Charles Bernstein

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Joan Retallack (essay date Fall-Winter 1984)

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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. After all, Language poetry with its Marxist origins is out to skim or scrape the bourgeois fat off the language.

L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E is the emblem, of course, of a different sort of elitism—from those of purer vision; to those of … purer vision. This is nothing new in the annals of avant garde movements. Pushing the logic of possibility to extremes, like Theoretical Physicists or pioneers in the study of Artificial Intelligence, the Language poets have aimed their work at a relatively small audience which agrees upon the importance of certain questions, though not necessarily upon the nature of the answers. The emphasis is on a proliferation of experiments; the excitement lies in not really knowing where the inquiry will lead. The central question, which they share with their audience (largely other poets), is, How do changes in the forms of our language affect our experience in the world? Though their abundant theoretical writing on this question sometimes has the stale breath of closure, if not out-and-out dogmatism, it functions effectively to open up a wide field of play and experimentation in their poetry.

In fact, experimentation is a form of play and visa versa. As such, it is as Winnicott says “exciting and precarious [belonging] to the interplay … of that which is subjective (near-hallucination) and that which is objectively perceived (actual, or shared reality).” This is as true in the sciences as it is in the arts. In all cases, Winnicott stresses, “a paradox is involved which needs to be accepted, tolerated, and not resolved.” The paradox inherent in language is that it is at one and the same time deeply personal and conventional. It must serve equally the needs of both individual and group. There cannot be an exclusively private language; neither can there be an entirely public one. Language both conceals and reveals; is emotionally charged and uniformly dispassionate; is mysterious and plain; it both shapes and is shaped by our experience. The tension arising out of these lively oppositions can produce creativity or despair; or in work like Beckett’s, a strange equilibrium which floats precariously on the surface membrane of non- or mis-communication.

Whether the poets under review achieve in their work some sort of equilibrium (Darragh, Weiner, Andrews, Messerli), or a studied disequilibrium (Sherry, Dewdney), or something that has more to do with mime than juxtapositional acrobatics (Bernstein, Inman), they all resist resolution and closure in their poetry; they are all,...

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in Winnicott’s sense, at play. This is not a Wordsworthian notion of enlightened regression to childhood perceptions. Play, of the sort Winnicott means, is a practice we must continually renew in ways appropriate to our maturing vision, in order to keep the imagination vigorous. Without it we are depressed creatures of habit and circumstance; it is the meta-physickal practice of the healthy spirit. If they are good, artists, philosophers, Zen masters, and psychoanalysts (like Winnicott, who sees psychotherapy as a form of play)—teachers of all kinds—keep us in training.

Play, from early childhood on, is a rigorous discipline—requiring acute focus and concentration (not all children do it well) along with unfettered ingenuity. It requires a wholeness of being and response that embraces our rationality and emotions, our logic and intuition. As adults we need to concoct complicated justifications for play—themselves forms of play—because we don’t entirely trust it as really worthwhile and serious, much less essential to our vitality. The very serious Language poets, whose goal can be seen as a kind of sociolinguistic therapy (they would probably prefer “politics”) acquire their sanction to play from a rich diversity of ancestors and theoretical sources: ancient charm songs; Old English and Chaucerian modes; the sound poetry of the Russian Futurists; their very American interest in compositional strategies, vagaries, and disjunctions of everyday speech; the formal preoccupations of Gertrude Stein and John Cage and the Concrete poets; the “Indeterminist” effects of Pound, Beckett, and John Ashbery; Jackson Mac Low, Zukofsky, David Antin. … The list could go on; the Language poets are extremely well read. But the poetry itself gains its distinction from the peculiarly American pragmatic inventiveness which (reminiscent of developments in the visual arts in America since the '50s) pays intense attention to the particulars of the medium—phonemes, syntax, graphics, etc.—to the anatomy of language itself.

However, one gets the sense that the really official permission slip for play, the identification of what is and what is not “Language poetry,” the cultivation of a community of writers, the formation of a highly intelligent and interested audience are heavily dependent on philosophical progenitors, most notably Marx, Wittgenstein, and Derrida. The leading theoreticians of the Language group—Ron Silliman, Steve McCaffery, Bruce Andrews, and Charles Bernstein have entered the debate over the relation between language, thought, and reality and see their work, both theoretical and poetical, as a contribution to it.

Without recalling the peculiar status of Language these days, the new nominalism in Western intellectual circles, along with the widespread disrepute of so-called “naive realism,” the radical disruptions of the Language poets may seem unaccountably frivolous, if not destructive of all that is reliable and sound. …


Bruce Andrews’ Praxis (quoted in the first section of this article), Charles Bernstein’s Resistance, and Douglas Messerli’s Some Distance are examples of more traditional poetry (certainly graphically), the non-symbolist, “Indeterminist” one that Marjorie Perloff has charted from Rimbaud’s Illuminations to the work of John Cage in her book The Poetics of Indeterminacy. The lean elegance we have come to expect of poetry lodged between ample margins remains; we read familiar words in the usual fashion—left-right, zigzag down the page—and we respond primarily to the meanings of words rather than to their textures or the puzzle of their unorthodox alignments. Here, however, the familiar ends. All of this work is syntactically odd because these poets are playing with semantic units and relations. When we realize that the units (words, phrases, lines) quite often don’t coalesce in a logical manner, we are thrown back on more intuitive responses which depend on the sensual properties of the language. So this poetry, like Inman’s and Sherry’s, though not to the same degree, brings us close to the nap of the language. …

In Resistance Charles Bernstein has adopted a consciously literary mode by combining Indeterminist strategies with what his editor calls “a perverse formalism.” There is the return of the line, beginning with capital letters, and even the stanza; there are regular metrics and internal rhymes. The only problem is that the sense is distinctly skewed, as in these lines from “Playing with a Full Deck”:

What chainlink beckons, held in
Hand, for pleading bleeds the
Finer auger’s talon. Redress
Without defame, insists what
Losses snare, here to where
Determine favors show. Gleam of
Your unbridling, diffused arc’s
Indifferent spar—the slater
Letters oak-lined portion, flagrant
Sorrow end up, calling. What
Wills this show, for make believe
Or stammer, pockets blast at
Infamy’s store: These cratered
Sorrows launch out, serenade
To pare the suction sooner
Stung; Whose will not bend nor
Ape like furrows, arched
Complacency’s wirey mold.

The strong iambics, with some internal pentameter—“What / Wills this show, for make believe / Or stammer”; the adjectival drama—“Finer auger’s talon,” “indifferent spar,” “flagrant Sorrow”; and the archaic tone give this a pseudo-Shakespearian surface (or Hart Crane via Stein and the Dadaists?). How many in the audience would notice if it were slipped into Hamlet, or Macbeth, or Othello? This is a kind of sound poetry akin to Inman’s “Old English” and perhaps even to Zukofsky’s “Catullus LI”:

Ille mi par esse deo ridetur
He’ll hie me, par is he? the God divide her,
he’ll hie, see fastest, superior deity …

Resistance is full of the sounds of earlier poetry. But are not these the forms that carried the spirit of the capitalist project in the name of high culture? Probably Bernstein would see it that way. So this resistance has to do with a refusal to fulfill the orders and expectations dictated by the form. And there are other kinds of resistance—the flagrantly opaque medium: the non-linear line; and the images like faux marbre. The closer the inspection, the more “auger’s talon,” “diffused arc’s Indifferent spar,” and “cratered Sorrows” appear to be rhetorical flourishes. The pleasure, not unprecedentedly, is in the perversion, which, in this case, is in the (de)formalism. …

There is something unsettling too about the convoluted, hyperacademic prose of a good deal of the theoretical writing in The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book. Studded with cacophonic jargon like “structuralized fetishism, “positionality,” and “commoditization.” it perpetuates bad habits traceable to Marx’s nineteenth-century philosophical milieu while arguing for a contemporary reevaluation of style. Social preoccupations seem largely polemical and conspicuously devoid of interest in the audience (beyond other Language poets) which is presumably to be empowered by the “new syntax.” There is much work to do on “praxis.” Despite this, the daring ingenuity of language poetry1 provides a powerful and much needed antidote to the ubiquity of the bland and innocuous in so-called “mainstream” literature, and may indeed help to “phisicke,” as Nashe put it, our “faculties of seeing and hearing.” As the sum total of persons sensitive to language rises, so does the general welfare, or so some of us believe. For this we need continually to reinvent the fine art of language play.


  1. This essay necessarily considers just a fraction of the writers who can be considered Language poets. For a better idea of their numbers and range see selections of their work included in Paris Review 86 (Winter 1982), Ironwood 20 (Fall, 1982), and Sulfur 8 (1983).


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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.

Marjorie Perloff (essay date 1985)

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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.”]


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 spots.

—Ron Silliman, ABC2

—Ron Silliman, ABC2

Floating on completely vested time, a lacrity
To which abandon skirts another answer
Or part of but not returned.
Confined to snare, the sumpter portion
Rolls misty ply on foxglove, thought
Of once was plentitude of timorous
Lair, in fact will build around
It. Shores that glide me, a
Tender for unkeeping, when fit with
Sticks embellish empty throw. Days, after
All, which heave at having had.

—Charles Bernstein, “The Sheds of Our Webs,” Resistance3

But is it poetry? Tina Darragh’s paragraph is a mock page from a dictionary; instead of “oilfish” to “old chap” (which is, of course, not under “C”), we are given a set of riddling permutations of words beginning with “t”: “technical,” “textbooks,” “textiles,” “T-formations,” “T-groups.” One or two phonemes (/k/, /kst/) can make all the difference. Add an “h” to “t” and you introduce a Greek element: “Mediterranean anemia” (evidently “thalamic hemorrhage”), “deep seas” (“thalassa,” which gives us the word “Thalassian”), “Greek muses” (e.g., “Thalia”), pesticides (“Thalline”), “young shoots” (“thalluses”), and “the instinctual desire for death” (“thanatos”). Then “thane” and “thanks” and a “thank-you-ma’am” which, so the OED tells us, got its curious meaning (“a ridge built across a road so rain will roll off”) from the fact that such a ridge or hollow in the road would cause “persons passing over it in a vehicle to nod the head involuntarily, as if in acknowledgement of a favour.” (The first example cited by the OED is from Longfellow’s Kavanaugh (1849): “We went like the wind over the hollows in the snow; / the driver called them ‘thank you ma’ams,’ because they made everybody bow.”) And where does the “C” of the title come in? In the riddle of the first sentence, which pits “conscription” (“Performing military service for the king”) against “confinement” (“bearing a child”).

How curious, the text suggests, the vagaries of words that can, with the shift of a single phoneme or two, mean such different things as “thane” and “thanks”; with the addition of a suffix or two, turn “thanks” into “thanatos,” or again, with the addition of a word or two, turn “thanks” into an idiom meaning ridge or hollow in the road. The signifier, it seems, is never merely transparent—a replica of the signified. The prefix “con,” for that matter, generates life as easily as death.

Again, when, in the first line of “Carbon,” Ron Silliman removes a single phoneme from a word (“false start” becomes “false tart”), he creates intriguing plot possibilities: to make a false start by falling through a trap door is one thing; to position a “false tart” in this setting, especially given the tear in the velvet curtain, quite another. But then “tear” (rip) becomes a teardrop, and one made out of glycerine at that. It is difficult, the text implies, to distinguish artifice from reality. Skin spots, porcelain spots; “Nonetheless skin is not porcelain.”

Charles Bernstein takes this sort of word play a step further, almost to the point of unintelligibility. In “The Sheds of Our Webs,” neologisms abound: “a lacrity,” “sumpter” (“marshy” or “low-lying” on the model of “sump”?), “plentitude.” More important; grammatical position is frequently ambiguous: is “sheds” a noun or gerund (“sheddings”)? “Abandon skirts” a verb followed by its direct object or a subject—verb clause? “Tender” a verb or adjective or noun? There is no way to be sure, especially since many of the words in ambiguous syntactic position are homonyms. Thus “vested” means (1) “conferred as a legal right” as well as (2) “wearing a vest”; and, what is more disconcerting, “tender,” if a noun, can mean (1) “a formal offer to supply goods or carry out work or buy at a stated price”; (2) “a person who tends to look after something”; or (3) “a vessel or vehicle traveling to and from a larger one to convey stores or passengers etc.,” more specifically, (4) “a car attached to a steam locomotive carrying fuel and water.”

But is it not the function of syntax precisely to tell us which of these possible meanings is the appropriate one in the context? “Art,” as Hugh Kenner puts it with reference to Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow,” “lifts the saying out of the zone of things said.”4 And the “saying,” in the case of “The Sheds of Our Webs,” becomes a way of foregrounding the human need to escape confinement (the “plentitude of timorous lair”), the need to rid ourselves of our defenses, to shed our webs, which are also “sheds” in that, “Confined to snare,” we hide within them. “Floating on completely vested time” is, after all, a way of skirting the issue with “a lacrity” rather than real conviction: “abandon skirts another answer” (or, abandon[ing] our skirts is an answer that brings in no returns). The poet opts for “Shores that glide me, a / Tender for unkeeping”: he is, so to speak, the vessel that carries the cargo, even if others perceive it as an “empty throw.” The thing is to make an imprint, to leave “Days, after / All, which heave at having had.”

The prominent alliteration and assonance in these last lines, indeed, the highly formalized sound structure of the whole poem, with its stately diction and heavy stressing—

Rólls mîsty plý on fóxglôve, ⫣ thóught
Of ónce was pléntitûde or tímorous
Láir. …

recalls Hart Crane rather than, say, Williams. “Shores that glide me, a / Tender for unkeeping” is nothing if not Cranean even as Crane points back to the Yellow Nineties and to Swinburne. Indeed, in a curious way it is fin de siècle that the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry of our own fin de siècle recalls in its renewed emphasis, after decades of seemingly “natural” free verse, on prominent sound patterning and arcane, or at least “unnatural,” diction.

But of course the immediate impression likely to be produced by a Bernstein or Silliman poem is that Swinburne or Crane have somehow been put through the Cuisinart: what finds its way into the bowl looks, at first sight, like so many chopped and hence unrecognizable vegetables. Faced with the syntactic and semantic difficulties I have been describing, the reader may decide that “language-centered writing” is little more than a clever hoax. What is the value, I have heard it asked, of these little word games when we all know that the business of poetry is to convey the concrete particulars of experience, the response of the sensitive individual to the vagaries of human suffering and struggle?

In their more theoretical writings (essays, reviews, prose poems, manifestos, interviews, and various hybrids of these) the Language poets have addressed themselves to precisely such questions. “Poetry and philosophy,” says Bernstein in a recent essay, “share the project of investigating the possibilities (nature) and structures of phenomena,5 an assumption shared by such otherwise diverse Language poets as Ron Silliman and Lydia Davis, Clark Coolidge and Douglas Messerli, Lyn Hejinian and Tom Raworth. I propose, therefore, to take up some of the central theoretical assumptions that govern language-centered writing, assumptions that take us back into the poetry itself. But then, as the poets repeatedly tell us, the distinction between theory and poetry is an arbitrary one anyway, even as generic and prosodic differentiation violates the integrity of the text as “language-work.” For Olson and Creeley, “Form is never more than the extension of content.” For the Language poet, this aphorism becomes “Theory is never more than the extension of practice.”6

But whatever the generic category, the important distinction to be made is not between “story” and “prose poem” or “story” and “essay” but, as Charles Bernstein points out, between “different contexts of reading and different readerships” (D, p. 35). To read such “writerly” texts as Hejinian’s My Life or Davis’ Story, is to become aware of what the Language poets call “the rights of the signifier.”7 Again, to “lay bare the device,” a term the Language poets have borrowed from the Russian Futurists, does not necessarily mean to write in verse rather than prose, or to write lyric rather than “essay” or “manifesto.” It means only that “the Word as Such”—what the poets Khlebnikov and Kruchenykh called, in the title of their manifesto of 1913, Slovo kak takovoe8—becomes the primary poetic determinant.


To emphasize the Word as Such is, inevitably, to pay special attention to sound patterning, to phonemic play, punning, rhythmic recurrence, rhyme. It is a paradox of language-centered writing that, despite its frequent recourse to prose rather than verse, and its refusal to separate “philosophy” from “poetry,” sound structures are heavily foregrounded. This is not, of course, coincidence: a violation of “normal” language habits is in itself a commentary on these habits—in this case, the recourse to the frequently bland free verse that currently passes for “poetry.” As Charles Bernstein puts it in the introduction to the Paris Review “Language Sampler”:

… there is a claim being made to a syntax … of absolute attention to the ordering of sound’s syllables. … Not that this is “lyric” poetry, insofar as that term may assume a musical, or metric, accompaniment to the words: the music rather is built into the sequence of the words’ tones, totally saturating the text’s sound. …

(p. 76)

Take, for example, Charles Bernstein’s recent poem “Dysraphism,” which appeared in Sulfur, 8 (1983). Here is the poet’s note on his title:

“Dysraphism” is actually a word in use by specialists in congenital diseases, to mean dysfunctional fusion of embryonic parts—a birth defect. … “Raph” of course means “seam,” so for me disraphism is mis-seaming—a prosodic device! But it has the punch of being the same root of rhapsody (rhaph)—or in Skeats—“one who strings (lit. stitches) songs together, a reciter of epic poetry,” cf. “ode” etc. In any case, to be simple, Dorland’s [the standard U.S. medical dictionary] does define “dysrhafia” (if not dysraphism) as “incomplete closure of the primary neural tube; status dysraphicus”; this is just below “dysprosody” (sic): “disturbance of stress, pitch, and rhythm of speech.”9

Bernstein’s sensitivity to etymologies and latent meanings is reflected in the poem itself, which is an elaborate “dysfunctional fusion of embryonic parts,” a “disturbance of stress, pitch, and rhythm of speech” in the interest of a new kind of urban “rhapsody.” The “mis-seaming” of the poem brings together the life of the entire city—let us say New York—with its overheard conversations, advertising slogans, Wall Street jargon, medical terminology, TV clichés, how-to manuals, remembered proverbs, wise sayings, and nonsense rhymes. Like Joyce’s “Aeolus” chapter in Ulysses, it playfully exploits such rhetorical figures as pun, anaphora, epiphora, metathesis, epigram, anagram, and neologism to create a seamless web of reconstituted words:

The pillar’s tale: a windowbox onto society.
But heed not the pear that blows in your
brain. God’s poison is the concept of
conceptlessness—anaerobic breath.
No less is culled no more vacated—temptation’s
flight is always to
beacon’s hill—the soul’s
Endless strummer. There is never annul-
ment, only abridgment. The Northern Lights is
the universe’s paneled basement. Joy
when jogged. Delight in

(p. 41)

This is not nonsense talk, the collaging of whatever bits and pieces happen to enter the poet’s consciousness. Rather, “Dysraphism” violates standard language so as to foreground the discourses actually operative on contemporary writing: the “literary” (“pillar’s tale” for Chaucer’s “Miller’s Tale”), the “sociological” (“a window[box] onto society”), the recourse to proverbial wisdom (“But heed not the pear…”), the obsession with film titles (Endless S[tr]ummer), book titles and publishers’ blurbs (“Joy when jogged” for “the joy of jogging” or “Delight in / forefright” rather than “foreplay”). Instructions to the waiter or waitress new on the job (“Fill / the water glasses—ask each person / if they would like / more coffee, etc.”) alternate with parodies of medical textbooks (“vaccination of cobalt emissaries pregnant with bivalent expasperation, protruding with inert material”) and the lingo of the business conference (“It’s a realistic package, it’s a / negotiable package, it’s / not a final package”).

“Dysraphism” thus presents the reader with a world in which the articulation of an individual language is all but prevented by the official discourses that bombard the consciousness from all sides. “Blinded by avenue and filled with / adjacency,” “Arch or arched at,” how do we avoid speech as mere repetition? Perhaps, the poem implies, by decomposition and recharge—in this case, particularly the recharge of sound. For the psychological self-projection (“Twenty-five years ago I walked…” “It was that night I knew…”) of most contemporary free verse, Bernstein substitutes the overdetermination of sound. Sometimes we hear a quasi-Elizabethan iambic pentameter (“that hits the spring to sing with sanguine bulk”), sometimes the tunes of Tin Pan Alley (“No where to go but pianissimo”), everywhere the chiming of rhyme: “Morose or comatose,” “Best of the spoils: gargoyles,” “Reality is always greener / when you haven’t seen her.” “Prose / pose” “Poem, chrome,” “A fleet of ferries, forever merry.” Words, that is to say, are not dependable when it comes to signification, but the play of their sounds is endlessly pleasurable. “Thread / threads the threads, like / thrush. thrombolytic casette.” Or, as we read on the poem’s last page:

That is, in prose you start with the world
and find the words to match; in poetry you start
with the words and find the world in them.

