Ben Lerner and the Transcendence of Words

Leonardo Da Vinci famously argued that painting is superior to poetry, in part because painting calls upon the “more worthy” sense of vision, whereas poetry merely acts “by way of the ear.” Moreover, a portrait clearly resembles its subject, but the verbal equivalent of a portrait, the subject’s name, is arbitrary, and corresponds in no clear way to its bearer. Finally, Da Vinci points out that a painting of, say, a battle, will have more viewers, provoke longer consideration, and garner more praise than a poem about a battle.

Some have said that Da Vinci’s argument is merely a clever rhetorical exercise, and clearly, his is not the final word on what has come to be known as the paragone (Italian for “comparison”) between the verbal and the visual. Recently, for instance, the topic was taken up in Ben Lerner’s short story, “The Polish Rider,” in which the unnamed narrator states that “I love [stories] that involve ruined paintings or missing paintings or unmade paintings.” He goes on to discuss non-existent paintings that have been described in fiction, pointing out that they demonstrate how writing/literature is superior to painting:

words can describe paintings the crazy artists can’t actually paint, or intuit canvases that were as of yet unpainted, unpaintable. And isn’t it really true of all ekphrastic literature, fiction and poetry, that even when it claims to be describing or praising a work of visual art it is in fact asserting its own superiority?

In an interview, Lerner acknowledges that while the narrator’s point may be overstated, we should still take him seriously. Lerner explains:

Take the classic example of ekphrasis: the description of Achilles’ shield in the Iliad. The description is so elaborate and expansive as to cease to be realistic; no actual shield could contain all that detail… . The verbal, while pretending to give life to the visual, often transcends it: words can describe a shield we can’t actually make, can’t even effectively paint… .

Lerner’s claim that words can “transcend” the visual is strikingly similar to a comment Coleridge made about Milton. For the sake of clarity, I include the passage from Milton that Coleridge discusses:

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Milton’s description is a tissue of contradictions: a shapeless shape consisting of an insubstantial substance: “for each seemed either.” Coleridge explains that Milton’s passage compels the reader to attempt to visualize “the unimaginable,” which will not be reduced to “a mere image,” thereby “exhibiting the narrow limit of painting, as compared with the boundless power of poetry.” We simply cannot picture what this passage attempts to depict. In other words—specifically, Lerner’s—Milton “transcends the visual.”

The idea that the verbal can somehow overwrite the visual is underscored by the title of Lerner’s story, “The Polish Rider.” It’s also the title of a well-known painting by Rembrandt. Rembrandt is never actually named in Lerner’s story about two missing paintings. It’s as if the painting has been supplanted by a story that itself describes a provocative absence.

Yet Lerner’s thinking does not stop there. Words not only have the capacity to figure the unimaginable, but—as Lerner argues in his recent book, The Hatred of Poetry—they can also describe a literature that cannot be written. Lerner points out that Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” “describes an ideal music the poems themselves cannot achieve”:

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endeared,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone.

Lerner cites Michael Clune regarding Keats’s “images of a virtual music,” and explains that it’s “a music Keats can describe but not play (and that nobody can play: it’s not difficult, it’s impossible). Literary form can’t achieve Keatsian music, it can only figure it… . [W]hat [Keats’s lines] describe can’t be realized by any human instrument in time.” This is the source of poetry’s “hatred” of itself: “‘Poetry’ is a word for a value no particular poem can realize… . Hating on actual poems, then, is often an ironic if sometimes unwitting way of expressing the persistence of the demand of Poetry.”

Capital-P Poetry, then, is an impossible ideal that can be posited, but cannot be achieved, by individual poems. Or as Wallace Stevens put it 60 years before Lerner, each poem  is “a part, but part, but tenacious particle, / Of the skeleton of the ether, the total / Of letters… “ (“Primitive Like an Orb”).


