Russell House’s majestic front belies the hominess of the inside. It is well-lit and there are couches and shelves of books in some of the rooms, giving the impression that a professor just clapped one shut, shelved it, and shuffled off upstairs. The room where Ben Lerner gave his reading is less homey because of the rows of folding chairs, but these only make their appearance during these sorts of events.
This is, of course, about Ben Lerner’s reading, so I will stop discussing interior design. Suffice it to say that the atmosphere usually makes me sleepy—but when Lerner read his poetry I was as rapt and awake as I ever have been. These events are usually opened by a lengthy introduction brimming with praise, and on this Professor Elizabeth Willis really delivered. It was clear to everyone that she meant every word of admiration.
As it turns out, though only one man, Lerner is at once three fellows: Howard Foundation, Fulbright, Guggenheim. The man’s figure, as he stands reading, suggests poet: he hunches over the lectern, enunciating every word in complex and flowing rhythm. He’s the author of three books of poetry: The Lichtenberg Figures, Mean Free Path, and Angle of Yaw. As these titles may suggest, his poetry is erudite, complex, cerebral—a heady mixture of what the fuck and holy shit. He uses technical language, metalanguage, and self-referentiality in refreshing and not-annoying ways (which is really hard, as it turns out). His head rises every few sentences to let his gaze pour forth on unsuspecting spectators. Epics could be written about his eyebrows. They waggle expressively and curve downwards at precipitous angles. Though he is the picture of modesty, he is quite imposing. He means business.
After reading a few poems, he read from his first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station. Basically every reviewer went nuts over this one. The New Yorker described it as pants-shittingly good (I’m paraphrasing). The novel is about an American poet participating in a prestigious fellowship in Madrid. As The Believer puts it in a very lovely font, it is “a concisely definitive study of the “actual” versus the “virtual” as applied to relationships, language, poetry, experience.” The scene he read was about a party, presumably populated by twentysomethings, in which the protagonist experiences jealousy, marijuana, and a whole lot of inner-reflection. As Lerner read from the chapter his sentences built more and more towards climax, gaining length and power, each word like a sharp turn in a labyrinth. It was intense, intellectual, and personal. He turned a spiraling chain of thoughts at a party (story of my life) into a beautiful work of art. How did he do that? Just read the thing.
After the chapter was finished he read more poetry. When he was done the room exploded in applause. Then he answered a couple questions. One was about translation. He was the first American to win the 2011 Preis der Stadt Münster für internationale Poesie, a German award (if that wasn’t clear), so he was asked if he often thought about how his poetry would translate into other languages. He said that he didn’t really think about it, but he mentioned that his German translator marketed himself as Lerner’s best bet because he (the translator) wasn’t very good at English.
Why did this make him a good translator? According to Lerner, the translator replied to that question, “I don’t take anything for granted.” Because of his relative unfamiliarity with the language, each word was given scrutiny, a longer moment in the spotlight. The key here is defamiliarization. Usually this word, along with ostranenie, is used in reference to enhancing perception of the familiar—but to me, at best a layman when it comes to poetry, this process seems to be the essence of poetic language. If, in poetry, we want to mimic the sensation and subjectivity of perception, we must prize the words from their entrenched associative and syntagmatic relations and use them in interesting and weird ways so that the reader can inhabit their spaces longer and populate them with meaning. It is in this relation between poet and reader, engendered by this defamiliarization to language, that poetry lives.
This is essentially what Ben Lerner does, to outstanding effect. I don’t want to put any words in his mouth about his own work, so insert disclaimer here. All I have to say is this: Read his poetry. Read Leaving the Atocha Station, too. It’s got serious power. Be careful.