The awkward and even tense exchange between a poet and non-poet — they often happen on an airplane or in a doctor’s office or some other contemporary no-place — is a little interpersonal breach that reveals how inextricable “poetry” is from our imagination of social life. Whatever we think of particular poems, “poetry” is a word for the meeting place of the private and the public, the internal and the external; my capacity to express myself poetically and to comprehend such expressions is a fundamental qualification for social recognition. If I have no interest in poetry or if I feel repelled by actual poems, either I am failing the social or the social is failing me. I don’t mean that Dr. X or whoever thinks in these terms, or that these assumptions about poetry are present for everyone or in the same degree, or that this is the only or best way of thinking about poetry, but I am convinced that the embarrassment or suspicion or anger that is often palpable in such meetings derives from this sense of poetry’s tremendous social stakes (combined with a sense of its tremendous social marginalization). And it’s these stakes which make actual poems an offense: if my seatmate in a holding pattern over Denver calls on me to sing, demands a poem from me that will unite coach and first class in one community, I can’t do it. Maybe this is because I don’t know how to sing or because the passengers don’t know how to listen, but it might also be because “poetry” denotes an impossible demand. This is one underlying reason why poetry is so often met with contempt rather than mere indifference and why it is periodically denounced as opposed to simply dismissed: most of us carry at least a weak sense of a correlation between poetry and human possibility that cannot be realized by poems. The poet by his very claim to be a maker of poems is therefore both an embarrassment and accusation.
- Ben Lerner, in an excerpt from The Hatred of Poetry published in the April 2016 issue of Poetry Magazine. You can read the whole thing here.