Charles Bernstein 1950-
American poet, essayist, critic, and editor.
The following entry presents an overview of Bernstein's career through 1999.
As one of the originators of “language poetry,” Charles Bernstein is recognized as a leading postmodern poet and avant-garde theorist. Language poetry developed in the late 1970s and early 1980s among various experimental writers in New York, San Francisco, and Toronto. In the tradition of objectivism and Ezra Pound's experimental poetics, Bernstein and others advocated new kinds of poetry that called attention to language itself, rather than the persona and unique voice of the poet. Bernstein's iconoclastic verse challenged, and continues to challenge, conventional ideas about poetry. His influence on contemporary poetry, however, extends well beyond his own writings. As co-founder of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine, from which “language poetry” derives its name, Bernstein also created a forum that showcased emerging writers and advanced the field of poetry by promoting concerns that went against current tastes.
Bernstein was born on April 4, 1950, in New York City. His father worked in the garment industry and Bernstein grew up near Central Park. At the Bronx High School of Science, he edited the school newspaper. He met the artist Susan Bee, his future wife, in 1968. That same year Bernstein entered Harvard, where he was active in the movement against the Vietnam war. Bernstein edited the freshman literary magazine and published Writing, a photocopy magazine. Concentrating in philosophy, he wrote his senior thesis on Gertrude Stein's Making of Americans, which he analyzed by applying Ludwig Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations; both of these writers would influence Bernstein's later poetry. In 1973 Bernstein used a William Lyon MacKenzie King fellowship to study at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada. There he was influenced by a seminar on Emily Dickinson given by Robin Blaser. Subsequently, Bernstein moved to Santa Barbara, California, where he worked part-time at a community free clinic. For approximately twenty years, Bernstein earned his living in medicine, mainly as a medical and healthcare editor and writer; his work in the medical field would partially come to inform his poetry. In 1975 Bernstein and Bee moved back to New York and married two years later; they share two children. Bernstein's involvement in poetry increased upon his return to the city. In 1978 Bernstein and Ted Greenwald co-founded the Ear Inn series, which came to be an important venue for developing writers. Bernstein and Bee also established Asylum's Press, which released his first two books, Asylums (1975) and Parsing (1976). In 1978 Bernstein and Bruce Andrews, whom Bernstein met shortly after his return to New York, founded L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine. The journal, which ran until 1981, and despite its production as photocopied stapled booklets without covers, it proved to be a highly influential poetry publication. In 1986 Bernstein received the University of Auckland fellowship; his appointment as a visiting lecturer in English at that school advanced his international reputation. Having taught at several other universities, Bernstein currently serves as David Gray Professor of Poetry and Letters at the State University of New York at Buffalo, where he is also director of the Poetics Program and co-founder and executive editor of the Electronic Poetry Center, an online website devoted to poets and their writings.
Bernstein has been prolific both in releasing his own works and in promoting new experimental poetry. Copies of Bernstein's first book, Asylums, were released as stapled photocopies (as was his second book). The poem “Asylum” consists of lines that are constantly shifting upon the page and its description of an institution consists of words whose sounds seem to clash with each other. Bernstein's second book, Parsing, is divided into two parts, “Sentences” and “Parsing,” with the sentences of the first section's poems breaking up into the phrases of the second. Poetic Justice (1979) includes one of Bernstein's most often cited poems, “Lift Off.” This poem consists of fragments of words and seemingly randomly positioned punctuation marks as well as spaces. The sense-defying poem turns out to be the transcription of the correction tape from a self-correcting typewriter. The poem also serves as a unique time capsule for a particular mode of producing typescript. Controlling Interests (1980) was the first of Bernstein's books to present poems in a variety of formats. The collection's poems range from single-stanza works to poems made up of mixtures of prose and verse. Islets/Irritations (1983) displays a diverse range of poetic forms and includes “Klupzy Girl,” one of Bernstein's best-known poems. Using regular spacing at irregular intervals to form a “modified field format,” the poem's ironically woven words juxtapose diverse voices, including that of German intellectual Walter Benjamin. The Sophist (1987) 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 apparent in the sound-based juxtaposition of its words, which move effortlessly through the poem to create an illustration of Bernstein's approach to poetry. While combining traits from Bernstein's earlier poems, including a dense grouping of sounds and a compressed amalgam of voices, the poem still manages to create a readable text. Rough Trades (1991), a noticeably large collection, looks at poetry as not only a vocation but as a difficult business as well, alluded to by the volume's punning title.
