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The Lichtenberg Figures

4.19  ·  Rating details ·  561 ratings  ·  51 reviews

The Lichtenberg Figures, winner of the Hayden Carruth Award, is an unconventional sonnet sequence that interrogates the relationship between language and memory, violence and form. “Lichtenberg figures” are fern-like electrical patterns that can appear on (and quickly fade from) the bodies of people struck by lightning.

Throughout this playful and elegiac debut—with its f

Paperback, 53 pages
Published September 1st 2004 by Copper Canyon Press
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4.19  · 
Rating details
 ·  561 ratings  ·  51 reviews

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Jenny (Reading Envy)
I came across Ben Lerner when I was looking for writers from Kansas. Lerner writes poetry and has published one novel, Leaving the Atocha Station. He is what I would call a very academic poet - very self-aware, intentionally creating structured poems, using words most readers will need to look up. (Goodness, take what I said and magnify it by 100 after I watched a video lecture of him speaking on poetic logic and structure.)

This set of poems is described as 52 "sonnets," although they aren't so
Feb 06, 2010 rated it really liked it
Shelves: poetry-poetics
This book kicks ass. The title may be a little alienating, but it's totally appropriate. The poems are quick, sharp, fractal, and spooky:

"We had thought that by arranging words at random
we could avoid ideology. We were right.
Then we were terribly wrong. Such is the nature of California."

That's funny right? The poems handle meta-poetics in a really smart, accessible way. A surprisingly quick read.
C. Varn
Jun 19, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Lerner's explorations of balancing both humorous and elegiac tones, very lose and fractal concepts within a loose sequence of sonnets work here. Lerner's unnumbered and unnamed sonnets are not linear but built on each other in both topical and tonal dialogue. The effects are disorienting and alienating, but the seemingly random patterns are ordered in a way that creates art like the referenced patterns of Lichtenberg figures. Like other poets who write in sequences that can be rich in both perso ...more
Sep 22, 2012 rated it did not like it
Shelves: 2012, poetry, worst, reviewed
I wrote a pretty aggressive review of this the other day, but I'm in a better mood now. Plus, I watched this video where Lerner has a lot of interesting things to say about writing poetry and comes across as less of a bullshit artist than in The Lichtenberg Figures. I still think that he went down the wrong path with this book and is extremely alienating in his style, but I'm willing to accept now that that wasn't necessarily intentional.

You can't blame me, though, when an actual stanza from the
Nicolas Shump
Jan 09, 2009 rated it really liked it
For my money, Ben Lerner is one of the best, most intelligent, and most ambitious poets writing today. This is a collection of edgy sonnets that totally plays with the whole history of the sonnet form. Ben is also a great guy to have a beer with. He's originally from Topeka and edits a literary journal called No.
Sep 13, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Poems. A series of free verse sonnets
telling you what you should
and should not think—

obvious epiphanies and oddball
normalcies treading cultural water
tossing out the baby with the bath

tub gin grin who
is keeping count? who
counts the counters or the countings?
this is not a review.
May 21, 2007 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Matthew Rohrer, Michael Earl Craig
I like this book. I can read this book in any mood and enjoy it I think. This book is sarcastic, self-conscious, afraid, and smart.
Jul 27, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: people who like self conscious sonnets
Recommended to Joe by: Iron Man.
Shelves: poetry
"You are the first and last indigenous Nintendo."
Nov 21, 2017 rated it liked it

The stars will be adjusted for inflation
so that the dead can continue living
in the manner to which they've grown accustomed.

p. 18

Perhaps what remains of innovation
is a conservatism at peace with contradiction

as the sky transgresses its frame
but obeys the museum.

p. 22

Ben Lerner's The Lichtenberg Figures is a bit of a tough book of poetry. It's a sonnet sequence ostensibly about growing up in the midwest, but it's frustrated, as many of us were in the early 2000s, with the way the world seeme

Manuel González V.
Feb 13, 2019 rated it really liked it
«Perhaps what remains of innovation
is a conservatism at peace with contradiction,

as the sky transgresses its frame
but obeys the museum.»