(p. 44)

In a world “Riddled / with riot” (a play on Yeats’ “Riddled with light” in “The Cold Heaven”), “there is always something dripping through,” if we can find it. Otherwise, “We seem to be retreading the same tire / over and over, with no additional traction.”


The unmasking of contemporary discourse in poems like “Dysraphism” is, of course, far from innocent. Both in San Francisco and New York, the Language movement arose as an essentially Marxist critique of contemporary American capitalist society on behalf of young poets who came of age in the wake of the Vietnam War and Watergate. …

For one thing, what the Language poets call late monopoly capitalism is never compared to the economic system of existing Marxist countries—the Soviet Union, China, Cuba, and their satellites. “The rise of capitalism,” writes Silliman, “sets the preconditions for the rise of the novel, the invention of the optical illusion of realism, the final breakdown of gestural poetic forms” (LB, p. 126). Where does the rise of communism fit into this picture? Is Silliman implying that in contemporary China, “the optical illusion of realism” has given way to a valorization of “gestural poetic forms”? Or is the very opposite not the case in countries that can only tolerate socialist realism? Indeed, the transparency of the signifier, its loss of power to be in its own right, seems to me the very hallmark of discourse in the literary journals of, say, East Germany.

Still, poets like Silliman and Bernstein are on to something important when they lament the “invisibility” of language in our “literary” culture. “The words,” says Silliman sadly, “are never our own. Rather, they are our own usages of a determinate coding passed down to us like all other products of civilization” (LB, p. 167). The dominance of a sophisticated technology, whether under capitalism or socialism, means that language is always in danger of becoming commodity. Those of us who have taught courses on poetry are familiar with the student with a very high IQ, say a computer science major, who cannot make anything of a poem like Blake’s “London” because he or she cannot conceive of a linguistic or social context in which one might refer to a soldier’s “hapless sigh” as “Run[ning] like blood down palace walls.” In the discourse of medical text books or legal briefs, such statements simply make no sense. …

Writing is inevitably repetition, but each repetition reveals something else. As Charles Bernstein puts it in a poem called “Sprocket Damage”:

What happens opens up into what
                                                  happens the next time.(10)

Or, as Ron Silliman playfully paraphrases Freud so as to avoid the familiar id and ego, “When words are, meaning soon follows. Where words join, writing is” (LB, p. 16).


  1. on the corner to off the corner (College Park, Md.: Sun & Moon Press, 1981), p. 7.

  2. ABC (Berkeley: Tuumba, 1983), unpaginated.

  3. Resistance (Windsor, Vt.: Awede, 1983), unpaginated.

  4. A Homemade World. The American Modernist Writers (New York: Knopf, 1975), p. 60.

  5. “Writing and Method,” Poetics Journal, 3 (May 1983), 7.

  6. See Charles Bernstein, “Interview with Tom Beckett,” The Difficulties: Charles Bernstein Issue, ed. Tom Beckett, Vol. 2, no. 1 (Fall 1982), 35.

  7. See Nanon Valaoritis, Introduction to “Poésie Language USA,” Change, 41 (Paris: Seghers, March 1981), 159. The section devoted to “Language Poetry” in this issue is on pp. 151–88.

  8. See Vladimir Markov (ed.), Russian Futurism: A History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968), pp. 129–31.

  9. Sulfur, 8 (1983), 39.

  10. Islets/Irritations (New York: Jordan Davies, 1983), p. 5.

Principal Works

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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

DeVillo Sloan (review date Summer 1987)

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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 informs his writing. Briefly, western culture has evolved a syntax that enforces a repressive model of reality. The rhetoric of “Semblance” becomes visionary in its assertions that disruptions of syntactic conventions could actually change the world. Bernstein’s claims were disputed several years ago in the Village Voice when a critic suggested that L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writing promotes neither social change nor good art but instead produces strings of “meaningless relationships.” In “An Interview with Tom Beckett,” Bernstein carefully addresses issues that occur frequently to most readers of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writing: its derivations from surrealism, its use of “found” language, and its implicit politics.

Content’s Dream clarifies theoretical issues, but when Bernstein discusses writers outside his immediate circle, the results are disappointing. Reviews of works by Clark Coolidge, Hannah Weiner, and Ron Silliman are illuminating. “Undone Business,” however, about Charles Olson, does little more than restate accepted notions about Olson’s poetry that can be found easily in print elsewhere. Bernstein’s essay on Williams is little more than a sympathetic restatement of common notions of Williams’ relationship to the academy. “Hearing ‘Here’: Robert Creeley’s Poetics of Duration” is a flaccid attempt to explore postmodern poetics but becomes, unfortunately, an apology for the sexism inherent in Creeley’s early work and a defense of his weaker writing. Particularly distressing is the overly ambitious “Words and Pictures.” While provocative in its exploration of visual literacy, the essay presents a garbled reading of Louis Zukofsky. Zukofsky is an important poet in the formation of a L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E canon, and Bernstein’s inability to come to terms coherently with Zukofsky’s theoretical writing creates serious doubts about an objectivist/L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E connection.

Ironically, Bernstein is at his best in Content’s Dream when he is not writing strictly about literary concerns. There is a preoccupation in the book with visual perception. Bernstein’s insistence that the objects of culture be read as language makes an interesting theoretical basis for the exploration of non-literary media. His essay on film, “Frames of Reference,” is insightful and refreshing. Perhaps, because his own artistic ego is not at stake, Bernstein can bring a sharper objectivity to the art of film. He is able to explore his own responses to the medium as well as the ideological ramifications of popular culture. “Meaning the Meaning: Arakawa’s Critique of Space,” co-authored with Susan Bee, is a well-informed discussion of conceptual art which also manages to capture the tone of the New York art world at a particular historical moment.

Filled as it is with provocative essays, Content’s Dream has moments of extreme self-indulgence. The book jacket places Bernstein firmly in the company of Williams, Pound, and Stein. Apparently author and publisher are convinced by their own advertisements since among the essays are included many minor prose pieces—a short introduction to a poetry reading by Robin Blaser, for instance—and transcriptions from tape recordings whose purposes are problematic at best. The reader is occasionally treated to transcriptions where Bernstein simply free-associates anything that comes to mind. For instance:

… that kind of self consciousness so i should get into that im as good as they are im as good as they are im as good as they are im im im i am i i am as good as they are i am as good as they are okay so you are as good as they are but in what sense …

This material seems rather ego-centered for a poet who claims that he wishes to abolish accepted notions of the self in contemporary poetry. The reader must struggle with the writer through difficult passages to find the rewards of Content’s Dream. Clearly, though, in its pages the central issues of the current literary scene are brought into focus.

Mac Wellman (review date Winter 1989)

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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 spirited attack on all orders of official public decorum which, despite its facade of enlightened liberalism and toleration, is in these terms only a cabal of multinational interests, greed, sexism, racism and, in sum, Baudrillard’s war of the nation-state against its own population.

The reckless anarchy and good humor of essays like “Three or Four Things I Know about Him,” the precision of “Living Tissue/Dead Ideas,” and the sheer wacky openendedness of “The Conspiracy of ‘Us’” present the possibility of a kind of criticism we see too rarely in the theatre, a benighted and provincial art still dominated by what Edward Said has termed a “discourse of structure and refinement.” We need more of Bernstein’s kind of intellectual wildness in the theatre.

Further Reading

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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 Nation (2–9 July 1988): 24-6.

Lazer offers a positive assessment of The Sophist and Artifice of Absorption.

Mack, Anne, J. J. Rome, and Georg Mannejc. “Private Enigmas and Critical Functions, with Particular Reference to the Writing of Charles Bernstein.” Boundary 2 22 (Spring 1991): 441-64.

Discusses the meaning, theoretical aims, and significance of Language poetry, especially that of Bernstein, in light of its highly obscure, allusive, and often nonsensical language and references.

McQuade, Molly. Review of My Way.Washington Post Book World (25 April 1994): 4.

A brief, generally favorable review of Bernstein's My Way, which is comprised of a collection of essays, interviews, and poems.

Nathanson, Tenney. “Collage and Pulverization in Contemporary American Poetry: Charles Bernstein's Controlling Interests.Contemporary Literature 33, No. 2 (Summer 1992): 302-18.

Examines Bernstein's discursive approach to poetry, particularly in Controlling Interests, as a method of exposing the linguistic structures of commodification and reification.

Palattella, John. “Learning to Be Contemporary Somewhere in the Middle of Modernism.” Contemporary Literature 35, No. 1 (Spring 1994): 182-94.

Includes discussion of Bernstein's theoretical perspective in A Poetics, particularly in response to the legacy of modernism.

Perloff, Marjorie. “Essaying: Hot and Cool.” Michigan Quarterly Review 26, No. 2 (Spring 1987): 404-12.

Review of Content's Dream, including comparative discussion of Umberto Eco's Travels in Hyperreality.

Reinfeld, Linda. “Bernstein's Pharmacy.” In Language Poetry: Writing as Rescue, pp. 50-85. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1992.

Provides analysis of the philosophical, aesthetic, and linguistic theory behind Bernstein's poetry and critical stance. Reinfeld contends that Bernstein's writing is in part an attempt to “rescue” contemporary American literature from the excessive influence of Continental theory, particularly that of Jacques Derrida.

Additional coverage of Bernstein's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vol. 129; Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Vol. 24; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 90; Contemporary Poets;Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 169.

Jerome McGann (essay date 1991)

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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 different social opinions and understandings—which define (sometimes even dominate) ‘the way we live now’. The poet’s office, for Bernstein, is to put those constellations at the reader’s disposal.

Like Shelley, Bernstein pursues this revelation not for its own sake, but to break the spell of ideology by dislocating its forms of representation. To read Bernstein is to take part in a (comic) play wherein ‘meaning’ is dismembered. The ‘difficulty’ arises from a process by which we are alienated from the meanings of things that we thought we knew, that in fact we did know. As Brecht might have said, ‘the fourth wall’ between poet and reader is taken away.

To do this means dramatising the linguistic and semiological forms by which social relations are constructed and managed. Bernstein’s poetry often reads like a catalogue of current clichés (drawn from various social groups and institutional contexts), advertising slogans, nonce expressions, and the like:

                                                                                Something like after
a while I’m reading my book, go to store to get
more stuff. ‘You’re about as patient as the flame
on a match.’ After the ceremony lunch was served
by Mrs. Anne MacIssac, Mrs. Betty MacDonald, and Mrs. Catherine
MacLeod, and consisted of tea, bannock, homemade cheese
oatcakes and molasses cookies. We thank the ladies. Waste
not, want not; but there’s such a thing as being shabby.
Which seems finally to move the matter, but in despair
seeing ‘lived experience’ as only possible under
the hegemony of an ideology, an ‘imaginary’. Started
to do this, I corrected, he (they) demurred, I
moved aside. Don’t look up but she goes off. ‘Pleasant Bay news
really hasn’t dropped out, it was just on holiday’.

(‘The Simply’)2

This passage is a collage (or mobile) of social texts whose arbitrary juxtaposition forces a clearer awareness of the specialised character of each one, and of the local world from which each one draws its peculiar life. The collaged structure may be taken as a minimally representational image of a modern or postmodern field of experience. Unlike a modernist mobile, however, this ordering of randomness—the ‘meaning’ of collage—is not the object of our attention. The text preserves its nervousness and incompletion, as one would see even more clearly if the quotation were allowed to continue.

This text does not have, that is to say, an order of finality. In terms of ‘meaning’, collage itself is a recognisable convention of meaning in a postmodern scene of writing (whereas in a modernist scene it appears as an innovation, an ‘original’ meaning). In the present case the convention serves, on one hand, as another problem of meaning (e.g. ‘fret which is whirled / out of some sort of information’); and, on the other, as a selva oscura where one may find one’s way, but only with difficulty (e.g. ‘guided by irritation’). I quote here from the opening section of the poem (see below); and I signal both quotations by ‘e.g.’ because neither means precisely what my commentary might be taken to have said. Rather, the parts of this poem work by suggestion and are always dissolving away from the meanings we are tempted to bring to them.

The heart of this poetry lies in those temptations toward meaning. The test is not so much a secret communication as ‘a vocabulary and a set of rules by which it is processed’.3 What comes of such a text depends upon how the reader reconstructs the linguistic relationships: because choices will and indeed must be made if even the simplest act of reading is to proceed.

But even that simplest act of reading emerges as a difficult operation to perform, in this sense—that readers can only go on if and as they are paying attention to their (chosen) act of reading. To read this text is to be forced, as Thoreau would have said (had his subject been texts rather than nature), to read deliberately. The ultimate subject of a text like this is the reader. It is a linguistic/ideological field, with textual units mirroring (or quoting from) a wildly various group of subject positions: from New Left discourse (perhaps an allusion to Verso Books) to society column news.

To read the text one must construct relations and relationships. As soon as one does so, however, the text responds by (as it were) reading the reader. For ‘the poem itself’ does not ‘have a meaning’ which the reader is expected to discover and articulate. The poem’s ‘difficulty’ arises exactly from its having refused to proceed according to those conventions of language-use. The text assembles units of (various) conventional meaning-forms, but as a poem—as a field in which those units are ordered and encountered—their relations are left to the reader’s devices. As soon as the reader acts within the textual field—as soon as he chooses certain options of reading—he is immediately drawn into the poetic space and reflected back to himself.

In these last comments I deliberately used the pronouns ‘he’ and ‘himself’ in order to emphasise the highly particular forms which every reading decision always involves. (Had I used the pronouns ‘her’ and ‘herself’ this fact would have been patent.) Those pronouns are a sign that the reader’s subject-position is always gendered—masculine, feminine, neuter—whatever the sex of the reader. It makes a difference, according to the poetic logic of this kind of poem, how (and of course by whom) the reading is gendered. This is part of the subject of the poetry, just as ‘the reader’ is always a specific individual.

The passage above is preceded by the following, which is the opening of the poem:

                                                                                                                        The Simply
Nothing can contain the empty stare that ricochets
haphazardly against any purpose. My hands
are cold but I see nonetheless with an infrared
charm. Beyond these calms is a coast, handy but
worse for abuse. Frankly, hiding an adumbration of collectible
cathexis, catherized weekly, burred and bumptious;
actually, continually new groups being brought forward for
drowning. We get back, I forget to call, we’re
very tired eating. They think they’ll get salvation, but
this is fraudulent. Proud as punches—something like
Innsbruck, saddles, sashed case; fret which is whirled
out of some sort of information; since you ask. We’re
very, simply to say, smoked by fear, guided by
irritation. Rows of desks. Something like after. …

The title itself ‘enacts’, as Bernstein might say, a problem of reading, and thereby puts the reader in an acute state of attention. As one moves through this text one searches out relations and (inevitably) discovers various kinds: the odd sequence of adverbs, for example; the repetitions with variations (‘something like’ and ‘Something like’; ‘we’re / very tired eating’ and ‘we’re / very, simply to say…’; ‘The Simply’ and ‘simply to say’; etc.); and possible thematic rhymes among different parts of the sequence. For the latter, one cues to several phrases and images which suggest boredom, irritation, and a general condition of quandariness. The text as a whole seems to take no particular attitude toward its various units, but in that very appearance of indifference, certain possibilities of meaning emerge. One wonders, for example, if the first sentence is not indeed the poem’s ‘topic sentence’, a statement about the rich (uncontainable) value of the poem’s flat and ‘empty stare’ back at us. In this reading the ‘purpose’ would be an equivalent of the reader’s search for meaning, and the ‘empty stare’ would be the poem’s device of indifference, which might only increase the reader’s imperative toward meaning.

Other readings are of course possible. Indeed, the way the units of this poem ‘ricochet’ off each other may be taken as a sign that it is enacting its own stimulus toward reading and meaning.

Bernstein’s poetry turns out, as a result, a kind of comedy of errors, with the reader (we are many) playing the principal role(s). American traditions of screwball comedy—the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy—have had a deep influence on his work. There is a wonderfully comic moment about half-way through ‘The Simply’ when the text turns to satirise ‘the reader of poetry’. The passage appears as a random quotation from (evidently) some missionary’s journal or letter to a friend or superior.

                                        ‘For all that
we have not up to the present noticed any more
Religion among these poor savages than among brutes;
this is what wrings our hearts with compassion, if
they could know themselves what they themselves are
worth, and what they cost him who has loved us all
so much. Now what consoles us in the midst
of this ignorance and barbarism, and what makes us hope
to see the Faith widely implanted, is partly the docility
they have shown in wishing to be instructed, and partly
the honesty and decency we observe in them; for
they listen to us so diligently concerning the mysteries
of our Faith, and repeat after us, whether they understand
it or not, all that we declare to them.’

Part of the joke here is plainly the double-take which such a passage encourages. This text’s ‘we’ will be read to mean something like ‘the sentences of the present poem’ or (more generally) ‘poets’; and ‘these poor savages’, with their ‘honesty and decency’, are … ourselves? Yes, of course. The joke is especially wonderful and outrageous because the passage is so elaborate, and yet every one of its details may be translated to an immediate application for ‘the reader’. Once again, not a representation but an enactment of meaning, with the reader as a key player in the events. And the passage allows its further implications to wind out—for example that reading is a social act just as practical behaviour in the world is a way of reading; or, that acts of appropriation break open the world in ways that power cannot contain and control; or even, that anything can (and does, or does not) mean anything.

As the poem proceeds, its subject—the enactment rather than the representation of meaning—becomes, I think, more strongly thematised at the level of the enactments. The missionary passage is blatantly thematic, and so is the following, toward the poem’s conclusion.

          Don’t you find it chilly
sitting with your Silly? Yet things
beguile us with their beauty
their sudden irascibility: the hay of the
imagination is the solace of a dry soul; which
is to say, keep yourselves handy since
you may be called on at any hour.
One wants almost to shudder (yawn, laugh…) in disbelief
at the hierarchization of consciousness in such a dictum
as ‘first thought, best thought’, as if recovery
were to be prohibited from the kingdom;
for anyway ‘first thought’ is no thinking
at all. There is no ‘actual space of’. So
quiet you can hear the clouds gather. Weep
not, want not; but there’s such a thing as being

‘First thought, best thought’ is a reference to Allen Ginsberg, who likes to take this ‘dictum’ as an essential truth about poetry. Bernstein’s text moves against such a ‘thought’—rethinks it—by situating us in a text that foregrounds the process of reflection. At all points Bernstein’s text seduces us with imaginative options (‘shudder (yawn, laugh…)’). Its religious faith is the ‘disbelief’ which Brecht said would move mountains, and its ‘kingdom’ is the world of imaginative reflection and recreation.

One particularly traces the movement of this poetry at its many odd transitional points, where the reader is forced to swerve out into unexpected directions. These may be simple moments of syntactic conjugation—the ‘Yet’ of the second quoted line; the colon and the semicolon of the fourth and fifth—or semantic dislocations (‘beauty’/‘irascibility’)—or unexpected connections to other moments in the poem (e.g. the arbitrary rhyme that the last sentence of this quotation makes with the seventh and eighth lines of the first passage I quoted).

The closing lines of the poem are, in all these respects, typical of the work:

‘You have such a horrible sense of equity which
is inequitable because there’s no such
things as equity.’ The text, the beloved?
Can I stop living when the pain gets too
great? Nothing interrupts this moment.

The joke of that final word is that it also, simultaneously, means its opposite. But not only its opposite. The movement away from fixed meanings is not always, or even principally, a binary recoil. It takes place rather at tangents and Dickinsonian ‘slants’, at what Tennyson called the ‘strange diagonal’ of poetry. In the last two sentences, for instance, the reader may observe that the ‘Nothing’ which does or doesn’t ‘interrupt this moment’ recalls the ‘Nothing’ from which the poem originally set forth:

Nothing can contain the empty stare that ricochets
haphazardly against any purpose.

Not for nothing is ‘The Simply’ placed as the opening poem of a book Bernstein has titled The Sophist.