Arguably Bernstein's most important contribution to poetry was L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine, which brought together the work of a varied group of writers who shared a concern about the state of contemporary poetry and whose works opposed prevailing critical sensibilities. The journal, which published writers of both prose and poetry, confronted the appropriation of the language of art by politics and commercialism and sought to renew it by experimenting with words and syntax. Content's Dream (1986), Bernstein's first essay collection, further demonstrates the poet's aesthetic concerns. In this volume Bernstein considers the relationship between poetry and prose and questions distinctions between the two. He also rails against what he terms “official verse culture,” or the current critical establishment and its institutionalized encouragement of homogenized mainstream poetry. Bernstein's second essay collection, A Poetics (1992), examines poetics, philosophy, and the social aspects of the text.
Though Bernstein—and language poetry—was long relegated to the periphery of academic circles, he is now recognized as an innovative and influential late-twentieth-century American poet. Bernstein's first book signaled the importance of his project; “Asylum” has been praised for drawing attention to the poetic potential of the word list. In Controlling Interests, the purposeful unevenness of Bernstein's poetic forms has been interpreted as serving, by focusing the reader on the actual words making up the poems, to work against the tendency of poetry to be autobiographical. While many critics have objected (and still do) to the nonsensical quality of Bernstein's verse, which makes rational explication of his work difficult, if impossible, others insist that his deliberate manipulation of syntax, word associations, and cultural jargon represents a highly effective subversion of traditional verse and social understanding. Despite the importance of his own work, Bernstein's greatest influence upon contemporary poetry is perhaps best attached to his work with L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine. Though many critics no doubt still lean toward more traditional forms, Bernstein has been successful in winning critical acceptance for the kind of poetry advocated by him and his peers, including Lyn Heijinian, Steve McCaffery, and Ron Silliman. In addition to encouraging experimental work in L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, Bernstein has also won the respect of critics and academics with his essays in Content's Dream and A Poetics. Bernstein's critical works have been praised not only for bringing humor into criticism, but also for his facility in exploring the relationship of poetry to various aspects of culture. Now, firmly ensconced in the world of academia himself, Bernstein continues to be recognized as a significant writer and promoter of innovative poetry.
Asylums (poetry) 1975
Parsing (poetry) 1976
Shade (poetry) 1978
Disfrutes (poetry) 1979
Poetic Justice (poetry) 1979
Senses of Responsibility (poetry) 1979
Controlling Interests (poetry) 1980
Legend [with others] (poetry) 1980
The Occurrence of Tune (poetry) 1981
Stigma (poetry) 1981
Islets/Irritations (poetry) 1983
Resistance (poetry) 1983
The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book [editor; with Bruce Andrews] (criticism) 1984
Content's Dream: Essays 1975-1984 (essays) 1986
Artifice of Absorption (essays) 1987
The Sophist (poetry) 1987
Veil (poetry) 1987
Four Poems (poetry) 1988
The Nude Formalism [with Susan Bee] (poetry) 1989
The Politics of Poetic Form [editor] (criticism) 1989
The Absent Father in Dumbo (poetry) 1990
Fool's Gold [with Susan Bee] (poetry) 1991
Rough Trades (poetry) 1991
A Poetics (essays) 1992
Dark City (poetry) 1994
(The entire section is 133 words.)
