The greatest thing about being curious is that you explore things many others would dismiss out of hand. That is also the worst thing about being curious.
That’s how I came across two recent books that were intriguing, touching and, I think, ultimately rewarding. I must confess, though, I’m not sure that I completely liked either of them.
First up, Ben Lerner’s “The Hatred of Poetry.”
This book-length essay is a look at our relationship with poetry. We all say we hate it, but we all also have squirreled away notebooks of poetry (written honestly and with great care and emotion) that we should probably burn before we die and our children find them and mock us posthumously.
(An aside: Many years ago I worked at a small local newspaper that thought it would be fun to have a poetry writing contest. The prize was tiny, maybe $50, but we received dozens and dozens of entries. They were mostly crap—I should know, I was a judge—but I don’t think anyone was honestly after the cash. What struck me most was how many were submitted on company letterhead. So I concede Lerner’s point here. The other thing that fascinated me was how divided our judges were on the winners: My clear favorite (merely passable) was not among anyone else’s finalists and vice versa.)
What Lerner does for 86 pages is, as I understand it, explain what poetry is (whatever you think it is) and what we ask of it (too much). He explains that poetry is just words, nothing more, nothing less. It’s nothing to be afraid of or hate (you really don’t anyway) and for the love of God stop writing it. Sorry, that last part was me.
Along the way he quotes poets from across the ages, which had the effect of making me want to read poetry, something I do probably more than many people, but not what I’d call often.
This book gave met the feeling that often plagues me when I read poetry: I think I get the author’s meaning, but you won’t hear me discuss it because maybe I didn’t. Maybe I’m not smart enough to understand the deepest meaning. As I grow older, though, I care less about the author’s intent than about how it makes me feel. If it moves something in me, it’s a good poem, no matter what anyone says.
(A second aside: Emily Dickinson once wrote: “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know it. Is there any other way?” I include that to say that I titled a collection of poetry I wrote for an English class assignment, “My Body So Cold.” Pretentious as hell, yes, because most the stuff in it was doggerel. Still, dibs on the title.)
On to the next, more problematic book.
“In Other Words” by Jhumpa Lahiri is also a meditation on words. While often engaging, its greatest trick is being short enough to not wear out its welcome.
Lahiri is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Interpreter of Maladies” and The Namesake” whose mid-career crisis led her to shake things up by learning Italian. Yeah, that’s right. She learned a new language.
Lahiri writes of being in a no-man’s-land of language. Her first language was Bengali, which she lost after her family emigrated to London then the United States where she learned English, in which she has written exclusively until now. Though she writes elegantly and precisely in English, she says it didn’t feel like her native tongue. She found herself no longer interested in even reading it.
Learning Italian—by moving to Italy and forcing herself to read and write only in the new language—revived her love of both reading and writing. (A reader would be justified in making a sarcastic “Phew!” at this point.) What’s interesting to me is her fascination with her new language: She writes about it as someone might write about a new love, reveling in the 20 subtly different ways to describe the same thing, and her joy at discovering the exact word. But other parts are far too navel-gazey.
This book was written in Italian and translated back into English by Ann Goldstein because Lahiri didn’t trust herself to go about translating it properly. She thought she would change the English version, by extension improving her Italian. Yet, she could have used a bit of tightening.
With a self-awareness that comes just at the right time, Lahiri realizes there is only so much time a reader can give to this experiment, and brings this book to a close after about 100 pages. (The book itself is more than 200 pages, but all the left-hand pages are in Italian and all the right in English.) I confess that there were times I wanted to shake her and say, “Get over yourself, there are bigger problems than your struggle with past tense.”
“In Other Words” becomes, like poetry, what the reader brings to it: It’s either a fascinating meditation on the art and craft of writing by a brilliant author who is finding herself after a lifetime of feeling like an outsider, or mental masturbation.