Image © Paul Bausch onfocus.com
Ben Lerner and Cyrus Console grew up together in Topeka, Kansas, and became poets. Here the two friends discuss their boyhood bedsheets, corn and irony, fundamentalism and pharmaceuticals, how they came to use words like “metonymic,” “horizontality,” and “syntagmatic,” and why they are in the habit of renouncing poetry.
— Tom Lutz
BEN LERNER and CYRUS CONSOLE
BEN LERNER: In your first book, Brief Under Water, you deployed an almost Victorian prose sentence to describe the particulars of the America (Topeka, Kansas) we grew up in. Part of the pathos of the book derives from the ill fit between the highly literary prose and the content it’s attempting to organize. You described your Peanuts bedsheets, for instance, thus: “Many years later these bedclothes would retain the power to cheer me, both by the inimitable distress of their fabric and by the illustrations they bore, done in the boy-and-beagle style of Schulz…” In your second book, The Odicy, the measure is no longer the 19th century sentence but the pentameter verse line. My question is: Do you see the traditional prosody here as parallel to the Victorian prose — as a form that’s in conflict with the contemporary experience it’s supposed to track? Or is there a different relationship between form and content in this book? I guess the short version of the question would be: Is your relationship to pentameter ironic?
CYRUS CONSOLE: The short answer would be no, or not so ironic as in the first book, which disavowed its content in advance, mocking it in fancy prose. The Odicy approaches content in the spirit of an assay for which verse provides the metric. It wants to find out if available subject matter (the twinkie, as opposed to the daffodil) can be beautiful, and pentameter is the invariant measure against which rightness of form is to be judged. Often during the composition of this book I felt deaf or numb to poetry, and these constraints seemed the only guideline available. But do I understand what you mean here by “ironic” — that chintzy, fire-retardant linens containing no linen and functioning primarily as an advertisement for the Schulz franchise are somehow not worthy of lovingly elaborated treatment in language, whereas the Derwent really deserves it when Wordsworth says “Was it for this / That one, the fairest of all Rivers, lov’d / To blend his murmurs with my Nurse’s song” — that the ironist performs the assignment of worth to unbefitting objects, and that in these books irony aims to preserve valuation in a landscape that offers no apparent value?
Topeka High graduates doing things!