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Poetry Talk with Ben Lerner

No Art


Under the title “No Art”, the collected poetry of Ben Lerner has just been published bilingually by Suhrkamp, an interest absolutely unusual in this scope for a contemporary US poet of his generation. Steffen Popp talked about the three volumes of Lerner’s poetry that No Art collects – “The Lichtenberg Figures”, “Angle of Yaw” and “Mean Free Path” – at the book launch at Haus für Poesie in Berlin, along with Monika Rinck, who co-translated “Mean Free Path”.

More about it can be found at the Lyrikkabinett Munich, and in addition Popp wrote a journal for Toledo about some facets of the translation. Since all of this can be accessed on the web, Steffen Popp talked more about underlying aspects of Lerner’s writing and his view of poetry below. It is fitting that his poetological essay “The Hatred of Poetry” has also just been published in German translation.

Steffen Popp: Dear Ben – connected through a network of fiber optic cables, transmission towers and satellites between New York and Berlin – let’s first go back to the time before your first book of poems. Such a book, after all, generally grows out of a much longer and more convoluted development than later ones. The Lichtenberg Figures was published in 2004. How did you come to it, in what environment did your writing initially develop?

Ben Lerner: I can answer quite literally if insufficiently in the sense that I wrote the first ten or so poems in one night in the spring of 2000 in Providence, Rhode Island. I remember I had been at the house of Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop and, as always, I left with a stack of books they’d given me. One of those books was The Windows Flew Open by Marjorie Welish, an incredible book. I can’t exactly say why, but Welish’s book made writing those first poems possible. My poems really don’t resemble hers, but something about how she experiments with different kinds of rhetoric within a lyric frame was enabling, propulsive. Then it took me three years to write the other forty poems. Anyway, I think there was something about the distressed sonnet form (and the seriality of the sonnet sequence) that could function as an echo chamber for all the different sorts of English I was wrestling with at the time as a confused 21 year old (as opposed to the confused 42 year old I am now). The academic languages I was learning, the various idioms of the Midwest I grew up speaking, the accelerating language of the War on Terror, more intimate languages of loving and living, etc. My most recent novel, The Topeka School, is largely an attempt to answer this question of how I came to poetry, to this poetry––it is a genealogy of the (contradictory and composite) voice in those poems.

SP: In recent years, the world has changed significantly more than in the entire decade before––but maybe that’s just my subjective impression. There have definitely been serious changes, globally, but also in the United States, and our view of the future is certainly different today than it was ten years ago. Has your writing of and attitude towards poetry changed, too?

BL: Maybe I’ve less patience than I did for avant-garde pieties about how formally difficult poems can affect political change in the world? In my lifetime certain poetic techniques––disjunction, for instance––have been thoroughly recuperated by advertising and rightwing politicians. I think I have less patience for the “easy distances,” to quote the poem “No Art,” of certain kinds of artmaking that primarily serve to demonstrate the impossibility of artmaking. I am probably more open minded about what might count as ambitious poetry now than I was as a poet just starting out. But this question is so big and I’m so full of blindspots I don’t know how to answer it. Or the writing itself is the closest thing I have to an answer––an ongoing attempt to register the political and personal pressures of the present in the push and pull of the language.

SP: Your poems develop stubborn perceptions and perspectives, they are full of references to the present and, for all the deconstruction they engage in in this context, they always also have a character that sympathizes with the world, that turns towards it, which makes me optimistic again when I read them. Or is this impression mainly due to the fact that the texts succeed aesthetically? How do aesthetic, critical, and constructivist interests relate to each other in your poetry?

BL: That’s really nice of you to say. I think any serious poem enlists the reader in the construction of meaning and so part of the challenge of aesthetic form is to create structures that solicit and sustain that kind of participation. And these structures are also “critical” in the sense that they have to overcome the deadening effects of certain kinds of sentimentality or prefabricated structures of feeling (such as those that typify advertising or certain kinds of debased political discourse). I am not interested in poems that aspire only to be deconstructive or subtractive: to teach the reader that the self is a fiction, that meaning is impossible, or whatever. But then one also wants to make art that isn’t merely affirmative––of the self as it is, of the world as it is. What are the new possibilities of thought and feeling disclosed by the pressures of poetic form––that’s the abiding question, I think.