SOURCE: “The Meta-Physick of Play: L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Poetry U.S.A.,” in Parnassus, Vol. 12, No. 1, Fall-Winter, 1984, pp. 213-44.
[In the following excerpt, Retallack provides an overview of the theoretical and technical project of the Language poets, including Bernstein and his verse in Resistance.]
Physick n. Medicine, especially a purgative. Wholesome or curative regimen or habit.
Nashe (1589) I wold perswade them to phisicke their faculties of seeing and hearing (OED)
Playing is inherently exciting and precarious.
(D. W. Winnicott, Playing and Reality)
It’s called “Language Poetry,” which is odd enough. Isn’t all poetry made of language? And then there are all those equal signs in the official logo, the name of the magazine that was for four years the chief forum of the movement. Is the implication that all letters are equal? Surely not. If all letters were equal we’d have no words. It’s their unique and very unequal roles that make language possible. Perhaps the Language poets have a different sort of egalitarianism in mind—from each according to ability; to each according to need. No elitists among letters (or words), no imperious Ps or Qs. No privileged access to meaning....
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SOURCE: “The Word as Such: L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Poetry in the Eighties,” in The Dance of the Intellect: Studies in the Poetry of the Pound Tradition, Cambridge University Press, 1985, pp. 215-38.
[In the following excerpt, Perloff defends the literary project of the Language poets, including Bernstein, and offers analysis of Bernstein's poems “The Sheds of Our Webs” and “Dysraphism.”]
“OILFISH” TO “OLD CHAP” FOR “C”
Performing military service for the king and bearing a child have a common medieval root. The progression to this point is first academic, then technical. Textbooks give way to textiles which lead to T-formations and T-groups. We pause to add “th” and proceed through Mediterranean anemia, deep seas, Greek muses, pesticides, young shoots and the instinctual desire for death. It is there that we find “thane” to be followed by all manner of “thanks,” including the “thank-you-ma-am”—a ridge built across a road so rain will roll off.
—Tina Darragh, on the corner to off the corner1
But this is a false tart, the trap door insecurely latched, a tear in the velvet curtain. Yet the tear was but a drop of glycerine sliding down her cheek. Nonetheless skin is not porcelain, however it...
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SOURCE: A review of Content's Dream, in Southern Humanities Review, Vol. 21, No. 3, Summer, 1987, pp. 283-84.
[In the following review of Content's Dream, Sloan commends Bernstein's defense of Language poetry and his observations concerning film, though finds his critiques of non-Language poets disappointing and his assorted minor pieces and transcriptions self-indulgent.]
In recent years the work of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writers, a movement in late-postmodern American literature, has received increasing critical attention. Charles Bernstein is the east coast spokesman and one of the original founders of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine, and the publication of his Content’s Dream marks the addition of another important document to the growing L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E canon. The book is panoramic in its cultural concerns and expands considerably on the theoretical statements made in The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book anthology co-edited by Bernstein and Bruce Andrews in 1984.
L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writing demands that the reader approach the text with a firm, literary-theoretical background. Despite Bernstein’s protests to the contrary, it is a theory-centered writing, a synthesis of the labyrinthine avant-garde movements of the 20th century. In the essays “Semblance” and “Three or Four Things I Know about Him,” Bernstein most succinctly states the method and philosophy that...
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SOURCE: A review of Content's Dream, in Performing Arts Journal, Vol. 11, No. 1, Winter, 1989, p. 96.
[In the following review, Wellman offers a positive assessment of Content's Dream.]
It is one of the scandals of our literary culture that the so-called “language” writers have been so scrupulously ignored by virtually all establishment editors, pundits, critics, and upholders of public taste. Charles Bernstein must be accounted a major literary theorist of his generation, but don’t expect to find his articles in The New York Times or his poetry in The New Yorker.
