Charles Bernstein Bernstein, Charles - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 Subject (poetry) 1995

Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word [editor] (essays) 1998

Log Rhythms [with Susan Bee] (poetry) 1999

My Way: Speeches and Poems (interviews, criticism, and poetry) 1999

Republics of Reality: 1975-1995 (poetry) 2000

Joan Retallack (essay date Fall-Winter 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

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Marjorie Perloff (essay date 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.”]


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...

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DeVillo Sloan (review date Summer 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Mac Wellman (review date Winter 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Jerome McGann (essay date 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Keith Tuma (review date Spring 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Vernon Shetley (essay date 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Alan Golding (review date March 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Peter Baker (review date June 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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William Pratt (review date Autumn 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Rachel Blau DuPlessis (review date Spring 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Hank Lazer (review date September-October 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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
to write in...

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Charles Bernstein with Loss Pequeño Glazier (interview date Fall 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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?...

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Kevin McGuirk (essay date 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Leslie Scalapino (essay date 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Charles Altieri (essay date 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Keith Tuma (review date January 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Paul Quinn (review date 30 April 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Andrew Osborn (review date Summer-Fall 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


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.


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