“I am a liar”: The Early Poetry of Jonah Lehrer, Columbia Undergraduate

Jonah Lehrer never wanted to be a journalist. As a Columbia University undergrad in the early 2000s, Lehrer — who gained notoriety this summer for his shoddy journalistic ethics, which led to the end of two magazine staff contracts and the recall of his best-selling book — just wanted to sit around and write poetry. In 2000, Lehrer was one of the directors of “The Columbia Review,” a campus literary journal, in which he declared, “I want to be a poet like Smokey Robinson.” An unconventional choice, no doubt, but the man did write “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me.”

Perhaps more revealing to Lehrer’s present situation, though, is a passage we discovered in a poem of his titled “The Frustrated Monologue” (bolding below ours):

“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.”

So, forget the self-plagiarism, the falsified Bob Dylan quotes, and everything else that Lehrer messed up on, guys. The man’s not a journalist, he’s a poet! This makes everything better, right? Right?

No.

This does, however, bring up a major scholarly issue that is at the core of Lehrer’s deep, moving undergraduate poetry. If he is “lying” and “a liar,” then how can the reader trust him? Can we still take for granted that Flaubert’s rocks are blue? Additionally, if we accept his admittance here that he is a liar, then how can we trust he is telling the truth when he calls himself a liar?

More simply, is he lying about being a liar?

If this is the case, Lehrer as the writer and narrator severs any sort of relationship he has with his audience. While his poetry is fantastical (earlier lines recall biblical verses and Edgar Allen Poe), there is a sort of inherent poetic law that allows the reader to suspend reality and accept what is on the page. Here, though, Lehrer sacrifices that, putting it in the reader’s hands to determine what is meant to be true and what is actually false. We can no longer trust our narrator to make the distinction, and the responsibility for establishing the veracity of Lehrer’s words falls on the audience. It becomes clear that both fact and fiction are the same to the writer.

You can read all of the 2000 issue of “The Columbia Review” here (including another one of Lehrer’s poems, “Helen”) or check out “The Frustrated Monologue” below:

“The Frustrated Monologue”

High in the clouds
watching Job die
I am like a vulture
or an ebony crow
(all black birds are scary)
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.
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.
I am a cloud
(forgive the image)
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.

— Jonah Lehrer

  • inciTed

    I hazard that you meant “admission,” rather than “admittance.”

  • http://twitter.com/StayAtHomeSci StayAtHomeScientist

    Pretty bad taste to dredge up someone’s college poetry and try to claim an admission of guilt – it’s college student poetry! There are plenty of things to talk about when it comes to Lehrer, but this is low.

  • Vasily Blokhin

    @twitter-603685344:disqus Not nearly as low or in bad taste as what Lehrer did to the field. I would say this is well deserved. I want to see more of this. And less of Lehrer.

  • rick131

    Why aren’t “journalists” sources checked for accuracy anymore? I guess we are used to the “blog” age, where anyone can say anything no matter how untrue.

  • http://www.facebook.com/EveningStarNM David Dickinson

    Oh, puhleeze. A poem he wrote in college is an “admittance (sic)” that he’s a liar? Here’s a hint: If you find that you’re making that kind of claim, it’s time to shut your pie hole before you say something even more stupid.