Thursday, February 2, 2017

Ben Lerner's "She will never want for money" Explicated and Meandered About

Ben Lerner's "She will never want for money" Explicated and Meandered About

Warning—If I cared as much about poetry as Ben Lerner, I would have revised this a dozen more times, and it would make linear sense. Instead, I've taken a couple days because I'm busy at my new job where I want everyone to like me, and because I'm a little close to death with a furious cold that forced me from my youngest sister-in-law's wedding reception to curl in a fetal position in a car while I was almost sure my head was going to explode in a Scanners-like incident and I didn't want to ruin the night. So, it's pretty stream of consciousness, and I think I'm going to violate Dean Young's copyright by the end of this too. Sorry. I can edit it out, I just love the poem after revisiting Embryoyo (only $.50 used on Amazon right now) on a tangent during this rambling essay, and I think it's appropriate. So because I promised a stranger on the internet I'd explicate this poem, I've done it. Kinda.

Now that that's out of the way, let's get to the explication... introduction.

Ben Lerner is a thinker. He puzzles deeply about poetry, and thus, his poems often emerge as deep puzzles. Anyway, enough from The SphinxThe poem "She will never want for money" doesn't have nearly the same level of opacity, or obliqueness that some of his other works have, and you might say this mode is him closer to Dean Young than he is a lot of the time. It's a Dean Young-er version of Ben Lerner, only, you know, somewhat. But mostly this poem very well demonstrates the current state of lyric poetry. By which I mean that many poems that are being written and published today, the last five years, and likely the next five years, bear a similar stylistic approach to their subject. 


I'm probably the only person who will think that's funny, but to explain a little more, parataxis is very very popular in lyric poetry. It is, simply put, when two lines or images are placed next to each other without a connection made by the author. 

Essentially, it is a pathway made of individual stones spaced a full stride apart instead of a sidewalk. Or, it is a cliff face with dozens of possible climbing lines instead of a ski-lift. Occluded and ironic, one of the more common modes in the lyric poem of today uses the units of meaning as individual metaphors to expound on a subject or to obliquely further an implied narrative. Outright telling a story, to many lyric poets, is too simple—or, perhaps simplistic is a better word. Instead, each sentence, or sometimes individual phrases are little ring puzzles to uncouple to allow a fuller understanding of the whole.

And like any good puzzle, after giving the poem a once over, you, as the interested reader of the lyric poem, look for a loose string—a striking clue to lead you into the knot of meaning. For me, the biggest opening was the line "Maybe we should see other people?" and even moreso than the line itself, the fact that it is a question as opposed to a statement. 

This plainspoken line is the dangling end-string that shows the context of the poem. Had it been a statement, the narrator to the "she", the tone would be shifted to a more aloof one, however, as a question it can only really read as parroting question. An incredulous response, "What do you mean we should see other people?" Followed by the affirmation that it is merely impossible. The narrator is posed with the concept and says no. However, most times "we should see other people doesn't require a second party to agree to the terms for the informal contract to take action, or, sorry buddy, she's moving on. With that 'in' into the poem the entire thing becomes, slightly, clearer.

This is also a key feature of much lyric poetry: ambiguity. When writing or reading a narrative the events are the important details, and how those details are relayed is how the sentiment is inferred or at times stated. With lyric poetry it is quite the opposite. Alternative explanations are one of the goals, as surprise is a key ingredient to a good piece of art in virtually any medium. If you can easily guess what happens next in a story, movie, or even poem, when you get there you may feel slightly smarter, but the actual writing and its gravitas is deflated. Anyway, now I'm again getting all pretentious and 'poety', so let's first break down the poem line by line and then re-piece it together.

Here's the poem in question: 


"[She will never want for money]" by Ben Lerner

SHE WILL NEVER WANT FOR MONEY. Her uncle invented the room. On our first date, I told the one about the dead astronaut. How was I to know? To prepare the air for her image, I put on soft music. I use gum to get gum out of my hair. Like every exfoliated smear, we must either be stained or invisible. Maybe we should see other people? Impossible. The new trains don't touch their tracks. The new razors don't touch the cheek. If I want to want you, isn't that enough? No. Way too much.


And now we break it apart.

She will never want for money.

-One thing I greatly admire about this poem is the duality of the language. Almost each line is a metaphor, and while the metaphor works with the theme, the literal meaning of the phrases or lines is also applicable. For this line, the obvious, literal meaning is very straightforward. She comes from money. The following line confirms that, but there's a little something that can be inferred from the statement, which is that she is beautiful/charming or in some way desirable to the opposite sex (ie, even if her money runs out, she can marry money). This is perhaps me reading too deeply or taking my own ideas and superimposing them onto the poem. This is part of the frustration and the fun of lyric poetry. Ambiguity is one of their favorite playthings.

Her uncle invented the room.

