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Hilarity and Form

Ben Lerner’s first two books, The Lichtenberg Figures and Angle of Yaw, are wonderful anomalies in contemporary poetry. They are thoroughly avant-garde in their temper. The poems are mostly as paraphrasable as cryptograms. Words mean multiple things, sentences shift course with a haphazard half-logic, theories are often French. These sorts of difficulties tend to make poems seem as accessible as Atlantis, if not as inviting. The remarkable thing is that Lerner’s poems are pretty widely popular. This is because they are funny.          

Lerner is funny in the way that you pay to hear or to read. His hilarity shows pathos (“Like the girl my neighbors sent to Catholic school, tonight / the moon lies down with any boy who talks of leaving town.”); wit (“Rational actors wearing wrestling masks,” a description that blends the dubiousness of professional wrestling with that of rational-choice theory); absurdity (“When we found eyes in the hospital dumpster, we decided to build the most awesome snowman ever); especially witty absurdity (“Pleasure is a profoundly negative experience, my father/ was fond of saying underwater.”); and sometimes all of the above, as in these lines from a mock-manifesto:

If it is any consolation, we admire the early work of John Ashbery.

If it is any consolation, you won’t feel a thing.

The joke draws out all sides of our ambivalence—gratitude for the anaesthetic of medicine and that of contemporary irony, as well as fear and confusion about what necessitates the anaesthesia—and lets us feel all of this at once, like a vivid dream. Lucid, ludic, and ludicrous.

Lerner’s first two books are no less serious for their silliness: he plays high-stakes language games. His concerns are violence and politics and spectatorship, commercialization and militarization and manipulation, and most importantly the language that reflects and propels the “dumbassification” of culture against which he strives. Almost all the poems are collages, rhetorical mortars in which Lerner grinds dialect and jargon, banality and hilarity, to break open clichéd phrases and habits of mind. The uncanny mixtures range from disorienting (“Now to defend a bit of structure: beeline, skyline, dateline, saline.”) to disorientingly familiar:

NO MATTER HOW BIG YOU MAKE A TOY, a child will find a way to put it in his mouth. There is scarcely a piece of playground equipment that has not been inside a child’s mouth. However, the object responsible for the greatest number of choking deaths, for adults as well as children, is the red balloon. Last year alone, every American choked to death on a red balloon.

The parody says so much by changing so little. Substitute a few noun-phrases and the poem could be a transcription of the nightly news. It evokes the absurdity of incremental newscaster fear-mongering and the absurdity of our fear. It loses no subtlety for being such an entertaining critique of entertainment.         

Lerner’s hilarity shares means and effects with a Cubist painting whose shards show a whole bottle from six angles. He recombines fragments of language to evoke perspectives from which you can feel even the inconsistent sides of a problem. But this style has its limits. The rhetorical payoff of clarified problems comes at the rhetorical cost of unclear solutions. The self is absent in the glass of these satires, and without a self there is no struggle, and without a struggle to solve problems there is no sense of how one could solve them—no drama, nothing to emulate or to mourn, just something to laugh at.

A struggling self emerges in Lerner’s new book of poems. They are love poems. But these attempts to express and affect love are in a language whose effects are often inconsistent with the love the self wants to express. The language whose maskings Lerner mocked now disfigures him. Satirical critique is just one aspect of his attempts to faithfully express love, along with symbolism and frustration and earnest affection, among others. Lerner’s old poems are hilarious because they mix uncanny problems without adding consequences that readers care about, without adding drama, and his new poems add drama to model ways of solving problems, drama that drains pleasure from hilarity and complicates it. The new perspectives gain in depth what they lose in humor. They show the uncanny possibilities of expressive language, not just its limits and its faults.          

The poems in Mean Free Path evoke these perspectives by means of a new kind of collage, which reads like this:

Then, where despair had been, the voice

Of Nina Simone. Parentheses open

On a new gender crossed with stars

Ari removes the bobby pins. Night falls

There is no such thing as non sequitur

When you’re in love. Let those who object

To the pathos swallow their tongues. My numb

Rebarbative people, put down your Glocks

And your Big Gulps. We have birthmarks to earn

This is the odd sort of poem whose meaning will likely be obscured by line-by-line analysis, since the lines make the most felt sense when puzzled over in relatively quick succession.

The reader’s puzzling is like the speaker’s. Lerner makes explicit the tangles of associations and words that come to mind when he (or his persona) tries to think or to talk about love, and we readers follow this artistically arranged mental disarray. The associations are often non-linear—some linear sentences make no sense (“Night falls there is no such thing as non sequitur”) and some non-linear ones make perfect sense (“Night falls when you’re in love”)—and the poems make sense as your imagination recombines associated words and ideas into perspectives from which you would associate them. We imagine the felt difficulty of trying to express love, by imagining ways to express it. For instance, the above poem associates song and sorrow, hair falling and night falling, lovers mixed with stars and star-crossed lovers—and all of these associations evoke the wonder of love and the terror of its impermanence and uncertainty, the wondering “There is no such thing as non sequitur when you’re in love” and the terrified “Night falls when you’re in love,” and we feel something of the merits and faults of those two expressions. 

Sometimes the poems are purely introspective:

If you would speak of love

Stutter, like rain, like Robert, be

Be unashamed.

The “if” has two “then”s, to stutter or to act unashamed, to follow “Robert,” which refers to Creeley (whose fragmented “For Love” is a model for Mean Free Path). Rhythmic effects mimic conceptual problems. The perfect iambic pentameter of “If you would speak of love be unashamed” mimics the traditional authority to which the sentence alludes, lending the request the authority of an injunction, but the stuttering alliteration of the middle line makes the limpid injunction disjunctive. It is as though Lerner means to self-motivate but interrupts himself before he can finish the job.          

Sometimes Lerner actually tries to speak to his lover Ari:

Ari, pick up. I’m a different person

In a perfect world, this would be

April, or an associated concept

Green to the touch

several feet away

The first line stages the drama for the rest of the section. The line alone sounds like a romantic-comedy cliché—the sort of thing you feel but do not want to say because expression would mute the feeling, or like the sort of thing you feel because you can express yourself only in the clichéd melodrama of romantic comedies. The following lines are ways to vivify the cliché and to show why he feels it. “I’m a different person. In a perfect world, this would be April,” this two-pronged run-on sentence, alludes to an ideal pastoral that his words could potentially evoke and that he wishes Ari could see him in light of, a pastoral whose possibility changes the cliché and justifies it. The pastoral ambition contrasts with the earnest simplicity of “I’m a different person several feet away.” What the earnestness gains in plausibility it loses in grandeur. The idealism and the plainness show each other’s weaknesses, and we weigh the very different hopes implicit in each.          

These poems are difficult, but the bulk of them are no less inviting than Lerner’s earlier poems, and both sets of poems invite wide, careful reading for the same basic reasons. The achievement of Mean Free Path is to turn a comedic sensibility inward, toward the poet’s struggle with his own aims and inadequacies and self-shattering love. The accessible difficulty of this poet’s struggle should grow only more rewarding for years to come.

Adam Plunkett is a writer living in New York City.