Charles Bernstein Essay - Critical Essays


Charles Bernstein is a leading postmodern poet who was one of the first creators of Language poetry, which came out of New York City in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. Language poetry calls attention to language itself, rather than to a persona. It follows the ideas of objectivism and Ezra Pound’s experimental poetics. Bernstein’s iconoclastic and radically inventive verse challenges traditional ideas about poetry. His poetry does not assume a syntax, subject matter, or structure. It pays attention to language and how it makes meaning. Bernstein has worked against the idea of using a consistent narrating voice in poetry, which was a popular convention in the 1970’s. Bernstein has aimed to put the art back in poetry by allowing one phrase to collide with the next. His poems use widely variant forms of language and make a rhythm from the types of language used. As a writer, Bernstein has examined the ways that meanings and values are exposed through the written word, which is meant to unlock poetic activity, not close it. The common thread throughout Bernstein’s work is the wide-ranging referential power of words, which can be denotative, connotative, and associational. Words can partake in social and political activity as well as be used for aesthetics. Bernstein’s work is driven by social passions. His poetry graphically explores contemporary half-truths, speech forms, and modes of expression. Bernstein’s language-oriented work can be minimalist in style. He has also written a number of prose poems and collage pieces.

Poetic Justice

Poetic Justice includes one of Bernstein’s most-cited poems, “Lift Off,” which is made from fragments of words and what seem to be randomly positioned punctuation marks and spaces. The sense-defying poem is the transcription of the correction tape from a self-correcting typewriter. Poetic Justice includes prose poems such as “Lo Disfruto”: “One a problem with a fragment sitting. Wave I stare as well at that only as if this all and not form letting it but is it.” The book also includes poems such as “eLecTrIc” and “AZOOT D’PUUND,” a poem in which Bernstein experiments with dislocated typography in the spirit of Jackson MacLow’s change permutations: “iz wurry ray aZoOt de pound in reducey ap crrRisLe/ ehk nugkinj sJuxYY senshl. Ig si heh hahpae uvd r/ fahbeh at si gidrid. ImpOg qwbk tuUg. jr’ghtpihqw.” This passage is intended to make readers wonder what they are supposed to see in the text when they cannot be drawn in by actual words.

The Sophist

The Sophist includes “Dysraphism,” which has come to be considered one of Bernstein’s major works. The poem’s title reflects Bernstein’s medical experience (“raph” means “seam”); the “mis-seaming” of “dysraphism” is clear in the...

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