opposition of friend and enemy. But even political theorists on the Left, like Chantal Mouffe, argue that, at the core of democracy, is an antagonism that cannot be resolved. It’s how you negotiate that antagonism which makes democracy vital and open or, at least, potentially so. There is so much concern today about being post-partisan, but politics is partisanship, and there has to be a little bit of contempt in partisanship.
BL I think there is an analogy between the kinds of poetry and politics in which a certain level of contempt is useful, in that what you need in politics is a public sphere in which those contests can take place. And, right now, we have to use contempt for what passes for the public sphere in order to keep alive the imagination of an alternative.
Thinking back to the language poets, to disjunction, jamming: I grew up with this idea that capitalism was so total that you couldn’t make anything that wasn’t pure evidence of melancholy and despair. But we also have to be attuned to the moments within totally corrupt contexts that are moments of possibility. Burning it down might be necessary – with those moments as sparks.
Lead image: Barbara Kruger, Untitled (Your Fact Is Stranger than Fiction), 1983, photograph, 1.9 x 1.2 m. Courtesy: the artist and Mary Boone Gallery, New York