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Why the Jewish laureate of prose-poetry has more in common with Eminem than you might think

If he hadn’t learned to rap — quite the “if,” considering he was a white, midwestern teenager at the time — we might not be talking about him decades later. As it turned out, rap changed his life. More precisely, rap inspired him to find a way to make sense of his life: to take secret embarrassments and frustrations and turn them into something other people could enjoy. Love him or hate him, he clearly had a way with words, and he could be very funny, especially if your sense of humor was on the nasty side.

His subject was always himself, or maybe an exaggerated version of it. Each new work was at least partly about the success of the previous ones, and if you kept buying them, you couldn’t help learning things about his private life — his parents, his children, his beefs. Somehow, by burrowing so deep into himself, he rose to the top, so that even before he hit 40 he had more awards and prestige than he knew what to do with.

I’m referring to Marshall Mathers, AKA Eminem, alter ego Slim Shady; born 1972 in Saint Joseph, Missouri but raised mostly in Detroit; winner of 15 Grammys, 17 Billboard Music Awards, and an Oscar; bestselling rapper of all time; suspenseful with a pencil ever since Prince turned himself into a symbol (i.e., since 1993). But I might as well be referring to Ben Lerner, alter ego Adam Gordon; born 1979 in Topeka, Kansas; recipient of a Macarthur Genius Grant; finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the National Book Award; one of the few novelists whose novels reliably appear on bestseller lists and best-of-the-year lists, and maybe the only English-language avant-garde poet alive who comes close to being a household name.

All That Glisters: “Gold Custody” is the latest work from Ben Lerner.

I doubt either of these gentlemen would appreciate being compared to the other. To be fair, it’s not as if there aren’t deep differences between them (starting with the obvious: even a semi-successful rapper is richer and more famous than a mega-successful avant-garde poet). But however deep these differences, they’re surprisingly narrow, which may help explain how, long before they found success, both Mathers and Lerner — one a working-class high-school dropout, the other an upper-middle-class straight-A student — spent a good chunk of their free time drunk and stoned, freestyling with their friends, chasing the elusive Muse.

There’s a lot of white teenaged rapping in Lerner’s recent autobiographical novel, “The Topeka School.”

“It’s very embarrassing,” Lerner told Ari Shapiro on NPR in 2019, “the cultural appropriation of these white middle-class kids freestyling — and freestyling totally inapplicable clichés from the rap videos they’re watching.”

Yet for the novel’s young protagonist, as well as for the 40-year-old Lerner on NPR, drunken rap battles also represent “the glimmer of possibility even in those busted forms of speech where we” — which presumably means all people, not just drunken white teens — “re-encounter the miracle of language as such and the possibility of building a new language out of the limits of this one.” In short, the magic of poetry.

Embarrassing yet miraculous, appropriative yet universal: this sounds an awful lot like Mathers recalling what it was like to be the only white man practicing a predominantly Black art form in basement clubs in the 80s.

“It was almost addictive,” Mathers told Anderson Cooper in 2011 — a bold choice of words coming from someone who’d overdosed on Vicodin four years prior, but if you listen to enough of his music you see what he’s getting at. Mathers knows that he’s been the beneficiary of unearned privilege (“Look at my sales! Let’s do the math: if I was Black, I would’ve sold half”), and he knows that he’s a performer of such talent anybody can enjoy what he writes (“Maybe it’s beautiful music I made for you to just cherish”), and it’s the friction between these two truths that makes his rap persona compelling more often than not.

It’s more or less the same friction one finds in Ben Lerner’s recent work, too — he’s guilty about his whiteness and uncomfortable with the hollowness of bourgeois life (the word “fraudulence” shows up lot in his novels), but thanks to his sense of humor and technical skill, he finds ways of making guilt and hollowness entertaining.

Marshall Mathers, aka, Eminem performs at Tramps in 1999.

