Books & the Arts / January 31, 2024

Ben Lerner, Personal Poet

In his first collection of verse in over a decade, he applies the lessons of his successful, self-conscious prose.

David Schurman Wallace

The Poor Poet, a painting by Carl Spitzweg (1808–1885).

(Photo by Leemage / Corbis via Getty Images)

Who is Ben Lerner? Readers of his fiction will be able to supply some answers: an intellectual and a museumgoer, a Midwesterner turned Brooklyn-dwelling dad, someone deeply interested in the world around him but ambivalent about his commitments toward it. While not exhaustive, his trio of autofictional novels—Leaving the Atocha Station, 10:04, and The Topeka School—serves as a record of his life and development: We see him move (sometimes through his fictional alter ego, Adam Gordon) from his debate-team high school years and post-collegiate languors into maturity and middle age in the Trump era. All the while, Lerner has written poems, the form he started with before his success as a novelist. And while the protagonists of his novels have always identified themselves as poets, a much wider readership has come to know Lerner through his prose.

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The Lights: Poems

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“Who is Ben Lerner?” may seem like a trivial question—do we need to know him more than we do any other character in a novel? Even a thin membrane between the author and his proxy on the page can be permission-giving, but in the arena of lyric poetry, questions of voice and speaker, and their authenticity, are often contested differently. When the “I” enters the poem, the reader doesn’t necessarily assume that it is the poet speaking transparently; more often than not, there is no caveat that tells us “This is Ben Lerner” or “This is Adam Gordon.” Subjectivity floats a little more.

At the same time, when the poet tells us that he is “sitting in Grand Army Plaza by the fountain,” we can’t help but put some clues together. At least since the beginnings of modernism, the idea of the speaker in a lyric poem has been in flux: Dickinson’s “I’m Nobody!” and Rimbaud’s “I is an other” can be thought of as two starting guns. On the one hand, poets are often unconstrained by storytelling conventions—why, then, stick to the narrow view of personal expression? But for many readers, the idea of the poet having a unified, identifiable “voice” is a guide for understanding the poems, a framework that can never really be discarded. And core to Lerner’s identity is that, even in fiction, he is a poet who tries to write poems.

In Lerner’s newest collection, The Lights, he returns to poetry after a sort of hiatus. (His last collection, Mean Free Path, was published in 2010.) Yet, while Lerner the poet has never entirely gone silent—his poems have appeared here and there in magazines in the intervening years—a new collection, after more than a decade, feels like a statement. The critic Lidija Haas wrote in 2019 in The Guardian that Lerner’s “creative work now seems pleasantly bifurcated: he still writes poems for experimental collaborations with visual artists and intellectuals, while collecting mainstream accolades as a novelist.” While this has seemed true until now, Lerner has been working all along to bridge this divide by creating a version of himself in fiction that can be fed back into the poetry. As he writes in “Untitled (Tryptich)”: “you can’t really join them, the dreams, / not without their collapsing into prose, so / you write two novels, waiting for results / it might be necessary to work back from.” To read poets mainly through their biography can be a dicey critical practice, but Lerner’s circuit between life-writing and poetry makes reading otherwise difficult, even unlikely. His active cultivation of a persona—that we can know who “Ben Lerner” is in the same way we know “Dickinson” or “Rimbaud”—has changed the way we read him. And it has also changed his poetry, inviting in a more transparent, vulnerable self.

Lerner is famously ambivalent about poetry, the most complete articulation of this being his 2016 book-length essay The Hatred of Poetry. The essay’s argument is subtler than its title, but one idea it advances (an idea with its own history) is that poetry is embarrassing—in particular, it never lives up to the dream of the poem hiding in the writer’s imagination. The destiny of the poem is to fail, and that failure itself creates the aesthetic experience: We’re always in search of a total satisfaction we can’t quite reach, which frustrates even as it rewards. This is poetry as a kind of tantalization: Next time, the complete feeling might manifest on the page, or the reader might hear the right frequency.

