21ST CENTURY VOICES: WERNER HERZOG AND BEN LERNER

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wernerherzog_guidefortheperplexedI’ve been reading through two books. The first is a result of Werner Herzog’s collaboration with Paul Cronin, set up as a long and fascinating conversation between the two. Herzog is a brilliant filmmaker (director of more than 60 films), and the author of several books, who has staged more than a dozen operas around the world.

I’ve heard him interviewed many times on CBC Radio One, both on Writers and Company and on Q. His is a stellar, thoughtful, creative and divergent mind, and there seems to be no limit to his talents. The book with Paul Cronin includes ten poems, in German and English versions. I have selected one of these, untitled, because to me, it feels just like November.

The second book I’ve been dipping into is Ben Lerner’s Angle of Yaw. Once again, I owe a debt to Eleanor Wachtel and Writers and Company for helping me to discover this dazzling new writer.   

The back of the book jacket features the following description of Angle of Yaw:

“[…] Ben Lerner’s ambitious second book of poetry, is an extended meditation on the commercialization of public space and speech. Combining philosophical insight with poetic experiment, political outrage with personal experience, Lerner’s prose poems and lyrical sequences examine how technologies of viewing―aerial photography in particular―feed our spectacular culture an image of itself.”

Lerner’s prose poems are both arresting and accessible. I have included three.51Y78duZCqL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

You’ll notice that all of the poems are untitled. I’m not sure why, but it raises an interesting question:

Do titles act as labels? Do they limit possible interpretations by directing the reader? Is this why Herzog and Lerner eschew them? I wonder.

Would you like to try an experiment?

It would be fun to see what we might all think up as an appropriate title for each of these 4 poems.

Give it a try!

#1. From Werner Herzog

 (untitled)

Last night, all of a sudden,

It became utterly silent.

 

Under the blackest

Motionless sky, the

Trees stood dead still.

Only our dog nibbled quietly

On the frayed edges of the carpet.

 

The next morning

The land was covered with hoarfrost.

(from: Werner Herzog, A guide for the Perplexed, Conversations with Paul Cronin)

 

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Poet and novelist Ben Lerner

 

#2, 3 and 4: From Ben Lerner

“RETURNING ASTRONAUTS almost always fall into a deep depression. They are stricken with an uncontrollable desire to gain weight. At dusk you will see them circling the park with silk pajamas, mocked by children, trailed by dogs. Prolonged weightlessness destroys the bones, the muscles, and, eventually, the larynx, which is why when astronauts return to earth we find that their speech has been reduced to a kind of quiet piping, at once soft and shrill, that is intelligible only to other astronauts, a piping that approaches, but is not, despite government assertions, song.”

Ben Lerner, from Angle of Yaw

 

 

IF IT HANGS FROM THE WALL, it’s a painting. If it rests on the floor, it’s a sculpture. If it’s very big or very small, it’s conceptual. If it forms part of the wall, if it forms part of the floor, it’s architecture. If you have to buy a ticket, it’s modern. If you are already inside it and you have to pay to get out of it, it’s more modern. If you can be inside it without paying, it’s a trap. If it moves, it’s outmoded. If you have to look up, it’s religious. If you have to look down, it’s realistic. If it’s been sold, it’s site-specific. If, in order to see it, you have to pass through a metal detector, it’s public.

Ben Lerner, from Angle of Yaw

 

READING IS IMPORTANT because it makes you look down, an expression of shame. When the page is shifted to a vertical plane, it becomes an advertisement, decree, and/or image of a missing pet or child. We say that texts displayed vertically are addressed to the public, while in fact, by failing to teach us the humility a common life requires, they convene a narcissistic mass. When you window-shop, when you shatter a store window, you see your own image in the glass.

 Ben Lerner, from Angle of Yaw

 


 

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