  1. The quotation is from Shelley’s ‘Defence of Poetry’, in David Lee Clark (ed.), Shelley’s Prose; or, The Trumpet of a Prophecy (University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 1954), p. 278. And compare: ‘poetry … awakens and enlarges the mind itself by rendering it the receptacle of a thousand unapprehended combinations of thought’ (p. 282); or ‘Poetry … arrests the vanishing apparitions which haunt the interlunations of life and, veiling them, or in language or in form, sends them forth among mankind, bearing sweet news of kindred joy to those with whom their sisters abide’ (pp. 294–5).

  2. ‘The Simply’ is printed as the initial poem in Bernstein’s collection titled The Sophist (Sun & Moon Press, Los Angeles, 1987). I quote here from that text.

  3. I take this phrase from Ron Silliman’s ‘The Chinese Notebook’ in The Age of Huts (Roof Books, New York, 1986), pp. 54, 63.

Keith Tuma (review date Spring 1992)

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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 / could never have done it alone” and remains as interested in the social body as ever, I’m tempted to say that Rough Trades is Bernstein’s most “personalized” book. It is certainly his most readable book. And, I might add, for me it is his best. It’s only partly ironic when Bernstein writes “they used to be / the leaders of the avant-garde, but now / they just want to be understood.” Consider, for example, this passage from the same poem:

are not my words but those that summer
gives me, with a tenderness quite
unknown in the real world, where
there is little to remember but
stormy days. I would have a house
of my own, with a bay of pastel
miasma, reality leaking
from its edges, as the context
conditions. Therefore, my style
seems to have fallen to
pieces, deteriorated
in the three-year interim
between books; others
may write better-made poems
but those poems with their elegant
turns of phrase, their vivid
excellence, often add up to nothing.
Either poetry is real as, or realer than,
life, or it is nothing, a stupid
& stupefying occupation for zombies.
For my poetry is informed by
something inside that doesn’t
flinch & won’t budge.

Though the first few lines of this read like Duncan or some other romantic poet, I am most reminded of Williams’ “The Pink Locust,” where the old man defended his idiosyncrasy in a propositional mode that represented something of a retreat from the more materialist poetics of his earlier experimental phase. There is much of the old Bernstein in Rough Trades—“fissures, breaks, and other disjunctive devices” (to quote the giant blurb)—but much of the book seems as interested in re-constructing lyric and discursive sense out of the fragmented social body (of which Byron, Stevens, Williams, Campion and other poetries are a part) as it is in disrupting or de-constructing the discursive and lyric conventions that have reinforced dominant ideologies. In other words, this book contains not just acid but also a little stone. One poem even begins “We share these sediments, sentiments,” though this does continue on to reject “the father’s lore.” But rejecting the old stories does not entail abandoning the pursuit of some new ones, just as (to quote Bunting) abstinence does not cure desire. Maybe I’m way off base here, but this explains for me the relative discursive continuity of the passage quoted above, and the re-writing of Stevens’ imaginary in the volume’s first poem, “The Kiwi Bird in the Kiwi Tree,” and the appropriation of the beginning of Byron’s “She Walks In Beauty” for what is in effect a conventional “compleynt” in “Verdi and Postmodernism.” This last poem especially pleases me, as I am of the once familiar opinion that poetry atrophies when it moves too far from song:

She walks in beauty like the swans
that on a summer day do swarm
& crawls as deftly as a spoon
& spills & sprawls & booms.

Bring me Campion’s lute! Now that Bernstein has demonstrated that he can outdo the mostly flaccid New Formalists at creating textures of sound (speech?), will the next move be to give over parody and comedy for lyrical effusion? Probably not.

Vernon Shetley (essay date 1993)

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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 stable configuration of poets and audiences has been upset by insurgencies from both its metaphorical right and left. The loosely organized, free-verse “voice” poem, which dominates practically unchallenged an anthology like Daniel Halpern’s 1975 American Poetry Anthology, has suddenly found itself under attack by ideas of poetic form that question its theoretical foundations.

One band of insurgents has become known as New Formalists, the other as Language poets. They might seem at first to have nothing in common except an enemy, but both movements’ defining themselves against the colloquial free-verse lyric that occupies the mainstream makes for some shared assumptions, despite the radical differences between their programs. Most broadly, both participate in that curiously persistent American poetic myth, already on its third go-round in this century, that one might term “technological determinism,” which takes the decision to write in “closed” or “open” forms as the crucial, defining poetic choice. Both hold a fundamentally deterministic view of poetic form, seeing the formal strategies they employ as dictated inescapably by the nature of poetry, or of language itself, or by the direction of history (literary or other). Though their prescriptions differ radically, both propose themselves as antidotes to what they describe as the imprisonment of American poetry within a poetics of the private self. A focus on the technology of literature thus becomes the remedy to a focus on personality. And both have arisen and flourished largely outside the academy. It’s one of the weird ironies of our moment that one finds an entrenched academic poetry dedicated to the ideals of spontaneity and direct expressiveness challenged on one side by poets who draw much of their inspiration from literary theory and philosophy, and on the other by poets advocating a return to convention and tradition.

Any disinterested observer has to be impressed by the energy and perseverance of the loosely confederated group of writers who have come to be known as Language poets. Since coming together in various locations some twenty years ago, the core group of founders and a circle of followers have formed an extensive network of like-minded practitioners, staged readings, published magazines, and founded publishing houses. They have done this with almost no help, or even attention, from the mainstream outlets and institutions serving poetry; the Language poets have not been adopted by any commercial publishing house, promoted or noticed in venues like the New York Times Book Review or even, for the most part, American Poetry Review or Poetry, or received grants and prizes from the usual foundations and committees. For a long time the Language writers existed outside or on the fringe of the academy, though recently a number of them have joined faculties and their movement has acquired some powerful academic boosters, most prominent among them Jerome McGann. Five years ago, a survey of the most significant developments in recent American poetry might well have omitted Language writing without risking charges of partiality; now, the vigorous backing of its academic supporters has made Language writing an important issue on the American poetic scene.

The Language writing movement presents itself as a revival of an earlier mode of avant-gardism, not merely in its establishment of alternative means of distribution but also in its self-conscious taking of aesthetic positions, its frequent production of manifestos and other statements. Mainstream poetic practice in America, as it flows through the creative writing programs, has little need of manifestos. Though a rhetoric of pluralism obscures the underlying conformity, the range of stylistic options and models employed in the mainstream is in fact quite narrow; differences in outlook and approach are rarely so dramatic as to involve fundamental disagreements of principle that would be worth arguing publicly. For many mainstream poets, interviews rather than essays are the chief avenue for articulating a poetics. While mainstream poets may disagree in their understandings, for instance, of the master abstractions, such as “voice,” “image,” “immediacy,” and “concreteness” that structure mainstream poetic production, such disagreements are rarely so severe as to call for polemic; nor does it seem, in general, that the poets have devoted much theoretical reflection to these subjects. The Language writers stand outside the consensus; they are self-conscious poetic revolutionaries of a sort familiar since Wordsworth. What distinguishes them from earlier poetic revolutionaries is their seeing the increase in difficulty attendant upon their innovations as in some ways an end in itself rather than merely a side effect of poetic experimentation. Hostile readers often accused poets like Eliot and Stevens of deliberate obscurantism, and while the snob appeal of baffling the complacent bourgeois reader was certainly a real part of the attraction of modernist experimentalism, the modernists, sincerely, I think, rejected the accusation of deliberately attempting to be unreadable, even if they felt, as Eliot did, that serious poetry in the modern era “must be difficult.” For a Language writer like Bruce Andrews, however, “unreadability” is a goal in itself, intimately linked to a high and largely unexamined value placed upon the “new”: “‘Unreadability’—that which requires new readers, and teaches new readings” (“Text and Context” 31).

What seems to have generated the recent interest in Language writing among academic critics, however, is not this relatively novel aspect of their work, but rather the explicitly political character of the aesthetic underpinning it. The Language writers obviously have their roots in the alternative poetries gathered in Donald Allen’s 1960 anthology, The New American Poetry. But where the older poets in that anthology were often New Deal liberals, and the younger poets leftists of the Beat anarchist sort, the Language writers generally announce themselves as Marxist radicals. As McGann puts it: “The difference between pre- and post-1973 American poetry lies in the extremity of the ideological gap which separates traditionalists from the innovators in the post-1973 period. … L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writers typically foreground their oppositional politics in ways that the New American Poets did not” (“Contemporary Poetry, Alternate Routes” p. 627, by Jerome McGann, in Critical Inquiry 13, Spring 1987; hereafter cited as CPAR). Academic criticism has obviously been growing much more heavily politicized and ideologically self-aware in recent years; and though Language writing developed largely outside the academy, its fate surely depends in large measure on the extent to which it can capture the institutional readership represented by the university. While the insertion of modernist works into the curriculum that took place in the 1940s and 1950s in some ways only confirmed the triumph of modernism, to a significant extent it produced that triumph—or was, rather, the triumph itself. If Language poetry is to follow the path from marginality to centrality earlier taken by high modernism, its alliance with a newly politicized professoriat will be crucial.

Rationales for poetic experiment might be broadly described as falling into two categories, natural and cultural: either one asserts that the current modes of poetry are out of tune with the nature of language, the way men actually speak, or some similar natural ground, and proposes to bring them closer; or one asserts that the current modes reflect a debased cultural condition, or the values of a dying society, and proposes a renovation on the basis of that diagnosis. The Wordsworthian revolution, while of course bearing an enormous cultural component, presented itself as one based on a natural rationale; no one speaks the way Gray writes. Rimbaud’s revolt, and somewhat more ambiguously the Pound-Eliot insurgency, might be seen as instances of culturally formulated stylistic revolutions. Though other factors were involved and adduced, certainly the poets’ reactions, respectively, to the France that emerged from the defeat of the Commune, and more generally the Europe that plunged itself into the Great War, were the targets of a program of transformation that saw discarding the aesthetic forms of a “botched civilization,” in Pound’s phrase (Personae 191), as part of a larger struggle over social values.

Both forms of revolutionary rationale are represented in the Language movement’s writing. As McGann remarks, the Language writers assume the Saussurean position that “declares ‘reality’ to be a function of the language(s) by which we speak of it” (“Private Enigmas and Critical Functions, with Particular Reference to the Writing of Charles Bernstein,” p. 446, by Jerome McGann, in New Literary History 22, 1991; hereafter cited as PECF) and go beyond that proposition to subscribe to Derridean tenets concerning the inability of any speaker or utterance to fix the play of signification, an inability that leads to a deep and fundamental skepticism regarding the referential function of language. As Bruce Andrews puts it, “individual signifiers have no natural relationship to individual signifieds or mental imagery, and certainly not to individual referents” (“Constitution” 157–58). If referentiality is merely an exploded fiction, and the self simply a metaphor, then a writing that dispenses with referentiality, abandons the notion of lyric subjectivity, and discards any pretense of embodying an authorial intention will be more in tune with the true nature of language. Following out this logic, the Language writers produce work that pushes to an extreme the lexical and syntactical innovations of such modernists as Joyce and Stein (Harmon 106). If the freeplay of the signifier is at the heart of all language, then truth to the medium (a decidedly modernist value) will be best secured by a corresponding freeplay in every element of the work.

This “natural” rationale for experimentation slides over easily into the cultural rationale, along lines laid out by the poststructuralist sources of the Language aesthetic. Julia Kristeva puts it well: “Magic, shamanism, esoterism, the carnival, and ‘incomprehensible’ poetry all underscore the limits of socially useful discourse and attest to what it represses: the process that exceeds the subject and his communicative structures” (16); a critique of bourgeois instrumentalist discourse, in other words, is inherent in the hermetic nature of difficult poetry. Similar notions are elaborated in the critical writings of Language poets like Ron Silliman: “What happens when a language moves toward and passes into a capitalist stage of development is an anaesthetic transformation of the perceived tangibility of the word, with corresponding increases in its expository, descriptive and narrative capacities” (The New Sentence,p. 10, by Ron Silliman, New York: Roof Books, 1987; hereafter cited as NS). The antidote, then, to the hegemonic operations of exposition and narrative would be writing like that of Silliman’s Tjanting, which seems fairly effectively to have short-circuited those modes of discourse: “False start. Circadia. True start. Applause, ability. A run around a ring around of roses read. Gum bichromate. Jets swoop low over the destroyer amid bursts of anti-aircraft fire, dozens of bombs going off in the water, then rise up again & the audience cheers. Sandy analogy to the quick. The poem plots. Not this. Indented servant. Moot pleonast. Opposable thumb” (In the American Tree 141). For the Language writers and their academic supporters, assaults on the “descriptive and narrative” functions of language such as those staged by Silliman’s work strike a blow against the ideological apparatus underpinning the capitalist state.

At its extreme, this argument for the political efficacy of experimental writing makes a decidedly dubious appeal to nature. Hannah Weiner, for instance, proposes that “disjunctive and non-sequential writing can change states of consciousness, awakening the reader to reality, and thus the need for political change. … it does this by forcing an aberration in the left brain language centers” (226). More typical of the cultural rationale, however, is the sort of argument against narrative summarized in this passage by McGann: “Narrativity is an especially problematic feature of discourse … because its structures lay down ‘stories’ which serve to limit and order the field of experience, in particular the field of social and historical experience. Narrativity is … an inherently conservative feature of discourse” (CPAR 638). If narrative is inherently conservative, then the abandonment or sabotaging of narrative challenges the foundations of the existing order. McGann’s characterization of the political operation of Silliman’s work might be generalized to that of the entire movement: “As a writer his struggle against these exploitive social formations appears as a critique of the modes of language which produce and reproduce the ‘reality’ of a capitalist world and history” (CPAR 640). Language writing thus appeals to the leftist academic critic as an instance of politically engaged creative work that operates not within the outmoded discourse of a “vulgar” Marxism, nor along the lines of the group solidarity of an oppressed or marginalized cohort to which the critic does not belong, but in a set of terms made available by a commitment to Western Marxist and poststructuralist theoretical positions, exactly the theoretical matrix within which the critic functions. So Andrew Ross celebrates the appearance, in the work of the Language poets, of a “new hardheadedness in cultural and social matters” (365), as distinct, presumably, from the dogmatism of the party intellectual or the sentimentality of the spokesperson for the disadvantaged.

This coincidence of theoretical tenets has its limiting as well as its generative aspects, however. Both the natural and the cultural rationales for Language writing beg some obvious questions, questions that critics like McGann and Ross, perhaps because of the proximity of their own assumptions to those of the poets, fail to ask. The “natural” rationale views language as having a particular nature, one described in deconstructive terms as polyvalent, disseminated, and decentered; the job of the text, then, in reflecting that nature, is to “order itself in such a way as to multiply … generative ‘polyentendres’” (PECF 449). But if this is indeed the nature of language, then all writing, not merely Language writing, is polyvalent, disseminated, and decentered, and no special efforts on the part of the poet are necessary to achieve this condition. McGann remarks that in Charles Bernstein’s poetry “relationships and forms of order can only be had if they are actively made by the reader” (CPAR 638), but if two decades of deconstructive and reader-response criticism have established anything, it is that this holds true for all literature, indeed for all writing of any kind. McGann demonstrates the point himself when he reads Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods” as if it were Language poetry (“Marxism, Romanticism, and Postmodernism: An American Case History,” pp. 627–30, by Jerome McGann, in South Atlantic Quarterly 88: 3, Summer 1989). The point of this exercise, presumably, is to clinch McGann’s case for the centrality of reception history in interpretation; only reception history, he implies, can save us from such absurdities as taking the “though” in “His house is in the village, though,” as the name of the village. But demonstrating that Frost’s poem can yield as many “polyentendres” per line as any by Bernstein undermines the case McGann makes elsewhere for the necessity of Language writing, and for its radical difference from more conventional forms of writing.

What this reveals as well is the high and unargued value McGann places upon self-consciousness; presumably, what differentiates Frost and Bernstein is the latter’s superior awareness of the many possible ways of reading his poetry, as opposed to the logocentric naïveté implicitly assigned to the former. McGann probably had some such notion in mind when he remarked of “procedural writing” that its “acts of intervention … are conscious of their own relative status” (CPAR 637). Though the demands made by the self’s exposure as a fiction mean that “acts” here must be “conscious,” the passage nevertheless implies that the value of Language writing proceeds from its authors’ self-consciousness about their position and their activities. The suspicion is confirmed later in the same essay, when the novel, victim of its own mystifications, is contrasted unfavorably with poetry: “The novel, dominated as it is by referentiality and narrativity, is always moving within the medium of its own self-occlusion. The function of poetry is to provide an example of language in conscious pursuit of complete self-transparency” (CPAR 641). Here again, in canonically deconstructive fashion, language has a mind of its own, but despite McGann’s care to subtract any mention of the author from passages like this, it seems that for him the value of Language writing is intimately bound up with the intense self-consciousness of its practitioners. …

Though I’m certainly aware that no single poem can adequately stand for a movement as broad and varied as Language writing, I put forth Charles Bernstein’s “The Kiwi Bird in the Kiwi Tree” as a representative example of the kind of problems that arise in an attempt to embody the central tenets of Language writing theory in poetic practice. McGann places the poem among Bernstein’s “most statemental [sic]” work (PECF 455–57); the poem was featured in a selection of Bernstein’s poetry that appeared in Rethinking MARXISM. I quote from that text:

I want no paradise only to be
drenched in the downpour of words, fecund
with tropicality. Fundament be-
yond relation, less ‘real’ than made, as arms
surround a baby’s gurgling: encir-
cling mesh pronounces its promise (not bars
that pinion, notes that ply). The tailor tells
of other tolls, the seam that binds, the trim,
the waste. & having spelled these names, move on
to toys or talcoms, skates & scores. Only
the imaginary is real—not trumps
beclouding the mind’s acrobatic vers-
ions. The first fact is the social body,
one from another, nor needs no other.

The very title of the poem points toward the arbitrariness of the signifier; kiwi birds and kiwi trees (vines, actually) have no necessary reason to share a name. Neither does the poem’s title seem to have anything to do with the poem itself; names and things are disjoined throughout. The whimsicality of the title, both in itself and in its relation (or lack of relation) to the poem, immediately puts one in mind of Wallace Stevens. But while a Stevens title of this sort tells its reader to expect a similar tone in the poem it introduces, Bernstein’s title initiates no such contract; “The Kiwi Bird” is rich in a Derridean sort of linguistic freeplay but is hardly playful; it takes itself seriously indeed.

The poem begins with “I,” as if to initiate a personal lyric, but this is the only instance of the pronoun in the poem; the suggestion of lyric subjectivity is as quickly spirited away as it is introduced. The syntax alternates from simple declarative sentences to fragments; what the poem largely avoids is complex subordinated constructions, which tend incorrigibly to produce the effect of subjectivity. The poem takes liberties with language throughout, splitting words apart at the ends of lines, punning constantly, echoing both popular phrases and poetic tradition. Although the effect is decidedly artificial (not a pejorative term in the Language poetry lexicon), Bernstein’s puns and allusions have nothing of wit or cleverness about them. Puns usually operate to reveal, even if only facetiously, some hitherto unsuspected correspondence; Bernstein’s puns are, deliberately and programmatically, fabrications rather than discoveries. Taken in connection with “downpour of words,” “tropicality” serves to remind the reader that tropic and trope are etymologically cognate, as well as bringing to mind “topicality,” but because the word is made up, the pun carries none of the sense of surprise and rightness that one could imagine a different kind of poet—Merrill, for instance—producing with a carefully prepared play on “tropical.” Likewise, the splitting of “encircling” across a line break puts “cling” together with “mesh” to further characterize this fabric. The effect of this enjambment is entirely different from that usually aimed at when poets break a word across lines, which is either to make a joke about the constraints of form or to play off the meanings of the elements of a compound word against the meaning of the word as a whole, as in Ben Jonson’s famous “twi- / Lights.” The splitting that produces “cling” from “encircling” has no semantic or etymological basis, and so it leaves the meaningless syllables “encir-” dangling on the line above; the effect is one of arbitrary and willful imposition rather than the discovery of latent implication that occurs in Jonson’s lines. The same could be said about Bernstein’s “vers- / ions.” Isolating the first syllable of the word at line’s end reminds us that “verse” has to do with turning, the turning at the end of each line (echoing the third line’s “tropicality”) as well as, in the context of “the mind’s acrobatic vers- / ions,” obliquely recalling the idiom mental gymnastics. Another kind of poet would have devised a phrase that used the term in an ordinary, idiomatic sense while also punning, in etymologically aware fashion, on it; this simultaneous satisfaction of two competing demands is the essence of wit. Bernstein, on the other hand, abandons any effort to adhere to common idiom in the search for multiple meanings; his puns, however polysemous, are single entendres.