These essays [in Content's Dream] range over a wide number of topics: the idea of representation, the fallacy of value-free, “objective” prose, canons of good taste, and such contemporary artists and writers as Arakawa, Louis Zukofsky, and Clark Coolidge. Throughout the collection, Bernstein offers a multivalent analysis of the various kinds of political discourse of our time.
Bernstein’s ideas are critical for any worker in the theatre because they assume language as act, as gesture, within the realm of performance. Bernstein sees performance as an everyday cultural phenomenon, as the field of a pervasive theatricalization that serves the interests of a deeply layered and politically repressive system. In a very real sense the “language” movement constitutes a...
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SOURCE: “Charles Bernstein's ‘The Simply,’” in Contemporary Poetry Meets Modern Theory, edited by Antony Easthope and John O. Thompson, University of Toronto Press, 1991, pp. 34-9.
[In the following essay, McGann offers a close reading of “The Simply,” by which he examines the linguistic relationships, structure, and underlying technique of Bernstein's verse.]
being less interested in representing than enacting.
(Charles Bernstein, ‘State of the Art/1990’)
Charles Bernstein’s poetry is (in)famous for its difficulty. Yet the work is difficult, it seems to me, only if read within an informational or communicative or representational framework—only if you assume that the poetry is there to be explicated for some allegorically or symbolically coded meaning. The poetry of course deploys representational forms—no language can dispense altogether with its communicative function—but those forms are subordinated in Bernstein’s work to other kinds of intention.
For Bernstein, poetic ‘meaning’ is never a product, and hence cannot be coded or decoded. It is a process of writing through which ‘the before unapprehended relations of things’ have to be attended to (in both senses of that phrase).1 Among the most important of those unapprehended relations are the ideological formations—the constellated sets of...
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SOURCE: A review of Rough Trades, in Sulphur, Vol. 30, Spring, 1992, pp. 202-04.
[In the following review, Tuma offers a positive assessment of Rough Trades, which he considers Bernstein's “most readable,” “most personalized,” and “best” book.]
Does anyone else think it a little weird that Bernstein is now a Sun & Moon Classic, that his most recent collection of poems includes a two-page biography at its end? One thing historians of the avant-garde have not always recognized is the entrepreneurial skill of oppositional poets. Another thing they have sometimes neglected is the speed with which poets associated with “movements” or “groups” move away from these once they have become established. Though it seems odd to say, Rough Trades is partly a retrospective book, one that includes two long poems called “Reading the Tree” (Silliman’s anthology) together with—immediately after—a poem offering sardonic remarks on poetics to The Kootenay School of Writing in Vancouver. Just as in Ron Silliman’s most recent book, What, where Silliman writes “To say / this has become a cliche. I HATE SPEECH,” Bernstein in his “Reading the Tree: 1” skewers the phrase that once served as a manifesto for a community of writers: “‘I hate / speech’ & speech don’t like me none too good / either.” While Bernstein recognizes that “I...
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SOURCE: “The Return of the Repressed: Language Poetry and New Formalism,” in After the Death of Poetry: Poet and Audience in Contemporary America, Duke University Press, 1993, pp. 135-64.
[In the following excerpt, Shetley discusses the intellectual and aesthetic aspirations of the language poets and offers analysis of Bernstein's “The Kiwi Bird in the Kiwi Tree.” Shetley contends that Bernstein's verse, despite its sophisticated theoretical underpinnings, is overly easy to compose due to its lack of balance between meaning and randomness.]
In the early 1980s American poetry seemed to have passed beyond the era of contentious theoretical debate initiated in the 1950s by the Beat and Projectivist movements. James Breslin, surveying the American poetry scene in 1984, proposed as a metaphor not the “peaceful public park” of the “middle fifties” or the “war zone” of the “sixties,” but “a small affluent town in Northern California,” where “there are no ideological disputes” (250). While the general sense of comfort, complacency, and smallness, in both its good and bad aspects, evoked by Breslin’s description remains characteristic of what one might broadly call the mainstream—those poets who teach in MFA programs, publish with trade and university presses, and appear in journals like American Poetry Review, Ploughshares, and Antaeus—in recent years this...
