February 3, 2012

Ben Lerner lauds poetry's possibilities

Poet and novelist Ben Lerner read last Thursday afternoon in Rosenwald Hall as part of the Poem Present series. Assistant Professor in English Srikanth Reddy, who introduced Lerner, praised the “dexterity” of Lerner’s work. He described Lerner’s book of poetry Mean Free Path as “a left-handed book,” and called his 2011 novel Leaving the Atocha Station “haunting, beautiful, and, yes, poetic,” though he said of today’s writing, “Poetry plays the lefthand to the dominant cultural form of the novel.”

Lerner began his reading by excerpting the first scene of Leaving the Atocha Station. The protagonist, Adam Gordon, who has a fellowship in Madrid circa 2004, goes through his morning routine of opening his skylight, having coffee and a spliff, and walking to the nearby museum, where he stares at van der Weyden’s “Descent from the Cross.” As Adam trails a man who wanders the museum, stopping to weep in front of several paintings, the scene develops into a meditation and confession of Adam’s lack of “a profound experience with art.”

Adam’s real-world counterpart, Lerner himself, is similarly preoccupied with the alienation of modern personhood. He read two poems from Mean Free Path and several newer pieces. In one of these, “Auto-Tune,” about the software used to standardize vocals in popular music, Lerner wrote, “I want to sing/the destruction of the world for profit/This is the sound of our collective alienation.” Another new poem, “Dilation,” was similarly troubled: “You can feel the content streaming.”

The work Lerner shared was also conscious of the tension between the mind’s ability to conceive and language’s limited ability to communicate. The colors blue and green were paired with the adjectives “antithetical” and “predicate,” and he read, “In a perfect world, this would be/ April, or an associated concept/ Green to the touch/several feet away.”

Lerner was the first poet to come to campus this quarter as part of the Poem Present series, which the Poetry and Poetics program coordinates. The series hosts several poets each quarter. Founded roughly a decade ago, it has a unique structure in which the visiting poets give a reading on one afternoon and a lecture the following day. Earlier this year, Poem Present partnered with the Renaissance Society and the France Chicago Center to bring Alice Notley and Rosemarie and Keith Waldrop to campus.

“That’s what makes the series unique—it’s about creative writing and its vision of itself. The writers have an intimate discussion with students and faculty about themes they’re wrestling with in their own work,” said Kate Soto, the coordinator of the Committee on Creative Writing. “We definitely want the events to reach the campus at large, and draw a mix of people.”

Shortly after the reading, Lerner described the poems he had just read as being “designed to be impossible to read out loud,” since lines share margins and words are often shared among lines. “There’s a tension between text and oral performance, and I think the poem exists in the space between the text and its vocalization,” said Lerner. “It’s not until I read a poem out loud that I can see its flaws.”

He said about the modern person, “We let ourselves experience interconnection only negatively. We need to begin to speak as a collective subject, and poems can be ways of reminding you of that possibility.”

Happily, Lerner’s reading, his art, and the group’s delight at his presence were sources of positive human connection for the attendees. Indeed, drawing from the closing words of Lerner’s novel, Reddy said, “There is no skylight in this room, but we are surrounded by friends.”