SP: In a poem in The Lichtenberg Figures it says “The thinkable goes sobbing door-to-door.” Is there a thinking for you that is realized only in poetic work with language? A specific episteme that only poetry can achieve? But the poem before it also says: “Let the forgetting begin.”

BL: I don’t have a clear enough definition of poetry to know if there is a thinking that is exclusive to it. But in my mind “poetry” denotes an art where linguistic form is always a form of content, where every particle of language bears a semantic charge. This is hardly an original idea, but it remains profound for me––the notion that poems are sites where we encounter how the materiality of language interacts or interferes with its referential meaning. I’m also fond of the idea––although I don’t know what it would mean to prove it––that poetry stretches language, that it makes new things thinkable, expands the domain of the sayable.

SP: All of your poetry collections are characterized by scientific and technological topoi––the branching figures of high-voltage discharges in poorly conducting media described by Lichtenberg in the 18th century, the shear movements of moving vehicles whose calculation is important in aviation and shipping, or the statistical means of the paths that particles travel in a given medium before colliding with other particles. You transform these conceptions almost mimetically into linguistic procedures––the sonnets of The Lichtenberg Figures branch out into different forms, the language in Angle of Yaw sheers and loops around its motifs, and in Mean Free Path, numerous ‘text particles’––words and phrases––wander throughout the book, though they certainly bump into each other frequently and change their meanings in the process. What attracts you to technological concepts––are they better structural donors for poetic thinking than, for example, concepts from the humanities?

BL: It’s a little different for each book. For The Lichtenberg Figures I was attracted both to Lichtenberg as an author of the aphorism––the lightning flash of intellection––and the beautiful, bizarre, dendritic patterns of electrical discharge that often appear on the backs of lightning strike victims (which are called “Lichtenberg Figures”). It became a governing trope of the relation between language and violence, violence and form. Angle of Yaw is obsessed with the birdseye view, with that vantage of omniscience, and so the concept of measuring the deviation from a plotted course from above appealed to me. But also how “angle” is close to “angel,” and “Yaw” to “Yahweh”––how close physics and metaphysics are in the phrasing, which inflects the book in various ways. And the concept of a “mean free path”––how far a particle travels before it collides with another particle––becomes a metaphor for the formal procedures of those poems, their collisions and recombinations, while also sounding the various senses of those terms outside of the context of physics, a crossing of the poetic and mathematical concepts of “measure.” (I am also––indefensibly, undeniably––attracted to or governed by some sort of “rule of three”: three titles with three words each.) All three books are in different ways interested in taking the cold and supposedly objective language of physics or the “hard sciences” and placing them in relation to political and emotional and metaphysical concerns. And as you say, the titles keep the focus on the formal structure of the work, on the question of how form is thematized.

SP: Throughout your poetry collections, you work with series formats, with both formal and motivic connections among the single poems, sometimes in individual sections, sometimes across the entire book. What possibilities does the sequence open up for lyrical articulation?

BL: It allows both for closure and its undoing. Flow and fragmentation. A poem ends only to be reopened. I value that tentativeness. There are opportunities for permutation and repetition and recombination and collage and self-cannibalization across poems that trouble the unity of the voice. I don’t mean in the sense of undermining expression, but of being truer to it––truer to the ways we channel other voices, repeat and contradict ourselves, are always working with found materials, found language. Truer to the way meaning shifts along with context. A sense of time, of the temporality of reading, can be activated by motif in a musical sense, the recurrence of devices and themes across the length of a sequence. The page break becomes a species of line break. There is a space for the dramatization of hesitation and revision and doubling back across a sequence, more space for staged failures of expression that are themselves expressive. When I try to write discrete poems, novels often grow around them.

SP: In your poetry, forms of violence play an important role, both in many concrete motifs and in the form of the poems themselves. In The Lichtenberg Figures, one sees this in the permanently disturbed (and thereby ex negativo celebrated) form of the sonnet around which the book is organized. The strict lyric form appears as an example of the paradoxical productivity of restrictive violence. This violence is opposed, but again in a “violent” way against the sonnet, and also against the speaker in lines like: “Orlando imbued my body with erotic significance / by beating it with a pistol.” If differentiation always already contains something violent––can poetry do something about it, or just present the dilemma?