Will the Real Ben Lerner Please Stand Up: Marshall Mathers, aka, Eminem performs at Tramps in 1999. By Getty Images


Which brings me to Lerner’s new collection of prose poems, “Gold Custody.” Apologies for how many paragraphs it’s taken me to get here, but it seemed appropriate, somehow, since “Gold Custody” is all about the roundabout connections between things that seem to have nothing in common. The book is interspersed with photographs by the artist Barbara Bloom, some of parks, some of paintings, some of windows — all things that show up in Lerner’s writing, too, though to say that the prose poems are “of” or “about” parks, paintings, or windows would be wrong. The words and the pictures aren’t obviously connected, in other words, but they’re not totally disconnected either. Making your way from beginning to end, you want them to connect, and they do, just enough to make you crave more of a connection, and this mysterious, nagging desire for connection — a little painful and little pleasurable and very, very addictive — is, if I may be so bold, what “Gold Custody” at its core is about.

What goes for the pictures and words in Gold Custody goes double for the words themselves. Lerner is one of the smoothest contemporary stylists I know of, his phrases musically unfurling whether they make sense or not — and, like everything in this book, they’re usually somewhere between sense and nonsense:

But we can talk about singing, we can describe the song and its conditions, sitting on our blankets in Fort Greene park, the taped-off police cruiser still smoldering nearby, dragonflies mating aloft in the humid air above us. Can the song be talked into existence, I asked, I wanted to ask, just as I wanted the grass to resist more, to cling more passionately to the earth. The stems are hollow except at the nodes. They had evolved to withstand trampling and storms. I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love, the poet wrote, which is neither speech nor singing, but a grassy area between them, cordoned off by cops. (Strange how “poet” and “cop” are anagrams.)

Notice, first, that the feeling the passage’s speaker is trying to describe — wanting a sturdier connection between things—is a lot like the feeling of reading the passage itself, so that the passage almost seems to be talking about itself, or to itself. What’s still more remarkable, particularly when read aloud, is how close the passage comes to making sense without ever quite getting there — it’s precise in its vagueness, hanging just a few millimeters from comprehensibility, as though it could mean something if it felt like it, but for various big and little reasons would prefer not to, at least right now.

Each lofty abstraction (“Can the song be talked into existence”) is pulled back to earth with a snippet of concrete, eerily intimate description (“sitting on our blankets in Fort Greene park”). Even the abstractions have some of this disarming intimacy (notice that it’s “the song” rather than “a song,” as if we already know what song Lerner’s referring to). Thoughts that seem to have nothing to do with each other are welded together with connector phrases like “just as.”
Yet because of the rhythmic smoothness of Lerner’s sentences, the results don’t immediately register as nonsense — you almost believe, or want to believe, that songs being talked into existence do have something to do with grass clinging to dirt. And in the absence of complete sense, you find yourself questioning the logic of a phrase you’d taken for granted, like “just as.”

What, precisely, does “just as” mean? “Just” suggests precision; “as” suggests a leap between two things that aren’t precisely the same and can only be linked abstractly, which is to say, imprecisely. So “just as,” as it appears in the sentence above, is a shrunken version of the sentence itself: two concepts that don’t have all that much in common, welded together because a writer (“the writer?”) wants them welded.

It may sound precious or tedious, but it rarely feels that way when you’re reading. Whatever value these prose poems have, you could even say, is premised on their not being tedious to read — on creating a trance-like state of mind in which the meaning of the words comes second to what Lerner called “the miracle of language as such.” To encourage this state of mind, “Gold Custody” is strewn with arresting images, words and phrases that pop up unexpectedly every few pages — a partial list would include gold, grass, glass, various members of the Kennedy family, and stars; the words “fungible” and “rivulets”; and scenes that involve crying, sitting in Fort Greene Park, or both. The first time you encounter one of these, you’re nonplussed; the second or third time, you get a little “aha” of recognition, though without any of the understanding that usually accompanies recognition. If you didn’t understand what was going on with the Kennedys the first time, you might reasonably ask yourself, then why should it be so satisfying to hear about the Kennedys twice?

