Mean Free Path
Ben Lerner
Copper Canyon Press, $16 (paper)

R’s Boat
Lisa Robertson
University of California Press/New California Poetry, $19.95 (paper)

The latest salvo in contemporary poetry’s internecine war of complaint—or should we call it a war of care?—is a charmingly casual manifesto called Poetry Is Not a Project, by the poet Dorothea Lasky.

The problem with contemporary poetry, Lasky writes, is that poets over-intellectualize and professionalize what should be an organic, even mystical, affair. Lasky has seen too many poets sketch an impressive sounding project—often guided by a procedural apparatus or some compelling description of theoretical concerns—that ultimately overshadows and deranges the poetry it describes. Lasky worries that the relationship between the strength of a project and the flimsiness of the resulting poetry is not just correlative, but causal—the project isn’t just a cover for bad poetry, it’s a recipe for it. Premeditation prevents the accident and drama—the feeling—that conspire to make a poem meaningful and alive.

I admire Lasky’s pluck in sniffing out and exposing pretense, and I laud her interest in fixing attention on the poem rather than on the discourse surrounding it. But I take issue with the assumption underlying her thesis, namely that the less mediated and less designed a poem, the more authentically “poetic” the result. True poems, Lasky writes, “are living things that grow from the earth into the brain, rather than things that are planted within the earth by the brain. ” According to Lasky, a great poet doesn’t design a poem, she “intuits” it.

Lasky’s own poetry, which ably conveys unpredictability and emotional openness, shows the rewards of such an approach. Yet even when the raw is promoted over the cooked, the effect conveyed is still an artificial one. No poet emerges from the womb speaking verse; spontaneity and emotion are nearly always supported by learned patterns of rhythm, diction, and some sort of formal arrangement, however messy. As Yeats, no stranger to program or passion, writes in “Adam’s Curse, ” “A line will take us hours maybe; / Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought, / Our stitching and unstitching has been naught. ”

• • •

Yeats may be a distant and unlikely model for contemporary poets, but two recent books, Ben Lerner’s Mean Free Path and Lisa Robertson’s R’s Boat, extend Yeats’s position (and thus implicitly challenge Lasky’s) in their use of formal design both to express feeling and to define a broader social engagement. Which is to say that neither Lerner nor Robertson writes collections of what could be easily described as lyric poems, in part because each is skeptical of the ways that traditional lyric often reflects the entitlement of the poet as a person whose feelings are somehow more exemplary than the average subject’s.

Formalism and all that term implies—the bounding of meter; the rear-garde politics of mainstream verse, with its roots in the academic poetry of the 1950s—is generally disdained by the schools from which Lerner and Robertson emerge. Still, writers who engage in what Robertson calls “avant-garde experiment” are necessarily engaged in form as well, not just at the level of the project or the poem, but at the level of the word. Using radical disjunction and exploiting language’s material properties (its sonic and visual characteristics), avant-gardists work to overcome the wear of a language that has become “commercialized and militarized” by advertising, government, and the media.

The phrase quoted above comes not from the pages of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine, where many of these anti-lyrical sentiments were first expressed, but from the back cover of Mean Free Path, reflecting at once the poet’s debt to his predecessors and the continuing relevance of their preoccupations. Writing almost two generations after the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E authors, Lerner is mindful of the oppositional lessons of his elders. He is also interested, however, in reinvesting poetry with some of the appeal of traditional lyric: as a vehicle for beauty, eloquence, and play. In his first book, The Lichtenberg Figures, Lerner writes, “We had thought that by arranging words at random / we could avoid ideology. ” Syntactic disjunction is a technique that Lerner both ironizes—how charming are the failed utopian gestures of previous generations—and deploys for more typically lyric ends. His announced “project” in Mean Free Path is to confront the “difficult possibility” of writing a love poem in a language corrupted by use:

All pleads for an astounding irrelevance
Structured like a language, but I
I like the old music, the audible kind
We made love to in the crawl space
Without our knowledge. Robert is dead
Take my voice. I don’t need it. Take my face
I have others. Pathos whistles through the typos
Parentheses slam shut. I’m writing this one
With my eyes closed, listening to the absence of

The nine-line stanzas that Lerner employs throughout Mean Free Path function as prisms, refracting love, sorrow, humor, triviality, and outrage into patterns of oscillating attention and arrested response, aptly capturing the phenomenology of a distracted now. If there is a love object in this book (presumably Ariana, whose name appears in the dedication poem), there is also loss (two of the sequences are termed “Doppler Elegies”). Lerner seems to have engineered a form that enacts a balance between the recuperative and the mournful, a kind of hobbling of thought and sentiment whereby he invites a phrase into the poem only to have enjambment cut off the engagement before it is fully expressed. Often the phrase will reverberate in later lines and stanzas, a kind of poetic afterlife or Doppler effect.

Robertson’s “I” is dispersed and multiple, partly to elude systems that would constrain a self’s possible forms of being.

