In reviewing Ben Lerner’s novel Leaving the Atocha Station (“The White Machine of Life”, New York Review of Books, December 8 2011, Vol 58, Number 19), Lorin Stein notes that Adam, the novel’s central character, is “a poet who doesn’t have much feeling for poetry, for art in general.” And this poet is confronted a by profound and–for him, crucial–worry: that he was “incapable of having a profound experience of art” and as such,
I had trouble believing that anyone had, at least anyone I knew. I was intensely suspicious of people who claimed a poem or painting or piece of music “changed their life,” especially since I had often known these people before and could register no change. Although I claimed to be a poet…I tended to find lines of poetry beautiful only when I encountered them quoted in prose, in the essays my professor had assigned in college, where the line breaks were replaced with slashes, so that what was communicated was less a particular poem than the echo of poetic possibility.
My interest in this excerpt is not so much in the conclusion of our budding poet’s anxiety-ridden thought, but in its initial prompt: that he might be blocked from a particular sort of relationship with art, evidence for which, as the excerpt shows, lies in his being incapable of constructing his own personal relationship with poetry, and finding himself reliant instead on having expert guides do all the heavy lifting.
Adam’s worry, of course, only seems peculiar because he aspires to be a poet; it is a common enough source of angst. Reading poems requires the ability to move past its bare surface, past the barriers of sometimes sparse and spare description, a challenge that can sometimes defeat even those with an acute poetic sensibility; we cannot keep our poetry receptors switched on at all times, and on those occasions, we stare blankly at verse, wondering why this seemingly banal, opaquely phrased assemblage of words, lines and paragraphs has evoked so much literary and philosophical exegesis and reflection. At those moments we can experience the kind of panic that is Adam’s constant companion: Have I been condemned to exclusion from the sphere of aesthetic appreciation, from the ranks of those for whom art can function as passage to the sublime? Will I spend this life with my nose pressed up against the glass panes, looking on enviously at those who do not suffer so? And it is then that we entertain the unkind, yet self-validating and reassuring, doubt that racks Adam: perhaps it’s all a giant sham, merely the latest instance of the Cosmos’ New Clothes.
The antidote for this anxiety can be, as in the case of Adam, a gentle guidance, some hand-holding and accompaniment. Some of us will never move beyond this stage. Others will find that perhaps the ‘secret’ of experiencing poetry is that we must continue ‘reading’ even when not confronted by the written word, that our task of having a ‘poetic experience’ extends to our experience of the world, the source of the poet’s imagination. In the enrichment of that lies perhaps our best chances of enriching our relationship with the poem and the poet.