Ben Lerner was born in Topeka, Kansas in 1979. After high school in Topeka, he studied at Brown University under the poet C. D. Wright and earned a Bachelor of Arts in political science and a master’s degree in poetry.
Lerner’s first volume of poetry, »The Lichtenberg Figures« (2004) is a collection of 52 sonnets. The title refers to the discovery made by the German physicist and aphorist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg in 1777 that passing a high voltage electric current through dust on an insulator plate will create tree or star-shaped patterns. Lerner’s sonnets are devoted to the structures of language and memory and oscillate between different registers such as slang, internet terminology, scientific jargon, and the Old Testament. In 2011, the volume was awarded the prize for International Poetry by the city of Münster. This volume was followed by the poetry books »Angle of Yaw« in 2006 and »Mean Free Path« in 2010. In 2016, Lerner’s published his essay »The Hatred of Poetry«, in which he investigates the question of why poetry is an elitist art form that is marginalized in the literary world with a particular emphasis on the history of poetry. Lerner’s first novel, the Believer Book Award-winning »Leaving the Atocha Station« (2011), depicts a young American poet who spends a year in Madrid on a scholarship to write a prose poem about the role of literature in the Spanish Civil War. But instead of writing, he only plays the staged part, weaves all sorts of fairytales about his surroundings, and sinks deeper and deeper into feelings of fraud and anxiety. When Madrid becomes a target of an Al Qaeda terror attack in 2004 and a bomb explodes at Puerta de Atocha station, his friends demands a political commitment from him. The protagonist of Lerner’s second novel, »10:04«, is also a writer who, intoxicated by the success of his first novel, is grounded after the discovery of a brain tumor. Lerner’s latest novel »The Topeka School« (2019) takes place in his hometown during the late 1990s. In three intertwined plot lines, the story alternates between the protagonist Adam, who just finished high school, his parents, and the psychologists Jonathan and Jane. On the one hand, Adam is rooted in his parents’ hyper-intellectual world, in which they want to verbally work through his youthful outbursts. On the other hand, at school he is confronted with the strong feelings of youthful anger and contempt that are often processed through physical violence.
Lerner was a Guggenheim fellow in 2013. In 2016, he became the first poetry editor at Harper Publishing and a fellow of the New York Institute for the Humanities. In 2017, »Granta« voted him among the »21 best US writers of the decade«. The author lives in Brooklyn.