Ben Lerner’s first book of poems in thirteen years, The Lights, gathers several kinds of lines and sets them talking to one another, several styles intertwined so that the play of forms itself is a poem. One form—one thread—is made up of waterfalls of prose, unparagraphed and sometimes covering several pages. Another thread consists of shorter lines, the first letter of the line often capitalized, poetry that’s sometimes disjunctive, as if the relationship between the end of one line and the beginning of the next were not so much an enjambment—a term whose root, by the way, refers to a racing horse stepping outside the lines—as an occasion for representing a glitch. A glitch in our electronic communications? Our signal? The hesitations of the voice? A smoothness in Lerner’s poetry is always revolting against itself.
A third thread consists of the long lines—like Saint-John Perse or C. D. Wright or Langston Hughes—that can’t possibly fit on a book’s page and so are always overflowing, a little bit headlong. And there’s a fourth strand: a kind of blank verse, not prose, and not strict, but that same steady patterned telling. There’s a long poem in this mode, a poem of disillusioned embrace with Walt Whitman called “The Dark Threw Patches Down Upon Me Also.” “If only there were / more wandering away from the stage, less / tallying …” writes Lerner of Whitman’s oeuvre. The strands mingle, sometimes, into hybrid emergences, and other times they openly or formally inveigh against one another, casting lyrical aspersions or doubts. And one thing they ask, at least by implication, is whether experience is continuous. An unanswerable question, but I raise it in part to emphasize that this poet is working at the height of his powers, moving from epideixis to mystery to knife-edged clarity.
Withdrawal, saying no, “wandering away from the stage”—the dream of saying less, or saying nothing, or the nightmare of having nothing or too much to say—this has always been a deep concern for this poet. To be overwhelmed by the firehose of available language: a symptom of a kind of breakdown not only of language but, if widespread, of a civilization. And yet if poetry is the last stop before silence, whether the silence of the reverent or the silence of the annihilated, it seems to me the work of poetry is also to map the inarticulable. To find its borders. Another reason for the glitches at the ends of lines:
it gets in the lungs and it does a tremendous
concept of light, the way it kills
Elsewhere, glossing the ancient poet Caedmon, Lerner writes: “His withdrawing, not the hymn that he composed in the dream, is the founding moment of English poetry.” And then: “Here my tone is bending toward an authority I don’t claim …” You see what I mean, I hope, about the different styles and tones—radically different at times—braided together here.
What the poems claim—what the braiding of forms claims, beautifully—is that to describe or represent the ways we are bound together, and what it feels like to be bound that way, even by way of lice passed child to child or poison touching us in the shared water systems, is to describe the ways we are vulnerable, our fates impossibly and almost innocently entangled, even in affliction, even in capitalism. And though that interpenetration may mean disaster, it may also signal a kind of hope: to be far-removed but still interconnected is to have common ground; what’s alien is unexpectedly alive. It’s difficult to show these delicate accumulations in an excerpt, because all of this transpires over many lines for Lerner. The poet is sublime at writing long stretches of poems, sequences or iterations, and partly that’s because he’s dazzling at tracking the poems through sequences of almost-repetitions. Phrases and images repeating a little bit but different, the off-rhyming of language: so for instance he goes from describing the dream of an “open city” in the time of lockdowns and then, a few lines later, uses the same phrase—“open city”—to describe the lice growing in the hair of a child. There is no American poet using this primal and primary poetic tool, repetition, with more power than Ben Lerner.
And part of why I say he’s writing at the height of his powers is that there’s a new depth, even a kind of brisk tough warmth, and a willingness to expound. The poet, recently a father, writes this:
Love brought these readers into the world
The cuplike structures
of their eyes were formed
inherited color, and love
and argument must be conducted differently now
that the sounds through the wall
are interpreted, and a gentle
relentless pressure has been placed
on the page …
That poem is called “The Readers” and the “pressure” comes from the eyes and minds of children who are learning to read. The Lights is art made in the light of new family, in the light of growing little children. The book is devastating in its steady dissecting humor and acid—Lerner lays bare the digitized media mess we live our lives in now—but there is a current here of the tenderness, and even hope, that little children always bring.
JESSE NATHAN: I wonder if you could talk a little bit about the line, and how you think about it in The Lights, particularly as compared to previous collections. But I’m also curious more generally about your approach to this basic unit of poetry, what its stakes are, in your view, and its possibilities.
BEN LERNER: Dear Jesse. Maybe the variety of approaches to lineation in this book represents a way of trying to keep—trying to break—that good, wide, impossible question open, testing what happens when a phrase or theme is transferred from one verse form to another, from geometry of edges to another, and from verse to prose, which have for me distinct relationships to silence. Those transfers are time travel, too—a handoff across times of composition, a span of up to fifteen years in this instance, a light age, the light ages across margins, … “the way I’m handling / portions of the right edge, where old light / streamed, is streaming.” This book lets a lot more difference in, differences of time and experience and the forms they’ve occasioned, and I patterned those patterns later, didn’t dictate any of it in advance with a procedure. I guess at some point I came to think of myself as curating or braiding little suites or series, all with distinct attitudes toward the line and its ends—the prose poems, the more enjambed poems that fold or tear the voice, and, mediating between the (shaky) poles of prose and verse, those long-lined poems like “Auto-tune” and “Dilation” and “Rotation” that are sometimes precisely about that dream of mediation, “a dream in prose of poetry, a long dream of waking,” says the oldest poem in the book. I guess I’m just restating your question, which starts to segment itself as I look: “and I ask / partly in light / of the fact…” Clearly the poems often comment on how their own lines break, and sometimes the literal lines are linked to themes of lineage in a wider sense (the book is after all for my daughters) or the attempt to imagine other ways of being wired or linked. And sometimes one genre of line incubated another, the way that sentences for 10:04 grew out of “The Dark Threw…,” or I dilated some of “Dilation” into that book, or elements of The Topeka School were in the “Untitled (Triptych)” first, or certain prose formulations were sucked back into the vortex of a poem, where they broke up. Like alien craft. I just mean language returns under different formal pressures on every level for me, returns to test the difference a formal difference makes; that’s one sense of “measure.” It’s all absurd, how much of my life is ringing (wringing?) small changes on (from?) these words and phrases as they fall across margins, and yet every time recontextualization yields a new possibility of meaning, a blue spark rises in the dark. Speaking of new possibility, you said you and your partner were expecting a baby, and I hope everyone there is doing very well. Here the air is “unhealthy for sensitive groups.” Partly in light, b.
Jesse Nathan’s first book of poems is Eggtooth.