My description of Bernstein’s tactics as arbitrary and willful would not strike the poet, I suspect, as a criticism; Bernstein seems deliberately to avoid the belief in the occult rightness of connections established through pun or rhyme that characterizes what we usually take as “poetic” thinking. Indeed, the subject, so far as I’m able to determine it, of this poem is the simultaneous arbitrariness and inescapability of language. If one takes “Fundament beyond relation” to stand in apposition to “words,” then words are seen as standing in so constitutive a relation (to beliefs, to reality) as to be beyond relation (in the sense of telling)—beyond the possibility, that is, of fully understanding and conceiving that relation, because the thing understood and the means of understanding are the same. Thus what seems “real” is in fact a construction, “less ‘real’ than made,” and the “encir-cling mesh” of words surrounds us from our infancy (the root meaning of infancy is “speechless”). The poem, however, sees in this not a prison house of language but a generative structure; the “bars” are not those of a jail cell but those of a musical score, a structure within which “notes” may be placed. I won’t attempt to expound fully the Lacanian resonances of “Only / the imaginary is real,” but it’s surely apparent that the sentence implies that we can have access only to representations and constructions, never to the unmediated “real” itself. “The first fact is the social body” is then itself ambiguous; the “body” may be either the body of the individual, which is necessarily shaped by, and understood through, the pressure of the social; or it may be the “body” of society, which preexists and conditions individual identity.

The poem, as I read it, is decidedly “statemental,” in McGann’s coinage. That in itself is hardly a fault, nor is it a fault that the poem’s statements seem largely confined to accepted truisms of poststructuralist thought; that the Essay on Man and the Essay on Criticism are devoid of original thinking doesn’t make Pope any less interesting a poet. The question that needs to be raised about a poem like “The Kiwi Bird in the Kiwi Tree,” I think, is whether it fails of being adequately difficult. This may seem paradoxical, given that Bernstein and other Language poets deliberately aim to create difficulty, which would seem to be a readily attainable goal. But difficulty is not so easily achieved. The absence of any implicit standard by which a reading of the poem might be taken as adequate means that any reading might be valid, which makes the job of interpretation all too easy. Consider “scores” in line 10. The movement of the poem from “a baby’s gurgling” might be seen as tracing the path of an individual’s development, as a baby graduates from “toys” and “talcoms” (I confess that the misspelling baffles me) to the more active entertainments of “skates & scores.” The term scores, of course, picks up the musical metaphor from the notes and bars of the previous sentence, may allude to the fascination with sports many of us acquire at some point in childhood, and may even refer to the period of adolescence, when boys become preoccupied with “scoring.” More generally, the movement from “gurgling” to “scores” reflects the increasingly rigid and sharply categorized worlds we inhabit as we grow from infant to adult. But where nothing exists to impede the critical fancy, it’s hard to feel that any act of interpretation has consequences; armed with the right critical equipment, an equipment easily enough acquired through some acquaintance with the critical prose of the movement, a reader can multiply interpretations indefinitely without the poem’s providing any resistance.

Whatever meaning “The Kiwi Bird in the Kiwi Tree” has, then, is a matter of surfaces. There is nothing to penetrate because no meaning is hiding behind any other; all are equally available, and the poem offers no grounds for choice. But if this sort of poem is ultimately too easy to read, it’s also too easy to write. To adopt a phrase from Coleridge, the best art seems to operate spontaneously under laws of its own devising; the problem with a poem like this one is that it has failed to devise a sufficiently rich set of rules for itself. The arbitrary treatment of all elements of language is here erected into a principle, but as I’ve previously remarked, the freedom from common idiom thus produced means that the poem’s wordplay can achieve neither surprise nor that sense of rightness that arises when conflicting demands are simultaneously satisfied. When the poet is free to choose words without regard to goals other than polysemy, the polysemy that results scarcely seems an achievement. Ashbery speaks of attempting “to keep meaningfulness up to the pace of randomness”; Bernstein’s poem, and much of the writing that goes under the “Language” rubric, may be looked at as either all meaning or all randomness, but the interesting area, and the area of genuine difficulty, lies between. …

I’ve discussed at length the theoretical underpinnings of Language poetry and New Formalism because both propose, at least in principle, to reconfigure the relation between poet and audience. In theory, Language poetry, by actively seeking to be “unreadable,” transforms the formerly passive reader into an active meaning maker (or at least meaning seeker), with the inevitable concomitant of political awakening. In practice, it appears that Language writing’s best opportunity for broadening its audience beyond the coterie of practitioners to which it has been so far confined lies in evangelizing the professoriat, some members of which already seem well disposed to the movement on the basis of its consonance with their ideological and theoretical presuppositions. Indeed, in its mode of being far more intensely esoteric, intellectualized, and theoretical than the average professor of literature, Language writing illustrates a curious phenomenon of intellectual life in the last decade or so—the popularization of advanced theoretical discourses outside the academy. This dissemination of theory has been most evident, of course, in the art world, where every real estate developer turned collector can speak the lingo of the precession of simulacra (Crow I), but Language writing shows that poetry has not gone untouched by this development. The taste for high theory outside the universities, however, is unlikely ever to be more than an epiphenomenon of academic intellectual work. Striking as has been its ability to persevere without academic support up to this point, Language writing clearly depends on the academy to produce the sophisticated, theoretically inclined readers it assumes. …

Alan Golding (review date March 1993)

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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 piece here is the lineated verse-essay “Artifice of Absorption.”) While Bernstein’s concerns are nearly always with poetry or the arts generally, only two of the eleven essays are “on” particular writers (Pound and Stein). Other topics include the art market’s impact on definitions of postmodernism; how the mass immigration of non-English speakers changed the shape of the language available for twentieth-century American poetry; video games; the effects of World War II on subsequent American poetry; the nature and function of “absorptive” and “anti-absorptive” techniques in poetry. Though remaining eclectic, Bernstein’s perspective is also consistently that of a poet, of an apologist for the writing he cares most about, and he is consistently aware of how social conditions shape reputations and patterns of production and consumption in the arts.

While Bernstein can and sometimes does write a conventional critical essay as well as anyone, his most interesting and significant work here challenges and expands the boundaries of that genre. His purpose is partly literary and cultural commentary, but equally it is to propose a poetics—his own poetics, personal and thus partial, implied in style, structure, and critical perspective as much as in explicitly articulated principles. (At the same time, the book goes beyond a defense of Language poetics, which Bernstein sees as a poetics—not the only poetics—for our time.) Although he is perfectly able to sustain an effective argument, Bernstein is not primarily interested in being “right.” Like Charles Olson, he defines criticism by its provocativeness and its process, not its product (a set of conclusions or a “position”). A Poetics recalls, more than any other book, Olson’s highly influential Human Universe. The book’s major statement on poetics, “Optimism and Critical Excess (Process),” defines that enterprise as “the continuation of poetry by other means” (160)—means that are improvisatory, open-ended, provisional, antiauthoritarian, multidirectional, means that bring many of the techniques of Bernstein’s poetry into his critical prose. Thus the liveliest essays here are characterized by humor, broad irony, sudden shifts in rhetoric, parataxis, ellipsis, hyperbole. Books on poetics are rarely funny; this one often is, but seriously so. Comedy for Bernstein is a sustained polyvocal decentering strategy: “Humor breaks the ‘high poetic’ frame, showcases conflict” (178).

“Resisting institutionalization of interpretation is a motivation for both poetry and poetics” (157), Bernstein asserts, and he regularly undermines any claims to authoritativeness, including his own. A Poetics interrogates “official critical discourse” (167)—partly through incorporating that discourse into its range of styles—as vigorously as Bernstein’s poetry interrogates what he calls official verse culture. My reservations about it? Well, it could use an index.

Peter Baker (review date June 1993)

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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 only shy thing about the volume. Bernstein likes to make statements and claims, even if they don’t hold or he changes his mind down the line. In what I take as an important, and serious, claim, he says: “I’m advocating a poetics that is not adjudicating, not authoritative for all other poetry, not legislating rules for composition. But rather a poetics that is both tropical and socially invested: in short, poetic rather than normative” (158). This non-normative ethics of poetic production rhymes with Emerson’s notion of self-reliance explicitly, as when Bernstein says, “Poetry is aversion to conformity in the pursuit of new forms, or can be” (1). But his nonconformist stance is not, for that, an individualist position, but specifically an aversive position with respect to what he views as the cultural hegemony, or what he often calls “official verse culture” (93 n. 3, for example). Bernstein’s polemical writing is refreshing, for the most part, because he makes his critique of this official culture not through the standard means of attacking what he doesn’t like, but through mounting an eclectic argument for his practice and that of others associated with the “language” movement, as well as experimental writings by those he identifies as precursors.

One of Bernstein’s basic premises is that modernism as a poetic movement has been misunderstood or coopted by conservative critics who expand modernism to include all literary production from the early part of the twentieth century and privilege writers who are, both socially and in terms of technique, demonstrably anti-modernist. The experimental practices that continue what Bernstein views as radical modernism are therefore to be seen as a continuation of that modernism rather than participating in postmodernism, a term which in his view lacks the relevance for poetry it might have for other arts. Linking his analysis to Marjorie Perloff’s, he says, “‘The futurist moment’ in literature … set in motion a set of radical modernist concerns that are still relevant to current poetic and political practice, just as they are still unacceptable to the official cultural apparatus” (93). This distinction usefully allows Bernstein to concentrate his attentions on the radical poetic innovations of what Perloff has designated the “other” tradition, as represented by writers like Williams, Stein, Pound, and Zukofsky.

To me, the most convincing essay on a single writer is the one on Pound, “Pounding Fascism.” Bernstein deftly outlines the parameters of Pound’s fascist economics and anti-Semitism in contrast to the radical poetics that underlie The Cantos, arguing that the methods of composition Pound utilized undercut his totalitarian rhetorizing. This argument is not the same as separating out Pound the man from Pound the poet, but one attentive to the poetic text’s “contradictions, surpluses, and negations” (126). Pound’s failure to control the meanings of his text, from this point of view, both deflates his more grandiose stated project to save some kind of cultural unity and shows the continuing challenge of his multi-layered poetics. As Bernstein argues, “the coherence of the ‘hyperspace’ of Pound’s modernist collage is not a predetermined Truth of a pancultural elitism but a product of a compositionally decentered multiculturalism” (122–23). In other words, the textual practice that Pound developed in The Cantos to bring together the various strands of culture that he saw as inherently unified actually works to demonstrate exactly the opposite, non-totalizing effect.

The title of the essay on Gertrude Stein, “Professing Stein/Stein Professing,” would seem to allude to difficulties associated with Stein’s work within the set of academic practices, difficulties I have both experienced and written about. But the occasion to address these issues slides by in this essay, which moves into other areas without quite achieving insight into them either. The basic premise is one Bernstein derives from Stein’s statements on the artist’s contemporaneity—as opposed to the artist’s supposed role as part of an avant garde. Stein’s continued unresolved place within academic discourses points strongly to her continuing contemporaneity for us, allowing Bernstein to say, “Stein’s writing is not postmodernism before its time but radical modernism in its time” (143). Stein’s version of radical modernism creates a textual space where, Bernstein would argue, the most interesting poetic experiments are still taking place. Bernstein’s argument stalls, for me, when he turns to an examination of other scholarship on issues of Stein’s representation of race in Three Lives and the interaction of race and language. He oddly does not address Richard Wright’s account of reading “Melanctha” aloud to groups of working-class black men, but shifts to a comparison of Stein with Langston Hughes, a conclusion that does not really conclude anything.

Bernstein’s argument concerning multiculturalism and aesthetic values moves most directly into issues concerning university teaching. The essay in which he addresses these issues, “State of the Art,” leads off the volume, though it would seem to be the most recent piece, and the only one not in what otherwise appears to be chronological order. Bernstein clearly favors the social program underlying the multicultural movement. He says, for example, “What can be decried as parochial patterns of reading is in fact an essential strategy for survival, to have a deep immersion in a contemporaneity and history that are difficult to locate and need to be championed” (5). What he calls attention to is whether those advocating the move toward diversity and multiculturalism are sufficiently aware of the effects of homogenizing aesthetic standards. The way in which specific works by women and minorities are selected and used to supplement the existing “great works” curriculum, he argues, and I agree, is insufficiently examined. Bernstein argues, “This process, more often than not, presupposes a common standard of aesthetic judgment or implicitly aims to erect a new common standard. In this context, diversity can be a way of restoring a highly idealized conception of a unified American culture that effectively quiets dissent” (4–5). Just as he champions experimental modes that break with previous literary practice, he urges attention to works and experiences by those truly disadvantaged or ignored by dominant culture, especially when those works resist rather than encourage assimilation to accepted aesthetic standards.

This commitment to a poetic program as well as to a social agenda is a distinctive mark of Bernstein’s overall stance. The problem for me is that he usually leaves the link between the two unstated, or else declares it in the form of a bare assertion. He will say, for example: “Poetics is the continuation of poetry by other means. Just as poetry is the continuation of politics by other means” (160). The first part of this analogy has my enthusiastic assent; the second part has me asking how one could establish such a connection. Does agreement with the first part of the statement require unquestioned adherence to the second? In Bernstein’s analysis of the poetry by contemporary poets working in experimental modes he often operates as though both parts of the analogy are a necessary prerequisite. In his essay on these poets, “The Second War and Postmodern Memory,” he says: “Poetry after the war has its psychic imperatives: to dismantle the grammar of control and the syntax of command. This is one way to understand the political content of its form” (202). This analysis, based on the Marxian model that cultural productions are always a reflection of historical conditions, works well enough to account for the “language” writers (along with Charles Olson, apparently another strong precursor) he is discussing here. Totally left out of the account is why the same set of historical circumstances did not leave this same imprint on the works of the language poets’ contemporaries like Robert Pinsky or Edward Hirsch. Although Bernstein’s understanding of the artistic practice is extremely advanced, his interpretive model too often remains stuck in the late modern Marxist mode—begun by Lukacs and Goldmann, and continued in their different ways by Fredric Jameson and Jerome McGann. If the radical poetics of the “language” writers and others working in experimental modes are to achieve a theoretical positioning commensurate with their textual invention, the interpretive model will have to move beyond these rather fixed positions. But in its way, this problem once again serves to demonstrate Bernstein’s working premise that we are all working simply to catch up to where the poets (always) already are.

William Pratt (review date Autumn 1993)

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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 for “a poetry—a poetic—that expresses the states of the art as it moves beyond the twentieth century, beyond the modern and postmodern,” but his prophecy leaves one right in the middle of the muddle of contemporary poetry—that is, in the deepest literary trough since the first decade of the century, when modernism took off from late romanticism. He would do away with the distinction between prose and poetry and write what is called L*A*N*G*U*A*G*E poetry, which is not poetry at all but a sort of verbal game Gertrude Stein invented long ago, a way of stringing words together in nonsense sequences that sound childlike but are really childish.

Thus, the reader is expected to take Bernstein’s second chapter, “Artifice of Absorption,” as if it were a prose poem, since it is written in verse lines as well in sentences. What is novel about this use of words except the form? Nothing. Such a statement as “A poetic reading can be given to any / piece of writing” may look vaguely like a poem, but the impression will not last; as soon as the reader tests it for truth, he realizes that it is false, because it erases any distinction between poetry and prose, even the distinction created by writing prose as verse, as in this example. So Bernstein’s cleverness about writing “a poetics” that is also a poem dissolves into verbal tricks, as may well be his intention. Since Bernstein is never serious about his vocation, either as critic or as poet, naturally the reader tends to take his book no more seriously than the author seems to want it to be taken.

What then justifies more than two hundred pages of text published as a book by the Harvard University Press? That, reader, is the burning question one asks at the end. A Poetics is not a serious book about a serious subject; that much is clear. It is not in any real sense a poem either. Is it a book which represents the godawful mess contemporary poetry and criticism have come to at the end of the twentieth century? If so, that would be at least some justification for what is otherwise an unreadable book on an unreadable topic. A new poetics? Only for fans of L*A*N*G*U*A*G*E, a movement in contemporary American poetry of which Charles Bernstein is cofounder; for fans of genuine poetry, it is merely petty nonsense.

Rachel Blau DuPlessis (review date Spring 1995)

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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 it has a comedic or voracious undertow, no matter the catalogue of superabundance, desolation, or injustice that the poetry offers. Thus—the plowing up and turning over of language—down to the social text embodied in every syllable—seems crucial to that poetry of political address which one feels as enriching. As adequate.

Charles Bernstein, Dark City. Thirteen long poems (ranging from eight to about twenty pages). Of verve and address, ventriloquizing, mimicking, shticking it to them and us. The work extends the range and meaning of the poetic act. (It’s also really and somewhat relentlessly funny. That is, it has entirely erased any tinge or twinge of the High Seriousness of Poetry. It also continuously enacts its own undercutting. Some people might, therefore, be annoyed; it’s not an aspect of this work that is always easy to live with.) This manner, or poetic position, like a magician, produces incredible quick-footed shape-changing tap-dancing urban-trickster SHIFTS among sounds and statements. Segmented words; in your face line breaks; “exogamic structure”; transegmental drift; juggled proverbs; DOS system talk; assonance, consonance, nons(on)ense; a bunch of stuff a four year old typed onto the page and pressed save; glissades in perfect hypotaxis; a noble rhetoric of car salesmen, computer jocks, letters to the editor, snooze-riot book reviews, zany-brainy double talk, jingles, doggerels, things that (as in Stein) sound like other things, but not quite, and “summary/mummery” (53). And passages of—advertising propane; familial sniveling; punning apprehension of banality; delivery systems of “poetry services” (22)—the whole lot. Like Jacob with the angel, Bernstein has wrestled Bakhtin to the ground; our favorite Russian won’t say another WORD about “monologic poetry”—he promises.

All in all, Bernstein’s work creates the poetry archive of daily life, “confining / masquerade / to detail,” and detail to everywhere. (71) Poetry becomes the spread sheet of the linguistic detail. There are undulating sentences, there is ululating parody, nothing is sacred, ok, except language processes and their socioeconomic provocation and ground. The work explores the textures and social vectors of the sounds made in the name of writing, speaking, talking, professing, selling, thinking. Hoo hoo hoo Meestr Keetzel, so there’s your Zukofsky, there’s your Swinburne, your Browning, your Stevens, your Shakespeare, your Groucho, who else d’ya expect? Maybe, say, the ambition of Pound, and the music hall rakishness of early to mid Eliot. Invoking both those names puts a lot of stake in trumping the modernists of heavy master narratives and exclusionary clauses. Bernstein does Jewish-creole poetry vaudeville; “aside the jesting hooligan, shenanigan, or / general call to bedlam” (143) in the myriad discourses of the mix. Motto: if there’s a sound, I can make it. Or—if I can’t find that passage from Hegel, I’ll write one just like it. Performativity—it’s the Keyword for Now, and this book’s got it. “But / why prize distraction over direction, song over / solemnity?” (64) For the intelligence and cunning of the examination, the range and the hilarity; for the political commitment to the “ploughing up and turning over of language.”

Hank Lazer (review date September-October 1995)

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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 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 in writing (or “elsewhere”) from structures/forms, they are everpresent—“de” forming and “re” forming. To see them—to hear them—as inseparable from “content.” … All writing is a demonstration of method; it can assume a method or investigate it. In this sense, style and mode are always at issue[.] … [A] “constructive” mode would suggest that the mode itself is explored as content, its possibilities of meaning are investigated and presented, and that this process is itself recognized as a method.2

(Content’s Dream, 72, 226, 227)

Indeed, in this essay I intend to continue some aspects of those two projects of critical consideration. But, after an initial lengthy detour, I would also like to try a different approach to Bernstein’s poetry, an approach which, quite improbably, owes its genesis to a strategy undertaken by Helen Vendler in relation to John Ashbery’s poetry.

