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.