Huffpost College

Jonah Lehrer's College Poem: A Close Reading

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Jonah Lehrer is not merely a former New Yorker writer who happened to be a plagiarist and fabricator (as well as a man about town!) He was also, in his Columbia days, an aspiring poet. Leherer, who attended the insitution in the early 2000s, was a director of a campus literary magazine called "The Columbia Review” and wrote poems, one of which was picked up by Ivygate as being of particular biographical import.

In the grand tradition of the Norton Critical Edition, we here at HuffPost College decided to do a close and annotated reading of Mr. Lehrer's college poetry. Was he a sorrowing young werther even at such an early date? Maybe!!

“The Frustrated Monologue”

Perhaps referring to the limits of individual expression. This theme will be developed later on!

High in the clouds
watching Job die

Biblical figure who does not actually die, but did enjoy a life of torture.

I am like a vulture
or an ebony crow
(all black birds are scary)

Lehrer seems to wittily lampoon poetry's obsession with birds here, especially as portents of doom. Both vultures and crows are interred as shop-worn images of death.

counting on
the sparseness of oxygen
and the annoying harp
to reveal
the terrible truth
hidden inside the detail
I am lying and I am a liar
and the rocks of Flaubert are blue
because blue is a cliché.

According to the Universal Journal, Flaubert "scatters the color blue throughout" Madame Bovary. Here, Lehrer seems to imply that the protagonist of the poem is not only a "liar" but that all language is essentially lies because it has necessarily been borrowed from masters.

In the sky
everything is blue
and all colors are useless,
like adjectives
full of saccharine calories
quenching the epistemic hunger
but leaving behind no flesh.

Lehrer rather awkwardly uses a food metaphor here to further explore the bankrupt nature language. Sacchrine obviously has no calories, yet it is use to quench "epistemic hunger" i.e. hunger for knowlege

I am a cloud

Perhaps an allusion to Wordsworth's "I wandered lonely as a cloud."

(forgive the image)

Yet, here, Lehrer apologizes for the allusion, or cliched nature of it.

and weightless
as steam from a mirror,
the gaseous words
spoken from my mouth
as vague and formless as suffering.
I cry, ignorant of why,
(purely for myself)
and my tears speak,
not in language
but in salt dissolved and wet and free.

Here Lehrer resolves the early tension he set up between the expression of suffering and the cliches of language. As he sees it, words are fundamentally unable to convey emotion without relying on previous modes of thought and therefore miring themselves in insincerity. It is only through a physical act, "tears" in this case, that one can be free from language's inherent dishonesty.