Ben Lerner‘s 2003 Hayden Carruth Award-winning collection The Lichtenberg Figures is one of those that illuminates, for me, the difference between well-written and good.

The poems, all untitled, are almost all 14 lines, nominally sonnets. Like a lot of other folks these days, Lerner uses collage, repetition, puns, mash-ups of language (erudite & slang, high-falutin’ & jargon, academic & plain), juxtaposition, and rapid shifts throughout.

For instance,

The thinkable goes sobbing door-to-door
in search of predicates accessible by foot.
But sense is much shorter in person
and retreats from chamber to antechamber to text.

How then to restructure a premise like a promise?


Possessing a weapon has made me bashful.

Tears appreciate in this economy of pleasure.

The ether of data engulfs the capitol.

Possessing a weapon has made me forgetful.

My oboe tars her cenotaph.

(You can find a few poems from this collection online here.)

Now, I like words, I like wordplay (Seuss to McHugh live on my shelves, and though I can’t say McHugh’s really a favorite I do find how massively far she takes word-play to be a little thrilling). And there are parts of The Lichtenberg Figures that I like a lot. For instance, the last poem in the book, which begins,

The sky narrates snow. I narrate my name in the snow.
Snow piled in paragraphs. Darkling snow. Geno-snow
and pheno-snow. I staple snow to the ground.

and which ends, “Real snow on the stage. Fake blood on the snow.”

“I staple snow to the ground” — I love that kind of image, that kind of image you can’t picture but you know, the kind of image created by just a one-word shift or substitution. All these poems read well, they shape the mouth in pleasant sequences when you read them aloud. But though on some level I admire a lot of what’s in these poems, they’re lacking, or perhaps it’s better put that they leave me wanting.

Tony Hoagland’s 2010 essay “Recognition, Vertigo and Passionate Worldliness: The Tribes of Contemporary Poetry” spends some time discussing Lerner’s work from his 2006 collection Angle of Yaw among other things. As Hoagland says,

The most prevalent poetic representation of contemporary experience is the mimesis of disorientation by non sequitur. Just look into any new magazine. The most frequently employed poetic mode is the angular juxtaposition of dissonant data, dictions, and tones, without defining relations between them. The poem of non-parallelism—how things, perceptions, thoughts, and words coexist without connecting—is the red wheelbarrow of Now.


In the work of some poets, the poetics of vertigo is employed to represent the modern environment—the maelstrom of information, of public data, of 24/7 information overload; the omnipresence of media manipulation.

That sounds about right. About another poet’s work he says,

[…] Should we praise a book for its intriguing concept and method, or even its brilliant individual lines, if the method creates monotony?

Of course, this is an issue—not much acknowledged—that haunts much experimental poetry: the use of disrupted poetic forms results in a style but resists shape. Thus the individual poems very often lack individual dramatic identity. They may be remarkable or ingenious in their process, but unremarkable in their shapeliness—in turn, such poems are difficult to remember. How this affects their value as art is hard to say.

Or not. I don’t know about that “hard to say” part. Poems that are, to use his phrasing, remarkable in their process but unremarkable in their shapeliness, can be well-written but they’re not great.

Does Lerner’s work reflect the state of (this part of, anyway) the world? Sure. They rush from line to line, thought to thought, and utilize whatever’s at hand. Do they reward, over and over again, as the best poems do? No. They don’t.They’re clever and all that, but they rush so, even those that are double-spaced, and there’s not much of a presence, not much of a human. Don’t get me wrong, I like abstraction, I like mash-up. But I want to hear an intelligence in a poem, not just intelligence, not just evidence of education.

A Boston Review micro-review of The Lichtenberg Figures says,

many of the poems delight in isolation, while over the course of the book one senses an intelligence frenetically changing the subject to keep allegiances at bay, or at least on the surface, where they remain disarmingly fungible—the personal and the allusive alike boiled down to the poetic equivalent of a one-liner.

I don’t feel these poems are disarmingly fungible (I love learning new words), I think they’re unfortunately fungible.

(Aside: I prefer my one-liners to be actual one-liners, like William Matthew‘s,


border with no country



The dead are dreaming of breathing

and several more his Selected Poems & Translations.)

But back to the point, I feel that the sort of poetry they’re talking about, that this book utilizes (very well, for what it is), will wind up being representational of an age’s attitude, but not represent its best art. Well, I should say I hope so rather than I think so — what humanity in its collective wisdom will decide is not something I’m going to attempt to predict, for I so often do not understand its choices.

There’s a difference between fragmentation (a whole is broken into pieces) and disconnectedness (disparate things set next to each other). Great writing of course can come from un-related things (words, ideas, images, etc.) set next to one another, but that requires pressure to be applied, something that’s lacking in  The Lichtenberg Figures. It’s too surface-y, too flitty for me. I want more.

p.s. In case you’ve been wondering this whole time what a lichtenberg figure is, here you go.