Fifteen years ago, when the name “John Ashbery” occasioned similar critical anxiety as the name “Charles Bernstein” today, Vendler, with great directness, brushed aside the tendency to write (merely) about Ashbery in terms of style:

It seems time to write about John Ashbery’s subject matter. His As We Know will, of course, elicit more remarks on his style—a style so influential that its imitators are legion. It is Ashbery’s style that has obsessed reviewers, as they alternately wrestle with its elusive impermeability and praise its power of linguistic synthesis. There have been able descriptions of its fluid syntax, its insinuating momentum, its generality of reference, its incorporation of vocabulary from all the arts and all the sciences. But it is popularly believed, with some reason, that the style itself is impenetrable, that it is impossible to say what an Ashbery poem is “about.”3

(The New Yorker, March 16, 1981, 108)

Vendler proceeds, in an essay of considerable lucidity and influence, to discuss precisely what Ashbery’s poems are about. Similarly, I wonder if it is possible or even desirable to discuss Bernstein’s poetry in terms of content? Would such an approach inevitably deform and domesticate (as it thematized and de-mystified) Bernstein’s poetry? Certainly, over the past few years, that is one thing that has happened to Ashbery’s poetry: once the cutting edge and the flashpoint for debates about poetry’s direction and function, Ashbery’s poetry is now seen as an elegant, somewhat wistful, poetically nostalgic but easily thematized poetry on the passage of time, on the phenomenology of dailiness, and on the indirectness and instability of self-portraiture. There is, then, a cost to such an approach: thematized or content-based criticism, in the manner of the New Criticism, inevitably pretends to a unification of material. In the case of Bernstein’s poetry, a thematic or content-based approach may falsify his poetry which is quite insistently based on difference and on a collagist practice of dysraphism, which Bernstein, in a footnote to a poem given that same term as its title, defines as

a word used by specialists in congenital disease to mean a dysfunctional fusion of embryonic parts—a birth defect. Actually the word is not in Dorland’s, the standard U.S. medical dictionary; but I found it “in use” by a Toronto physician, so it may be a commoner British medical usage or just something he came up with. Raph literally means “seam,” so dysraphism is mis-seaming—a prosodic device! But it has the punch of being the same root as rhapsody (raph)—or in Skeat’s—“one who strings (lit. stitches) songs together, a reciter of epic poetry,” cf. “ode” etc.4

(The Sophist, 44)

Nevertheless, acknowledging the liabilities of a thematic approach, it does seem worthwhile to ask, especially after twenty books, what are Bernstein’s recurring concerns. After an initial consideration of the reception of Bernstein’s writing and its place in recent representations of American literature, I will attempt to begin a thematic reading of Bernstein’s most recent poetry.

An inquiry into the recurring concerns in Bernstein’s poetry may also begin to answer a recurring criticism that has been directed at his poetry. Interestingly enough, this particular line of criticism has been leveled at Bernstein from opposing critical quarters. In a letter written to me seven or eight years ago, Helen Vendler acknowledged that while some of Bernstein’s ideas (or poetics) were of interest, she asked (both about Bernstein’s writing and about Language poetry more generally) what was memorable about the poetry, what lines or passages were memorable or beautiful. To answer Vendler in her own terms would require a detailed (re)consideration of the memorable and the beautiful (see Gertrude Stein’s “Composition as Explanation,” 1926).5 Certainly the form of much Language poetry—from Lyn Hejinian’s My Life to Ron Silliman’s Tjanting to Bernstein’s “Standing Target”—is memorable and, arguably, beautiful. From a position which, unlike Vendler’s, is generally sympathetic to innovation and experimentation. Richard Kostelanetz in his Dictionary of the Avant-Gardes discusses Bernstein in terms of complaint remarkably similar to Vendler’s:

BERNSTEIN, Charles (1950). The most conspicuous of the language-centered poets who gained a precarious prominence in the 1980’s[.] … Trained at Harvard in philosophy and thus rhetorically skilled, Bernstein’s writing is derived from early Clark Coolidge and middle Gertrude Stein. Though his experiments in poetry are various, there is not enough consistent character, even in the kinds of experimental intelligence, for many (if any) poems published under his name to be immediately recognizable as his, which is to say that they lack signature. The second, perhaps related problem is that few, if any are individually memorable. Ask even his admirers which poems they like best, and you will find them unable to identify anything. Thus, Bernstein’s career raises the radical question of whether a purportedly major experimental poet can be someone whose poems, apart from his or her theories, lack signature and are not remembered.6


First, those of us who have been reading Bernstein’s poetry over a number of years can identify particular poems as favorites: “Standing Target,” “The Only Utopia Is in a Now,” “Amblyopia,” and, “Emotions of Normal People” among them. But the complaint of a lack of signature (which, I believe, my essay will show to be a dubious claim) is particularly odd. Such a complaint comes close to a mainstream poetic assumption: that poetic accomplishment must be marked by the achievement of a singular, recognizable, individual “voice,” following the commodified artworld’s insistence that an artist develop a conceptual signature and /or a repeated, recognizable style. But Bernstein’s work resists such simplistic commodification; he produces instead a varied poetry based more on principles of difference. But, as with the (paradoxically) highly personal and individual manner of self-erasure in John Cage’s work, Bernstein’s poetry of difference—in spite of or through his resistance to a poetry of (mere) self-expression—does, over a long period of time, develop individualistic modes and manners. What Bernstein’s poetry involves is a resistance to (but not absolute evasion of) self-expression and the poetics of signature, voice, and a homogeneous style. Indeed, Bernstein’s work does not ignore but is in constant dialogue with such forces.

Putting aside for a moment the conflicting evaluations of Bernstein’s poetry—in part because as Dana Gioia and others have noted, we live in an era in which a genuinely critical debate and a seriously engaged critical writing about poetry are virtually non-existent, replaced instead by predictable puffs and (less frequent) dismissals—I find it shocking and wrong that Bernstein’s poetry is unrepresented in virtually every “major” anthology of American literature and nearly every “major” anthology of contemporary American poetry. Dark City is Charles Bernstein’s twentieth book of poetry. In conjunction with Dark City, Sun & Moon has also reissued Bernstein’s ground-breaking first collection of essays, Content’s Dream: Essays 1975–1984. As co-editor with Bruce Andrews of the important journal L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E and as one of the leading figures of Language poetry, Bernstein entered debates over the role and direction of contemporary American poetry as a serious, provocative critic of the poetic mainstream, decrying the limitations of what he labeled official verse culture:

What characterizes the officially sanctioned verse of our time, no less than [William Carlos] Williams’s, is a restricted vocabulary, neutral and univocal tone in the guise of voice or persona, grammar-book syntax, received conceits, static and unitary form. …

Let me be specific as to what I mean by “official verse culture”—I am referring to the poetry publishing and reviewing practices of The New York Times, The Nation, The American Poetry Review, The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, Poetry (Chicago), Antaeus, Parnassus, Atheneum Press, all the major trade publishers, the poetry series of almost all of the major university presses (the University of California Press being a significant exception at present). Add to this the ideologically motivated selection of the vast majority of poets teaching in university, writing and literature programs and of poets taught in such programs as well as the interlocking accreditation of these selections through prizes and awards judged by these same individuals. Finally, there are the self-appointed keepers of the gate, who actively put forward biased, narrowly focused and frequently shrill and contentious accounts of American poetry, while claiming, like all disinformation propaganda, to be giving historical or nonpartisan views In this category, the American Academy of Poetry and such books as The Harvard Guide to Contemporary American Writing stand out.

(Content’s Dream, 245, 247–8—from a talk delivered in 1983)

That narrow-mindedness and xenophobia continue today in mainstream publishing—including the most recently updated American literature anthologies of Norton (4th edition, 1993), Heath (2nd edition, 1994), HarperCollins (2nd edition, 1993), Prentice Hall (1991), and McGraw-Hill (8th edition, 1994). The exclusion of Bernstein’s writing by the editors of these anthologies has no credible basis. These anthologies all include many poets of similar age with far fewer books of poems, fewer awards, and far less international recognition. In addition to being one of the leading figures in the Language poetry movement, Bernstein has published twenty books of poetry and two books of essays (one with Harvard University Press); he has edited numerous books and special journal issues; his work is widely translated, published, and read in Argentina, China, Spain, Australia, New Zealand, France, Switzerland, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, England, Canada, Mexico, Finland, Yugoslavia, and Japan; he has received a Guggenheim Fellowship and an NEA Fellowship; and, since 1990, he has been the David Gray Professor of Poetry and Letters at SUNY-Buffalo. Bernstein is the subject of a great deal of critical writing by critics as diverse and distinguished as Marjorie Perloff, Jerome McGann, Rachael Blau DuPlessis, Alan Golding, Keith Tuma, Bob Perelman, Pierre Joris, Henry Sayre, George Hartley, Linda Reinfeld, and Geoffery O’Brien, among others.

At best, Bernstein’s poetry gets segregated into Norton’s Postmodern American Poetry anthology (1994). But his absolute exclusion—given the presence of many less well-qualified poets—in the “major” American literature anthologies points to an aesthetic conservatism (or xenophobia) which calls for additional consideration (and correction). While the “new” American literature anthologies—led by the ostensibly ground-breaking Heath (edited by Paul Lauter, first edition 1990)—lay claim to a greater range of inclusiveness, that inclusiveness, as Bernstein’s case points out, is, in spite of a valid and important multiculturalism, still exactly as Bernstein claimed in 1983 of official verse culture: narrow, stylistically rigid, and aesthetically xenophobic. It is precisely this stylistic and formal narrowness that is most alarming about all of the “new” American literature anthologies. If we were to use an ecological analogy, the range of (poetic) species exhibited in these anthologies is frighteningly narrow. I can think of no credible basis for the exclusion of Bernstein (or a number of other highly deserving innovative poets).

The “new” American literature anthologies make Gertrude Stein’s lament of 1926 equally pertinent today:

it is very much too bad, it is so very much more exciting and satisfactory for everybody if one can have contemporaries, if all one’s contemporaries could be one’s contemporaries. … If every one were not so indolent they would realise that beauty is beauty even when it is irritating and stimulating not only when it is accepted and classic.

(“Composition as Explanation,” 515)

As with Stein’s own writing (which, similarly, baffles most makers of American literature anthologies), Bernstein’s writing presents us with, to paraphrase William Carlos Williams, difficulties that stay difficult. These difficulties, if presented to readers of American literature, would prove quite worthy of consideration, for they are precisely the difficulties that call into question our most ingrained habits of reading. The situation for Language poetry (and Language poets) within the academic practice of creative writing is roughly the same as the situation in the anthologies: Language poets are kept outside the walls of the institutionalized practice of creative writing. Interestingly enough, the principal pressure for the situation to be otherwise comes from students in these programs who are often more democratic and adventurous readers than their teachers (who, for the most part, were raised on the institutionalized divide between poetry and criticism, creativity and theory).

While Bernstein’s poetry does not provide an easy or steady target for quotation nor for the simple summary-by-quotation that would assure us that these are Bernstein’s essential views and themes, there are recurring concerns (even if enmeshed in the play of ever-shifting tone and form and even if freed from the false innocence of direct self-expression). The first poem in his 1994 collection Dark City, “The Lives of the Toll Takers,” establishes a consideration of the state of poetry today as one such recurring concern for Bernstein. If we ignore the complexities of voice and advocacy, we find some seemingly simple and straightforward axioms or conditions for poetry: “There is no plain sense of the word, / nothing is straightforward, / description a lie behind a lie: / but truths can still be told” and “No ‘mere’ readers only / writers who read, actors who inter- / act” (24, 20).

Bernstein’s poetry, like nearly all of the significant poetry of this century, takes its place against poetry as a simple form of self-expression. As John Cage has it, an art of “self-alteration not self-expression” and “a way of writing which comes from ideas, is not about them, but which produces them” (Composition in Retrospect, 15; and X: Writings 1979–1982, x).7 While Bernstein rejects today’s mainstream activity—“Poetry: the show—/ me business” (Dark City, 17)—the notion of a self or an individuated writer of poetry remains a complex issue that will not, even with the magic wand of the phrases “the death of the author” or “the fragmentation of the self,” disappear. For Bernstein, one distinctive and idiosyncratic form of self is an insistence on his presence in poems as a kind of besidedness, a besidedness (as in the root of the word ec-stasy) that is manifest in alternative or multiple phrasings:

pride myself on my pleonastic a[r]mour.) {ardour}
          Love may come and love may go
but uncertainty is here forever.

(Dark City, 14)

The entire poem ends with the word “Besides,” and as in Bernstein’s earlier poem “Standing Target,” there are disruptive syntactic forms that undermine any traditionally unified voice or version of stock expressiveness.

But even a process of self-erasure (as in Cage’s chance-generated compositions) or self-dissemination bears with it personal traces. Bernstein asks and claims, “Then where is my place? / Fatal Error F27: Disk directory full. / The things I / write are / not about me / though they / become me” (Dark City, 15). The humor, vocabulary, and rapidity of shifts are all idiosyncratically Bernstein’s. In other words, it is important to recognize that all collaging is not the same nor is it of equal interest, durability, or intelligence. All experimentation, even if premised upon the displacement of self-expression, is not the same. While it most certainly would be wrong to think of (current) poetic expression apart from its community, its cultural, historical, and economic contexts, there remain ways in which Bernstein’s writing differs decidedly even from the writing of other Language poets. That is part of why Kostelanetz’s remarks are so wrong in two fundamental ways: a personal signature is not a goal for Bernstein’s writing (in fact, the blunting of such through a poetry of sustained difference is one of Bernstein’s chief accomplishments); and besides, Bernstein’s writing is, as I hope to demonstrate, distinctive.

In Dark City, humor—slapstick, punning, low humor, the humor of an associative stand-up comic (a la Lenny Bruce or Jackie Mason), a self-critical Jewishness—grows more and more important to Bernstein’s writing. His poetry of play deforms the common and the clichéd, whether the source be nursery rhymes (and, obliquely, Bernstein’s role as father and as reader to his two children figures into his writing again and again)—“There was an old lady who lived in a / zoo, / she had so many admirers / she didn’t know what to rue” (Dark City, 11) and “There was an old lady / who lives in a stew …” (Dark City, 14–15)—or the humorous re-phrasing of banal music lyrics (in this case, variations on Bob Dylan’s “Knocking on Heaven’s Door”): “Take this harrow off / my chest, I don’t feel it anymore / it’s getting stark, too stark / to see, feel I’m barking at Hell’s spores” (Dark City, 24). Before we assume that serious, difficult poets lack a sense of humor, we might recall that T. S. Eliot was a devoted fan of Groucho Marx. In fact, one might conjecture that the example of the stand-up comic contributes significantly to the multi-voiced productions of modernist and post-modernist poetries.

One joy in reading Bernstein’s poetry comes from his uncanny ability simultaneously to spoof a given discourse—in “The Lives of the Toll Takers” the rhetoric of investment calculation and market penetration—and to investigate an issue in poetry of considerable seriousness:

                                                                                                    Our new
                              service orientation
not only changing the way we wrote poems but also diversifying
into new poetry services. Poetic opportunities
                    however, do not fall into your lap, at least not
very often. You’ve got to seek them out, and when you find them
                                                  you’ve got to have the knowhow to take advantage of them.
                    Keeping up with the new aesthetic environment is an ongoing
process: you can’t stand still. Besides, our current fees
                    barely cover our expenses; any deviation from these levels would:
mean working for nothing. Poetry services provide cost savings
                              to readers, such
                              as avoiding hospitalizations (you’re less likely
to get in an accident if you’re home reading poems), minimizing
wasted time (condensare), and reducing
                                        adverse idea interactions
(studies show higher levels of resistance to double-bind
political programming among those who read 7.7 poems or
more each week
Poets deserve compensation
for such services
For readers unwilling to pay the price
we need to refuse to provide such
service as alliteration,
                              internal rhymes,
                              exogamic structure, and
                              unusual vocabulary.

(Dark City, 22–23)

A recurring topic for Bernstein has been, Poetry as/and/is Business. Within the inherent humor of presenting poetry as a kind of small business investment opportunity, Bernstein’s counsel does raise serious questions: isn’t poetry a small business with plenty of indirect economic benefits (prizes, reading fees, academic positions, grants, residencies, publication) which usually go unacknowledged? What are the significant trends in poetry today? (is the wise investment in performance-oriented poetry? in computer or CD-based texts? in multicultural identities?) What are the benefits of reading poetry? What is an efficient way to distribute poetry? (free through e-mail? or through the hierarchies of prestige and “major” [hard-copy] publishing houses?) What services does a poet provide and how is s/he to be compensated? In such matters, Bernstein has throughout his career been importantly influenced by the thinking of Thoreau, who insisted that “trade curses every thing it handles; and though you trade in messages from heaven, the whole curse of trade attaches to the business” (Walden, 70).8 Bernstein and others, especially experimental poets who resist the trends and habits of the mainstream, face a serious issue: how to commodify poetry (for publication inevitably constitutes commodification) without destroying poetry’s oppositional potential and the poet’s position as a player in the enterprise of cultural criticism.

The avant-garde is, as Bernstein realizes, not exempt from the deforming pressures of a market economy. While David Antin contends that poetry is essentially “an advertisement for nothing,” most poetry in fact is an advertisement for a community of writers, for itself (as a worthy object of attention), and for the writer (as “competent” and “professional” and worthy of “compensation”). While Shelley’s idealism contains some element of truth—we all are working on one big poem (collectively, over time)—anyone who has tried to get published also knows that poetry too is an intensely competitive business. Knowing Stein’s description of the movement of innovative poetry from outlaw to classic, a wise poet-investor might wish to venture into the new but might also do so in a savvy manner: “What if / success scares you so much that at the point of some / modest acceptance, midway through / life’s burning, you blast out / onto the street, six-shooters smoking, still a rebel. / For what? / Of course new ventures always require risk, but by carefully / analyzing the situation, we became smart risk/ takers” (Dark City, 21). And such may in fact be both Bernstein’s own position—as the “rebel” who now holds an endowed professorship and who is published in The American Poetry Review—and that of Language poetry generally. Language poetry itself is now a frequent topic for university-based critics writing about contemporary poetry, as the central school in recent anthologies such as Paul Hoover’s Postmodern American Poetry (Norton, 1994) and Douglas Messerli’s From the Other Side of the Century: A New American Poetry 1960–1990 (Sun & Moon, 1994), and as the object of some anxiety among younger innovative poets (see for example Susan Smith Nash’s “Beyond the Language Movement: A Manifesto of Aesthetics in a Time of Communication, Plague, and a New World Order” in Taproot #4 with its implicit question “what next after Language poetry?”) who seek both to extend the work of Language poetry and to differentiate themselves from it. Also, over the past five to seven years, many of the leading Language poets have, for various reasons, written less and less in the way of manifestos or adversarial critical essays. The era of market penetration and of positioning by way of antagonism is over for Language poetry. The risks being taken by most Language poets today may be “smart risks” or risks that occur within an established domain (of market consolidation or risk repetition). Just as the term “risk” (used as a form of praise) within the domain of a mainstream poetry of personal experience and singular voice now sounds absurd, the same may be true for most forms of innovation in Language poetry. In Dark City Bernstein addresses, albeit humorously, this sense of having reached some sort of plateau: “Voyage of life / Getting you down? Felt better when things / Were really rocky & now there’s smooth / Sailing but it’s lost its meaning?” (133–134). Perhaps it is fair to say that Bernstein’s writing—particularly the essays—is less adversarial than it was ten years ago (and a re-reading of Content’s Dream confirms such a sense). Bernstein’s work is more widely read; Language poetry is a movement and a variety of poetry that has achieved a certain level of visibility. But there has also been a cost for such citizenship, a cost for participation in a broader (institutionalized) literary discussion for both Bernstein and Language poetry—a politeness and conciliatoriness that go along with a quest for greater acceptance. In re-reading Bernstein’s earlier essays, though, I must also conclude, however, that most of the complaints he lodges in Content’s Dream (against the narrowness and exclusions of the mainstream) are still, for the most part, valid.

But the more serious question to ask—rather than what comes after Language poetry—is whether or not Language poetry, or more specifically the work of Charles Bernstein, represents (merely) an extension of earlier developments in modernism or whether there is something fundamentally or seminally distinct about Language poetry’s contribution. My own sense is that such a question must be answered with attention to the specific cultural and historical circumstances in which Language poetry and the writing of Charles Bernstein appeared. In answering in the affirmative—that Language poetry and Charles Bernstein do make important contributions to American poetry—that contribution may, oddly enough, not be principally based in formal innovation per se, but in altered professional conceptions of the poet and in re-directed and re-imagined relationships between reader and writer and in re-thinking earlier modernisms. (In the latter regard, the New Formalism, by contrast, is fundamentally a nostalgic and regressive phenomenon, for it makes no claims for undiscovered or unknown forms in its predecessors, nor for a significantly altered perspective in the re-reading of prior poets. Its primary claim seems to be that poets should return to those already accomplished forms and learn to do them again.)

