Preview: Finding a path to direct genuineness


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Ben Lerner investigates modern American society, one line at a time.

The 30-year-old Topeka, Kan., native, who currently teaches writing at the University of Pittsburgh, has made a substantial name for himself as a resident observer of the human condition, turning what he sees and hears into verse — of which there are now three volumes.

Lerner’s first two published works, 2004’s The Lichtenberg Figures and 2006’s Angle of Yaw, have garnered him recognition as a poet to be reckoned with, as the former was awarded the Hayden Carruth prize by Copper Canyon Press, and the latter was a finalist for the 2006 National Book Award. He also lived and wrote in Madrid as a Fulbright scholar in 2003.

Lerner will read from his works at 5:30 p.m. today at the Frank Conroy Reading Room in the Dey House. Admission is free.

Michael Wiegers, executive editor of Copper Canyon Press (where all of Lerner’s books have been published), recalls “having the top of his head taken off” upon a first reading of Lerner’s work as an anonymous entrant for the Hayden Carruth prize.

“This was a poet … who wanted to work language to a sharp edge,” Wiegers said. “Throughout my time reading for that contest, his book became the one for all the others to beat. None did. His second book … ratcheted up how the poet looks at and to language.”

Wiegers has been a support system of sorts for Lerner in his publishing career, having edited all three of his books.

“[Lerner is] very confident in how he approaches his work and knows how he wants to see it out into the world,” Wiegers said.

With Mean Free Path, which will be released next year, Lerner essentially moves within the same trajectory as in his first two works, in terms of his strong emphasis on the importance of language.

On a more personal level, it will also carry concern regarding the commercialization of public space and speech, in addition to focusing on the ways that various forms of violence are sedimented in societal rhetoric.

The inspiration for Mean Free Path, Lerner said, draws from the phrase’s meaning in physics, defined as the average distance a particle travels between subsequent impacts with other particles.

The poet then applied this notion to the works in the collection, which Lerner asserts are “full of little collisions — stutters, repetitions, fragmentations, recombinations — that track how language threatens to break up or change course under the emotional pressures of the utterance.”

By displaying a clear desire to tackle the woes of contemporary society, Lerner is setting himself up to become a watchdog voice in his own right. This kind of consciousness is what Wiegers said he hopes people will gain from the poet’s work.

“[Lerner] is a very smart, passionate man … with a need to address the biggest issues of our lives while not allowing them to be lost to easy, cast-off language or habitual thinking,” he said.

Excerpt from “Mean Free Path” (May 2010)

You startled me. I thought you were sleeping

In the traditional sense. I like looking

At anything under glass, especially

Glass. You called me. Like overheard

Dreams. I’m writing this one as a woman

Comfortable with failure. I promise I will never

But the predicate withered. If you are

Uncomfortable seeing this as portraiture

Close your eyes. No, you startled

from “The Doppler Elegies”

I want to give you, however

brief, a sense of

period, a major advancement in

I slept through. I want to understand

I want to return to our earlier

I keep a notebook for

that purpose by

their motion lights, I didn’t want

to wake you, I

sell windows in

civilian life, I can sleep

anything, the way some people

here, in the terminal

Even as a child, I could sell

look at me, as if to say, what is he

sleeping, what is Ben

sleeping now. It is as good a word

as any

war between the forces of

I wrote this

quickly, over many years

You may have seen me writing it

In photographs, I never know

what they want me to do

with my hands, I just

smile, but it doesn’t mean


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