Until The Sound Ceases to Convey Any Idea

Excerpt from The Hatred of Poetry (my review) by Ben Lerner

I remember speaking a word whose meaning I didn’t know but about which I had some inkling, some intuition, then inserting that word into a sentence, testing how it seemed to fit or chafe against the context and the syntax, rolling the word around, as it were, on my tongue. I remember my feeling that I possessed only part of the meaning of the word, like one of those fragmented friendship necklaces, and I had to find the other half in the social world of speech. I remember walking around as a child repeating a word I’d overheard, applying it wildly, and watching how, miraculously, I was rarely exactly wrong. If you are five and you point to a sycamore or an idle backhoe or a neighbor stooped over his garden or to images of these things on a television set and utter “vanish” or utter “varnish” you will never be only incorrect; if your parent or guardian is curious, she can find a meaning that makes you almost eerily prescient — the neighbor is dying, losing weight, or the backhoe has helped a structure disappear or is glazed with rainwater or the sheen of spectacle lends to whatever appears onscreen a strange finish. To derive your understanding of a word by watching others adjust to your use of it: Do you remember the feeling that sense was provisional and that two people could build around an utterance a world in which any usage signified? I think that’s poetry. And when I felt I finally mastered a word, when I could slide it into a sentence with a satisfying click, that wasn’t poetry anymore — that was something else, something functional within a world, not the liquefaction of its limits.

Remember how easily our games could break down or reform or describe reality? The magical procedure was always first and foremost repetition: Every kid knows the phenomenon that psychologists call "semantic saturation," wherein a word is repeated until it feels emptied of sense and becomes mere sound – "to repeat, monotonously, some common word, until the sound, by dint of frequent repetition, ceased to convey any idea whatever to the mind," as Poe describes it in the story "Berenice." Your parents enforce a bedtime and, confined to your bed, you yell, "Bedtime" over and over again until whatever meaning seemed to dwell therein is banished along with all symbolic order, and you're a little feral animal underneath the glowing plastic stars.

Linguistic repetition, you learn from an early age, can give form or take it away, because it forces a confrontation with the malleability of language and the world we build with it, build upon it.

Most horrifying was to do this or have it done to your own name, worst of all by some phalanx of chanting kids on the playground – to be reminded how easily you could be expelled from the human community, little innominate snot-nosed feral animal too upset even to tattle. And what would you say? "They broke my name." The teacher would just instruct you to cast a weak spell back: "Sticks and stones my break my bones, but words..."

We call these children's games, not children's work, but isn't a child precisely one who doesn't yet observe a clear distinction between what counts as labor and what counts a leisure? All children are poets in that sense. I'm asking you to locate your memory of that early linguistic instability, of language as a creative and destructive force. I have done the reading, and the reading suggests that we always experience this power as withdrawing from us, or we from it – if we didn't distance from this capacity it would signal our failure to be assimilated into the actual, adult world, i.e., we would be crazy. 

Our resentment of that falling away from poetry takes the form (among other forms) of contempt for grown-up poets and for poems; poets, who, by their very nature, accuse us of that distance, make it felt, but fail to close it. 


Lerner, B. (2016). The hatred of poetry. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. (publisher, library)

My Goodreads review

Header photo by Raúl Nájera on Unsplash