To return though to the specific poems in Dark City, we find that Bernstein is quite skilled at taking a common phrase or proverb and deforming it. In “Locks without Doors” the phrase about “the quality of mercy” becomes “The quality of Hershey’s is not / too great although I always preferred / Skippy’s smooth to crunch” (55) and “Then again the quality of Jersey is not / much to wriggle your teeth about” (56). Or, in the same poem, more substantive transformations occur such as “not for you / the hullabaloo” (54), “Books can be deceiving” (57), and “I can’t but make it con- / fluesce” (52), the latter (with its assertion of the inevitable running together of all writings) stands as an important corrective to Pound’s lament late in the Cantos that he could not make it cohere. The high modernist quest for unity—Pound’s quest for closure and unification in the Cantos, Eliot’s attempt in The Waste Land to shore fragments against his ruin—gives way to a postmodern understanding more attuned to Cage’s relativist assertion: “that two notations on the same / piece of paper / automatically bring / about relationship” (Composition in Retrospect, 22). Or, if Bernstein’s writing were to be called a new kind of realism, that realism would be premised not upon closure and (thematic) unification but upon resistance to these particular over-used poetic devices.

One particular register in Bernstein’s compositional arsenal is, in addition to a wide-ranging vocabulary (which contrasts with the more narrow claim of an anti-poetic diction by William Carlos Williams’s 1960’s descendants, whose claim really amounted to the reintroduction into poetry of slang and of some elements of vernacular “common” speech), the recurrence of a peculiarly clotted sound-effect, a kind of line and sound that is deliberately but interestingly difficult to say, a kind of anti-mellifluousness: “Slump not lest slip, slumber, swagger into / indelicacy, delirious indolence” (Dark City, 50) and “Sustenance evaporates in subsequent / slumber. Amulets emit armatures” (Dark City, 42). When Kostelanetz laments the lack of a signature to Bernstein’s poems, I would counter with this peculiar sound-quality in Bernstein’s work. Admittedly, such a feature of sound is not established with the consistency or reductiveness to constitute Bernstein’s (ugh) “personal voice,” but it is a recurring idiosyncratic marker in his work. As is his odd inhabitation of a late nineteenth-century iambic Swinburnian mellifluousness:

For long have I entombed my love
Less fleck than flayed upon
Who quaint and wary worry swarms
In tides lament nor laminations ore
As stare compares a bellys tumble
Have I awaited by the slope
Of lumined ledgers lumbering links
Foregone though never bent

(Dark City, 51)

When, as he often does, Bernstein makes apparent the mode or form of construction for a given passage of his writing—as in the following example where a process of word association from one word at the end of one sentence to the same word used with a different meaning at the beginning of the next sentence—we must ask if that display of conscious construction (cf. Thoreau: “Shall we forever resign the pleasure of construction to the carpenter?” Walden, 46) is the only content of the passage:

Not that I mean to startle just
unsettle. The settlers pitched their tents
into foreign ground. All ground is
foreign ground when you get to know
it as well as I do. Well I wouldn’t agree.
No agreement like egregious
refusal to hypostatize a suspension.
Suspension bridges like so many
drummers at bat, swatting flies in
the hot Carolina sun. No, son, it
wasn’t like that—we only learned we
had to be proud not what’s worth taking
pride in.

(Dark City, 51)

First, it is tempting to answer “no,” and to back up such an answer by isolating assertions that do indeed have a substantial resonance for Bernstein’s poetry and poetics: “Not that I mean to startle just / unsettle.” Such a process of isolation amounts to a repetition or reapplication of New Critical methods of reading-as-thematizing. (The third sentence may also be subjected to a similar act of thematization-by-isolation.) But what such a method fails to take into account is the deliberately ambiguous status of the authoritative proverbial pronouncement in Bernstein’s writing. In this section, each self-assured pronouncement is immediately undone or at least made dubious by the next sentence which stands as a literal counter to its partner sentence, exposing the rhetoric which allows the allusion of unchallenged authoritativeness (folk wisdom) to come into being in the first place. To “No, son, …” we must answer, “right, we don’t know what to take pride in, including this authoritative tone which allows us to make such a negative declaration.” Bernstein thus mixes irony, pastiche, play, and serious declaration in a conscious act of theatricalized dysraphism. And, as Bernstein’s previously cited discussion of dysraphism points out, there is a rhapsodic element to such writing. Bernstein’s poems also demonstrate some of the range available to a collagist writing practice which, as David Antin has argued, may be the single most important critical principle of twentieth-century innovative poetic practice.

Though Bernstein’s work, and that of Language poets generally, tends to be presented in opposition to many of the projects and styles of mainstream poetry, there is an important overlap. Among mainstream poets (and poets of the plain style), Louis Simpson and Philip Levine (in different ways) typify attention to “the ordinary” or to “the common life.” Bernstein too is interested in “the ordinary”: “As if the / ordinary / were just there answering / our call but we / won’t sound it / out, or find the work / too demanding (de- / meaning), too extra / ordinary” (Dark City, 62–63). Whereas Simpson and Levine thematize that ordinariness, by relegating it to the position of the poem’s subject matter (presented in a thoroughly unselfconscious language which pretends to a non-distorting transparency), Bernstein, like Ashbery, is concerned with the ways in which different modes of language fashion our conceptions of the ordinary, indeed the ways in which different modes of language are the ordinary in which we live:

                    Every syllable stings. & that’s the
hardest thing to stomach on a low-noise
diet, if you can sink your teeth into the
thought that all that sound gotta be
digested. Anemic
poetry—or roughage?—for the health-
continent society? But
why prize distraction over direction, song over
solemnity? The times detail a change of
pockets & everybody’s loopy, mind made
up with hospital corners, while the leaves
of our lives unsettle their occupation.

(Dark City, 64)

Like the music of Charles Ives—a collage of avant garde dissonances alongside immensely popular elements of band music—Bernstein’s collagist poetry increasingly involves the language of movies, the style of stand-up comedy, and the language of business. At times, along with the camp citation of cartoon characters, there is even a quaint, Ashberian sentimentality to Bernstein’s most recent poetry:

                              no longer sails, but Betty
                                                  Boop will always
                                        sing sweetlier
                              than the crow who fly
against the blank
                              remorse of castles made
                              by dusk, dissolved in
                                                  day’s baked light.

(Dark City, 81)

One of the most important poems in Dark City is “Emotions of Normal People,” an extended collage-poem which invites comparison with Bernstein’s earlier classic “Standing Target” (in Controlling Interests, 1980). Though, overall, Dark City, as all of Bernstein’s larger books, is built on a principle of difference—i.e., each poem different from those which surround it and a book of poems which offers conscious resistance to signature and the cults of personal voice, personality, individualized-instantly-recognizable-style, and poetry-as-personal-expression—long composite poems such as “Emotions of Normal People” recur throughout Bernstein’s twenty book output, and, in my opinion, constitute his most important, distinctive, and most fully realized contribution to American poetry. The poem begins in the language of computer sales:

With high expectations, you plug
Into your board & power up. The
Odds are shifted heavily in your
Favor as your logic simulator comes
On-screen. If there’s a problem
You see exactly where it’s located
& can probe either inside or
Outside with a schematic editor.
English-like commands make
Communication easy.

(Dark City, 85)

As in the earlier poem “Standing Target,” Bernstein’s concern is with the world of words and concepts in which we command and are commanded. While the sales-rhetoric—consistent with an American ideology of individualized choice—insists that the product will be “Compatible with target-embedded / Resident assemblers & wet-wet / Compilers. & the fact that you can / Configure it yourself means you Get exactly what you want” (86), Bernstein calls our attention to the recurrent elements of control, standardization, and normalization in the technologies which shape our thinking. The ways in which we are sold on computers—with their “controllers,” “a family of workstations,” an “external trigger,” “low-loss mating,” “debugging,” and “remote-error sensing terminals (RESTS)”—re-sell us on embedded American ideologies as “several vendors [attempt] to control the marketplace by promoting standards that especially benefit their computing architecture” (89). In “Emotions of Normal People,” where computer/business transactions are juxtaposed with thank-you notes, psychological analyses, descriptions of marital difficulties, market surveys for personal products, and book advertisements, Bernstein is concerned with the ways in which we are targeted in the processes of social and technological normalization—a process of narrowing possibilities which has obvious ramifications for poetic expression. In the consumer-oriented world which Bernstein lays out—a world of complete commodification, from computers to self-esteem—where exchange and sales are endless, the one certainty is that all of the time “Operators are on duty.”

True, there is a truism or cliché at the heart of such a poem: that we today are bombarded and manipulated by many messages (i.e., that the Marxist term ‘over-determination’ names an alarming omnipresence). But Bernstein explores that truism and focuses attention on the particular language-terms and rhetorics that may foreclose thinking and standardize our options if such forces are not resisted. Thus, poems such as “Standing Target” and “Emotions of Normal People” embody both a pedagogy and an implied primer of/on resistance.

The final, extended section of the poem begins “Are you a normal person?” Of course, some deviance from the norm is perfectly normal—“Probably for the most part you are [normal]. / Your sex complexes, your fears and furies and petty jealousies, / your hatreds and deceptiveness, only serve / to secure your normalcy” (96). Nearly all of us remain fit targets for the consumerist bombardment detailed earlier in the poem, and thus Bernstein’s aside in the flat discourse of a scientific news release—“Dr. Cuit P. / Tichter of the Johns Hopkins University / found that Norway rats / died quickly if their whiskers were clipped / and they were put into a / tank of water” (96)—rhymes with the other modes of manipulation and targeting detailed throughout the poem. As targets, we are warned in the appropriated language of pop psychology that “There are no adequate emotional outlets / for many stresses and people who depend completely / on their emotions frequently find themselves / in jail” and “The intestine is / as sensitive to bombardments / from the brain as the skin of some people to sun rays” (97). In Bernstein’s characteristic mode of self-cancelling irony, the end of the poem warns, “In any case, sarcasm / is evidence of a sadistic trend in one’s / personality” (101). So, if sarcasm is not appropriate—and Bernstein’s collage-poems of social and consumerist manipulation rarely descend into a simplistic sarcasm or superior scorn—what strategies are available to us? I think that Bernstein’s entire poetic output answers that question by embodying modes of writing and thinking which resist simple commodification and which undermine most forms of normalized, standardized “communication.” Thus, the political dimension of Bernstein’s “opaque” writing, in its subversion and defamiliarization of the “transparent” communication used in the world of commodification and consumption, bears an important relationship to what Michel Foucault, in his preface to Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus,9 calls the “art of living counter to all forms of fascism.” Foucault advises, “Prefer what is positive and multiple, difference over uniformity, flows over unities, mobile arrangements over systems. Believe that what is productive is not sedentary but nomadic” (xiii). Such advice pinpoints the ideological implications of Bernstein’s poetic practice.

One form of resistance or subversion that Bernstein has worked on for years is a humorous writing based on a series of rapid shifts and replacements. As an example of this kind of intellectual poetic slapstick, I cite the opening lines of “Debris of Shock/Shock of Debris”:

The debt that pataphysics owes to sophism
cannot be overstated. A missionary with a horse
gets saddlesores as easily as a politburo
functionary. But this makes a mishmash of overriding ethical
impasses. If the liar
is a Cretan I wouldn’t trust him
anyway—extenuating contexts wouldn’t amount
to a hill of worms so far as I
would have been deeply concerned about
the fate of their, yes, spools. Never
burglarize a house with a standing army,
nor take the garbage to an unauthorized
junket. Yet when I told the learned
ecologist about my concern for landscape
she stared unsympathetically into the
carbon. Mr. Spoons shook his head, garbled his
hypostases. To level with you we’d have
to be on the same
level. Then, with all honesty, we can
only proceed to deplane.

(Dark City, 105–106)

Later in the same poem, Bernstein writes, “Fool’s / gold / is the only kind of gold I / ever cared about.” But only an uncritical reading would take Bernstein at his word, as if his aphorisms had some sort of transcendent “truth” value, as if they were somehow the “essential” part of a poem. Humor (often of the pun, the replacement [of one word for another similar word], and of association) and a perpetual shifting of perspective become Bernstein’s vehicles to an absolute contingency—the nomadic flow which Foucault idealizes in his preface to Anti-Oedipus. Bernstein achieves a dizzying kind of poetic variancy. By contrast, for a poet such as Emily Dickinson such compressed variancy focuses on and creates a perpetually elusive meaning (or theme). For Bernstein that variancy displays the slipperiness of a constantly shifting tone.

A poem such as “Heart in My Eye” goes a long way toward illustrating some of the peculiarities of Bernstein’s “unpoetic poetic” (Dark City, 113) ear. He has always toyed with an encrusted, alliterative sound, as in these lines from “How I Painted Certain of My Pictures”: “The lorry has left the / levy lest the sandwiches lay / lost, looted” (Dark City, 62). We can zero in on some of Bernstein’s particular unpoetic poetic sounds in the following passage from “Heart in My Eye”:

                                                            —or hate
the boom-shebang effect
fostered at time
interlock, station flayed by
inoperable hampers, obsequious
swoops, as pulp bumps
plop, thingamawhoseit buffle
joint, glassed in gradually
gestures of gerrymand
origin, jitters jocose oblong—

(Dark City, 114)

Bernstein is increasingly drawn to the odd demotic word such as “boom-shebang” (or, as elsewhere in the same poem, “higglety pigglety” and “slumpy”). He has established a well-developed ear for a peculiar dissonance in word-sounds, a kind of deliberately clotted, awkward, technical language that has its own percussive music. I dare say that no one else is writing lines such as “voids convivial handtray intubation” (Dark City, 114), and that no one else is as attuned to such a peculiar music. The very deliberateness of such a music—indeed it must be a conscious craft—baits the reader in several ways. The regularity of stanzaic appearance (in this poem, alternation of three and four line stanzas, with alternating three-word and four-word line lengths) combined with this odd music may bring into play outmoded habits of reading—particularly the seeking out of theme and unified meaning. In such poems, the sound itself and the form itself become the poem’s content; deliberately, they do not yield to some meaning beyond their appearance. The words and sounds refuse the more habitual or mainstream poetic task of carrying meaning. Instead of sacrificing their “thingness” to the allegedly greater task of expression (of a message). Bernstein’s words do their work at the level of sound and appearance. These words exercise their full rights in an act of oddly pleasant autonomy, what Bernstein hints at (earlier in the poem) as “coddling codices in / endoskeletal humor mongering” (Dark City, 113).

Nevertheless, in Bernstein’s poetry I feel an element of encodedness. His poetry does not arise out of an absolute rejection of meaningfulness nor even an absolute rejection of thematicization—the milieu of the literary in which Bernstein’s writing comes into being is too fully situated in these particular tasks. As a reader, I feel baited to crack a code or in some way to tame or domesticate the poetry by means of some seemingly more coherent form of restatement. One such method would be the New Critical hangover of compulsive (theme)-making, which takes any writing, no matter how fragmented and dispersed, and creates the fiction of unification (often by means of an over-arching idea). Such cherry-picking—selecting choice quotation-morsels—achieves a readerly sense of mastery (by an assured tone of restatement) but utterly falsifies the reading experience of such a text. Another alternative would be the personalizing (or, more accurately, biographicalizing) of the text. This second approach has proven to be a “successful” approach to both Eliot’s The Waste Land and Pound’s Cantos. In the latter case, the painful personal story of Pound’s experience in Pisa and subsequent time in St. Elizabeth’s is used as a substitute narrative which makes “accessible” the more complicated poem by graphing the poem’s language in terms of the poet’s personal experience. Of course, such an approach misses the poetry’s adventurous formal consciousness (and replaces it with the more familiar contour of personal narrative). And such an approach also verges on becoming a People magazine version of criticism. Bernstein’s work—with its occasional references to his father’s clothing business, to his children and family, to Bernstein’s many years of work writing medical digests, and so forth—offers some similar temptations. But the rigor of his poetry of difference—his conscious resistance to a poetry of personal expression—adequately short-circuits such reading approaches. Like the more radical phases of Gertrude Stein’s writing, Bernstein’s poetry successfully resists reductive recuperative reading strategies. He writes “difficulties that stay difficult.” Thus, along with Stein, he shares an important place in American innovative poetry with his contemporaries such as Susan Howe and Bruce Andrews.

One of the most intriguing poems in the collection is the concluding title poem, “Dark City,” which begins with a movie-epigraph, Lizabeth Scott to Charlton Heston in Dark City, “We’re a great pair—I’ve got no voice and you’ve got no ear.” While throughout Dark City (and earlier collections as well), Bernstein engages in a kind of genre writing, inhabiting the language of various cinematic genres, in this concluding poem the epigraph points more decidedly toward issues of poetics, Bernstein’s poetry decidedly being a writing that eschews the mainstream essential of a recognizable individual “voice.” Oddly, this poem leads into two sections—“Apple-Picking Time” and “Early Frost”—which are obliquely in dialogue with a conventionally voice-based poet, the (metaphysical) Robert Frost of the folksy vernacular. The opening lines, though, do not bear any obvious relationship to Frost (nor to Frost’s “After Apple-Picking”):

A transom stands bound to a flagpole. Hard
by we go hardly which way is which
lingering somewhere unsettled where evidence
comes harder by sockets, stems
etched in flexed omission like osmotic
molarities flickering edge and orange at flow
rates unrepresentative of ticking or torpor
any child or person requires for, well
against, that remorse remonstration
brings. It’s cold outside, maybe
but the heart sinks daily in
slump of sampled parts and I
feel like carelessness, disowning what’s
acquired in indifferent
animation, no body swaps to—
not as if elevated or cut down
to size up, like layers of lost
boys, like aspiration in a tub
at sea, lists all the scores and
scares at measures twice the fall.


Instead, they point more toward both a kinship with John Ashbery’s sumptuous sentences and Bernstein’s idiosyncratic difference from such eloquence. What I have referred to as a clotted sound or a difficult percussive music is reflected in phrases such as “etched in flexed omission like osmotic molarities” and “that remorse remonstration brings” (139). His long sentences are like Ashbery’s but with lumps and clots in them—sumptuous, sinuous sentences partial to a strangely pleasant awkwardness, sentences which stage a deliberate conflict between mellifluousness and a clunky scientific quality. The epigraph leads us to wonder whether such writing does indeed constitute both a voice and an ear, albeit a deliberately “off” version of both.

In a manner similar to his self-cancelling irony, Bernstein in “Dark City” plays (both quaintly and movingly) with aspects of the iambic English tradition:

I loved my love with gold
She loved me with her smile
But I took no possession
Then/ Had no taste called mine
I knew I wept alone that night
As sure as sheep in folds
The I has ways the arm betrays
For now my lance is warped


If it is the “I” that is perpetually being re-constituted, critiqued, burlesqued, and dismantled in his poetry, we may do well also to keep in mind Bernstein’s injunction earlier in the book, “Our jailers / are our constipating sense of self” (127).

Bernstein’s poetry remains self-consciously a poetry of venture and adventuring: “I think it’s about time we let the cat out / its bag, swung the dog over the / shoulder, so to say, let the hens / say ‘hey’ to the woodpeckers, doled/ out some omniaversions to the/ too-tapped upon, the tethers without / toggles, the field-happy expeditioneers / on the march to Tuscaloosa, Beloit, / Manual Falls, Florid Oasis” (142). That adventure remains one of de-formation and transposition—a destruction of the automatic and habitual and the clichéd: “The Czech / is in the jail (the wreck is in the wail, the deck is in the / sail, the Burma shave’s shining over the / starry blue skies, Waukeegan, New Jersey, / 1941)” (142). But it is transposing that is serious too:

A poem should not mean but impale
not be but bemoan.

(Dark City, 141)

Bernstein’s altered aphorisms (like Professor Peabody’s Fractured Fairy-tales?) offer up the unsettling “truth” of transposition and deformation. They mark and remark upon the perpetual (and inevitable) metaphoricity of poetic expressiveness:

Love is like love, a baby
like a baby, meaning like
memory, light like light.
A journey’s a detour
and a pocket a charm
in which deceits are borne.
A cloud is a cloud and
a story like a story,
song is a song, fury
like fury.

