The Design Observer Twenty

Ben Lerner | Poetry

Didactic Elegy

Editor's note: Ben Lerner is known for writing deeply serious poems behind zany exteriors. This discrepancy — between our values and the cheapness of how we represent them, between, in his fiction, feeling for someone who watched someone drown and the AIM chat that mediates the empathy, lines broken to look like that other cheap medium, the poem — this discrepancy presents itself in most of his work as emotions far too nuanced and strong for the idioms and cliches that represent them. The irony bites. In "Didactic Elegy," it just makes you flinch. The verse essay is an earnest attempt to represent trauma without cheapening it. The language is dry, even scholarly. With its serious exterior, the poem shows a profound caution toward effecting any emotion too strongly — and this excessive caution is also something he worries about. —Adam Plunkett

Sense that sees itself is spirit.


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.
I posit the critic to distance myself from intention, a despicable affect.
Yet intention is necessary if the field is to be understood as an economy.

By ‘economy’ I mean that the field is apprehension in its idle form.
The eye constitutes any disturbance in the field as an object.
This is the grammatical function of the eye. To distinguish between objects,
the eye assigns value where there is none.

When there is only one object the eye is anxious.
Anxiety here is comic; it provokes amusement in the body.
The critic experiences amusement as a financial return.

It is easy to apply a continuous black mark to the surface of a primed canvas.
It is difficult to perceive the marks without assigning them value.
The critic argues that this difficulty itself is the subject of the drawing.
Perhaps, but to speak here of a subject is to risk affirming
intention where there is none.

It is no argument that the critic knows the artist personally.
Even if the artist is a known quantity, interpretation is an open struggle.
An artwork aware of this struggle is charged with negativity.
And yet naming negativity destroys it.
Can this process be made the subject of a poem?

but it can be made the object of a poem.
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.
But when the meaning of such a figure becomes fixed, it is a mere positivity.


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

Now the critic feels a new anxiety in the presence of the drawing.
Anxiety here is tragic; it inspires a feeling of irrelevance.
The critic experiences irrelevance as a loss of capital.

To the critic, the black line has become simply a black line.
What was once a gesture of negativity, has lost its capacity to refer
to the difficulties inherent in reference.
Can this process be made the subject of a poem?

but a poem may prefigure its own irrelevance,
thereby staying relevant
despite the transpiration of extraneous events.

This poem will lose its relevance if and when there is a significant resurgence
of confidence in the function of the artwork.
If artworks are no longer required to account for their own status,
this poem’s figures will then be fixed and meaningless.

But meaninglessness, when accepted, can be beautiful
in the way 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 death.
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.

Rescue workers who died attempting to save the men and women trapped in the towers are, in
          fact, heroes,
but the meaning of their deaths is susceptible to radical revaluation.
The hero makes a masterpiece of dying
and even if the hero is a known quantity
there is an open struggle over the meaning of her death. 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.


It is difficult to differentiate between the collapse of the towers
and the image of the towers collapsing.
The influence of images is often stronger than the influence of events,
as the film of Pollock painting is more influential than Pollock’s paintings.

But as it is repeated, the power of an image diminishes,
producing anxiety and a symbolic reinvestment.
The image may then be assigned value where there is none.
Can an image be heroic?

but an image may proclaim its distance from the event it ostensibly depicts,
that is, it may declare itself its own event,
and thereby ban all further investment.

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.

The critic feels guilty viewing the image like a work of art,
but guilt here stems from an error of cognition,
as the critic fails to distinguish between an event
and the event of the event’s image.

The image of the towers collapsing is a work of art
and, like all works of art, may be rejected
for soiling that which it ostensibly depicts. As a general rule,
if a representation of the towers collapsing
may be repeated, it is unrealistic.


Formalism is the belief that the eye does violence to the object it apprehends.
All formalisms are therefore sad.
A negative formalism acknowledges the violence intrinsic to its method.
Formalism is therefore a practice, not an essence.

For example, a syllogism subjected to a system of substitutions
allows us to apprehend the experience of logic
at logic’s expense.

Negative formalisms catalyze a certain experience of structure.
The experience of structure is sad,
but, by revealing the contingency of content,
it authorizes hope.

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.
Hope is the saddest of formalisms.

The critic’s gaze is a polemic without object
and only seeks a surface
upon which to unfold its own internal contradictions.
Conditions permitting, a drawing might then be significant,
but only as a function of her search for significance.

It is not that the significance is mere appearance.
The significance is real but impermanent.
Indeed, the mere appearance of significance is significant.
We call it ‘politics.’


The lyric is a stellar condition.
The relation between the lyric I and the lyric poem
is like the relation between a star and starlight.
The poem and the I are never identical and their distance may be measured in time.
Some lyric poems become visible long after their origins have ceased to exist.

The heavens are anachronistic. Similarly, the lyric
lags behind the subjectivity it aspires to express. Expressing this disconnect
is the task of the negative lyric,
which does not exist.

If and when the negative lyric exists, it will be repetitious.
It will be designed to collapse in advance, producing an image
that transmits the impossibility of transmission. This familiar gesture,
like a bold black stroke against a white field,
will emphasize flatness, which is a failure of emphasis.

The critic repeats herself for emphasis.
But, since repetition emphasizes only the failure of sense,
this is a contradiction.
When contradictions are intended they grow lyrical
and the absence of the I is felt as a presence.

If and when the negative lyric exists, it will affect a flatness
to no effect.
The failure of flatness will be an expression of depth.


Towers collapse didactically.
When a tower collapses in practice it also collapses in theory.
Brief dynamic events then carry meanings
that demand memorials,
vertical memorials at peace with negativity.

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

I think that we should draw a bold, black line across an otherwise white field
and keep discussion of its meaning to a minimum.
If we can close the event to further interpretation
we can keep the collapse from becoming a masterpiece.

The key is to intend as little as possible in the act of memorialization.
By intending as little as possible we refuse to assign value where there is none.
Violence is not yet modern; it fails to acknowledge the limitations of its medium.
When violence is aware of its mediacy and loses its object
it will begin to resemble love.
Love is negative because it dissolves
all particulars into an experience of form.
Refusing to assign meaning to an event is to interpret it lovingly.

The meaninglessness of the drawing is therefore meaningful
and the failure to seek out value is heroic.
Is this all that remains of poetry?

Ignorance that sees itself is elegy.

Posted in: Arts + Culture

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