BL: I think it does something for me personally to illuminate the violence ensconced in the languages I speak, that in a sense speak me, but I wouldn’t want to confuse that with meaningful social work. I do think that artworks that attune us to the way restraint is generative and/or disfiguring always open onto larger social questions about the forms we live by. At minimum, adventures in literary form become allegories for thinking through other forms of human association.

SP: In Angle of Yaw, you negotiate pathologies of U.S. society through topics such as wrestling, fan culture, and ways of speaking about the attacks of September 11, 2001. I learned a lot about the history and present of the United States while translating. The poem “Twenty-One Gun Salute for Ronald Reagan” is particularly rich in this kind of information. In analogy to the military tribute, it consists of twenty-one nine-line “salutes” listing––among other things––countless atrocities and absurdities from Reagan’s presidency. In which way are Reagan’s policies of relevance for what is going on in the U.S. today?

BL: On one level, Reagan might finally be irrelevant thanks to Trump. That is, Trumpism represents a break with the cult of Reagan as the “great communicator” and Cold War alliances and the discourses of financial and familiar “conservatism” that were really about the consolidation of class power and social control. And this has forced the Democratic party to abandon, at least for the moment, its own disastrous Reaganite (at least since Clinton) strategies in order to seek out a counter-populism to Trump’s. The neoliberal order has been scrambled. But on the other hand Trump represents the acceleration of the Reagan actor-politician! Only now it’s “Reality TV” and not Reagan’s bad movies, it is twitter instead of Hollywood as the primary platform. There is also the fact that late Reagan and Trump speak languages of nonsequitur and unreason as if they were making sense, with the mere affect of logic. They are both “great communicators” in the sense that they bypass reference for a series of tribal in-group / out-group signals. And as you say, that book and that poem are very concerned with the spectacularization of politics in America and a politics of acclamation hard to sort from certain kinds of fandom. Maybe in that poem I was already worrying about the way that disjunction was ceasing to be a poetic technique opposed to the regimes of power and becoming merely mimetic late in the American empire.

SP: In Mean Free Path, the use of language itself is fractured, semantically deferred and inflected, and violence occurs motivically as well, for example in the work with military dictions that permeate the vernacular. On the other hand, this book is an attempt to write love poems with just such language material––to transfer it into a different, contrary use without poetically obscuring it. How does the pathos of violence relate to that of love? I remember you addressing this question in “Didactic Elegy” (in Angle of Yaw): “Violence is not yet modern; it fails to acknowledge the limitations of its medium. / When violence becomes aware of its mediacy and loses its object it will begin to resemble love. / Love is negative because it dissolves / all particulars into an experience of form. / Refusing to assign meaning to an event is to interpret it lovingly.” This passage seems to me like a foreshadowing of what later becomes central in Mean Free Path.

BL: I think you frame the problem in a really lovely way. And I don’t have an answer, just the problem.

SP: During the book launch, we talked about how poems allow you to bring in and relate to each other the different languages of origin, sociolects, and specialized languages that you speak within English and that at the same time speak you and contour you as a person. If your poetry, understood in this way, is always already a site of multilingualism––what does this mean for what is called “the author’s voice”?

BL: I guess I just think “voice” means the shifting constellation of idioms and identities involved in any act of articulation. Even the most integrated among us has a voice for every occasion, speaks one way to a child and another to a cop or class or lover or neighbor or in an interview with a friend, etc; each of us says more and less than we mean whenever we speak because of how many forces are speaking through us; each moment of articulation is caught up in both the most local embodied contingencies and planetary events. All of this just seems to me to be the ground of literature, the starting point of poetry, that any voice is a pattern of voices, is corporate and intergenerational, that even in the most intimate moment of utterance, my voice is choral. This isn’t the post-modern cliche that the author is just a textual effect or something––it’s the idea that we live this way, both as individuals and as nodes in larger networks, that we are shaped and shape the language. And of course our voices can outlive us––the way stars are survived by their own light.

Ben Lerner is part of Weltklang – Night of Poetry

with Ben Lerner