(Dark City, 145)

In the midst of his play, Bernstein has the poem swerve toward a more seemingly direct consideration:

This is the difference between truth
and reality: the one advertises itself
in the court of brute circumstance
the other is framed by its own
insistences Truth’s religious, reality
cultural, or rather
truth is the ground of reality’s
appearance but reality intervenes
against all odds


But the book itself ends with a critique and a reminder: “‘The words / come out of her heart & into the / language’ / & the language is in the heart / of that girl who is in the heart /of you.” (146) As he claims in “Thought’s Measure,” one of the most important essays in Content’s Dream, for Bernstein (via Wittgenstein) there is no allowance for thoughts apart from language:

An analogous idea to that of language not accompanying but constituting the world is that language does not accompany “thinking.” “When I think in language, there aren’t ‘meanings’ going through my mind in addition to the verbal expressions: the language is itself the vehicle of thought.”

(Content’s Dream, 62)

So, too, for Bernstein does the expression of emotion, and the creation of meaning in and through emotional experience, take place in and of language. Perhaps that is why the poem begins with references to Frost, whose poetry, crafted and self-conscious as it is, pretends to truths apart from the nature of language itself and pretends to a voice of wisdom that somehow transcends the contingencies of rhetoric and theatricality. It is this same poetic naiveté in Frost that David Antin, at greater length and more vituperatively, complains about in his talk piece “the death of the hired man.” Bernstein, though, does not himself eschew voice nor rhetoric nor theatricality. Instead he insists on the constructedness of poetic writing, speaking/writing through it with necessary contingency, humor, and a peculiarly accomplished grace:

can’t live by punching alone, but
stay clear of such as possible—a
Divine Swerve will still land you
in Hell’s cauldron. Thus
make your peace with yourself at
your own risk for peace with the Devil
costs everybody more than you could
hope to destroy. Holy is as holy does.
Essence precludes existence.

(Dark City, 143)

Bernstein’s poetry, with its odd humor and its calculated resistance to repetition and personal narrative, provides us with a rich exploration of new modes of meaning-making in poetry. His poetry, particularly the new work represented in Dark City, makes a substantial contribution to the ever-developing and perpetually unstable genre of American poetry. Bernstein’s poems challenge our most ingrained reading habits, particularly the thematizing of poetry which has dominated American critical reading methods for poetry since the advent of the New Criticism nearly seventy-five years ago. The particular irritation, difficulty, pedagogy, and beauty of Bernstein’s poetry ought rightfully to occupy a significant place in current representations of American poetry.


  1. Charles Bernstein, Dark City (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1994).

  2. Charles Bernstein, Content’s Dream: Essays 1975–1984 (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1986, reissued 1994). For a more detailed consideration of Content’s Dream see Hank Lazer, Opposing Poetries: The Cultural Politics of Avant-Garde American Poetry (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1996), Chapter One: “Criticism and the Crisis in American Poetry.”

  3. Helen Vendler, “Understanding Ashbery” The New Yorker, March 16, 1981: reprinted in Helen Vendler, The Music of What Happens (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988), pp. 224–241.

  4. Charles Bernstein, The Sophist (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1987).

  5. Gertrude Stein, “Composition as Explanation” (1926) in Selected Writings (New York: Vintage Books, 1972) pp. 511–523.

  6. Richard Kostelanetz, Dictionary of the Avant-Gardes (Pennington, New Jersey: A Capella Books, 1993).

  7. John Cage, Composition in Retrospect (Cambridge: Exact Change, 1993). John Cage, X: Writings ‘79–’82 (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1983).

  8. Henry David Thoreau, Walden (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989).

  9. Michel Foucault, preface to Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari) (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), pp. xi-xiv.

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

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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 when my father was young; his mother, Jenny, died in early 1945. Both emigrated from Western Russia in the 1890s, settling in the Lower East Side and then the Village. Jenny ran a Jewish resort in Long Branch, New Jersey, for a while but was put out of business by an epidemic; later she ran a restaurant in lower Manhattan. My father’s grandfather spent his days studying the Talmud and the like; he did not work. Many of my father’s brothers were very successful in business and real estate. My father mostly worked in the garment industry, eventually as co-owner of Smartcraft Corporation, a medium-sized manufacturer of ladies’ dresses, one of the first firms to make cheap ($12) knockoffs of fashion dresses. Back taxes did him in, in the early sixties; he had a heart attack but eventually rebounded as the American consultant to Teijin, Ltd., Japan’s largest textile manufacturer. He married my mother on December 12, 1945, at the age of forty-two. He died on January 20, 1978, of leukemia.

My mother was an only child. She was born on February 2, 1921, and lived with her mother, Birdie Kegel, on Avenue P, near Prospect Park in Brooklyn. Birdie, born Bertha in Western Russia in 1891, was abandoned by her father, Louis Stolitsky, who left for the United States. Her mother died, and she was sent, alone, to America when she was seven; she went to live with her father and stepmother, an unhappy circumstance for her. She married Edward Kegel in 1918. He was a successful Brooklyn real estate developer; he died of a streptococcus infection in 1927.

Given that both your parents had their roots in Western Russia, might I ask specifically where in Western Russia they came from? Importantly, did you grow up in an environment of spoken Yiddish or Russian? Do you have any familiarity with or memory of either of these languages?

I don’t know the precise locations where my grandparents on my mother’s side were born. My father’s mother emigrated from Lithuania in about 1888, when she was in her early teens; his father emigrated from near Odessa. But this was ancient history to my father, who, after all, was born in New York, and I don’t ever recall him talking about it, except in the oral history I did with him just before he died, which I had to listen to again in order to answer your question. My father did not dwell on such things, at least not so as I could tell. Maybe it was that he didn’t want to trouble me, or my brother and sister, about it; maybe he didn’t think we’d be interested; maybe he didn’t want to think about it. The main thing was that the family got out. In things like this, I found my father quite opaque: he didn’t seem at all introspective, although to say that is to reflect an enormous gulf between his own cultural circumstances and my own. In many ways, my father seemed foreign to me, which is not to say unfamiliar; so it is all the more startling that I now find myself resembling him in so many ways. The early poem that you mentioned, “Sentences My Father Used” (in Controlling Interests), tried to think this through; much of this poem is based on the oral history I did with my father. (I’m sure I’m not alone in finding Paul Auster’s evocation of his father, in The Invention of Solitude, very close to my own experience of my father.)

But equally, in the case of my mother and my grandmother, origins and roots were rarely a topic. The only grandparent I knew was my grandmother, who always lived very close by, but since she came to America as a little girl any echo of Yiddish was long gone. My mother says the only time she remembers hearing her parents speak Yiddish was when they were saying something they didn’t want her to understand. So, no, we “had” only American English at home, except for the occasional Friday night Hebrew prayer, although neither of my parents, nor my grandmother, knew much Hebrew, and what Hebrew was around was the product of religious education. That was the context in which I learned a very little Hebrew in the couple of years before I turned thirteen, at Congregation Rodeph Shalom, a Reform synagogue on the Upper West Side.

But wouldn’t your father have been familiar with these languages? And if the background of your parents was not a linguistic presence, wasn’t it of importance in their political outlook?

My father probably spoke Yiddish as a kid, but there was no hint of that in our household, except for the pervasive idiomatic insistences that come naturally from any such linguistic background and add texture and character to a person’s speech. For example, my father would say “close the lights” or “take a haircut.” I know there must be dozens more examples, but I can’t bring any to mind right now, only keep hearing him saying, “Can’t you kids close the lights? This place is lit up like Luna Park.”

My parents were assimilationists who nonetheless had a strong Jewish and later Zionist identification. As for many of their generations, this made for interesting contradictions. We were loosely kosher in the “beef fry” years, but in other years the bacon fried plentifully and tasted sweet. Or we were kosher on Friday night when my Aunt Pauline came to dinner but not the rest of the week. Of course, on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when dozens of relatives descended on our apartment for gigantic and endless meals that I grew to dread for their tediousness, we were strictly kosher, with once-a-year Pesach plates and cakes made from matzo meal. (Those who might “correctly” say you can’t be a little bit kosher ignore the actual practice of Jewish ethnicity.) My father’s family was associated with the Congregation Sherith Israel, the hundreds-year-old Spanish and Portuguese synagogue relocated across the street from our building; I occasionally attended the Orthodox services in their august main sanctuary. But as I say, for my parents, the religious end of Judaism was less pronounced than a decisive, but at the same time mutable, ethnic identification.

In politics my parents were liberal Democrats, but not especially political, though I can still remember handing out leaflets on Broadway and 74th Street for Adlai Stevenson when I was six. And while I am pleased to have been enlisted into the Stevenson camp, and have holes in my own shoes to prove it, my politics and that of my parents grew further apart. When I was a teenager, my father and I used to have vituperative exchanges at dinner about Vietnam and about racism, as he embraced Hubert Humphrey and I drifted leftward. More recently, my mother expressed her exasperation that I was the only Jew in New York who supported Jesse Jackson, though I pointed out to her that my brother had also voted for Jackson. (I center here on my father not only because it is more relevant to your question but also because my relation with my mother continues in a way that makes me less apt to characterize it.)

In any case, my father’s concerns were centered foursquarely on success, and too often, and very painfully for him, failure in business. As he put it, “One can achieve success and happiness if the right priorities are valued.” “The right priorities” was not a particularly elastic concept for him and in this he represents, more than less, a new-immigrant generation that didn’t have the leisure to question what their very hard work made possible for my generation.

Louis Zukofsky and Charles Reznikoff are writers who have been consistently of great interest to you in their ability to “create a new world in English, a new word for what they called America.” How does the experience of your family inform your reading of these authors? I was wondering if, especially in Reznikoff’s work, other than the literary and documentary qualities, there are specific events or issues that you find particularly resonant in your personal history?

Yes, my relation to Zukofsky and Reznikoff is tempered by this history. Zukofsky and my father were virtually the same age and grew up near each other, but there seem few other points in common. Zukofsky and Reznikoff interrogated and resisted the very ideologies that my father accepted as the givens of American life. And both had gone well beyond the high school education my father possibly completed. (My mother’s education was not much more extensive, though she had a few years of “finishing school” after high school; but that is a different story.)

My father certainly had no sympathy for artists, whom he thought of as frauds (in the case of “modern” art) or slackers (as in the case of his own rabbinical grandfather, whom he saw as something of a family black sheep). And we grew up surrounded by popular American culture but very little in the way of literature or art. While my parents hardly even played music on the radio, the newspapers—the Times, the Post, the Daily News, and later Women’s Wear Daily—loomed large. We did have books, but they were mostly inherited popular novels of the previous decades supplemented by a few contemporary best-sellers or condensed books (just add boiling water). My mother had decorated a large part of our apartment in a very formal French colonial style. The large living room, for example, was for company—not for everyday life. In this context, books become decor, as with a complete set of Ruskin’s work bought by the yard for a beautiful antique bookshelf. As far as I can tell, the Ruskin was never opened during my childhood, though I do appreciate the fact that it presided over us, in some subliminal way.

Zukofsky and Reznikoff are important to me because they suggest a totally different sense of Jewishness than anything I knew of in the fifties, something along the lines that Isaac Deutscher, writing from a left perspective, describes as the “non-Jewish Jew” but also part of the heterodox context charted by Jerome Rothenberg in A Big Jewish Book. This is something of a circus sideshow to “serious” Judaism, with opening acts by Maimonides and Baal Shem Tov, Spinoza and Heine, or, in the main tent, Groucho and Harpo and Chico Marx, Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen, Bob Dylan. While I never mentioned Jewishness in my college piece on Stein and Wittgenstein (and the subject is largely unmentioned in each of their works), it is, of course, an obvious point of contact as well as a crucial, if implicit, reference point for me.

But let me end this string of thoughts by quoting a passage from Amos Oz that, by a delicious coincidence, Eric Selinger e-mailed while I was answering your question:

Now suppose a new Kafka is growing up right now, here in San Francisco, California: Suppose he is fourteen years old right now. Let’s call him Chuck Bernstein. Let’s assume that he is every bit of a genius as Kafka was in his time. His future must, as I see it, depend on an uncle in Jerusalem or an experience by the Dead Sea, or a cousin in a kibbutz or something inspired by the Israeli live drama: Otherwise, with the exception of the possibility that he is growing up among the ultra-Orthodox, he will be an American writer of Jewish origin—not a Jewish American writer. He may become a new Faulkner, but not a new Kafka.1

It seems to me this tortured and reductive conception of identity is just what the tradition of writers I’ve mentioned have refused. And it is in exploring and realizing alternative identity formations that at least one sliver of a Jewish tradition may be of use; in this, Kafka is our dark and imploding star.

As your father was a manager in the garment industry, how did this reflect on your own sense of “self” while growing up? (In other words, his work could have seemed petty or commercial compared to your own engagement with social concerns or you may have felt pressure to become a part of the “cottage” industry.) Did you have to fight pressure to participate in your father’s commercial enterprise?

One day I woke up and found myself metamorphosed into a tiny businessman. All that I have done since, political and poetic, has changed this not at all. For poetry, after all, is the ultimate small business, requiring a careful keeping of accounts to stay afloat. Not to mention all that “small press” stuff like distribution, promotion, and book manufacturing. That is to say, I have wanted to bring poetry into the “petty, commercial,” indeed material and social world of everyday life rather than make it a space in which I could remain “free” of these things, or, better to say, chained to an illusion of such freedom.

Because my father and his brothers were “self-made” men, they believed that theirs was the only practical, and therefore right, course in life. The proof was that it had worked for them, and, as far as I can tell, they never came to understand how the lives so created could look so hollow, if not misguided, to at least a few of the next generation. To start a business on nothing, as my father had done in the 1920s, when he bought and resold short end-pieces of fabric rolls that would otherwise have been discarded (“the trim, the waste”), meanwhile being weekly hounded by his successful brother to repay a small loan, sets in place a pattern of anxiety and diminished expectations for the, what?, “quality” of life—if aesthetics can be defined so—that doesn’t easily, if ever, unravel. The business isn’t something you do to make money; it’s what you do, who you are. Family, like cultural or social activities, is an extended lunch break.

And what went with this, at least for my father, was an unquestioning belief not only in progress and industry in the abstract but in the absolute value of industrialization, Western Civilization, the market system, and technology that the catastrophes of the Second World War did not, finally, touch. I imagine that the twenties and thirties passed my father by as he worked, singly and single-mindedly, to establish himself, to create his own estate. That came, finally, during the war, and he married for the first time in the very first year of the postwar era, and at pretty much the age I am now, starting a family when most men of his generation had grown-up kids. He came the closest to his American Dream in the 1950s. It was as if his life had led him to this decade of prosperity and surface tranquility, and he remained, for the rest of his life, its unshakable constituent.

But here’s where the ethnic ethos comes in again: it wasn’t for us, the children, to continue in business but to become professionals, free from the grinding labor and terrorizing uncertainty of business. The pressure, then, was to be a physician or lawyer; my own choice, at least initially toward downward social mobility, was rankling and fundamentally unacceptable, and must have made me seem ungrateful and disrespectful of the whole struggle of the business, of his life. I know my father often complained about my lack of respect and certainly had no respect to spare for my choices. I pretty much ignored the pressure, which is to say adamantly rejected the life so envisioned for me, and never, really, looked back.

Tell me about your brother and sister. Did you grow up in New York? What was your early life like?

I have a brother, Edward Amber (changed his last name) born October 8, 1946, and a sister, Leslie Gross (married to Donald Gross), born June 16, 1948. My parents moved from 81st Street just east of Columbus to 101 Central Park West just before I was born; my mother still lives in the same luxurious twelfth-floor apartment, which overlooks Central Park. Classic Upper West Side.

Like my sister and brother, I went to a self-congratulating “progressive” school of the Deweyite persuasion, the Ethical Culture School. I was there kindergarten to sixth grade. None of us did very well there, and I intensely disliked the social, cultural, and intellectual environment. This was a place that even if you were “comfortable,” the other kids, and their parents, made you feel like you were a pauper. On the school’s part, they did not think much of me, as I was repeatedly told: my penmanship and spelling were abysmal; I was slow to read and in constant need of remedy in the form of remedial groups; I did not socialize right, my appearance was somewhat ajar. I give a sense of this in “Standing Target,” in Controlling Interests, where I quote some reports from Fieldston Day Camp, which was run by Ethical. My favorite thing to do was stay home; some years I missed as many as forty days. And at home there was the chance for reverie, for sleeping late, for making tuna fish sticks sprinkled with paprika, for watching daytime TV. I read TV Guide religiously in those days and knew all the panelists on the celebrity game shows, all the actors on the sitcoms, and all the comedy shows from the early fifties that I had missed the first time around.

I liked TV and hanging out at home—but not sports! I was the kind of kid that was always picked last for the team and put in right field or its equivalent. By the time I was in high school (after a brief flirtation with soccer, all dressed in black to play goalie, in junior high school), I used to put my hands in my pockets whenever I was thrust into a game. Never played catch with any member of my family, but we used to go out for Chinese dinners on Thanksgiving and Christmas, and I liked that.

I can still remember my delight at the reaction of my sixth-grade teacher, Miss Green, when I sported a button that read “I may look interested but I’m just being polite.” I’ve always tried to be polite. But I did like one thing about Miss Green’s class: for months, it seems to me, we read, always starting from the first page, The Old Curiosity Shop: “Night is generally my time for walking.” I loved that and could, no matter how awkward I otherwise felt in the class, fall into that prose and be transported.

I was not admitted to Fieldston, Ethical’s upper school, a routine matter for my classmates, and went on, to my great relief, to a small, highly conventional private school, Franklin, for seventh and eighth grades, and it was there that the worlds of history and literature opened up for me. What I hated about Ethical was that you never received grades but were given pop psychology reports about your development and social integration. At Franklin, there were concrete tasks assigned and measured by tests; the right attitude was less important than the right facts. Certainly, there were some tough times adjusting. I wanted to do really well and can remember cheating a few times on tests in seventh grade, as if that would prove to myself that I knew a thing or two. Actually, the academic side of the school became the great focus of my life as I began to read the history of Greece or China and especially to read literature. I remember a great, thick collection of international short stories, with a gray cover, that I got while at Franklin and the excitement I felt when I read, even if I could not fully understand, Kafka, Genet, Camus, and especially Sartre. Then one day in seventh or eighth grade an English teacher named Francis Xavier Walker wrote on the board, “Bun is such a sad word is it not, and man is not much better is it.” He said it was by Samuel Beckett and that he liked the way it sounded, the way it focused on the sound of the words man and bun. That was kind of like hearing about the theory of relativity. I was hooked; in fact, years seemed to go by when all I wanted to do was stay in my small room overlooking the park, which at that point I rarely stepped into, and read books and watch TV.

Yes, you have written that “My work is as influenced by Dragnet as by Proust.” This comment, of course, is indicative of the sources of “information” we have in a media culture like ours. Did your interest in the classroom experience change when you went to high school?

Well, I always loved those clipped voice-overs. But I have to say the influence of Dragnet was nothing compared to the Manhattan Yellow Pages.

I spent high school at a terrific school, the Bronx High School of Science, where, in my senior year, I edited the school newspaper, Science Survey. Science was a “specialized” school, something like today’s magnet schools, but pretty much the only such schools in New York, in the Sputnik era, were science schools, so my interest in going there was for the quality of the school and not for the science and math, which I never had much interest in. Strangely, I always did very well on standardized tests of physics, chemistry, geometry, algebra, and the like; but I never felt like I “got” it. My interests were literature, history, social studies. Indeed, I coordinated our high school “Forum” series, which sponsored speakers every month; I remember, in particular, taking a cab back into the city with James Farmer of CORE [Congress of Racial Equality]. There were great, even inspired, English teachers at Science. The one I was closest to was Richard Feingold, who gave vivid lectures on Hamlet, Jonathan Edwards, Emily Dickinson, and Robert Frost. Feingold is now a professor of eighteenth-century poetry at Berkeley. He came to my reading there a few months back—I hadn’t seen him in over twenty-five years.