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SOURCE: A review of A Poetics, in American Literature, Vol. 65, No. 1, March, 1993, pp. 173-74.
[In the following review, Golding offers a positive assessment of A Poetics.]
I can imagine Language poet Charles Bernstein’s appearance with a prestigious scholarly press being greeted with a certain darkly gleeful skepticism (“See, they all sell out in the end”), especially by those readers who like their avant-gardes pure and useless or by those eager to see Language writing rendered harmless by its perceived assimilation into mainstream academic discourse. As Bernstein argues, however, “conventions … can best be understood institutionally” (225). It seems perversely appropriate, then, that one forum for maintaining the conventions governing discourse on poetics should also become, in Bernstein’s hands, a forum for their attempted dissolution. Questioning the implications of Bernstein’s move from small presses to Harvard should not be used as a strategy for ignoring or reminorizing the ideas and the writing in this marvelously varied and intelligent book.
A Poetics contains ten essays and a mail interview from 1985–90, building on the hefty 1986 essay collection Content’s Dream and showing Bernstein to be perhaps the most prolific and energetic poet-critic on the contemporary scene. (I use the term “essay” with some caution because the longest...
(The entire section is 641 words.)
SOURCE: A review of A Poetics, in College Literature, Vol. 20, No. 2, June, 1993, pp. 219-21.
[In the following review of A Poetics, Baker approves of Bernstein's “nonconformist stance,” but finds shortcomings in what he considers Bernstein’s outmoded Marxist assumptions and lack of elaboration on the link between poetry and society.]
Charles Bernstein straightforwardly, and without apology, represents a difficult area of United States cultural production—experimental poetry. Though he is introduced at lectures and in jacket blurbs as the author of nineteen (or more) books of poetry, you will not find many of these titles in the Library of Congress catalogue (trust me, I’ve looked). Paradoxically, it is as a writer of polemical criticism that this cofounder of the journal L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E has come to some prominence. Since he has been teaching in the Poetics Program of the State University of New York at Buffalo for only the past couple of years, the essays collected in this volume do not outwardly bear the traces of academic criticism. The question of whether this stance will change, or whether he will begin to address pedagogical issues more directly, will have to await his future production.
Bernstein’s title, A Poetics, is probably meant to contrast with Aristotle’s The Poetics, in which case there may be a hint of diffidence. If so, this is the...
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SOURCE: A review of A Poetics, in World Literature Today, Vol. 67, No. 4, Autumn, 1993, pp. 830-31.
[In the following review, Pratt offers a negative assessment of A Poetics.]
“There is of course no state of American poetry,” argues Charles Bernstein at the beginning of his highly polemical work, A Poetics, but there are instead “the poetries of this New American fin de siècle.” If one accepts Bernstein’s premise that only contemporary American poetry of the sort he writes is of any real interest, then it is easy enough to agree with him. If, on the other hand, one still holds that Modern Poetry existed and continues to exist, then his argument is at best special pleading for what passes in certain fashionable circles for poetry, a far cry from the high art of poetry practiced during the twentieth century.
Poetry as art is out: “I care most for poetry as dissent,” says Bernstein, and indeed his “poetics” is anti-Aristotelian from the outset, a series of puns and verbal flights of fancy that are intended to be “poetic” in the broad sense—that is, original poetry rather than critical prose. Such poetic license demands great imaginative power to work at all, and Bernstein’s imagination is limited to unconventional turns of phrase that would have embarrassed E. E. Cummings. He favors sentence fragments with a boldly prophetic sound, such as wishing...
(The entire section is 650 words.)
SOURCE: “Powetry,” in Sulfur, Vol. 36, Spring, 1995, pp. 209-12.