What’s most striking on rereading The Hatred of Poetry is not Lerner’s view of the medium’s aesthetic shortcomings but rather his populism. Lerner cares what ordinary people think about poetry—in this case, his semi-hypothetical seat mates on airplanes or his dentist. Everyone senses, however dimly, that poetry is a universal art but fails to experience its power. This is part of “poetry’s tremendous social stakes”: Lerner believes that poetry has the capacity to be socially impactful (though what, exactly, that would look like is less clear), even if it isn’t currently living up to that promise. The case against poetry becomes clearer when it is understood as an accusation of failure in public. In American culture, at least, Lerner suggests, poetry makes nothing happen.

But what makes a poet public, historically speaking? Simply put: a compelling narrative. Think of Shelley the windswept revolutionary, Whitman the gray-bearded everyman, Dickinson the recluse. Each idea of these poets, however mythological, is what endures for the common reader who may not have read Shelley or Whitman since their school days, if at all. Through time and repetition, all of these poets have been supplied with a narrative that acts as a stamp of recognition, a label for the consumer’s needs. The poet’s story isn’t always self-styled—though it certainly can be, to take a case like Whitman’s—but it is undoubtedly how the poet is perceived, and survives, in the public imagination. In his novels, Lerner has done something of the same for himself, and it is difficult to read The Lights without importing the biography that he has so generously offered.

Of course, Lerner wouldn’t be Lerner if he didn’t address this dynamic in the work itself, and he offers a large clue at the close of the very first poem of The Lights, the appropriately self-reflexive “Index of Themes”: “Poems about you, prose / poems.” The most prominent formal feature of the book is a series of prose poems that flirt with Lerner’s fiction while remaining unmistakably poems. This compromise is a way for him to stage poetry’s immanent failure to complete itself; as he writes in a non-prose poem, referring to Whitman’s long lines: “it wants to become real and can / only become prose, founding mistake / of the book from which we’ve been expelled.”

Take, for instance, “The Rose,” one the collection’s longer pieces, which hovers between straightforwardly narrative and something more associative. The poem begins with a series of gnomic declarations: “At some point I realized the questions were the same questions…. The other day I went to see the realignment of a permanent condition; abstraction had been demoted.” Interspersed as well are lines that burst with striking vocabulary and register, such as “The way psychoanalysis lacks an account of nut milks”—a line somewhere between theory-speak, surrealist recombination, and playful banter. Lerner’s writing is very often capable of doing many things at once, and the lack of lineation here lets disparate ideas and vocabularies rub up against one another. These quick-fire conjunctions trigger a feeling that some poets call “the leap”: the way seemingly unrelated phrases can, by juxtaposition, acquire a power that is felt, even if the exact connection is hard to explain. This is a technique not normally associated with fictional prose.

But a story, nonetheless, starts to peek out and a family history to unfold: “Rose was my maternal grandmother’s name. Her parents had a small grocery store in Brooklyn.” Yet the fragments of this story are still punctuated with twists that keep things from becoming dully linear. (“But that’s not why I’m telling you this story, she said.” Who’s doing the telling?) In her assisted-living facility, Rose “became convinced that the staff were sneaking into her room and subtly altering her paintings.” The poem becomes concerned with questions of authenticity that recall the archive-forging character imagined in 10:04, but this story, packed into a shorter space, has more emotional weight: aging, memory, the decay of the mind. We don’t know if the story is true (“You’re making this up,” a Lerner figure says to his interlocutor’s story in “The Grove”), but the possibility that it might be adds another wrinkle of emotional complexity.

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The poem returns to more impressive and eclectic language later (“nuisance animals climbing honeycomb structures. Fentanyl overdose vids…. The bruised idealism of the nectarine”), but it is this cycling between modes (grounded narrative and a more abstract method of association) that is its poetic engine. The reader is made to work a little, to try to understand where the narrative sustains itself and where it dissolves. These “spots of time,” as Wordsworth called them, pop up in all of the collection’s prose poems: a therapeutic session in Green-Wood Cemetery, helping a friend’s depressed brother get into an apartment, a memory of a sleepover in an aquarium’s “undersea glass dome.”

