I can’t recall the last time I didn’t know a writer’s face. See me pasting bylines into Facebook to find an essayist’s profile picture. Watch as I dive through tagged photographs to find out which school a reporter attended, what his partner looks like. Is his Twitter account verified? Is he famous enough to justify being verified? Usually I’m less interested in the plain fact of, say, a writer’s ethnicity or what kind of pet she owns than I am in her presentation of those facts. Of course sometimes I’m just nosy, but more often, I’m looking for reasons to trust or distrust a writer’s work. I don’t really believe in objective narrators anymore, but I still care to look for reliable ones.
Never before has it been so easy to try to judge that reliability. Writers once had the luxury of contemplating how much distance they wanted between their identities and their work. (For a while, William Gaddisrefused to give interviews, in part to avoid answering that question.) These days, though, the space between a writer’s work and who she appears to be has all but collapsed. Bylines aren’t just bylines anymore; they’re gateways to an author’s Twitter timeline or Instagram account. Sometimes it seems that everything a person publishes on the Internet—blog posts, images, errant thoughts—is just another argument offered in proof of her identity. And that identity, in turn, becomes an index from which we draw conclusions about how much we’re able to rely on a writer’s published opinions and observations. But what is it, exactly, in this web of status updates that evokes trustworthiness?
The Hatred of Poetry is a beefed-up version of Lerner’s 2015 London Review of Books essay, which he expanded to include a chatty tour of the Western tradition, from original poetry-hater Plato, to John Keats, Emily Dickinson, and Walt Whitman, and concluding with contemporary poets Amiri Baraka and Claudia Rankine. What’s nice about Lerner’s book is how it provides an occasion to discuss issues at the heart of mainstream poetry. He assesses the gains and the costs of poetry’s metaphysics and asks how lyric poetry can negotiate with the politics of real life, rather than Truth and Beauty.
I read The Hatred of Poetry as a referendum on the lyric, at whose altar Lerner worships, and which I find, to use the language of post-structural hermeneutics, kind of gross. While I may happen to disagree with Lerner’s often-conservative account, he is unique among contemporary poets for holding out a poetics and a position, which he discusses with remarkable amiability.
“I no longer want what I used to want,” Marina Benjamin declares somewhere towards the end of her lucid and sophisticated exploration of what it means for a woman to turn 50 in a culture that glorifies youth and encourages us at every turn to “disguise … deny … disown” the process of ageing. Single-word chapter headings – Skin, Muscle, Guts, Spine – speak to her promise to bring “the body back into the frame at every turn”, although what she discusses roams far beyond and beneath the merely physical.