“Honk if you wish all difficult poems were profound”

“All readers of poetry sicken me.” This is Ben Lerner, in ‘The Lichtenberg Figures,’ setting up his stall. “And yes, of course, I sicken me”. No Art collects a poetry which is in tension with itself, unable to decide whether to embrace or hold at arm’s length its own literariness. At least it owns up to it. It’s fitting that a writer who takes hatred for poetry as the ground zero for his defence of it writes with an endless iconoclasm that drives his poetry between registers, between genres, between ways of thinking. Lerner writes a questing, searching poetry that is never satisfied with its own conclusions, which can veer around the place as easily as it can quietly and subtly shift from one thing to another without fanfare—compare, for instance, a line from ‘The Lichtenberg Figures’ such as “I fuck his girlfriend and induce epistaxis in his homeboy” with the barely perceptible shift of ‘Mean Free Path’ from meditation on the act of writing to strangely impassioned love lyric.

It’s a rare poet who writes phrases like “the depression of spirit and the cessation of hope” alongside references to Britney Spears. It’s a rarer one who pulls it off, somehow. For all their self-professed cleverness and despite the topics that they tackle, Lerner’s poetry is genuinely funny. He writes with a sense of pathos and wry puzzlement—the posture of a thoroughly avant-garde poet who nonetheless isn’t quite comfortable with the term.

No Art Cover
No Art, by Ben Lerner

Lerner’s poems play with form as much as they do language, from the sonnet in ‘The Lichtenberg Figures’ whose last eight lines are its own publication data (too much? Too much), to the cut-up, collage-like prose paragraphs that make up the ‘Angle of Yaw’ poems. His poems are spiky, with lines bubbling into being, erupting into view. Think about the lines “If you would speak of love | Stutter, like rain, like Robert, be |Be unashamed.” The line “If you would speak of love, be unashamed” is straight out of a cliched rom-com writer’s playbook. But the interruption “Stutter, like rain…” changes what’s at stake here. It is a stutter, but it’s an instructive one, one that speaks.

No Art is a collection which has one eye turned inward, and one focused out on the world. It’s not easy poetry by any means, but it’s a profoundly rewarding collection.

Ben Lerner, No Art, Granta (London: 2016)

A copy of No Art was generously provided for review by Granta.

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