[In the following excerpted review, DuPlessis comments on Bernstein's linguistic technique in Dark City.]
Three political stances in poetry—this is what the combination of Charles Bernstein, Kamau Brathwaite, and Norma Cole offers (whom I shall briefly and alphabetically consider). All would be discussable as examples of a concern, which I very much favor, taken from Adorno. “Poetry is now possible only if language is thoroughly plowed up and turned over …” (Adorno, Notes to Literature, volume 2, Columbia University Press, 1992, 195; the essay called “Charmed Language,” 1967.) In the context of Adorno’s discussion, this is a rejection of the purely subjective, the neoromantic. The desire of the poet under his scrutiny (Rudolf Borchardt) was “to force the transsubjective, objectively binding quality of language” into a new sound, not archaic, not romantic, not laden with the museum of the poetic. In part, this sound comes from a rhetoric of speech, of speech considered as a kind of eloquent riff, a social ode. In part, the political elements can come from drawing energy from the conflictual antagonisms which one’s personal and historical situation embody (this paraphrasing Adorno). In part, and don’t misunderstand, the embodying of a political position in language comes from a rage so joyous and slashing that...
(The entire section is 728 words.)
SOURCE: “Charles Bernstein's Dark City: Polis, Policy, and the Policing of Poetry,” in American Poetry Review, Vol. 24, No. 5, September-October, 1995, pp. 35-44.
[In the following review of Dark City, Lazer examines the distinguishing characteristics and recurring thematic preoccupations of Bernstein's poetry. Lazer argues that Bernstein's experimental verse successfully challenges accepted notions about poetry, language, and society, and that the exclusion of his work from mainstream literary journals and anthologies is an egregious oversight.]
Of course, what many have regarded as a liberating permission to write in otherwise unsanctioned ways will provoke professional sanction-takers to see only red.(1)
(Dark City, 74)
Charles Bernstein’s writing, particularly his poetry, tends to generate two kinds of response. First, the mere mention of his name occasions a metonymic substitution: “Bernstein” becomes the means for an evaluation (or attack on, summary, or advocacy) of Language poetry, and his poetry recedes into a more general discussion of the sociology of American poetry-culture. Second, his poetry gets discussed principally in terms of its stylistic features and poetic assumptions, somewhat in accord with Bernstein’s own critical pronouncements:
There is no escape...
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SOURCE: “An Autobiographical Interview with Charles Bernstein,” in Boundary 2, Vol. 23, No. 3, Fall, 1996, pp. 21-43.
[In the following interview, Bernstein discusses his family background, his childhood, formative influences and intellectual awakening, his Harvard education, and early years as a poet and founder of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E.]
[Glazier:] My first question is one that has been on my mind for quite some time. Reading your work, there seems to be a presence of your early life in your writing, certainly from the point of view of language and surface texture. Yet not much has been published on this subject. You were born in New York, correct?
[Bernstein:] Yes, at Doctor’s Hospital, Upper East Side, Manhattan, on April 4, 1950. As my father had it on the announcement: “Sherry Bernstein, Labor; Herman Bernstein, Management.”
I’d also be interested in hearing about your parents. Certainly the idea of poetry as a business and the generational conflict, for example in “Sentences My Father Used,” makes this of great interest.
My father, Herman Joseph Bernstein, was born Joseph on December 22, 1902, in Manhattan; he was the eighth of eleven brothers and sisters: Joseph (who died before him, so the name was never really used), Sadie, Harry, Gad, David, Pauline, Ceil, Evelyn, Sidney, and Nahum. His father, Charles, died...
(The entire section is 10462 words.)
SOURCE: “‘Rough Trades’: Charles Bernstein and the Currency of Poetry,” in Canadian Review of American Studies, Vol. 27, No. 3, 1997, pp. 205-14.
[In the following essay, McGuirk considers Bernstein's view of poetry in terms of economics and social purpose and his distinctly American perspective.]