-Obviously this is hyperbole, that her uncle invented something so common and ubiquitous. Therein lies the point. It's not a fad that will come and go, it's a staple of everyday life and is likely to remain so, which reinforces the 'never be poor' idea. It also, to me, implies a disconnect between the narrator and the 'she'. Because the narrator made no attempt to indicate the actual invention or the source of the money, it implies that their source of wealth is so disparate from his frame of reference he needn't actually describe it, or  simply put: he is not as well off as her. No? Of course it's hard to say, that's merely how I read it, take it or leave it, but there's more to back up that line of thought later. Anyway, her uncle invented the room, why not. I bet he made a mint off of it. Next.

On our first date, I told her the one about the dead astronaut.

-This line serves multiple purposes, it indicates that they had a first date, which, as it isn't the 'only' date, implies that there were more dates to come, this was a relationship not just a one-off event. Of course, a first date can be the last date too, but I'm not trying to write a treatise on calculus here, we're dealing with the humanities. The second half of the line is recognizable to anyone who's ever courted a mate, it's certainly in my wheelhouse, so I recognize the idea of telling a poorly chosen joke to someone you don't know too well. Poor Ben Lerner's narrator. Bad first impressions can be hard to overcome. How do I know she didn't like the joke? The next line.

How was I to know?

-That she was not impressed/amused by the joke, to the point that he is questioning himself about the choice to even tell it is telling. My thought is a difference in class, as a dead astronaut is a little dark/crass. Astronauts are known for being heroes, so making light of their death might be seen as crude, or uncouth. But also, it sets up the next line, by showing the narrator is already on defense, if you follow. He made a misstep early and is being careful to not further offend.

To prepare the air for her image, I put on soft music.

-Hey! Synecdoche! I remember you, buddy, get over here. Her image, that's a great one, as the narrator's not putting on smooth jazz before walking a picture of her around the room. So the part (image) represents the whole (person). Like pretty much every line, this could be seen literally, putting on romantic music, being a, you know, romantic gentleman—perhaps exaggeratedly so. There is also a fun little playing around with idiom here. He is putting music onto the air, or, putting on airs for her. He is misrepresenting himself to appear more desireable, as we all end up doing once or twice, but as we also all know, that rarely works.

I use gum to get the gum out of my hair.

-This was my wife Jessica's favorite line when I read her the poem. First, looking at the prospect literally we see it is an exercise in counter-productivity. When you think of getting gum out of hair you think of peanut butter, vegetable oil, ice... scissors. In this case, I read it as the narrator realizing, but still acting in a way that will fit in with the girl (the airs he's put on to fit in with her famous/wealthy uncle/family). I already told you that lyric poetry allows for a fair amount of speculation because of its ambiguity. Think of it like this: rock climbers don't always climb a cliff along the same path. The aim is always to reach the top (end of the poem) but there are many ways to make sense of its subtle surface and many different lines which to ascend to reach the shared goal. So, if you read the poem in a different way, that's awesome. I'd actually really love to hear what you think, please comment on the blog what you think, or that I'm stupid or wasting my time or whatever. Is there anyone out there?

Like every exfoliated smear,

-Woah, woah—I'm gonna cut you off there, I mean, the comma identifies that this is it's own unit so we're good. By exfoliated smear, literally it is describing laundry, smears rubbed together (although, "stain" in the second half of the sentence really hammers that home, but the idea of cleaning gum out of hair was just before this as well), in the context of a fragile relationship 'smear' is a harsh word. But more after we finish the line.

we must either be stained or invisible.

-So this fulfills the laundry metaphor. When you wash a smeared piece of clothing it either comes clean (like Mitch Hedberg's mustard stain-1:15) or there remains a visible stain. Then there's the ambiguity of the relationship. It appears that the "exfoliated smear" is their mismatched relationship, perhaps in the eyes of the wealthy family, but more likely just the arrangement altogether. It seems to me that this is the natural progression of this relationship. Guy tries to get a girl out of his league, she shows a little interest, he tries really hard and she goes along for awhile, then their differences become too much so she pushes back and breaks it off. He isn't ready to accept that, but it's the reality, so he stops shaving (coming soon), and realizes the fault in his ways: He liked her and showed it. Anyway, I'm getting ahead of myself, next line please. But I warn you, this is the volta, the turn, and it was also the key I'd already discussed.

Maybe we should see other people?

-As a question, this is a little heartbreaking. Or, ya know, just a bit sad, depending on your perspective. As I mentioned earlier, this question is the key to the poem as it isn't a question naturally. It's the sort of thing that would get someone on Who's Line is It Anyway buzzed for not being a real question. What it is, is an incredulous response. A, "wait—what?" moment. "Maybe we should see other people?" WTF? No, of course not, the narrator's in love, damnit. Which is why:


-Of course not, were it a casual affair it would not be worthy of its own poem, but also, it wouldn't drive the narrator to do something so absurd as rub gum in their hair to remove gum. He would be sensible and use canola oil. And if that didn't work he'd understand that like a white shirt with a big red wine stain on it, you chuck it (or pull out the scissors and get excising the hair tainted by the gum—which, incidentally, is what she does. But first he must make his plea. Like Spiderman told Peter Griffin, everybody gets one.

The new trains don't touch their tracks.

