Charles Bernstein

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1171

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 sound-based juxtaposition of its words. For example, “blinded by avenue and filled with adjacency” demonstrates exactly how this “seaming” works. “Dysraphism” exploits rhetorical figures such as the pun, anaphora, epiphora, metathesis, epigram, anagram, and neologism to create a seamless web of reconstituted words. The poem is a disturbance of stress, pitch, and rhythm of speech. The sound of “Dysraphism” could almost be called a rhapsody.

The Sophist combines traits from Bernstein’s earlier works, which include an intense assemblage of sounds and a dense mix of voices. By this combination, Bernstein has created a model for a rhetorical poetry that questions truth in the name of reason. Other poems in the book include “Fear and Trespass,” a dense prose piece; “The Years of Swatches,” a long, single stanza composed of very short lines; “Hitch World,” a three-page poem with stanzas; and “Like DeCLAraTionS in a HymIE CEMetArY,” which begins “WheTHer orientated or RETurned to/ STAndiNg posture/ ACCUMULAteD/ advicement and bASicALly.” From this list, one can see how The Sophist can stagger from text to text.

With Strings

With Strings compiles sixty-nine poems in various forms and styles that mostly date from the 1990’s. With Strings incorporates fractured nursery rhymes, distressed mottoes, runcible riddles, and inscrutable sayings. The book ventures into the comic, the political, the whimsical, and the elegiac. At times, the work twists toward vaudevillian satire: “the toilet seat is down now/ it’s there I plan to sit/ until I find that doggy bag/ I lost while just a kid.” One of the forms used by Bernstein is the inverted ballad, as in “Besotted Desquamation.” Every line of this poem contains four words that begin with the same letter and are engaged with the quotidian. The musical element of the poems is suggested in the title of the book, With Strings. Bernstein samples everyday life and at times uses wild iambic beats. The poems collectively ask: What is art? Why is it? How is it? By asking these questions, one discovers a presence of artlessness.

Girly Man

After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, some members of the literary world declared postmodernism and irony dead. Bernstein used Girly Man to show that this was not true. The poems in this book are elegiac, satiric, and defiant, coming close to song. The work responds to the historical moments that occurred while it was written. Girly Man includes poems written on the evening of September 11 and verse written in response to the subsequent war in Iraq.

In this volume, Bernstein mixes self-deprecating humor with philosophical and political thinking. The poems deal with moments of crisis and comedy and confront what is illogical about political consciousness. The book battles clichéd questions such as What are we fighting for? The book also examines the music created by Tin Pan Alley, a group of New York City songwriters working in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This is reflected in the title poem, “Girly Man”: “So be a girly man/ & sing this gurly song/ Sissies & proud/ That we would never lie our way to war.” Tin Pan Alley is not the only source of inspiration in Girly Man. Poems are also based on paintings and highway signs.

All the Whiskey in Heaven

All the Whiskey in Heaven is a collection of Bernstein’s work during a thirty-year period. It looks at how language can both limit and liberate thought. Despite this overarching theme, each poem is quite distinct. Using sound play, Bernstein alternates between the comic and the darkly tragic, demonstrating lyric excess and great emotional range. All the Whiskey in Heaven is radical, socially engaged, and philosophical, using satire, irony, and wit. Bernstein’s intention is to get the reader to think in unaccustomed ways. The poems address public, private, and poetic matters. The title poem, “All the Whiskey in Heaven,” was first published in The Nation in 2008. It is a list poem, in which almost every line begins with “Not for” and demonstrates how the speaker will not give up his love for anything in the world. “Not for an empire of my own . . ./ I’ll never stop loving you/ Not till my heart beats its last/ And even then in my words and my songs/ I will love you all over again.”

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Bernstein, Charles