—Ben Lerner.
Siu Hong
Jun 22, 2017 rated it it was ok
Shelves: drop-off
Most of his metaphors lie in the scale from not-making-much-sense to ridiculous. It's not to say that there aren't enjoyable poems in this book. It's just few and far between.
Salty Swift
Oct 28, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Full of humour, intense emotion and existential dab, if you've not been hooked by Ben Lerner's poetic justice yet, now's the perfect time!
Jul 11, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: poetry
“I attend a class for mouth-to-mouth, a class for hand-to-hand.
I can no longer distinguish between combat and resuscitation.”
Dec 01, 2013 rated it really liked it
Some favorite lines:

"Real snow on the stage. Fake blood on the snow."

"(but isn't it beautiful when a toddler manages to find and strike a match)"

"I discover the body prone, check its breathing.
Go back to sleep."

"I have never been here.


You have never seen me."

"The stars will be adjusted for inflation
so that the dead can continue living
in the manner to which they've grown accustomed."

"I have absolutely no

idea what I'm saying. I know only
that I have a certain sympathy
for the rhetoric of
Dec 22, 2014 rated it really liked it

I wish all difficult poems were profound.
Honk if you wish all difficult poems were profound.

At first it felt wrong, like I was being had.

The poetic establishment has co-opted contradiction.

And the poetic establishment has not co-opted contradiction.

Are these poems just cumbersome

or are these poems a critique of cumbersomeness?

I don’t know, why are you asking ME? It’s your poem dude, what are YOU going to do with it?

But it very soon becomes apparent that Lerner is anything but a hack, and I’m co
Gilbert Wesley Purdy
Oct 27, 2015 rated it it was amazing
When extremely high voltages are forced through dielectric/insulating materials the materials break down. The resulting trace, belying the paths along which the failure has occurred, is called a Lichtenberg figure (after the 18th century scientist who discovered the effect). A commonly cited example is the fractally repeating fern-like pattern that lightning leaves on whatever solid, non-conducting material it may strike, including the human being.

Ben Lerner's choice of the title The Lichtenberg
Aug 20, 2014 rated it it was amazing
these are some of my favorite poems, i think. lots of collage, rapid shifts in levels of diction. lines like: "Announcing a late style as distinctive as the late style of Matisse, / my grandfather no longer speaks." and "When a longing exceeds its object, a suburb is founded" and "a hyperkinetic disorder expressed in chromatic variations." Sometimes also things like "I wish all difficult poems were profound. / Honk if you wish all difficult poems were profound." and "Nothing is as metaphysical / ...more
Steven Critelli
Nov 18, 2015 rated it it was amazing
A simply terrific first book of poetry from a genuine wunderkind. The first half of the book introduces the 14-line schema in various guises, with much wit, light and dark sarcasm and other fun stuff, mixing linguistic tricks (words as trompe l'oeil) with literary theory and cultural cognizance that translates his lyric voice as a highly intelligent reader of the tea leaves or a smart-assed hipness, take your pick. However, as the book pushes past the first 20 pages, it seems to intensify its ex ...more
Eric T. Voigt
Nov 23, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Straight-up funny. High irreverence for the irreverent high. I glanced at a few of the less-than-glowing reviews before I'd finished the book and I'm in disbelief over their existence now that it's done. Ben Lerner is solidly a favorite author. I read Ryan, who is surface conservative when it comes to poetry, always griping about what a waste of paper poems are and going on over how gimmicky the abnormal-shaped publication sizes seem, the line "I feed the ducks duck meat in duck sauce when I wal ...more
Gustavo Sénéchal
Jul 23, 2016 rated it it was ok
Ben Lerner is one of the most interesting literary voices of his generation. Ive read his most recent poetry works as well as his second novel (10:04) and I really admire his writing. A first collection of poems bears the risks of being too much of showcase of ones skills and of needing some further refinement. The raw talent is there, the ingenuity is there, perhaps excessively, but what for. I found that the book lacks some sort of poetical meaning or direction. Not that I expected it to be a ...more
Mar 04, 2016 marked it as to-read
Shelves: poetry, contempoetry
Once I'd made a list of vocabulary words from this book, I felt I'd read it. But:

Juxtaposing ornate vocabulary
a poem with feeling does not make.

