Ben Lerner, 2015 (© John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, used with permission)

Some friends and I have a running argument about Amanda Gorman, the young poet who read at Joe Biden’s inauguration. Gorman, they say, is not exactly a great poet. “The Hill We Climb,” the poem she read at the National Mall before thousands of spectators and millions of viewers, is awkward and cloying. They’re not wrong. Yet that assessment misses what made Gorman’s performance remarkable. I choose the word “performance” deliberately, for that is what it was. Gorman performed the role of poet, of a voice for a massive public, with aplomb. In a firm, soaring voice, she recited a poem that hit the exact emotional register the public longed for. She understood the assignment, as they say on the internet. Indeed, the plain, even banal language of the poem enabled her to communicate that emotional experience to such a wide audience.

Ben Lerner would seem to have little in common with Gorman. In his poetry, fiction, and criticism, Lerner works in a cerebral mode, writing about contemporary life with frequent reference to literary theory and political philosophy. Yet while reading The Lights, Lerner’s new volume of poetry, I often thought of Gorman and how she acquitted her role. Lerner is consumed with the question of the poet’s role in society—if there even is one. Taking the podium and commanding the public’s attention, Gorman may as well have been an example from Lerner’s own work.

Lerner came to prominence during the mid-aughts, at the height of the Bush administration’s project of linguistic sleight-of-hand. This was the age of Donald Rumsfeld’s “known unknowns,” when the realities of the Iraq War were veiled by jargon and euphemism. In his books The Lichtenberg Figures (2004) and Angle of Yaw (2006), Lerner pursued a prose poetry that recalled both the John Ashbery of Three Poems and Don DeLillo. One passage finds a sports fan at a stadium, portable TV in tow. “He watches the image of his watching the image on his portable TV on his portable TV. He suddenly stands up with arms upraised and initiates the wave that will consume him.” A single spectator subsumed into the mass public: this dynamic recurs throughout Lerner’s work.

Lerner reached a new level of fame with his novel Leaving the Atocha Station (2010), which James Wood praised in the New Yorker. Like much of Lerner’s work, the title fuses art and history. “Leaving the Atocha Station” is a poem by Ashbery, a touchstone for Lerner as for so many other poets; and the Atocha station is the central hub of the Madrid rail system, where the novel takes place. Adam Gordon, Lerner’s alter ego, is in Spain on a Fulbright scholarship, there to write a poem cycle about the Spanish Civil War. But rather than produce his masterwork, he spends all his time either wandering the city’s museums or chatting with friends on his laptop. Upon first reading the book, I felt like Lerner had been reading over my shoulder. My name is Adam, of course. My father’s name is Gordon, and I also happened to be studying in Spain for a semester abroad during the exact period in which the novel is set. Read a book closely enough and you just might become a character in it.

A single spectator subsumed into the mass public: this dynamic recurs throughout Lerner’s work.


History intrudes into the story, spectacularly: on March 11, 2004, a bomb explosion rocks the Atocha station, killing nearly two hundred people. Al Qaeda claims responsibility. Adam, with a solipsism only poets can muster, feels doubly inadequate: not only has he failed to write about Spain’s violent past; he also fails to address the violence of the present. Instead, he silently joins the demonstrations parading through the streets, another body in the mass.

This raises a question: What would it mean for a poem to address the world’s violence, whether past or present? Is that possible, or even desirable? Lerner has the good sense to forego social media, yet the way he relates to poetry reminds me of the way I relate to X (formerly Twitter). He loves it by hating it. He even wrote a book called The Hatred of Poetry, a critical monograph detailing his conception of the art. “There is no genuine poetry; there is only, after all, and at best, a place for it,” he writes. The desire to write poetry is so great, and so irrational, that any actual poems inevitably fail to live up to that initial desire. There can only be spaces where that desire can be felt—writing workshops, for example, but also official gatherings like weddings, funerals, and, yes, inaugurations.

Yet the way Lerner writes about poetry risks reducing it to the social function of poets. One can’t help but recall Wallace Stevens’s injunction on poetry’s first responsibility: “It must give pleasure.” Amid the cleared spaces and private utterances, does Lerner’s work offer genuine pleasures? Yes, and in The Lights, those pleasures result from a change in direction from some of Lerner’s earlier work. He now seems less concerned about poetry’s vertical movement—whether or not it can ever reach some exalted stage—and more interested in its horizontal circulation, among everyday people in ordinary places.

Parts of The Lights appear as verse, with line breaks and stanzas, while other parts look like prose, with long unbroken paragraphs that stretch across pages. “A dream of prose in poetry, a long dream of waking,” as he writes in one poem titled “Auto-Tune.” (Lerner is very good at titles, plucking distinctive phrases from everyday usage and placing them in a context that gives them a new resonance.) He’s no longer lamenting that poetry isn’t living up to some vaguely defined revolutionary potential. He’s reveling in the pleasure of poetry bleeding into prose, of dreams bleeding into waking life.

Personal circumstances, including parenthood, play a role in this shift. Anyone who’s tried to get some work done while children demand one’s attention will recognize the dynamic in a poem called “The Readers.” Lerner’s young daughters ask their father what it’s like to be a poet, what kind of work he does, what he can teach them. “They have learned to pause / at the end of lines, they want to know if I have met / Amanda Gorman, debate / if it has to rhyme and what rhyme is.” They want to hear the poems he writes, but he’s afraid that they won’t understand or, worse, that they’ll understand something he does not. So he keeps two notebooks, one where he writes for his daughters, the other where he writes for his readers. But one night during bedtime reading he confuses one notebook with the other. “So I read / from what I’d been working on / and it was this, the changes I’ve made / were these, and the love I gave / received.” The attempt to separate the poet-self and the parent-self breaks down, and this turns out not to be a disaster.

A poem titled “The Chorus” alternates between the daily realities of Lerner’s children and memories from his own childhood. When Lerner’s family visits his childhood home, his parents and siblings call him Benner, a childhood nickname. His children find this hilarious, and immediately add it to their vocabulary. “Benner, can I have a snack. Benner, where is mommy.” It brings to mind a memory from Lerner’s days in elementary school. As the only Jewish kid in class (he grew up in Kansas, as recounted in his novel The Topeka School), it fell to him to introduce “Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah” during the annual winter concert. This involved simply stepping forward and speaking into the microphone onstage, but something about the act of separating himself from his class, if only for a moment, terrified him. He had nightmares. He woke his parents up in the middle of the night with tears in his eyes. Lerner’s father told him he had similar fears when he was a child and performed small roles in school pageants. It’s not performing itself, it’s the worry about performing. “The worry can last ten thousand years,” his father says, “that’s the miracle.”

Worry as a miracle, as the thread binding one to the community. In the mass public Lerner used to focus on, an emotion like worry is destabilizing and wholly negative. Yet worry can draw the community of family or friends closer together; one generation can share it with the next. Never mind the podium. Home is the place where one can get down to the vital business of growing up.

The Lights

Ben Lerner
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
$26 | 128 pp.

Adam Fleming Petty is the author of a novella, Followers. His essays have appeared in the Washington Post, the Atlantic, and other outlets. He lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  

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