Here again, Lerner offers a vague sense of sense, without any of the real thing. Deprived of sense, you’re left to contemplate yourself contemplating Lerner’s words, waiting for an epiphany that never arrives. If, like me, you have a hard time understanding rap, it’s all very reminiscent of listening to Eminem — if you didn’t quite understand what he was saying the first time, then why should it be so satisfying to hear a rhyming line a few seconds later? And where Lerner pushes unlike images into unlikely unions, Eminem is always ransacking unlike words in search of unlikely rhymes — it’s one thing to read the lines, “Take some inventory: in this gourd there’s a ford engine, door hinge, syringe, an orange, an extension cord and a ninja sword, not to mention four linchpins, an astringent stored, ironin’ board, a bench, a wrench, an ore winch, an attention whore”; it’s quite another to listen to Eminem rapping them (no matter how many assonances you think you’re hearing when you read, Eminem finds more).

You could listen to Eminem, transcribe the words, and figure out exactly what he means, of course. But why would you want to? Instead of pure, perfectly legible meaning, he offers a mix of meaning and meaninglessness, held together with music and rhyme and because-I-said-so swagger.

It’s unclear what pure, perfectly legible meaning would sound like in rap, or if it’s even possible. In his 2016 book “The Hatred of Poetry” (an expanded version of a 2015 essay for the London Review of Books), Lerner argued that a pure, universal, transcendent language is the dream of all poetry, whether rapped or spoken or written, but it’s only ever a dream: even the greatest poets only manage a glimmer of transcendence before they’re pulled back to earth by the demands of meter and rhyme and phrasing. The ideal, imagined Poetry will always overshadow the real, actual poem.

The greatest poets, for Lerner, are the ones who dramatize their own failure, that make readers feel the unwinnable race to chase down the Muse — both in his LRB essay and his book, Lerner cites Emily Dickinson, stretching “this” to rhyme with “Paradise” like Eminem stretching “orange” to rhyme with “four linchpins.” “This” doesn’t rhyme with “Paradise” any more than “orange” rhymes with anything in the English language. But by stretching language as far as they do, Dickinson (and Eminem) makes you feel the longing for a universal poetic language and paint, as Lerner puts it, “a negative image of the Poem we cannot write in time.”

Negative images of a perfect, unwritable Poem show up throughout “Gold Custody” — Lerner mentions both “folk art” and the divine language with which, in Jewish theology, God not only named things but brought them into existence. Each of these motifs corresponds to a certain fantasy of what poetry at its finest can achieve — in the first case, that it can belong, equally, to everyone; in the second, that it has the power to change the world, not just describe it — and both fantasies can be detected in the way rappers talk about their raps (Eminem: “I don’t do Black music, I don’t do white music, I make fight music”). But Lerner’s right: no poetry can ever really be universal, not even poetry as popular as rap and maybe especially not rap. How much you get out of a poem will always depend to some degree on your familiarity with the poet’s language and allusions, your comfort with the poet’s personality, values, sense of humor or lack thereof, and a thousand other tiny distastes that, if you trust Paul Valéry, comprise aesthetic taste.

“Gold Custody” gets its title from the odd tidbit that no bar of gold is completely pure, because pure gold isn’t firm enough to be shaped into bars — even the gold in Fort Knox contains tiny amounts of copper or silver or aluminum, and in fact these tiny impurities allow for what we wrongly think of as pure gold.

Purity is an impractical dream, impurity must be embraced if we’re going to create anything worth having — it’s as eloquent a metaphor for poetry as we’d expect from this never-not-eloquent poet. It’s appropriate on another level, too: in the ten years since the release of “Leaving the Atocha Station,” Lerner has received an embarrassment of riches, and is probably as close to a national golden child as a highbrow American author is capable of being nowadays. This reputation isn’t undeserved, though I know I’m not the only one who groaned when he came out with “The Topeka School” and joined the ranks of solemn, self-serious writers who felt a divine duty to explain the white working classes to the Sweetgreen set.

This was a time, to be fair, when even Eminem was penning humorless anti-Trump tracts. But at least Eminem has proven he still has his old sense of humor. The same can’t be said for Lerner, at least not yet — for all the mellifluousness of this new collection, I found myself craving some of the earlier, naughtier Lerner, some good old-fashioned bitchiness, something like the scene in “Leaving the Atocha Station” in which the author stand-in listens in sneering disbelief as a fellow poet recites “utter shit” to an adoring crowd. I can’t really find fault with anything in “Gold Custody,” but I also can’t shake the feeling that it could have benefited from a little more impurity.

Jackson Arn is the Forward’s contributing art critic.

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