Like most things Lerner, academic, self-absorbed.

"...All readers of poetry // are Germans, are virgins. All readers of poetry sicken me. You, with your Soviet Ph.D. / and Afghan tiepin. You with your penis stuck in a bottle. And yes, of course, I sicken me, / with my endless and obvious examples / of the profound cultural mediocrity of the American bour
Dec 30, 2009 rated it it was amazing
This is the third time I’ve read Lerner’s first book and I still find it a fresh read. The clash of his intelligence and humor creates unexpected sparks while he interrogates pop culture, politics, violence, and the academy. It’s a heady mix that keeps your head spinning. And besides all of that, I just enjoy watching how he demolishes the sonnet again and again. The sequence takes on a manic pace as the book winds down leaving you feeling a little winded, a little roughed up and hankering for m ...more
Michael Meeuwis
Apr 17, 2016 rated it liked it
This isn't even very good--not consistently--and you need to read it. I don't read enough contemporary poetry--I sometimes think I'm not a contemporary poetry "guy"--but this spoke to me, apparently-dudebro-to-dudebro. The earth did not need another poem citing "Oops, I Did It Again." But the good bits--I mean, firstly, the book can be hysterical: "Honk if you wish all difficult poems were profound." A lot of it reads like a future robot civilization discovering jokes about mediocre academic pro ...more
Oct 15, 2016 rated it really liked it
I have absolutely no idea what I'm saying. I know only that I have a certain sympathy for the rhetoric of risk and mystery.

I largely don't know what he's saying either, but I couldn't stop reading. Ben Lerner is alternately opaque and lucid, but always engaging. His influences shine through (even occasionally directly mentioned), recombined and developed into originality. I'm looking forward to reading more.
Tim Kahl
Dec 26, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Ben Lerner is the real deal. His unique brand of cut-ups with theory texts (I was always wondering what good theory was for poets) and other bits of odd assorted language detritus mixed with his own meditations on these culled bits makes for compelling reading. Sonnets that shake the faith of the old sonnet lovers.
Sarah E.
Jul 12, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: poetry
Wow, this guy sure does know how to write. His poems are honest, sarcastic, sometimes angry, and leave you with the feeling that you need to read them again just so you make sure you didn't miss anything. There is a lot going on, but he makes it work. I am drawn it just from the first poem, automatically wanting to read about what he has to say.
Ben Bush
May 27, 2010 added it
Shelves: read-in-la
Meaner than "Angle of Yaw." Lerner's reinvention of the sonnet taught me words such as "epistaxis" and "cenotaph." I suspect "Angle of Yaw" and his recent "Mean Free Path" are the better of Lerner's books, but you kind of can't go wrong with this guy.
Sep 04, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: poetry
Really lovely. Wonderful interleaving of a childhood narrative that emerges in snips and chunks when the volume is read as a whole. And this without mentioning Lerner's fine ear for the texture of quotidian language, which he elevates to poetry without letting it lose its footing.
Mar 27, 2010 rated it it was amazing
If I could, I would give this book more stars than almost any other book on my list. However, this would require me to go through my whole list and give almost every book that is not this one 4 stars instead of 5, and then I would have to change the old 4 stars to 3 stars, and so on and so forth.
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Benjamin S. Lerner is an American poet, novelist, and critic. He was awarded the Hayden Carruth prize for his cycle of fifty-two sonnets, The Lichtenberg Figures. In 2004, Library Journal named it one of the year's twelve best books of poetry. The Lichtenberg Figures appeared in a German translation in 2010, for which it received the "Preis der Stadt Münster für internationale Poesie" in 2011, mak ...more
“I wish all difficult poems were profound. Honk if you wish all difficult poems were profound.” 0 likes
“Tears appreciate in this economy of pleasure.” 0 likes
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