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Barbara Claire Freeman and S.M. Stone

“No, / but… ”: Ben Lerner’s “Didactic Elegy”

Didactic Elegy

Section 1

This is the role of the artwork—to authorize hope,
but the very condition of possibility for this hope is the impossibility of its fulfillment.
The value of hope is that it has no use value. (65)


The seven-page poem at the center of Ben Lerner’s second book, Angle of Yaw, combines two subjects not normally found in relation: grief and instruction. The title “Didactic Elegy” sets up an interplay between the archaic genre of didactic poetry and that of elegy, creating a tension that prefigures the splitting and vacillation the poem will prosecute relentlessly and at multiple levels. “Didactic Elegy” instructs us about what a didactic elegy does and why it should exist at the same time that it offers itself as an example of a didactic elegy. This operation—simultaneously putting forth an argument and enacting it—governs the poem’s formal properties, enabling a double movement in which the poem simultaneously performs and undermines every thesis it posits. This is not to say that Lerner’s elegy is “merely” aesthetic, apolitical, or relativistic; indeed, Lerner’s strategic deployment of Socratic irony is endemic to the scene of instruction and work of mourning this poem performs.


Our purpose here is not to write a theoretical or philosophical essay that unravels the complexities of “Didactic Elegy’s” arguments or explains the meaning of terms such as negative formalism and the negative lyric, narrative time, economy, or positivity. One of the remarkable things about “Didactic Elegy, ” is that it both presumes the reader’s acquaintance with the Frankfurt School (Adorno, Benjamin) and certain avatars of French post-structuralism (Derrida, Foucault, Lyotard) at the same time that it renders any knowledge of these texts or authors unnecessary. Rather, by focusing on primarily formal concerns we will explore two central issues implicit in the poem’s title: first, in what ways does “Didactic Elegy” instruct us and second, how does it function lyrically to enact the work of elegy?


Epigraphs and Epitaphs


Sense that sees itself is spirit. (59)

Ignorance that sees itself is elegy. (67)


The epigraph to “Didactic Elegy” foregrounds the poem’s concern with the problematic of vision and invisibility, ignorance and knowledge. Indeed, the entire poem works the pun between the “I” who is supposedly identical to the author of the poem and the “eye/I” who, according to Novalis, “sees itself.” Lerner’s “I” has already been anticipated by the epigraph from Novalis, “Sense that sees itself is spirit,” which appears accompanied by the poem’s title on a single page so that the reader must consider not only the title and the epigraph but the implications of their juxtaposition. The epigraph reappears as the poem’s last line, but with one crucial inversion: “ignorance” takes the place of “sense,” and “elegy” the place of “spirit,” so that the poem’s final singlet reads, “Ignorance that sees itself is elegy.” The substitution of “elegy” for “sense” not only reassigns value to German Romanticisms’ privileging of spirit, but functions to conclude the poem even as it wards off closure by referring to its opening.


Placing an epigraph, which by definition belongs at the beginning of a text at the poem’s end, Lerner embeds another beginning in “Didactic Elegy”’s last line/stanza, and thereby makes the poem’s epigraph into an epitaph. He does not end where he begins, but rather inverts the poem’s beginning and end. “Ignorance that sees itself is elegy” might serve as the epigraph or epitaph for another poem, and/or for the second half of Angle of Yaw. Lerner thus links the genre of “elegy” both to “ignorance,” a crucial absence of “knowledge,” and to the possibility of seeing, or acknowledging, that absence. In Lerner’s terms the work of elegy will, at least in part, entail the acceptance or embrace of that which cannot ever be wholly known or symbolized, of that which we are necessarily “ignorant.”


“Didactic Elegy” is itself a scene of instruction, and, as such it employs and reassigns meaning to the question-and-answer form fundamental to Socratic dialogue, where the tradition of Western philosophical and aesthetic instruction begins. This structure allows the speaker of the poem to ask a series of questions and respond to them with the phrase, “No, / but”, which becomes a refrain that circulates and accrues multiple valences throughout the poem. Lerner’s irony matches Plato’s Socrates’s in undermining what it affirms and vice-versa, for the speaker’s questions give rise only to answers which themselves become a labyrinth that undermines the possibility of any single, univocal “answer.”


Across an Otherwise White Field


Just as the violation of the line amplifies the whiteness of the field,
so a poem can seek out a figure of its own impossibility. (61)

The experience of structure is sad,
but, by revealing the contingency of content,
it authorizes hope. (65)


“Didactic Elegy” employs lineation, which is perhaps poetry’s most fundamental difference from prose, even as it flirts with undermining that distinction by deploying argumentative, prosaic sentences. Lerner uses lineation only three times in Angle of Yaw. The book begins with a section entitled “Begetting Stadia” composed of seven pages of lineated text which may or may not be one poem. It ends with another seven-page poem/section entitled “Twenty-one Gun Salute for Ronald Reagan,” composed of twenty-one nine line stanzas. “Didactic Elegy” appears at the very center of the book, which otherwise consists entirely of prose poems distributed equally between two long sections both entitled “Angle of Yaw.” Angle of Yaw thus departs from and returns to lineation even as it exemplifies the viability of the unbroken sentence, and even the paragraph, as poetic forms. That Lerner chooses to lineate “Didactic Elegy” emphasizes its hybridity: the poem is both didactic and elegiac, both prose-like in its relentless propositionality and poetic in its use of enjambment, torque, and lyricism.


