Around 7:15 one recent Thursday evening, Greenlight Bookstore was crowded to the brim, full with lit-lovers eager to hear Ben Lerner read from his latest work, The Hatred of Poetry. The slim book comprises an essay that explores the value, capabilities, and perhaps most notably, the failures of poetry; its title contrasts heavily with Brooklyn’s long held identity as a mecca for book lovers as well as a home and laboratory for many poets.
A literary critic, writer, and professor at Brooklyn College, Lerner wanted to look into why poetry is so often met with groans—in classrooms and even from those who write it themselves. “I too dislike it,” begins modernist poet Marianne Moore in “Poetry,” before continuing: “Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in it after all, a place for the genuine.”
Lerner extracts the themes present in the backbone of Moore’s poem and expands on them in his essay to pose the questions that have long been on the minds of many: What is poetry? What is the value of being a poet? What sets a good poem apart from a bad one? Isn’t the standard we hold poetry to one that is reflective of the impossible, irreconcilable split between the immensely personal and the unifying universal?
Whew. These are the real questions.
According to Lerner, “poetry” is a nebulous label we’ve placed on everything from song to verse, one whose definition is frustrating and misleading in itself. And it only gets more confusing when we try to make sense of poetry’s purpose: some will venture to say that it has the potential to bring about world peace—allowing people to truly understand one another regardless of circumstance or time. The dead can speak to the living in poems, through language that suspends what is individual and transient in a frozen and public tableau. Others refute such an idea, too irked by the disconnect that poetry presents: If poetry is inherently personal and reflective of the writer’s individual thoughts, it cannot elicit the same response from every reader. These critics wonder how poetry can possibly bring people together if each person’s experience from one poem is inevitably varying.
But in Brooklyn, poetry has long fostered a sense of community for writers, who have decided to not only write but also live here. In Walt Whitman’s day, a number of poets chose to live in Brooklyn for its cheaper rents and relative tranquility, in comparison to bustling Manhattan across the river. Of course, the days of affordable housing in most Brooklyn neighborhoods live on only in memory, but writers have continued to settle down here, resulting in a literary hub that rivals Manhattan’s, especially within the genre of poetry.
On any given night in Brooklyn, there’s likely a reading, workshop, or open mic event that any seasoned or budding poet can take part in. From the reading series at BookCourt to the weekly Poets’ YAWP run by Brooklyn Poets, writers can share their work and receive feedback from one another, often at no cost. Recently, poetry has also been incorporated into arts performances in other genres, allowing writers to share their work with audiences that might not usually be immersed in the local literary scene. One that comes to mind is last November’s Vocal Fry event at Shea Stadium, which opened with readings by Jenny Zhang and Leslie Jamison, which preceded a set by indie punk musician Mitski.
But in spite of the myriad poetry events that take place in the borough, being a poet in Brooklyn is not the same as being a writer in Brooklyn. At Lerner’s reading he mentioned the stigma that is often associated with the occupation “poet.” Poets are at times met with eye rolls when discussing their careers, for living lives that, on the surface, appear to be characterized by unrushed contemplation and leisure. Yet they are placed on a cultural pedestal for creating defining works of humanity that place them above other “ordinary people.” Poets are not merely writers, they are the artistic “elite,” a loaded term if there ever was one.
“If someone asks you what you do for a living, telling them you’re a poet is never the right answer,” Lerner joked.
Jim Tolan is one of these poets as well as a professor at Borough of Manhattan Community College. He’s lived in Brooklyn for over ten years, first in Cobble Hill and now Windsor Terrace. Tolan was first attracted to the borough because he felt that it served as a balance between the old New York and what the city was becoming. He recalls the days when he lived on a block with five nearby independent bookstores that were each situated next to numerous other mom-and-pop businesses. Though the golden age for small family-run shops has faded into the times, Tolan maintains that life as a writer in Brooklyn still has a distinct value.
“There’s something wonderful about how Brooklyn attracts poets. For me, it’s been wonderful to spend these last ten years bumping into other writers as I just walk down the street.”
But there’s certainly a difference between being a writer and poet in Brooklyn. Undoubtedly the borough loves its bookstores, festivals, and the slew of authors that have contributed to Brooklyn’s literary heritage, but even as poetry has become more accessible in terms of where one can encounter it (in billboards on subway cars, at a concert—in your favorite bookstore), novelists are the writers that really garner most of the attention, both here and elsewhere.
“There’s a status that the literary novelist has in Brooklyn that you don’t really see anymore in popular culture,” said Tolan. “The recent Junot Diaz reading was packed like a rave, but usually that isn’t the case for poets who read.”
Thus perhaps the love/hate relationship with poetry shared by both Lerner and Moore’s is the more accurate one that Brooklyn (and beyond) has with the craft, in spite of odes like Hart Crane’s “To Brooklyn Bridge.”
But then I think back to that evening at Greenlight as Lerner was poised to speak: The chairs set up for Lerner’s event have long been filled and people are squeezed into the narrow spaces between the colorful bookshelves. Some sit in the little space left by the door while others stand, pressed up against the walls in the back. There’s faint but audible chatter among audience members who discuss Lerner’s essay along with the works of some of their favorite poets. “What kind of political leverage do you think poetry can or should have?” one audience member asks during the Q&A. “When we criticize poetry for its shortcomings, do you think we’re placing the expectations that come with epic poetry on to lyric poems?” asks another. The questions keep coming until a Greenlight team member motions to Lerner for the second time to wrap things up. (He doesn’t.)
Though the book is titled The Hatred of Poetry, it’s clear that each individual who laughed along with Lerner’s lightheartedly witty, as well as, tremendously thoughtful criticisms of poetry were not there to denounce the craft. After all, they say that the opposite of love is not hatred—it’s indifference.
The bookstore, usually a comfortable spot to linger and flip through covers, is almost unbearably warm given the number of bodies that overfill the space. A woman off to the side tries to cool herself off with one of those folding fans, when a moment later, an anxious hand shoots up in the crowd.
“Okay, last question!” Lerner says, yet again.