An Ex-Elitist Explores Tragedy and Empathy in the Writing of Ben Lerner and Amanda Palmer

I used to believe Keats when he said, in a letter to his publisher John Taylor, that “if Poetry comes not as naturally as the Leaves to a tree it had better not come at all.” I now know better. Poetry is a dense and carefully crafted form of communication, writing in verse doesn’t come naturally to anyone. But there is such a long tradition of diverse styles and conventions that I believe anyone can read poetry, and anyone can write it.

Reading Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner, I loved that within the first ten pages we get a description of the narrator’s method of writing poetry. How often do we read something that actually answers the “where do writers get their ideas from” question? Adam Gordon, the narrator, gets his ideas from (mis)translating Spanish poetry, moving the lines around, replacing certain words with words that sound similar, and then combining that with other observations he has made which are actually quotes from previous pages of the book in which he is a character. So meta.

And if that practice sounds cynical or not creative to you, as it did to me when I first read it, the end result is actually quite beautiful:

Under the arc of the cello

The gallery walls, dull glow
Of orange and purple, child
Behind glass, adult retreating

I imagined the passengers 
Could see me, imagined I was
A passenger that could see me
Looking up…

That’s lines 1, 7–9, 11–14 on page 40. The first line is a reference to page 16, and is a (mis)translation. Adam sees a plane and imagines himself from above on page 21. The colours in line 8 are of lipsticks on page 22, but become rich artworks in the context of the finished poem. All of these separate images together form, at least for me, an experience of standing in an art gallery, music washing over you, aware of the art on the walls, but more aware of the people around you, of watching them and being watched.

Adam would say “that the poem wasn’t about that, that poems aren’t about anything,” but he contradicts himself later, admitting that another poem was written “about Topeka” in Kansas, where he grew up. (And also where Lerner grew up, suggesting that Adam’s earlier descriptions of Topeka might be from Lerner’s personal experience of “the bully and his neck beard, a love only a mother could face.” Such a poignant phrase from a tiny tweak of a common idiom!) Like Amanda Palmer singing “Don’t tell me not to reference my songs within my songs” in the Dresden Dolls track ‘Backstabber,’ Lerner embraces postmodern appropriation of his own previously published poetry.

Leaving the Atocha Station doesn’t just contain poetry, but also explores art and how people experience it more generally. Adam goes to museums and studies paintings, he listens to a musician play guitar and sing in Portuguese at a party, goes to a gallery where photographs are displayed etc. The novel is full of interactions with art, and Adam not only remains unmoved by them, but is suspicious of people who do find them moving. In an interview with Gayle Rogers, Lerner said that reviewers mostly focused on Adam’s failure to have “a profound experience of art” but ignored his profound experiences of language generally, and the poetry of John Ashbery in particular.

Lerner had previously written an essay on Ashbery, and again he appropriates his own work by sampling it in the novel. Even his academic writing is poetic, with rhythmic repetitions and internal rhyme: “the power of Ashbery’s best poetry is that it seems to narrate what it’s like to read Ashbery’s best poetry, and when his work manages to describe the time of its own reading in the time of its own reading, we experience mediacy immediately.” What all that basically means is that when the content of a poem is baffling and opaque what you notice most as a reader is the form, the medium. The opposite of this is Realism which is sneaky because the content is so detailed and lifelike that you can become totally immersed and forget you are reading at all.

I can attest to Ashbery’s poetry being baffling and opaque: I searched online and found the novel’s namesake, ‘Leaving the Atocha Station’ (1962), and have never understood a poem less. It’s a series of disconnected words and phrases meandering over two pages, apparently meant to capture the experience of watching the constantly shifting scenery when traveling on a train. I prefer James Longenbach’s 1997 explanation that as Jackson Pollock was to painting, Ashbery is to poetry: ‘Leaving the Atocha Station’ is “the poem that does not mean, but is.”

In his poem ‘Didactic Elegy,’ Lerner claims that when we know exactly what an artwork means it becomes a “mere positivity” but I would argue that an artwork which defies all attempts at interpretation also merely exists. It is not an act of communication. It could mean anything, so it means nothing. But by using the title of Ashbery’s poem as the title of his novel Lerner has inflected the poem with new meanings, especially since the novel is set in Madrid in 2004, when Atocha Station was the target of a terrorist attack. The bombing adds a sinister inflection, retrospectively, to the disjointed style of the poem.

‘Didactic Elegy’ is primarily interested in this process of (re)interpretation. It also contains discussion of a terrorist attack, September 11, but Lerner’s focus is on the way mainstream media creates and circulates images of tragedy and how people respond to them. His tone is very measured and the poem builds in layers of logic and theory, not images and emotions. Poetry is more dense than novels, and considered less accessible, which is why it usually helps to read it aloud. You know how a word or phrase loses all meaning when you say it over and over? Lerner does that in lines 83–85:

“The critic watches the image of the towers collapsing. 
She remembers less and less about the towers collapsing 
each time she watches the towers collapsing.”