One Word Only is No Word: Anadiplosis in Sidney, Stevens, and Riding

I’ve been thinking about anadiplosis and the various ways that poets have put this seemingly archaic technique to use. Here’s a classic example from Sir Philip Sidney:  

Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show,
That she, dear she, might take some pleasure of my pain,—
Pleasure might cause her read, reading might make her know,
Knowledge might pity win, and pity grace obtain,—
I sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe;
Studying inventions fine her wits to entertain,
Oft turning others’ leaves, to see if thence would flow
Some fresh and fruitful showers upon my sunburn’d brain.
But words came halting forth, wanting invention’s stay;
Invention, Nature’s child, fled step-dame Study’s blows;
And others’ feet still seem’d but strangers in my way.
Thus great with child to speak and helpless in my throes,
Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite,
“Fool,” said my Muse to me, “look in thy heart, and write.”

The speaker claims he “sought fit words” by “Studying inventions fine…/Oft turning others’ leaves,” but still the “words came halting forth.” That’s what makes anadiplosis interesting here–it’s at odds with what the poem states. Anadiplosis is anything but a “halting” stammer, especially in this case, where it’s carefully sequenced to take the reader from “pleasure” to “knowledge” and, finally, to “grace.” The poem’s slick surface shows us that the speaker did learn something by studying others’ “leaves.” It also suggests he’s not listening to his muse’s instructions to “look in thy heart, and write.” With this tension between stated purpose and actual practice, between the poem’s unflattering description of itself and its highly wrought form, the poem gives us everything except what we/Stella are supposed to be getting—the speaker’s “heart.”

Such heightened artifice seems a bit out of sync with most 20th-21st poetic styles, but I nosed around a bit and found this, from Wallace Stevens’ first book, Harmonium:

The Load Of Sugar-Cane

The going of the glade-boat
Is like water flowing;

Like water flowing
Through the green saw-grass
Under the rainbows;

Under the rainbows
That are like birds,
Turning, bedizened,

While the wind still whistles
As kildeer do,

When they rise
At the red turban
Of the boatman.

Here Stevens puts his own twist on anadiplosis: instead of the climax of the Sidney poem, what’s emphasized is how one thing is like another, can become another. It’s almost an Escher print in words. So in this case, the technique embodies Stevens’s poetics of change and transformation: “The freshness of transformation is / The freshness of a world.”

Laura Riding is the last poet I would expect to indulge in the artificiality of anadiplosis, given her passion for “truth,” which eventually caused her to quit poetry entirely: “When…after pressing the linguistic possibilities of poetic utterance to further and further limits, I comprehended that poetry had no provision in it for ultimate practical attainment of that rightness of word that is truth…I stopped.

But my encounter with it in her work is what prompted this post. Here is the passage, in the middle of the decidedly anti-poetic (in any conventional sense of the term) poem “Disclaimer of the Person”:

My name is not my name,
My name is the name.
The name is the one word only.
The one word only is the the one thing only.
The one thing only is the word which says.
The word which says is no word.
The one word only is no word.
The word only is agreement
Word with word finally. (255)

The poem, as I read it, is an extended meditation on what it means to say “I” or at least to express that “I” by means of language. (And, lest the reader roll her eyes at yet another poem questioning the “lyric subject,” note that this was written around 1933). Here, I’d like to suggest, Riding uses anadiplosis to point out a structural flaw in language: the medium we use to “express ourselves” is the same language used by all the other speakers of that language. More: words require a shared understanding among speakers to work, and it’s only by agreed-upon convention that words mean anything: “The one word only is no word. / The word only is agreement…” So our words, no matter how “personal,” belong to everyone. (cf Saussure: “An individual, acting alone, is incapable of establishing meaning”). The means by which I express my most personal feelings is impersonal. Even something as personal as a name is only useful when it’s understood by others: “My name is not my name,/ My name is the name. / The name is the one word only.” Ultimately (or “finally” as Riding puts it) words simply “agree” with other words.

Anadiplosis is often climactic, as it is in the Sidney above. Riding, however, is strategically anticlimactic, going from “my name” to “the name” to mere “words.” And while Stevens employs anadiplosis to emphasize transformation, Riding uses it to show that language is, ultimately, tautological.