Tao Lin: So given all this about poetry’s inevitable failure, why not just allow the “transcendent” to exist, pre-language, within each of us?
Ben Lerner: I don’t think there is something “transcendent” that exists within us—I think poetry can arise from a desire to transcend the given, the actual, and that desire can be described in a variety of ways—the desire to think something outside capitalism, for example; it doesn’t have to be about divinity or the noumenal... It’s not that the poet has something inside him he wants to express (which is one model of lyric poetry), something that would just be there if he left it alone, but that poetry is an attempt to figure—with the irreducibly social materials of language—possibilities that have not yet been actualized.
TL: But it fails?
BL: Yeah, but a failure can be a figure, can signify. Maybe poetry can fail better than other art forms, because poems can point to what they can’t contain—that desire for something beyond what’s actual. That’s part of what Benjamin is arguing about Baudelaire, I think—that he makes a lyric out of lyric’s impossibility in modernity. Or you might say that even the failed attempt to write a successful poem makes us aware of having the faculties, however atrophied or underdeveloped, for such an undertaking in the first place, and so keeps us in touch with our formal capacities for imagining alterity even if we can’t achieve it.
- Ben Lerner, in interview with Tao Lin at The Believer. You can read the whole interview here.