For Lerner, the failure of poetry to do what he would like it to do—change social conditions, speak to a popular audience—is shadowed by his sense that he is an inadequate avatar for this heroic poetic role. The Lights may not achieve such lofty goals, but it shows a poet more comfortable in his own skin, more willing to reach into his emotional experience, even if it’s recombined with other kinds of more “difficult” language. Maybe there are two ways to think about the political implications of that shift: Either it’s an admission of comfort in bourgeois subjectivity, or else it’s a way of finding a better vantage point from which to speak outwardly. What can you say to the public if you can’t declare who you are?

It’s worth taking a brief detour here to examine the poetry that Lerner wrote before he was a novelist. His first book, The Lichtenberg Figures, is a loose sonnet sequence: All of its poems are 14 lines, but instead of any tale of courtship, they are powered by a variety of semi-anonymous speech-acts: “I’m going to kill the president. / I promise. I surrender. I’m sorry / I’m gay. I’m pregnant. I’m dying.” The verbal dexterity throughout is impressive, but one gets the sense of an accomplished student—one with many tools, but perhaps without an end for them in mind. Angle of Yaw, Lerner’s second book, sought a larger container for his linguistic energy in ideas of America, responding to 9/11 and to a lesser extent detailing his Reagan-era childhood (“I am wearing a Mikhail Gorbachev Halloween mask”). It also began his engagement with the prose poem, though these are studded with a riddle-like quality (“We beg the question that gives the lie. Which swallows the usage”). If the attempt to disclose something true (for instance, a strong emotion) in poetry struggles against embarrassment, sincerity becomes an almost too-precious commodity. Both books are suffused with a sense of emotion that is trying to break through but is ultimately suppressed by the whirring of intellectual cogs.

There is a lot of humor in both works—a harder-edged, more sardonic voice aligned with an avant-garde skepticism of the lyric speaker. Flipping between different registers, the poems adopt cadences (say, the theory syntax of highbrow art criticism) that depersonalize them or make them sound like a kind of mimicry. The overall effect is a sense of play that is not without its serious or penetrating moments, but a far cry from the concentrated (if still disembodied) speaking “I” that you might find in, say, a Louise Glück book. But by the time of Mean Free Path, Lerner’s third collection, the floodgates of the personal began to open.

In the “Doppler Elegies,” perhaps the sequence closest to Lerner’s current work, personal concerns flicker against an urban nature: “I’m worried about a friend / among panicles of spent / flowers. I’m on the phone…. It does not concern you / flowing glass. Can we talk / about the drinking / They call them smoke trees.” Here we find both an openness to a more conventional sense of lyric beauty (flowers, trees, “flowing glass”) and a sense of personal vulnerability, even if its context is still obscured. Above all, the poems repeatedly address themselves to “Ari,” presumably Lerner’s wife Ariana Mangual. On the cusp of discovering himself as a lyric speaker, Lerner seems to have stopped short, unsure of how to continue. Leaving the Atocha Station was published the following year.

Lerner’s technical skill has stayed with him, but the new groundedness allows for a poetry that is more sensory, and more gentle, while still allowing the speaker to project big thoughts about the world (“I want to sing of seismic activity deep in the earth and the destruction of the earth for profit,” for instance, in “Auto-tune”). For once, Lerner is willing to let his poetry be beautiful in a way that he might not have allowed before: lines like “Trick candle / speaking in the cake, little star / sparking, wintergreen / in the mouth, the speech of it / decaying, flash” in “Contre-Jour.” You could spend a long time listing the striking phrases in The Lights, and there is always an abiding sense of the richness of language.