-Again, this is literally true about maglev trains—magnetic levitation bullet trains are the fastest in the world. But also, metaphorically, his love of her has lifted him off the ground in that all too stereotypical yet relatable way. But, to express such a cliche as "her love made me feel like I'm walking on air" the narrator/poet has to speak through metaphor. The seemingly heaviest thing around floats with her love. Again. I might be too far down the rabbithole, I gotcha, but might as well keep going. 

The new razors don't touch the cheek.

-Yes, again, a statement of fact. Many multi-blade razors tout the idea that they pull the hair out from the skin and never actually touch the skin. There was even a whole thing called "Lift and Cut" razors. Also, considering that it follows the turn, at least, as I imagine, it is also a statement of fact that he doesn't shave. It's a common symptom of a guy who's been a dumped. They're depressed and don't bother shaving. Whether it's true or a gross stereotype, I don't care. I'm seeing the narrator with a little scruff showing now.

If I want to want you, isn't that enough?

-First of all, of course the answer is no, but aside from that, this bit is a little muddier for me. In my estimation, it represents the idea of an over-eager guy being off-putting to a woman who has all the options in the world. Especially one that doesn't necessarily have the economic stability she's used to, but again, that could just be my path up this lyriclifface.

No. Way too much.

-I think The Tao of Steve is the appropriate link here. Specifically the third rule: "We pursue that which retreats from us." It is good to know. Even if it's not a universally applicable philosophy, it's pretty solid for the most part. Also it's a really underrated movie, I think mostly because of the unattractiveness of everyone in it. Donal Logue's best role, and I was pretty impressed that I actually remembered his name without having to look it up. Of course wanting to want something means there's a conscious effort, perhaps, opposed to animal magnetism or whatever. 

Anyway, we're here, the end, the top of the Eiger.


I didn't mention the prose formatting. I am a huge fan of eschewing line breaks. They can certainly serve a purpose to isolate units, to slow a read, or at times speed it up, or in my favorite use to work as visual punctuation, but by skipping them—by presenting your poem in block format, you are isolating the units to their barest punctuated form. I guess that's a pretty pretentious way to say that it removes pretense. It's not a poem because it has arbitrary line breaks, and it doesn't care if you think it's a poem. Irreverence in a sort of hipster way is kind of the in thing. I get it.

So, earlier I said this was Ben Lerner at his Dean Youngyiest (Youngiest?), and if you haven't read much of either of the poets that may not mean a ton. A quick moment of confession, I have read this poem before. I don't remember it, but in preparation for my MFA critical thesis I read the collection this is from (Angle of Yaw) as well as a couple of his other collections (The Lichtenberg Figures and Mean Free Path) but in the end cut my analysis of one of his sonnets from the thesis. So perhaps it's through cryptomnesia that I happen to have a poem that uses a similar mode forthcoming in the newest Meridian that should be mailing out any time now (It's called "You're No Perseus Either" and I'm really excited about it, but it too is about a relationship gone sour, though I use some of that poetry pixie dust that is mythology, and another dose by having it in couplets. Everyone loves the couplets.)

To that Dean Young end, I revisted the collection of his that ended up in my final thesis, Embryoyo. I knew the poem I wrote about didn't fit ("Bronzed", which is awesome in its own right.) Instead, I knew there was something that would fit. I really liked his Elegy on a Toy Piano and First Course in Turbulence as well, but I read Embroyoyo at least a dozen times. I found the poem I was thinking of pretty quickly. "Pitchblende". Pitch is a really interesting substance (here is a QI bit about it), but anyway, here is the poem I thought had a similar subject and kind of similar stylistics, though it is very different, and does use line breaks to break up its units.

Pitchblende  by Dean Young

All I ever wanted was ecstasy
so I tried to fathom the fluttering
toward me dead things I don't recommend it.
What a strange disease I have that you
could be my cure. A mechanism produces
thorny light, a labyrinth made of overlapping
circles, not the crisscross of raiding crows
over meadows where there are no meadows.
No one can open the big doors alone, not if
you push until your fingers explode, oh
my clover flower. The imagination is gleeful
in its agony, even weeping behind its bush,
double-parked cars like rainbow trout on ice,
a disemboweled umbrella stuffed in the trash,
crumbled like a sketch of a bat by someone
who's never seen a bat. So I sat down
and dialed all your old numbers I don't
recommend it angry or numbed
with the bends. No one here by that name
then hang up before my ingenuine
apology, just once music in the background
spiraling through the torn and borrowed world
so I could almost forget the roaring toward us
ball of flames.


And now, because I'd just die if I didn't include a writing exercise, here's one.

Inspired by Ben Lerner's "She will never want for money"

Write your own paratactic break up poem. Write a quick draft that's more of an outline of events. Invent some sort of narrative and make sure it's not too plain. Break it down into somewhere between eight and twenty plot points. Try to isolate that incident and think of it in a completely different scenario. If there's a fight in the kitchen, "Before mise en place the bell peppers got salty" or maybe "Vinegar replaced hydrogen as we breathed balsamic" or something. That is stage two. For stage three take out at least two of your darling lines. Add in one statement of fact, something that would be like a kid in the fifties describing a piece of modern technology like the maglev train not touching the tracks or the razors not touching the skin. Voila.