Lerner’s formal model in Mean Free Path might be Lyn Hejinian’s prose masterpiece My Life (first published in 1980 and substantially revised in 1987), in which Hejinian uses the “new sentence” to make each statement limn a possible world rather than build logically on the previous one. Lerner’s formal innovation in Mean Free Path is to incorporate and adapt that practice into a more traditional lineated verse form. In Lerner’s hands the “new sentence” becomes something like the “new phrase, ” with the line break providing suspense as to whether the thought will continue over the enjambment or cease at the turn of the line:

accompanied by
Her breathing was
a rustling of tenses, underground
Movements have become
citable in all their moments
With my nondominant hand
I want to give
in a minor key
the broadest sense

Although Lerner’s second book, the National Book Award nominee Angle of Yaw, may have been a more immediately impressive and accessible effort, in some ways Mean Free Path returns greater dividends. Rather than dominate with cleverness, Mean Free Path offers a melancholic, “minor” music, with a spacious design that the reader can more easily inhabit. The four interrelated sequences of the book undoubtedly refract details from Lerner’s life and observations, but they equally describe the experience of reading the collection. Despite the title’s suggestion of strong affect (it is actually a phrase from particle physics), Mean Free Path is in no sense a bossy imposition of the writer’s feelings onto the reader.

• • •

Canadian poet Lisa Robertson’s work is more openly polemical and intellectual—less playfully ironic—than Lerner’s. And many of her books have been consciously positioned as intellectual “projects,” particularly her outstanding second book, XEclogue, a feminist rewriting of the pastoral tradition, which includes a discursive preface of the sort that Lasky deprecates. But Robertson’s gift is to infuse the discursive with a swooning and at times openly erotic lyricism; the prologue of XEclogue is as imagined and felt as the poetry that follows:

Let’s pretend you ‘had’ a land. Then you ‘lost’ it. Now fondly describe it. That is pastoral. Consider your homeland, like all utopias, obsolete. Your pining rhetoric points to obsolescence. The garden gate shuts firmly. Yet Liberty must remain throned in her posh gazebo. What can the poor Lady do?

The poetic eclogues that follow the prologue are realized with even more stunning imagination and disorienting shifts in diction. With its fantastical cast of personae, including Nancy, Lady M, and the Roaring Boys, XEclogue often reads like a slash-fiction S&M version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Gender Trouble redone as pastoral masque (“Between black pines we strap it on and dip our pink prosthesis in the pool”). From both her poetry and prose, one gets the sense that Robertson is most intensely alive when she is hard at thought, inventing new conceptual categories through intense lyric precision. While Robertson is certainly not the first poet to suckle at theory, she lets on that sharpening one’s sword on the philosopher’s stone, losing oneself in heady thought—“the erotic feeling of non-identity, ” as she describes it in her recently released ninth book, R’s Boat—may be the biggest turn-on.

As with Wallace Stevens, whose neo-Romantic tendencies she would probably quarrel with, Robertson’s brilliantly fanciful, even baroque, early work—words compacted, idiolects jangling in proximity—is succeeded by a more reduced and aphoristic poetics. In R’s Boat:

I have nothing to say, I burn, I blurt, I am sure to forget.

I preserved solitude as if it were a style.

I am ignorant, but I know.

I raised my voice to say No!

I was almost the absolute master.

I saw amazing systems that immediately buckled.

I enjoyed that pleasure I now inhabit.

I slept like these soft trees.

I’m wondering about the others, the dead I love.

The lines of italic and roman text at first appear to be two voices in dialogue. But statements migrate from one “voice” to the other, as if to say: no utterance is original, all language is recitation. Like Lerner’s, Robertson’s “I” is dispersed and multiple, partly to elude systems that would constrain a self’s possible forms of being. “If I reason, I am not the state’s body, ” Robertson writes later in R’s Boat.

Robertson rethinks the limitations of “system” by adopting a propositional style and “ordinary language” suggestive of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who famously observed, “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world. ” The six long poems of R’s Boat do not so much advance an argument as circle back on themselves in a kind of intensifying feedback loop. Robertson writes, “I want to hold belief and dissonance in a cumulative structure that moves to no closure. ” With R’s Boat, Robertson evolves a new form and idiom so as to short-circuit familiar representations of self and, perhaps, to imagine new and utopian social relations, as described in the book’s coda-poem:

And if I become unintelligible to myself
Because of having refused to believe
I transcribe a substitution
Like the accidental folds of a scarf.
From these folds I make persons
Perfect marriage of accident and need.
And if I become unintelligible to myself
Because of having refused to need
I transcribe a substitution
To lose the unattainable.
Like the negligent fall of a scarf
Now I occupy the design.

Refusing the easy seductions of self-expression, Robertson courts confusion and opacity (even to herself). Yet it is in the abstractions of design where Robertson locates the potential to remake the self as less selfish, as capacious and plural: “From these folds I make persons. ” Through the shared, potentially universalizing structure of form, Robertson achieves a fusion of “accident and need” in which “the self of a poet totally is subsumed . . . by the universal. ” Those last words are Lasky’s, and I bring her back into the conversation because poetries with radically differing attitudes toward technique, form, and the lyric self can nevertheless pursue—and perhaps even achieve—similar aims.

On the penultimate page of R’s Boat, Robertson writes, “To make a mould is a formal gesture of love / There are two ways in which it speaks.” Those two ways—one speaking inward toward the poet’s self, one outward toward a utopian community of readers—differ from the more divisive formalisms of earlier avant-garde writing as well as the romanticism of a purely expressive poetry. In Lerner’s and Robertson’s work, form is not an escape from ideology, nor is it distinct from feeling. Rather, form is a vessel to share what ore remains when the fires of affect and ideology are exhausted.