Saturday, May 8, 2010

Ben Lerner and lines

I read the first section in Ben Lerner's Mean Free Path this week. I've pretty much been on board with Ben Lerner since his first book (this is his third). These poems remind me a bit of Jon Woodward's Rain and Matthea Harvey's first book in terms of their engagement with/interrogation of the line. The back cover copy actually offers a helpful tip on how to read the text: "Lines are often out of order or belong to several possible orders simultaneously, inviting the reader to collaborate with the poem." (This instruction reminds me of Jessica Smith's visual work, which I didn't really "get" until I saw her read it. She told me that she doesn't read every word out loud, and she doesn't always read each poem the same way. This kind of blew my mind; I honestly hadn't been sure how to read them before.)

I don't know how much I'm "collaborating" with the poems but I like how they achieve an openness while still being very deliberate. As in Angle of Yaw the "I" is complicated by a multivocality; the poems seem to interrupt themselves:
A cry goes up for plain language
In identical cities. Zukofsky appears in my dreams
Selling knives. Each exhibit is a failed futurity
A star survived by its own light. Glass anthers
Confuse bees. Is that pornography? Yes, but
But nothing. Come to reference. A mode of undress
Equal to fascism becomes obligatory
In identical cities. Did I say that already? Did I say
The stranglehold of perspective must be shaken off
All the poems (if you think of them as individual poems; you could think of them as stanzas or chunks of a long poem) have this shape; there are two per page. Certain clauses/phrases are repeated throughout (such as "Night-vision green"), which has an effect like a skipping record.

John read this same section and read the fractured language as a tired imitative fallacy type thing (experience is fractured so language must be fractured, blah blah). I find that idea a little boring too, but I don't really read this as doing that, or at least not just that. It seems more an investigation into what else can be done with the line, almost a game, rather than an attempt to describe. Descriptions bore the pants off me. Games I like.

I've been thinking a little lately about what "line" means to people. (I posted a comment along these lines recently on Brian Foley's blog.) Like when the average person says "So and so writes great lines" -- do they mean the literal line from the left margin to the right margin, the unit of the lineated poem, or do they mean sentences? Most poems have sentences too. I think a feel for the line is very different from a talent for good stand-alone phrases or sentences.


  1. hopefully it's both—good lines and good sentences (or if sentences aren't being used, good "strings of words").

    it's annoying when you have a poem that's sort of a "short story" written in lines for no apparent reason. (writer's almanac poems.)

  2. When I run out of books to read, I am going to buy the whole poetry section at Barnes and Noble. I seriously need to read more poetry.

  3. Robby, remind me where you live? The poetry section at B&N leaves much to be desired ... I wonder if you have a better bookstore in your area.

  4. I live in Massachusetts. There's a bookstore in Marblehead I really love, but the poetry section there is lacking as well. I'm on the hunt for the perfect Poetry bookstore. I am also on the hunt for your book.

  5. Come to one of my readings and you can buy it from me!

  6. Maybe I'll come to the Brookline signing. I remember reading about it when you posted on here and telling my mom we should go. I think we will. I bring my mom everywhere.

  7. Ben Lerner read at UCSD last quarter, and I enjoyed both the reading and reading his books to write his introduction--Mean Free Path does have a dynamic tension between a lack of closure (in a very Lyn Hejinian way) and an energetic, forward moving momentum. His language isn't that fractured, really--almost everything is in full sentences or full clauses. The poems start to comment on one another as you read--images, language, ideas, rhythms start to reappear in different ways, as you said, etc. I think it is very game-like.

    Re: line. Like Matt said--I'd think both. Lately, I've found myself using the phrase "word cluster." To get more technical, I typically think of a line as something heard and a line break as something seen--but of course, line breaks inform lines, and typically change how something is read.

  8. what lorraine said. actually i think the term "line break" isn't always accurate, since it implies that, in some earlier state, the poem was written in prose and was then "broken" into lines. and maybe some people write that way. but if you're making a poem by "stacking" the lines, like lincoln logs, then they're not really broken, but are whole from the start...

  9. I agree, the emphasis on "line breaks" versus lines is misleading to a lot of poets, I think. The break is only one part of the line. Everything doesn't hinge upon it.

    I like this: "I typically think of a line as something heard and a line break as something seen"