Perfect contempt

“I, too, dislike it.” It’s the title of Mia You’s new book from 1913 Press; it’s also the opening gambit in Ben Lerner’s recent book The Hatred of Poetry, a book that takes Moore’s gesture of self-distrust as emblematic of poetry itself, an art “defined for millenia...[by] a rhythm of denunciation and defense” (10). For Lerner, this opens out into an argument about poetry as such, about the way that “[t]he poem is always a record of failure” (13). The argument opens out further: that gesture of irritation is about “how inextricable ‘poetry’ is from our imagination of social life... ‘poetry’ is a word for the meeting place of the private and the public, the internal and the external” (18).

Tacitly, this is a way of saying that poetry as such bears a fundamental relationship with gender, which is, after all, the grounds on which we are given to understand what may and may not be made public. (Those are private areas, we tell small children who want to run around naked; we keep them covered.) So Michael Warner writes: “Public and private...are the very scene of selfhood and scarcely distinguishable from the experience of gender and sexuality” (24). What gender distinguishes, Lerner suggests, the poem mediates with a fantasy of transcendence that can never be realized.

But of course the Poem (or what we might more abstractly call Style, since, as Dan Katz has argued, Lerner’s writing is firmly situated in that orthodoxy that denies any firm distinction between poetry and other writing) is never ungendered, is it? That irritation in “I, too, dislike it”—what Lerner jovially calls “the hatred of poetry”—doesn’t operate uniformly across genders. Moore’s “truly out-of-body voice” has perhaps been best described by somebody who was describing somebody else, for as D. A. Miller so aptly writes:

The first secret of Austen Style: its author hates style, or at any rate, must always say she does; she must always profess the values, and uphold the norms, of ‘nature,’ even as she practices the most extraordinarily formal art the novel had yet known. (1, 26-27)

“I, too, dislike it” is only the most famous of Moore’s protestations against Style. “Complexity/ moreover, that has been committed to darkness, instead of granting it-//self to be the pestilence that it is, moves all a-/bout as if to bewilder us with the dismal fallacy that insistence/ is the measure of achievement,” she writes (complexly) in “In the Days of Prismatic Color.” As Miller puts it:

the contumely that the foolish queen draws on himself for reading Austen, that is, for being Woman, the clever one escapes through reading Austen, through having taken, practically as well as intellectually, the point of (her) Style.

That irritation that innoculates us from the taint of femininity is not quite an ungendering, but an inhabitation of femininity that puts femininity on hold, makes sexuality stop quite still at the threshold, raising self-negation to a magnificent art of “perfect contempt” (Moore, “Poetry”).



Katz, Daniel. “ ‘I did not walk here all the way from prose’: Ben Lerner’s Virtual Poetics.” Textual Practice (2016): 1-23.

Lerner, Ben. The Hatred of Poetry. London: Fitzcarraldo, 2016.

Miller, D. A. Jane Austen, or The Secret of Style. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003.

Warner, Michael. Publics and Counterpublics. New York: Zone, 2005.