In early 1999, I gave a reading at Brown University. As co-executor of the Araki Yasusada writings, I was invited to read from Doubled Flowering, which had been published a little over a year before. Students in a seminar taught by C.D. Wright were studying the book, so the afternoon before the reading, I visited the class to answer their questions. One of the students in the class was Ben Lerner, barely twenty at the time. C.D. had told me in advance that I would be meeting the most brilliant undergraduate she had ever encountered, and I quickly saw why. His insight and eloquence were stunning. I wrote about the occasion of meeting him years later, in I Once Met: A Partial Memoir of the Poetry Field, a book I published in 2015. The remembrance reads as follows:

I once met the gifted poet and novelist Ben Lerner. This was in Providence, before his fame. I was talking with a seminar class. All of the young students were very smart, very smartly dressed in a Banana Republic sort of way, except for Ben, whose name I did not know at the time, and who wore a tight old t-shirt with holes and dirty jeans and tennis shoes so ripped they seemed barely attached to his feet, brown hair unkempt, wire rims, but with tape to hold one of the lenses in, and he kept adjusting them as he spoke in a torrent of brilliant remarks, peppering these with difficult questions to me, to which I offered awkward, elliptical replies, to which he sallied with more brilliance, pushing me deeper into my hesitant thought, and this went on for quite some time, until the professor said, Well, class, this certainly gives us much to talk about for Monday! And I remember he and I walked together down the stairs and out into the quad, where there were statues and birds and students and things, though I can’t now recall what we said, but I remember he was very polite, a sweet, actually, somewhat shy young man, barely twenty, if that, and I remember, too, that later, after my reading that night, he came up to me, more disheveled than before, and gave me a class paper he had written on Yasusada and said goodbye. In about five years, he would be a Finalist for the National Book Award.

Of course, anyone even partially familiar with Lerner’s trajectory will know much has happened since his second poetry collection was named a National Book Award Finalist: Another major collection of poems, a MacArthur Award, three bestselling works of auto-fiction that have made him the leading younger novelist in the U.S., numerous prizes here and abroad, near-unanimously fawning reviews across the major press, translations into various languages, a recent major profile in the NY Times Magazine, and so forth. He is well on his way to becoming both the Auden and the Updike of his generation.

After that trip to Providence, Ben and I corresponded quite often–including during his sojourn in Spain, a trip which would become the topic of his first novel–and (from what became an eccentric book of mock translations he blurbed) he published my work in the first issue of his briefly lived but singular NO: A Journal of the Arts.

In 2004, shortly after his first book appeared, Ben and I carried out an interview–the first one ever done with him. I could be wrong, but it may have been the very first published discussion about his work, period. The exchange was published online at John Tranter’s great, late Jacket Magazine.

By the time his first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, was published in 2011, our correspondence had for the most part stopped. A natural development, I suppose, and there was no tension about it: My relatively obscure work largely continued trekking the shunned paths of satire, heteronymity, and antagonism vis-à-vis the literary institutions; Ben’s prized work was rocketing into eminent authorial station, at the very center of that institutional system. In the Field of Literary Production, as they say, rules of position and protocol will assert themselves of their own accord, with no need of elucidation.

When we exchanged emails for the last time it was about a “review” I wrote here at Dispatches three years ago on his essay-provocation, The Hatred of Poetry. While certainly comradely in intent, my piece is, admittedly, somewhat polemical in nature:

He was particularly perplexed and, it seemed, upset that I would proffer my critique (which is quite solid and enlightening, in this instance, I would say) and then have the nerve to end the essay by saying I’d written it without actually having read his book. A claim that was a bit disingenuous on my part–a little caprice, really, offered with nod toward Slavoj Zizek, who’d written some years before what turned out to be perhaps the most interesting review of the blockbuster Avatar, even as Zizek ended the piece saying he hadn’t yet seen the movie. Still, Ben was not pleased, and I can’t say I blame him. I still do think my “review” is among the most perceptive critiques written about that flawed pamphlet-book, but that’s neither here nor there, ultimately.

Here is that first interview mentioned above, then. It is focused on Lerner’s first book of poetry, The Lichtenberg Figures, much of which I had seen in draft form and commented on. I am to this day amazed that someone in his early 20s could have produced poems of such magnificence and strangeness. It does seem, in wake of Ben Lerner’s exploding prominence, a good time to share it again, for the record. Some scholars in the future, writing of him, will no doubt reference some of its peculiar passages.

I have The Topeka School, halfway through, next to my chair. Yesterday, preparing to write this, I reread, after many years, Ben’s 1999 seminar paper on Yasusada. Among the many dozens of things written about that controversy over the past twenty-five years, it is one of the very best.


Kent Johnson