I have just read The Hatred of Poetry by Ben Lerner. Lerner’s thesis is that poetry is hated because it can never live up to its ultimate aim of conveying the universal truth. “Poetry isn’t hard, it’s impossible.” It is impossible for a poet to translate their thoughts into a poem that achieves universality. In the words of Socrates, “Of that place beyond the heavens none of our earthly poets has yet sung, and none shall sing worthily.”
Lerner uses the cliché of the creative dream where you have some kind of enlightened idea, only to see it dissolve when you wake. “In a dream your verses can defeat time, your words can shake off the history of their usage, you can represent what can’t be represented.” But then life gets in the way, with its ‘inflexible laws and logic.” And so he concludes: “Thus, the poet is a tragic figure. The poem is always a record of failure.”
He ends the book quite cheekily and somewhat grandly with, “All I ask the haters – and I, too, am one – is that they strive to perfect their contempt, even consider bring it to bear on poems, where it will be deepened, not dispelled, and where, by creating a place for possibility and present absences – like unheard melodies, it might come to resemble love.” It is essentially that comment you got from that teacher you were sure hated you; “not good enough, try harder.”
Putting aside my initial reaction that Lerner should maybe lower his expectations a little, I feel there are comparisons in his argument to the ideals behind social realism and portrayals of the working classes. Social Realism began as a movement of artists and photographers in the early 1900s (peaking in the 1920s & 30s); it was a counter to the idealistic and one sided bourgeois depictions of life at the end of the 19th century. It was hugely important and is one of the lesser regarded aspects of modernity. It exposed the harsh realities of working class life with endemic poverty and consequent poor health and high rates of mortality. It challenged the aesthetic in order to change the system. You could argue that the New Deal and the Welfare State were positive policy reactions to the exposure of social realism.
However, I feel that today’s social realism, which has been taken over by films, TV and novels, has not moved on, and has predominantly failed to create any kind of political change. Today’s social realists have ghettoised portrayals with their sole focus on the negative aspects of working class life. They confirm to the holders of power that nothing can be done other than to try and fish one or two out of the fairground pond and hope they don’t fuck it all up and get flushed down the middle class toilet some time later.
It reminds me of the way in which the ‘victims’ of disasters and wars used to be portrayed by the media and in funding campaigns by NGOs during the 1980s and 90s. If you only see people in desperate need, you not only take away their dignity, but also any belief they are resourceful and can help themselves.
As individual pieces of work, they are compelling, entertaining, and crucial (except those which are patronising of course). But as an overall narrative, they are self-defeating, they don’t achieve an overall picture. In their defence however, novels and films, have to tell a whole story; where you want to know if the person will make it, either escaping out of their dire situation or somehow overcoming it and carrying on regardless. Poetry doesn’t need to do that.
Poetry is free to take on all aspects of working class life. It is not constrained by the need to shock or provide a ‘beginning, muddle and an end’. It can portray the horror stories and fairy tales in an authentic way, but it can also tell the ‘small’ stories of everyday life that are not necessarily melodramatic but are compelling nonetheless. This is what Proletarian Poetry is trying to do. This is the poetry of social realism. I’m not sure if it could live up to Ben Lerner’s provocation, but many of these poems are ‘unheard melodies’, which I’m sure ‘might come to resemble love’, if only of poetry.
* Image: Fred Mitchell Charity (1937); Siporin by I am Enzo the Baker
What an excellent relective piece Peter’s response to.Lenier’ book.I.agree that a social realism now is too prescriptive,even damaging to a contemporary poetry attempting to wrestle with the complex interaction of class,culture and money.Poets are ultimately idealists trying to forge a human link through language to people’s experience
It is noteworthy that ideological attempts a ‘Socialist Realism was catrostrophic under Comminism in the Soviet Union unintentionally but tragically produced a silver age of poetry ie Pasternak,Mandelstam,Tsveteya
Akhomotova.Many thanks Peter for your piece.
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