But again, Lerner wouldn’t be Lerner if he didn’t ask some questions about himself and his qualification to speak. Is this intense self-consciousness always successful in the poems? No. A line in “Dilation”— “that I eat while others starve does not refute the promise of dimming houselights, weird fullness of the instant”—edges into an ethical cliché that feels more obligatory than charged. Or a castigation of his earlier poetry, “The Circuit” (“I / was mimetic of what I thought I opposed / with my typing”), can come to feel, in the face of everything else he’s doing, a bit beside the point. Modesty about one’s poetic powers, too often repeated, can become a form of protesting too much, or projecting too broadly. Is no one else writing any good poetry? Why, then, such a fixation on its current near-impossibility?

The longest poem in The Lights, “The Dark Threw Patches Down Upon Me,” is also the poem in the book most explicitly about the poet’s ability, his right to speak. Its inclusion is also intriguing because it appeared before, in 10:04, suggesting that it is one of the collection’s earliest poems. Written during a residency in Marfa, it is both a roving self-portrait and Lerner’s sidelong comparison of himself with Walt Whitman. Everywhere, it calls attention to the poet’s—his, Walt’s, all scribblers of verse—insufficiency: Embarrassment here is key, from Lerner’s interactions with Hispanic workers (“an awkward exchange / In Spanish”) to his own affinity with Whitman (“a big part of reading him is embarrassment”), whose autobiographical prose work, Specimen Days, he is reading. All this throat-clearing, of course, is at odds with the poem’s length and scope—by completing itself, it reveals fundamentally immodest ambitions. Embarrassment here could be seen as the nerves a speaker feels before he reaches the podium: Lerner, by comparing himself to Whitman, inserts himself in that role of poetry’s public spokesperson, though his vision continues to be more doubtful and perhaps foreshadows the other poems in The Lights: “poetry replaced by oratory addressed / to the future, the sensorial commons / abandoned for a private meal.” The poem is rich in ideas and images, but at the same time it’s one of the volume’s least successful—despite brilliant pockets, there is something flabby about its self-justifications.

Prose makes up roughly half of The Lights, and it feels like Lerner’s most sustained formal experiment. So what, then, are the lyric poems of the other half doing? Lerner still wants to sing, despite his qualms, but auditory phenomena have mutated under contemporary conditions. The result is poems like “Auto-tune” or “Meridian Response,” a poem about ASMR. The music is new, but it is still music. Lerner is able to create effects that are astonishing in their subtlety, using the line to effectively weigh each word:

The nearly audible click of snow
on snow, click
of eye contact, tingling
in the scalp that moves
slowly down the neck, sound
heated until it changes
state, tense
liquid in the mouth, cadence
falling on

Here you get a result that is in some ways the opposite of his ventures with prose: If read carefully, nearly everything in the poem refers to something concrete, if virtual—imagine YouTube videos of snow falling from above, or of “the breath / colliding with / the pane,” or of a “bow / drawn across a metal plate / covered with a fine / layer of sand”—but each line has a kind of ghostly, self-contained meaning of its own.

The book’s title poem is one of the clearest indications that Lerner is growing more willing to accept his position as a capital-P poet, one willing to speak publicly from his private position. The idea of “the light” is a mainstay for ending conventional lyric poems, the small epiphany that comes to a speaker momentarily lifted up by their speech. Perhaps the light filters in through the trees, or slowly creeps across a table with a glass of water on it. Lerner’s lights, however, come from outer space: “Slow moving objects flying in groups / Lights in the trees.” UFOs, which have preoccupied him before, are a divine messenger in a secular world—an interstellar angel of the Annunciation. In the poem’s finale, those unknown others present themselves: “they are beside it without judgment / that they smell vaguely of burning paper / that to meet them would be to remember meeting them / as children, that they are / children, that the work of children is / in us…that they have sources of lift.” What could be further from the cage of the individual? What could be closer to a religious idea without being one? Lerner begins in his own personal space, that familiar self, but begins imagining a space where those barriers could be broken down—that a collective mystery might still be out there, waiting to be sung.

David Schurman Wallace

David Schurman Wallace is a writer living in New York City. He is a contributing editor at The Paris Review.

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