I began this essay with a heuristic suggested to me by the topic of the conference where this article was presented, by the title of a book by the American “Language” poet and theorist Charles Bernstein—Rough Trades (1991)—and by Bernstein’s frequent appearances in literary venues in Canada. Bernstein’s work might be read, I thought, as a response to the question: Is poetry marked by trade?
The question is a rhetorical one (the answer is supposed to be yes); and it is also a counterquestion to a prior rhetorical one (which would also suppose the answer yes): isn’t poetry’s trademark, indeed, its selling point (where it does sell), its very freedom from trade? In the late nineteenth century, the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins elegized an England “seared with trade” in his famous sonnet “God’s Grandeur,” while poetry assumed the paradoxical social role of antidote to the trademarked world. It’s this role that various critical movements within poetics have been trying to shake off this century.
The critic Hank Lazer notes in a...
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SOURCE: “Pattern—and the ‘Simulacral,’” in Artifice and Indeterminacy: An Anthology of New Poetics, edited by Christopher Beach, University of Alabama Press, 1998, pp. 130-39.
[In the following excerpt, Scalapino discusses elements of multiplicity and atemporality in Bernstein's verse in The Sophist.]
The way things are seen in a time is that period of time and is the composition of that time. The way things are seen is unique in any moment, as a new formation of events, objects, and cultural abstraction.
The composition is the thing seen by every one living in the living they are doing, they are composing of the composition that at the time they are living is the composition of the time in which they are living. It is that that makes living a thing they are doing. Nothing else is different, of that almost any one can be certain. The time when and the time of and the time in that composition is the natural phenomenon of that composition.1
Gertrude Stein’s conception of a continuous present is when everything is unique, beginning again and again and again. A does not equal A, in terms of Stein’s view of the continuous present. This leads to lists, which lead to romanticism in which everything is the same and therefore different.
Romanticism is then when everything...
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SOURCE: “The Transformations of Objectivism: An Afterword,” in The Objectivist Nexus: Essays in Cultural Poetics, edited by Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Peter Quartermain, University of Alabama Press, 1999, pp. 301-17.
[In the following excerpt, Altieri examines the legacy of Objectivist ideals and aesthetics in the poetry of Bernstein and other language writers.]
I wrote the essay called “The Objectivist Tradition” in 1978, a time when poets like Robert Creeley had convinced me that the objectivist tradition could provide substantial contemporary alternatives helping writers resist the scenic lyrics and narcissistic self-projections dominating mainstream contemporary American poetry. Literary history now shows that I was right only about there having to be fresh alternatives to that dominant writing. There has been very little significant new writing that we could accurately label “Objectivist.” So it is tempting to claim that current work on Objectivism has to concern itself with why this became a road not taken. And then two basic questions have to be confronted: what major changes have occurred since the seventies in the ways poets develop alternatives to the romantic lyricism that is still preferred by the most prestigious American literary institutions, and what languages about values afforded by Objectivism might still prove significant because they establish powerful contrasts helping us...
(The entire section is 3764 words.)
SOURCE: “Midnight at the Oasis: Performing Poetry inside the Spectacle,” in Modernism/Modernity, Vol. 6, No. 1, January, 1999, pp. 153-62.
[In the following excerpted review, Tuma examines Bernstein's assertions in Close Listening concerning the aural and performative aspects of poetry and the function of public poetry readings.]
In his introduction to Close Listening, Charles Bernstein argues.
In an age of spectacle and high drama, the anti-expressivist poetry reading stands out as an oasis of low technology that is among the least spectaclized events in our public culture. … In contrast to theater, where the visual spectacle creates a perceived distance separating viewers from viewed, the emphasis on sound in the poetry reading has the opposite effect—it physically connects the speaker and listener, moving to overcome the self-consciousness of the performance context. Indeed, the anti-expressivist mode of reading works to defeat the theatricality of the performance situation, to allow the listener to enter into a concave acoustic space rather than be pushed back from it. …
An oasis is always welcome, though sometimes it proves to be mirage. Spectacle, in this usage, conjures Guy Debord’s demons of mediatization and manipulation as Bernstein seeks both to defend the value and...