Although Elisa Gabbert, reviewing Angle of Yaw, remains “partially unconvinced that poetic lines were the form best serving [“Didactic Elegy’s”] content,” we would argue that the poem’s line breaks effectively contribute to its capacity for embracing negativity and contradiction even as it undoes and heightens the differences between prose and poetry, pedagogy and lyric.1 If the poem’s language at the level of the sentence deliberately apes argumentative prose, it also complicates and even counteracts that prose-like-ness with lineation. That is, while the sentences use the logical syntax of argumentative prose, their enjambment changes their meaning. Poetic lineation not only controls the way in which the text appears in time and in space, but actually multiplies the various meanings and levels of Lerner’s assertions.


Line breaks in “Didactic Elegy” embed contradictory propositions within a single sentence. Take, for example, the first three lines of the poem:


Intention draws a bold black line across an otherwise white field.
Speculation establishes gradations of darkness
where there are none, allowing the critic to posit narrative time. (61)


While the first line is a complete sentence, “Intention draws a bold black line across the otherwise white field” (as are more than half of the poem’s lines), the second sentence breaks at the end of the second line, and that enjambment enables the reader to experience the second line as a complete sentence before the continuation of that sentence in the third line. The second line (which the precedent of the first line’s being a complete sentence also encourages us to read as a complete sentence) establishes the existence of “gradations of darkness” until the continuation of the sentence in the third line destabilizes that proposition with the words “where there are none.” While the phrase “[s]peculation establishes gradations of darkness” establishes a proposition which is undone at a semantic level by the phrase “where there are none,” the enjambment suggests that the sentence reads as (and thus means) both:


Speculation establishes gradations of darkness
Speculation establishes gradations of darkness where there are none


Enjambment here allows the poem simultaneously to deploy and destroy the “gradations of darkness” it also posits.


The line breaks in “Didactic Elegy” function not only to multiply and then explode logical argumentation on its own ground, but also through formal maneuvers to co-figure propositions the poem puts forward. One of the poem’s persistent concerns is the distinction between an event and the representation of that event. Those concerns converge in both the semantic and graphic aspects of this stanza:


The critic watches the image of the towers collapsing.
She remembers less and less about the towers collapsing
each time she watches the image of the towers collapsing. (64)


The phrase “the towers collapsing” accrues importance by recurring three times within the space of three lines. Moreover, the fact that the phrase appears at the end of three successive lines (indeed, every line in the stanza) dramatically increases the effect of that repetition. Each time we come to the end of a line, we arrive again at the phrase “the towers collapsing.” And because Lerner insists upon the difference between the event (“the towers collapsing”) and the representation of that event (“the image of the towers collapsing”), we see that the phrase “the towers collapsing” is itself an image that keeps getting repeated on the page. Thus we simultaneously learn that the speaker, here personified as “the critic”, “remembers less and less… each time she watches the image of the towers collapsing,” and experience the “the towers collapsing” as an image that repeats. The reader thereby occupies the same position—that of “watch[ing] the image of the towers collapsing”—as the critic. Yet our “watching” is here equal to reading, implicating writing in the same diminishing ability to influence the viewer that troubles all other “images.” By foregrounding its status as a representation not only in language but on the page, the poem declares itself part of, if not identical to, the event it also “describes.”


Unless to Be an American Means…


Events extraneous to the work, however, can unfix the meaning of its figures,
thereby recharging it negatively. For example,
if airplanes crash into the towers and those towers collapse,
there is an ensuring reassignation of value.
Those works of art enduringly susceptible to radical revaluations are masterpieces.
The phrase unfinished masterpiece is redundant. (62)


Lerner’s “Elegy” necessarily concerns itself with crafting a public poetry that can symbolize collective grief in the wake of September 11, 2001. It does so, however, not in order to offer consolation or idealize the dead as might a more traditional elegy. Rather, “9/11” is a privileged example and powerful referent, a nodal point enabling Lerner’s reflections upon the diverse functions of the image in contemporary media and popular culture and an exploration of art’s capacity to symbolize an event that calls into question the very limits of representation.


The first mention of the airplanes’ crash and towers’ collapse appears in the poem’s seventh stanza. Lerner offers it as an “example” that grounds his interrogation of the myriad connections between the individual and culture, the artwork and “real life.” As such, it underscores the necessity for art to “seek out a figure of its own impossibility” (61). Throughout “Didactic Elegy” the event of “9/11” and its subsequent representations function both to necessitate the work of elegy and to underscore the value of, and necessity for, the work of art. By referring “to the difficulties inherent in reference” (62), the artwork is able to “reassign value” and to instill hope where previously there was none.


