Semantic saturation.

Ben Lerner’s Hatred of Poetry suggests that it’s really a mix of love, admiration, intimidation, and alienation that fuels this so-called hatred–that we all rightly lay some claim to poetry by being part of linguistic communities, which makes the distance between our skills & those deemed required–between the infinite humanistic potential of verse & its limitations in the physical world–that much more raw & intolerable (& really just asking for our scorn). 

Lerner devotes a good portion of his essay to exploring the burden of universality that we place on poetry and poets. Of course, our working definition of poetic universality cannot help but be shaped by social and cultural power, which can put non-male explorations of gender, non-white explorations of race (etc.) at a disadvantge in the discussion. Lerner fairly scrutinizes this by showing (via poignant samples of blustery critical outrage) how it’s one thing for an already-marginalized perspective to not be drawn in (we hardly knew ye), but if we neglect or alienate a voice that guards its position at the center of our Ptolemaic cultural universe? That just won’t do. The gatekeepers of universality will get their blustery backs up.

In a charming and resonant anecdote near the end of the book, Lerner approaches the universality he problematizes:

Remember how easily our games could break down or reform or redescribe reality? The magical procedure was always first and foremost repetition: Every kid knows the phenomenon that psychologists call “semantic saturation,” wherein a word is repeated until it feels emptied of sense and becomes mere sound–“to repeat, monotonously, some common word, until the sound, by dint of frequent repetition, ceased to convey any idea whatever to the mind,” as Poe describes it in the story “Berenice.” Your parents enforce a bedtime and, confined to your bed, you yell, “Bedtime” over and over again until whatever meaning seemed to dwell therein is banished along with all symbolic order, and you’re a little feral animal underneath the glowing plastic stars. Linguistic repetition, you learn from an early age, can give form or take it away, because it forces a confrontation with the malleability of language and the world we build with it, build upon it. Most horrifying was to do this or have it done to your own name, worst of all by some phalanx of chanting kids on the playground–to be reminded how easily you could be expelled from the human community, little innominate snot-nosed feral animal too upset even to tattle. And what would you say? “They broke my name.” The teacher would just instruct you to cast a weak spell back: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words…” (80-81)

It’s hard to imagine many folks of many stations in life not identifying with some aspect of that self-imposed or peer-imposed childhood linguistic, existential, tempest-in-a-teapot torture. But by making the claim (and even if I hadn’t, I suppose) I’ve guaranteed that it will be utterly unrelatable to someone out there. That’s the point: impossibility doesn’t make the project of  poetry any less worthwhile. It just means we may want to change our approach to help keep our heads screwed on straight & avoid losing touch with that unquenchable potential.

From Lerner, Ben. The Hatred of Poetry. Toronto: M&S, 2016. Print.