Ann Keniston pointed out that most people “did not experience the attacks firsthand but rather on television, through instant and incessant replays” (2011). Lerner mirrors the media’s repetition of images in his repetition of words, matching his form to his content. The critic’s experience and feelings are eclipsed by mainstream media’s monopoly on the event. Similarly, in lines 55–59 the poem’s speaker had become so emotionally distanced from the event that the event was reduced to a kind of logic puzzle:

“The first men and women described as heroes were in the towers.
 To call them heroes, however, implies that they were willing to accept their deaths.
 But then why did some men and women
 jump from the towers as the towers collapsed?
 One man, captured on tape, flapped his arms as he fell.”

Twice-mediated, by being filmed and then described, that tragic event becomes merely an absurd image in the last line. It’s an oddly childish, pedantic tone, I think. The speaker insists on a specific mythic definition of the self-sacrificial hero, then seems confused that panicking people did not act in expected ways, or live up to their posthumous media reputations. Other rhetorical questions on lines 146–8, toward the end of the fairly long poem, purposefully ignore the human element of the tragedy:

“Should we memorialise the towers or the towers’ collapse? 
Can any memorial improve on the elegance of absence?
Or perhaps, in memoriam, we should destroy something else.”

September 11 was tragic because of the lives lost, not the buildings. It is the people we memorialise; the sudden absence of life is not elegant. But by not answering these questions Lerner makes readers engage directly with the poem, asking our own questions and coming to our own conclusions. It seems obvious that the last line is ironic, we sense the wrongness of destruction as a response to destruction. So what is an appropriate response? Ann Keniston and Karen Alkalay-Gut both noted that after September 11 there was a trend of sharing personal grief and connecting with the wider grieving community through a spontaneous creative outpouring of intimate, emotional poetry.

With several years of distance from the event, ‘Didactic Elegy’ is obviously not part of this tradition, but despite its formal tone it doesn’t pretend to be an objective record either, and is still open to interpretation. Amanda Palmer’s blog post containing ‘A Poem for Dzhokhar,’ written within days of the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, is more recognisably part of this recent tradition. The final line of Lerner’s poem is: “Ignorance that sees itself is elegy.” This suggests that admitting we do not know the consequences of events is how we might be able to mourn and move on, instead of obsessing replaying them. In Palmer’s poem too, nearly every line begins with the words “you don’t know.” These are lines 9–13:

“you don’t know how precious your iphone battery time was until you’re hiding in the bottom of the boat. 
you don’t know how to get away from your fucking parents. 
you don’t know how it’s possible to feel total compassion in one moment and total disconnection in the next moment. 
you don’t know how things could change so incredibly fast. 
you don’t know how to make something, but the instructions are on the internet.”

The poem was controversial. In her book The Art of Asking Palmer recalls it being described on the nightly television news as a “love poem to a terrorist” (288). How often is poetry mentioned in mainstream media? But while some lines contain concrete images from media reports of the tragic event, others are more ambiguous. Here the personal is universal. That last line particularly seems both sinister and relatable, with an innocent “something” replacing any specific item which would allow only a single interpretation of the line.

The inclusion of images in Leaving the Atocha Station too, shows Lerner’s interest in (re)interpretation. The five black-and-white images scattered throughout are each captioned with a quote from elsewhere, making the novel a collage of itself, and encouraging new meanings to come from putting the same content in new contexts. One example is a photograph on page 52 of the town of Guernica after it had been bombed in the Spanish Civil War. The caption is a quote from a few pages earlier: “I tried hard to imagine my poems or any poems as machines that could make things happen.”

Art was certainly not the machine that reduced a town to ruins, but it is not powerless either. Line 106 of ‘Didactic Elegy’ says “the role of the artwork” is “to authorise hope,” and while Adam cannot imagine poetry changing the world, he still believes in this vague potential power of art which Lerner alludes to. Palmer is more specific about what she believes art is and can do. While the media was calling the bombers monsters and the community was calling for revenge, her poem was a call to creative expression and empathy. Reflecting on the event in The Art of Asking, Palmer says:

“To erase the possibility of empathy is to erase the possibility of understanding. To erase the possibility of empathy is also to erase the possibility of art. … This is what art does. Good or bad, it imagines the insides, the heart of the other, whether that heart is full of light or trapped in darkness” (289).

And we are all capable of that. So we are all capable of making art.

Lerner and Palmer are very different writers, but their interests are similar. They warn readers away from uncritical consumption of media, and explore different ways of thinking about art and different methods of making it.

I hope you find the way that works for you.