The event of 9/11 is also implicated in the poem’s meditation upon “heroism,” as it applies both to the people trapped in and leaping from the collapsing towers and to a poem that interrogates the nature of the heroic:


But meaninglesssness, when accepted, can be beautiful
in the way the Greeks were beautiful
when they accepted death.
Only in this sense can a poem be heroic.
After the towers collapsed

many men and women were described as heroes.
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. (62-63)


The aesthetic/political value of beauty, the acceptance of death, heroic action, and the towers’ collapse interweave as Lerner asks what it might mean to be an American in the wake of 9/11:


… According to the president

any American who continues her life as if the towers had not collapsed
is a hero. This is to conflate the negative with the counterfactual.
The president’s statement is meaningless
unless to be American means to embrace one’s death,
which is possible. (63)


This stanza concludes the first half (perhaps the first of two unnamed, unnumbered sections) of “Didactic Elegy” close to the middle of the page and thereby activates over half a page of white space. In so doing Lerner confronts the reader with the absence of lines on a page and underscores the impact of this question: how, individually and collectively, might we embrace a death that presents itself as unembraceable?


The remainder of the poem responds to these issues even as it evades any ideological simplification of them. Lerner’s focus upon vision (the duplicity of the speaker’s “I” and the eye that is only partially blind to its own ignorance) returns as he ponders the effect of the event (the towers’ collapse) and the consequences of the event’s representation. “Can an image [also] be heroic?”, the speaker asks (64). The artwork emphasizes the difference between “an event and the event of the event’s image” (64). Representing the facticity of its status as artifact, it practices and affirms a lyricism that reveals its own contingencies and in so doing is able to “authorize hope” (65). Lerner reinstates the author/ity of authorhood and the artwork in the wake of devastating loss, but “Didactic Elegy” does not simultaneously affirm an essentialist or humanistic message, nor is “hope” offered up as a means of avoiding complexity, irony, contradiction, individual suffering, or political failure.


This is the role of artwork—to authorize hope,
but the very condition of possibility for this hope is the impossibility of its fulfillment.
The value of hope is that is has no use value.
Hope is the saddest of formalisms. (65)


The artwork engenders interpretation and criticism, and the search for significance in life as in art leads to Lerner’s surprising emphasis on the political:


It is not that the significance [of an artwork] is mere appearance.
The significance is real but impermanent.
Indeed, the mere appearance of significance is significant.
We call it politics. (65)


“Didactic Elegy” turns relentlessly toward the collective and cultural. Even as the poem teaches us to embrace a negativity implicit in the very possibility of hope, it insists upon the realm of the political as it is implicitly bound to art, and the aesthetic as the scene in which value and meaning may continue to be “reassigned.”


Mourning is always already cultural; and the artwork remains within a political arena that it also helps to construct. The poem functions elegiacally to both commemorate and symbolize collective grief as well as to perform the ancient tradition of poetic mourning for the dead by reassigning value to that death, thereby keeping the dead alive in symbolic form. “Didactic Elegy”’s exploration of the question of what form that symbolization should take culminates on the poem’s final page, when the speaker of the poem asks, rhetorically, “Should we memorialize the towers or the towers’ collapse? / Can any memorial improve upon the elegance of absence?” and responds, “I think we should draw a bold, black line across an otherwise white field / and keep discussion of its meaning to a minimum” (67). Lerner proposes that we both symbolize our loss through representation and “keep discussion of [that representation’s] meaning to a minimum” in order to “keep the collapse from becoming a masterpiece”—that is to say, finished (67). The ability to remain susceptible to revaluation, according to Lerner, is constitutive of the work of art, and “[r]efusing to assign meaning to an event is to interpret it lovingly” (67). “Didactic Elegy” mourns without attempting to heal, touches the wounds of our collective grief without any effort to suture them, refuses to recuperate or to transcend the event it re-presents even as it achieves a form adequate to the unspeakable event it commemorates.


1 Gabbert, Elisa. Octopus, Issue 9:


Lerner, Ben. Angle of Yaw. Port Townsend: Copper Canyon Press, 2006.

Barbara Claire Freeman is literary critic and professor of literature who has recently turned her full attention to writing poetry. She is the author of The Feminine Sublime (University of California Press, 1998, pbk. 2000), among other works of criticism.  Formerly an Associate Professor of English at Harvard, she teaches creative writing in the Rhetoric Department at the University of California, Berkeley.  Her poems have recently appeared or are forthcoming in A Public Space, The Beloit Poetry JournalBoston Review, Colorado Review, Crazyhorse, Denver Quarterly, Harvard Review, Iowa Review, Laurel Review, The Modern Review, New American Writing, and Parthenon West. She is a current recipient of the Discovery/Boston Review Poetry Prize, (2008); the Language Exchange Poetry Award (Sarah Lawrence College, 2007), and a Pushcart Prize nominee. Incivilities, her first book of poems, is forthcoming from Counterpath Press.


S.M. Stone is completing her MFA in poetry at Brown University. Her poems and translations have appeared or are forthcoming in The Modern Review and Mandorla.

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