The Hatred of Poetry is the title of a recent small book by Ben Lerner, a poet, a novelist, and a Guggenheim Fellow, a Fulbright Scholar, and a MacArthur Fellow. In other words, he’s made quite a stir in his writing. The Hatred of Poetry was published this summer and rapidly became something to respond to by critics and poets. You can find more about Lerner and his Hatred book in a recent Paris Review interview online at http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2016/06/30/the-hatred-of-poetry-an-interview-with-ben-lerner/ . And you can find more interviews and poems of Lerner online.
I don’t, however, encourage seeking our Lerner or his Hatred of Poetry book. His is largely an insider’s take on poetry, its promises and ambitions, its disappointments and failures. He argues that the sense of disappointment for a poet, or a reader, in any particular poem implies some Platonic ideal of THE REAL POEM that we all long for in our hearts. This is very much an insider argument about poets and poems and poetry, and not one I’d encourage pursuing.
The title of Lerner’s book, however, is what is useful. Poets and their fondest readers in America have long been dismayed about the failure of poetry to attract readers of American poetry. Robert Frost, one of the favored popular poets, had to go to England to be recognized as a poet and to publish his first book of poems. T.S. Eliot fled the United States to become one of the major poets of the 20th century in England and as an English citizen. The roster of American poets in the last half of the 20th century and on into the 21st century are often full of dismay that the voice of poetry and poets is indeed hated, or simply dismissed.
Last spring I offered to lead an adult education class that would include poetry, and one member of the group folded his arms across his chest and leaned back and said that he wouldn’t be back for any poetry.
Others in classes and conversations over the past several years at Grace have questioned the value of religion and Episcopal faith as creative expression, as metaphor and poetry. What instead is simply true and truth? What can we count on?
Poetry doesn’t seem to be the answer.
On the other hand, I shared the celebration of a wedding at Grace a couple of weeks ago. The celebrant with me was Bishop Polycarpus of the Syrian Orthodox Church, the communion of the bride and her family. It was a terrific and warm celebration, and Bishop Polycarpus afterwards talked with Candy and me about poets he relished, and pulled up Mary Oliver on his iPhone. He then went on to say that in the Orthodox Church theologians and priests are all called to be poets. Christian faith and practice are essentially fed by the poetry of the saints and theologians. The liturgy is the poetic expression of Orthodox Christian life.
Ben Lerner argues that the hatred of poetry is built into poetry from the start, whether in classical Greece or Anglo-Saxon England or 21st century America — because poetry fails to give us the certainty and clarity of our deepest felt experiences. Poetry fails to articulate ecstasy, salvation, heaven and hell alike. Poetry and poems and poets are never enough, and there is always more.
Poetry is a challenge in language to our everyday waking, in sounds and silences and images and metaphors. Poetry promises, or really only suggests, a generous dance in and amidst words and ideas and wonderings. Poetry isn’t an answer machine, and poets who turn their poetry into an organ-grinder melody cranked out so kindly again and again, betray poetry, and also the language in which we find meaning and salvation and communion.
Stephen Burt, a professor of English at Harvard, wrote a book a few years ago on modern American poetry with the hilarious and accurate title, Close Calls with Nonsense. One could say the same about changes in the Anglican tradition via American Episcopal translations of traditions of worship and pastoral care. Another recent book on modern American poetry by David Orr is titled Beautiful and Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry.
There may be good reasons to fold one’s arms and opt out of Poetry, and Theology and Religion, too. There may be good reasons to fold one’s arms about oneself and one’s own ideas and imagines of what only could be true.
Poetry, modern and ancient, as well as all theology and our dazzling creed suggest there’s something in this othering of words and voice and metaphors and silence, of listening. Poetry opens up senses in us of communion, nailed and shattered hands, slopping blood and the long wait of rising bread before the long burning, our lives every day.
And so to end with a very small poem to play with and see what you find, not so much in the poem, but in you and about you. Ok, here goes! From Lucille Clifton —
my dream about the second coming
mary is an old woman without shoes,
she doesn’t believe it.
not when her belly starts to bubble
and leave the print of a finger where
no man touches.
not when the snow in her hair melts away.
not when the stranger she used to wait for
appears dressed in lights at her
she is an old woman and
doesn’t believe it.
when something drops onto her toes one night
she calls it fox
but she feeds it.
And she doesn’t believe it. But what do you? Are you Christ-Bearer, Mother of God, Co-Joined Twin Brother of God? Are you a carpenter with Father Joseph still in the world? Poetry and poems and poets as we read scramble our ordinary, upend our resurrections and tumble back into the earth we share now, dirt and dust. Poems only do small things, make small pin-hole openings to see what’s out there really, upside down as in early pin-hole cameras, tumble us upside down and into the spin back to fall down and see for a moment in the tumble, the small things, the pin-hole of ourselves, dancing like angels on the head of a pin, a wonder and a nonsense.
she calls it fox / but she feeds it — the dream of poems and poetry to share.