(The entire section is 3022 words.)
SOURCE: “Rattling the Chains of Free Verse,” in Times Literary Supplement, April 30, 1999, pp. 32-3.
[In the following excerpted review, Quinn discusses the origin and development of Language poetry and offers a positive assessment of Bernstein's contribution, including that in My Way.]
L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E equals what? The fact that a plethora of publications are still asking that question, twenty-one years since the poetics journal with the infamously equalizing masthead (signifying both the political goal of equality that galvanized most of its poets, and the close scrutiny of the sign itself, that marked them all) was first published, sixteen years since it ceased publication, and almost thirty years since the constellation of poets originally associated with Language poetry began to meet and circulate their work, is testament to the impact, abiding interest, and the still potent challenge thrown down to traditional literary procedure by Language poetry. In the words of one of its most significant poets, Ron Silliman, “no other current poetic tendency in America has been subject to the constant flow of dismissals and exposés, many of them composed in the threatened rhetoric of fury”.
Language poetry arrived on the American scene in part as a critical reaction to the narrow, speech-based poetics then prevalent. The experimental poet Robert Grenier’s provocative statement “I...
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SOURCE: “Charles Bernstein,” in Chicago Review, Vol. 45, Nos. 3-4, Summer-Fall, 1999, pp. 173-77.
[In the following review of My Way, Osborn praises Bernstein's innovative approach to contemporary poetry, but asserts that some of his critical pieces lack depth and substantiation.]
Since the late 1970s, Charles Bernstein has been one of America’s most vocal advocates of alternatives to what he problematically calls “official verse culture.” A cofounder of the brief-lived journal that gave its name to L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writing and, as of a decade ago, the holder of Robert Creeley’s former chair at SUNY-Buffalo, he has written some twenty books of poetry but is better known, I think rightly, for his several collections and editions of critical and theoretical writing. In the first of these, Content’s Dream (Sun & Moon, 1986), he articulated his skepticism about the centrality of voice and persona in contemporary discussions of poetry. Drawing upon a strong background in philosophy, he also critiqued the confessional mode’s pretense of divulging a private language, the whole notion of which Wittgenstein had revealed to be oxymoronic. “Thought’s Measure” argued for an unconventional prosody which defined a given work’s measure as its most conspicuous unit of receptive resistance, ranging from phonemes and lexographic marks to sentences or verse paragraphs. This proved...
(The entire section is 2118 words.)
Beach, Christopher. “Conclusion: Reappropriation and Resistance: Charles Bernstein, Language Poetry, and Poetic Tradition.” In ABC of Influence: Ezra Pound and the Remaking of American Poetic Tradition, pp. 237-51. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.
Situates the Language poets and Bernstein in the poetic tradition of Ezra Pound and discusses Bernstein's theoretical perspective in Content's Dream.
Bernstein, Charles, Lynn Emanuel, Colin McCabe, and Paul Bové. “On Poetry, Language, and Teaching: A Conversation with Charles Bernstein.” Boundary 2 23, No. 3 (Fall 1996): 45-66.
Bernstein discusses the use and inculcation of vernacular language and dialect in poetry and the implications of such language for institutionalized education, American national literature, and cultural diversity.
———, Cummings, Allison M., and Rocco Marinaccio. “An Interview with Charles Bernstein.” Contemporary Literature 41, No. 1, (Spring 2000): 1-21.
An interview conducted in 1996 in which Bernstein discusses the social and aesthetic function of contemporary poetry, its relationship to group identity, the importance of alternative poetics, the problem of subjectivity and taste, and the inadequacy of mainstream poetry.
Lazer, Hank. “Radical Collages.” The...
(The entire section is 461 words.)