St. Paul, Minn. — Ben Lerner's debut novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, is the story of Adam Gordon, a brilliant, if highly unreliable, young American poet on a prestigious fellowship in Madrid. Ben Lerner spoke with Midmorning producer Alexandra DiPalma about poetry, fiction, and what it means to have a profound experience of art.
On why people hate poetry:
This is actually a really old discourse. From Plato's banishment of poets to the whole traditional genre of a defense of poetry, poetry always has to be defended. You don't have "this is a defense of piano" or "this is a defense of dance."
Poetry is always the thing that's supposed to be the best thing in a culture. We use the word poetic as a superlative; we say about an athlete, "It's like poetry in motion," but then we also say poetry is dead or we hate it or we think its vacuous or pompous.
That tension of celebration and disavowal is as old as poetry itself. I think part of it has to do with the fact that poetry is in some sense impossible. Poetry is a word we use to denote the perfect linguistic object. That's the poem. It's supposed to be better than prose, it's supposed to be deeper and more precise and more beautiful.
And of course, you never get the perfect poem. There's no such thing. So there's this structure of frustration built into poetry.
On being 'moved' by art:
I always hear people saying, "Last summer I went on vacation and it changed my life and then I went on this other one and it changed my life."
What's the baseline? How is this change measured? I was kind of poking fun at the vernacular use of 'changed my life' but also that injunction that art can change your life. In this famous poem of Rilke, he says "You must change your life."
This is a demand we make of art that I think is serious, that the work acts on you, it works on you. When we talk about being moved by a piece of art, it's an interesting way to put it. we think about our encounter with art in terms of our subjective feelings, but to say we were moved is to say, we were an object, the art did something to us, it changed our position.
I think that Adam Gordon is interested in figuring out what the way 'being moved' changes your position in the world. He's savaging the cheap use of that phrase and he's anxious about whether or not he can have that experience that everyone refers to so casually but that not everyone has.
On whether it is possible to have a 'profound experience of art'
I do feel like I know people who've had their lives changed in a very serious way. I don't think it's always the lightning flash of recognition, it can be a slower relationship. But I think, with Adam, that sometimes that experience of the failure of a piece of art to be profound can be profound. You can look at a work of art and you can try to experience it in all its possible profundity and you can feel yourself fail to do it.
Even the attempt to exercise the faculty which says, I want to have an experience of art - that's different than an experience of economy, that's different than an experiment of work as it's normally construed in our society - even the failed effort to capture that experience can be profound.
On powerful moments in the arts
A lot of the most beautiful moments in the arts do come at the breaking point of the medium. Sometimes the most moving moment when someone is speaking or singing is when their voice cracks with emotion or they can't go on.
When someone reaches the limit of the power of the medium, that's when they start to signify this thing that exceeds the medium. It's a way of making us feel what's not sayable, what's inexpressible. That's how you say what can't be said.