During high school, I started going to the movies a lot, and also to the theater. I grew up with the big musicals of the period, but at this point I got interested in Pinter and imports from the Royal Shakespeare Company, Peter Brooks’s productions, but also off-Broadway stuff: I can still remember being riveted by Leroi Jones’s Dutchman. You know, the whole world of “high culture” and modernism opened up for me, and I was always making lists of what I should know about. I remember sending for WQXR’s Martin Bookspan’s list of the one hundred most important classical records and then checking them out of the library or buying them. I mean, I had no information about this kind of thing, but I was fascinated. My parents, like I said, didn’t listen to music or read very much beyond the newspapers and magazines (though my mother would occasionally read a best-selling novel), but they did do things like get me a subscription to Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts with the New York Philharmonic, and they were happy to buy me tickets for lots of other concerts all over the city, which I generally went to by myself. When I was sixteen, my father, sister, and I went to Europe. We visited London, Paris, Florence, Rome, and Berlin. In London, I went to plays every night and saw all the museums, all the sights. It was thrilling, although it was quite difficult to travel with my father, and the deep generational and political divisions between us were never so apparent.

When did this divergent cultural information begin to coalesce for you?

Everything fell into place in the mid-sixties: those great movies from Fellini and Antonioni and Godard, Phil Ochs and Bob Dylan and Richie Havens—and much that holds up far less well these days (I still have my Procol Harem and Incredible String Band records), the Be-Ins, the smoke from loose joints. While I had a bar mitzvah at thirteen and was, at the time, quite religious, all that started to come apart within a year or two. The Civil Rights movement, the sit-ins, the Mississippi Freedom summer, Martin Luther King, and then the Vietnam War all increasingly focused my politics. I tuned to WBAI, Pacifica Radio in New York. I was around for the demonstrations during the Columbia University strike during my senior year in high school, and also involved with demonstrations at my high school (against regulations prohibiting “shirts without collars and dungaree-type pants,” among other things).

I’ve never shaken the shock and sadness I felt when Martin Luther King was assassinated; it was my eighteenth birthday. In the summer of 1968, after a trip I took by myself to Scandinavia (I wanted to see the fjords) and also to Greece (where you could still get by on a couple of dollars a day), I returned to the United States to go to the Chicago demonstrations during the Democratic National Convention. Like everyone else there, I got gassed, got “radicalized” (again), and got to hear Allen Ginsberg chant “Om” to the crowd.

I met Susan (Bee Laufer) in high school—at a party in Greenwich Village on February 9, 1968. Her parents had both grown up in Berlin, had left in 1936 on a youth aliyah to Palestine when they were teenagers, and had met in Jerusalem. They came to New York in 1948—Sigmund keeping the same job, until a couple of years ago, and the same apartment all this while. Susan’s parents were both artists: her mother, Miriam, a wonderful, unjustly unrecognized painter, doing fifties-style expressionist paintings of, among other things, female nudes, a later series painted on car windshields. The Laufers, who had been sympathetic with the Left when in Palestine, were a remarkable political and cultural contrast to my own family. With Susan, I started to go to the art galleries and then also up to Provincetown.

Then you attended Harvard, correct? This must have been quite a change from the cultural and social excitement of Manhattan. Was this a satisfying experience?

I found Harvard a rather unpleasant place and was shocked by the snobbism and arrogance. It was unbelievable to me that the “men” at the Freshman Commons would clink their glasses when a woman walked into the hall. If Katie Roiphe and other postfeminists would like to go back to this time, they can have it. This was the last year that you had to wear a tie and jacket to dinner; there were parietals in effect in the still all-male dorms. I found the environment suffocating and depressing. And living in Harvard Yard was like living in a zoo—with all the tourists taking pictures of you and your environs when you poked your head out the door.

I have to say, it was an eye-opener to realize how few of my classmates actually cared about the arts, literature, history; though after a while it was possible to find like-minded souls. Still, Harvard students, on the whole, seemed contemptuous of the arts and of learning in a way I never encountered at Bronx Science; I soon came to realize that the enhanced admission for students from elite prep schools pulled down the intellectual, cultural, and moral level of the school, just as it does the country. Talk about affirmative action. In my year, only one student from all the public schools of Chicago got into Harvard, while 40 percent of the classes at the elite schools were admitted. I got a real sense of where this was all going when I had a job doing child care at a twenty-fifth reunion. At the Boston Pops concert, the middle-aged Harvard grads gave a standing ovation to an orchestral version of “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head.” I keep that image in mind when I think of our “elite” institutions and what they are doing for our culture.

I was not alone in my distress. In my freshman year, I became involved in the antiwar movement, even if my somewhat anarchic and pacifist politics did not sit well with some factions of SDS [Students for a Democratic Society]. I was impressed by many of the ideas of the New Left and especially by the Port Huron statement and the concept of participatory democracy. And I certainly thought something had to be done to stop the war. I was in and out of University Hall during the 1969 occupation, but when the police were called I was in bed, right next door to the occupied building. I quickly slipped into the building and was arrested for trespassing in a case that was ultimately dismissed. Despite the dismissal in a court of law, I was put under indefinite “Warning” by Harvard’s Committee of Rights and Responsibilities (“We’re right, you’re responsible”). I have been amused and appalled to see how, in the intervening years, some of my classmates who did not take a stand of principle against the war have parlayed their own failure of political judgment into a source of pundit power. I am thinking here of James Fallows and Michael Kinsley.

The political informs your work on many levels. It seems relevant here, given your experience with politics at the Columbia and Harvard strikes and the (one would presume extremely significant) Chicago demonstrations, to ask whether you were considering political activism as a future involvement. What influenced you in this regard? And wouldn’t “literary” action be considered less than effective? How do you reconcile this?

I never wanted to be a professional activist, although in some ways maybe that is what I’ve become. I always thought protest was for the informed citizen, taking the time out of her or his everyday life, time hard to spare but required by the very demands of citizenship. The demonstrations of the sixties and seventies were exhilarating, and I dearly miss that level of idealism and activism in the United States, dearly miss the time when the political and cultural left, or shades of it, set the national agenda rather than the Religious Right, as now seems the case. Still, I was amazed at a reunion held on the twentieth anniversary of the Harvard strike how many of the people spoke of those events as the high point of their life. I think my own preoccupations were, and are, elsewhere.

It seems like it can never be stated often enough that the claims made for “the politics of poetic form” are against the idea of the political efficacy of poetry. If anything, the politics of the poetic for which I have spoken mute any such efficacy. So then the question becomes, how do you reconcile thought and action, or second thoughts and action, reflection and decision? The answer is, as best you can. Poetry explores crucial questions about the core values that constitute a polis; it allows for reformulations of the basic issues of political policy and the means we use to represent them. It may even mock what men, and women, hold most dear, so that in our laughter we may come to terms with what we cling to.

Poetry thickens discussion, refuses reductive formulations. It sings of values not measurable as commercial sums. But such poetic politics do not exhaust one’s political options or commitments. I don’t suggest that aesthetics replace politics, I just don’t believe in a politics that abolishes aesthetics.

If Harvard was a disappointment culturally, I wonder what your expectations had been. Did you expect a revelation in terms of education? Was there a specific grant or scholarship that encouraged you to attend? Why did you choose to go to Harvard?

My choice was to go to the best college that I could get into, where “best” was conventionally defined. This was a given, which I had no means to contest. I bought the image of Harvard as the ultimate place of Higher Learning, in which I would be able to pursue my studies in a manner that deepened and extended what I most liked at Bronx Science. In many ways, this was possible at Harvard, and I certainly did have the extraordinary opportunity to read and converse. I just had no idea what went with this; my studies had not prepared me for the fact that the fruit of learning would be laced with nausea-inducing poison and that for many, the lesson learned was not to eat that fruit, or not eat very much. That is perhaps the chief product of the Harvard Education: willful ignorance, learned callousness, and an ability to keep your eye on your personal bottom line (defined by money and social status). So, yes, this was disillusioning, and it hit me hard and almost immediately upon arriving—that “learning,” as I had romanticized it, was not disinterested and indeed was being used as a means of preserving social injustice; that one had to struggle, even at a place like this, to create a space for thought, reflection, art. These are lessons I have found very useful. But perhaps, looking back, it’s not Harvard that shocked me but America, an America I had not yet met in the culturally rich, but unrepresentative, precincts I had inhabited up to that point in my life.

Your involvement with philosophy is well known. Certainly, “Thought’s Measure,” among others, qualifies as a consummate philosophical essay. You studied philosophy at Harvard?

Yes, I concentrated in philosophy at college, though my interests were more in the history of philosophy and “continental” philosophy than in analytic philosophy, toward which I was antipathetic. As a freshman, I took “Introduction to Symbolic Logic” with Willard Quine. He mumbled to the blackboard during most of the lectures, though I did find his books witty and provocative. I had a dream one night in which I was haphazardly trying to stuff all my clothes into a suitcase, and Quine came over to show me how they would all fit if neatly folded. I shot him. (This was a time in which Quine was widely quoted as saying that we should handle the student demonstrators in the United States the way they did in South America: bring in the militia.) Then there was Hilary Putnam, who was in his Maoist period. And John Rawls, whose Theory of Justice had just come out: the most rational man in the world but, well, somewhat boring and stiff for my taste at the time. In contrast, I was very impressed with Judith Shklar, the social historian.

Two philosophers, Stanley Cavell and Rogers Albritton, were particularly important for me at Harvard. The first year I was there, they split one of those grand tours of Western thought, Albritton from the pre-Socratics to the Middle Ages, and Cavell from the Enlightenment on. Each brought his own quirky, thought-filled style to the occasion. I had heard about Wittgenstein before coming to college and felt an immediate fascination, so to fall in with these two Wittgensteinians was marvelous. I also had the great pleasure of spending a fair amount of time talking to Cavell and Albritton, and though I have remained friends with, and been influenced by, Cavell all these years, it was those long late-night conversations with Albritton that initiated me into philosophical conversation. My senior thesis was called “Three Compositions on Philosophy and Literature” and was a reading of Stein’s Making of Americans through Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. (A bit of this was recently published in Gertrude Stein Advanced, edited by Richard Kostelanetz.)

It seems to me that Stein and Wittgenstein would not exactly be considered “canonical” in any institution at the time. Were these writers approved or encouraged in your program? Was it a struggle to gain acceptance for these writers as the focus of your thesis?

As I mentioned, Cavell and Albritton were both very committed to Wittgenstein, especially the Investigations, so within that microcosm, Wittgenstein was the canonical, albeit “anticanonical,” modernist philosopher. I had no companions in my enthusiasm for Stein, however; not surprising in a philosophy faculty, in any case, and most decisively not in the English faculty, with which I had little contact. Of course, Stein had studied at Harvard with William James and at Emerson Hall, the site of my own studies; but that was a fact of little import in 1971. Since mine was an undergraduate thesis, I was pretty much left to do what I wanted and wasn’t required to gain any acceptance for Stein, which would not have been possible. I did have a third reader for the piece though, a witty and genial visiting British philosopher named G. E. L. Owen, whose specialty was classical Greek philosophy but who had read, and expressed some sympathy for, Stein.

Were your thesis readers comfortable with the connection between Stein and Wittgenstein?

At the time, the idea of a connection between Stein and Wittgenstein was completely far-fetched, the first of my crackpot theories that end up, over time, not seeming nearly so cracked. If the linking of these two names now seems unsurprising, that takes away from some of the brash humor I had in mind for it years ago. My own name for the project was “Three Steins.” But I can’t explain how, when I was twenty-one, I fell upon a matrix of thinking and writing that would continue to occupy me until this day. For the writing and thinking I was starting to do then is very much of a piece with my work now. Let’s say it was an intuition that bore out.

What was the occasion or relation or particular event that might have put you in contact with these writers? How did this come about?

Wittgenstein I had first heard about in high school, just a passing remark by a friend returned from college, but I became fascinated and curious, since it seemed to go significantly beyond what I had been finding so interesting in that wonderfully intoxicating high-schoolish way about existentialism (with a puff of Hesse, Zen, the Beats, and the Beatles mixed in), and so was happy to pick up on that in the next few years, especially in the context of reading over a range of philosophical works. I can’t quite place my interest in Stein, certainly not from any class or reading list! I know I was consciously looking for literary equivalents for the modernist and abstract expressionist painting that I was so passionately taken by, and while I appreciated what I was offered—Joyce or Céline or Kafka or Woolf or Proust or, indeed, Faulkner—I felt there was something missing, something I did see, though, in Beckett’s Stories and Texts for Nothing and Burroughs’s Naked Lunch (I realize my examples here are all prose writers). Meanwhile, in 1970 Susan [Bee] was taking a seminar with Catherine Stimpson at Barnard, one of the first courses to be given on women’s literature. This was way before there were anthologies or even recommended syllabi for such classes, before much of the material now at the center of women’s studies courses was reprinted. Anyway, Stimpson apparently assigned Three Lives, and I must have heard about that from Susan. I don’t think I more than glanced at Three Lives, but I soon found The Making of Americans, Tender Buttons, “Composition as Explanation,” and much other Stein material, some of which was beginning to be published in new editions at this time. When I first read these works of Stein, I was completely knocked out: this was what I had been looking for, what I knew must exist, and I was giddy with excitement.

What other activities were you involved in at Harvard? What about its “literary” culture?

My sophomore year, I happily moved to Adams House, just at the time it became coed and when it still had a beautiful private swimming pool. (When I was on the house committee, we passed a resolution requiring bathing suits only from 7 to 9 a.m.) My main artistic work at college was in theater, though, oddly, as I look back on it, I was elected editor of the freshman literary magazine, the Harvard Yard Journal, and we put out two issues. In my senior year, I also put out a small Xerox magazine of work by people in Adams House called Writing. (I stayed clear of “literary society” at Harvard, or anyway it stayed clear of me. The pretentiousness of the Advocate scene couldn’t mask its emptiness, and I don’t mean that in the Zen sense.)

Were there other “cultural” activities you found more relevant at the time?

I studied theater games and improvisation with Dan Seltzer, a Shakespeare scholar who had gotten involved with acting. I directed several productions, including a rather large-scale musical production of Peter Weiss’s Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade, influenced by the radical theater work of the Living Theater, the Open Theater, and Grotowski. We did the production in street clothes (though one review seemed to think these were hippie costumes) in the dining room at Adams House. William Liller, an astronomer and the master of Adams House, played the director of the asylum, and Marat was played by John McCain, at that time a Progressive Labor Party activist and later gay activist; McCain died of AIDS a few years back. The composer Leonard Lehrman was the musical director. It was a wild time. One night, the Japan scholar John Fairchild showed up, and one of the cast rebuked him, in one of the bedlam scenes during the play, for his Vietnam policy—in Japanese. After a benefit performance for the Bobby Seale defense fund, a spontaneous demonstration moved the audience into the street. The next year, I scripted and directed a work I called Comings and Goings that linked short pieces by Beckett and Pinter with a staging of the trial of the Chicago 8. I also played a bit role in a play by Joseph Timko on the death of Morris Schlick, the Vienna Circle philosopher and logical positivist. My role was as the graduate student that killed Schlick, and my line was, “I shoot you out of jealousy and revenge: Bang! Bang!”

I spent the fall following college graduation [1972] in New York, living with Susan on Arden Street in Washington Heights and working mainly as the office manager of Sloan’s Furniture Clearance Center #45 on East 85th Street, for $2.75 an hour. When Susan graduated Barnard in December, I took advantage of a William Lyon MacKenzie King Fellowship, which I had received, and we spent a year in Ruskin, just east of Vancouver. I had a loose and pleasant relation with Simon Fraser University, and it was there I attended a marvelous seminar on Emily Dickinson with Robin Blaser.

From what I’ve read, I would assume that you experienced a breakthrough in Vancouver. Was it at this point that the thrust of your future in writing became apparent?

Not so much a breakthrough as follow-through. I moved to the Vancouver area with Susan in January 1973, six months after graduating college. During the nine months I was there, I was able to read in and around the “New American Poetry,” something I knew little about before this.

Shortly after moving, I sent some of my work, out of the blue, to Jerome Rothenberg, primarily on the strength of Technicians of the Sacred, which I had read with great enthusiasm when it came out in the late sixties. Remarkably, Jerry wrote me right back and suggested I get in touch with Ron Silliman, in San Francisco, who was editing a section of new poetry for his and Dennis Tedlock’s new magazine, Alcheringa. Ron wrote me back, also immediately, on a piece of letterhead from something called “The People’s Yellow Pages,” which seems apt for Ron. He had finished the collection, called “A Dwelling Place,” but said he was going to quote something I said in my letter to him. He also gave me a list of people to read, which, as I recall it from this distance, included Michael Palmer and Clark Coolidge and a half-dozen others, including Eigner and Creeley. I hadn’t read many of those poets and was also hearing about some of them, and a related set, from Blaser. I had access to the library and to the extraordinary poetry collection, so I had no trouble finding even the most obscure poetry I wanted. It was heaven.

As to my writing, I was onto something, but not there yet. I hadn’t yet gotten to the other side of what Ron, I think, heard as Stein’s “syrupy rhythm”; I was in a Stein period, that’s for sure, writing things like “Paddington wade, she said faded” and a mock-epic, “Hermes Hermeneutic” (“Hermes Hermeneutic, the swashbuckle kid from Alacazam, swim/swam/swum past fireflies and mint juleps, pusses in the allies and lizigator monsters”).

Then you returned to New York City?

Actually, we moved from Vancouver to Santa Barbara in the fall of 1973, for no particular reason, I suppose, than that the sun was appealing after months of gray skies. In Santa Barbara, I worked part-time for the Freedom Community Clinic, a free clinic, as a health education coordinator at a time when we were very involved in questions of feminism and gay rights, drug education, and, of course, sexually transmitted diseases. While I was there, I continued to read around, and I was in touch with other poets, getting their magazines and books. Even made it up to see Ron Silliman, although our first conversation was made almost inaudible by the loud band playing at the bar where we met. (Ron knew one of the people in the band!) In Santa Barbara, I went to one of Kenneth Rexroth’s gatherings but didn’t connect up with that context at all. Disfrutes and Asylums were written in Santa Barbara and include the earliest poems of mine that have been published.

I moved back to New York, to 464 Amsterdam, in early 1975, and that’s when I met Bruce Andrews, and we discovered how much we had in common, not only as poets and artists but also, for example, in an interest in such things as the Frankfurt school, which at that time seemed an unlikely thing for a poet to be interested in. (I had read Habermas’s Knowledge and Human Interest with great interest and later attended a series of lectures he gave at UC Santa Barbara in 1974.)

In New York, I went to lots of readings, particularly at the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s, but all over the place. And in 1978, not only did Bruce and I start L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E—actually the planning for that goes back to 1976—but Ted Greenwald and I also started the Ear Inn series.

Let me stop you for a moment here. I am specifically interested in the period from 1973, when you left Vancouver, to 1978, when L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E was founded. It is unclear, besides the mention of Stein and Wittgenstein, what your sense of literary “elders” was during this period. In terms of “contemporaries,” you have mentioned Jerome Rothenberg and Ron Silliman, but I have the feeling that your reading would have been much more immense. Let me be more specific: I would like a clear sense of your “position” in terms of literary “influences” at this time.

“Literary” is a problem for me, since I was trying to get away from the literary, from any preset idea of poetry or of the aesthetic. It seemed to me that writing, certainly not verse—let’s say verbal art in the sense that Antin talks about it in his early essays—was the thing.

In New York, I worked initially at the United Hospital Fund, writing the scintillating Health Manpower Consortia Newsletter, which Susan and I designed in exactly the format that we would use, a few years later, for L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E; then briefly for the Council on Municipal Performance, a public interest group, where I primarily worked on mass-transit issues and against the subway fare hike of that moment; and then for a couple of years as abstract editor of the Canadian edition of Modern Medicine, where I wrote about eighty medical abstracts each month. This immersion in commercial writing and editing—as a social space too but more in the technical sense of learning the standardized compositional rules and forms at the most detailed, and numbingly boring, level of proofreading and copyediting—was informing in every way.

As far as art goes, painting has always been intimate for me, and I mean in particular Susan Bee’s work, which crisscrosses, parallels, and leaps ahead of my “own” work. Living with a painter, seeing the paintings develop sometimes day to day from my comfortable “critic’s chair,” seeing how Susan would handle (and I mean literally handle) similar interests in collage, in the giddy rhetoric of various styles juxtaposed, well, I can’t adequately acknowledge the importance of that. Many times, Susan’s work has amazed me by showing that things I thought you “theoretically” couldn’t do needed to be done, and that includes things your own ideas would seem to hold you back from. The company and work of visual artists was, and remains, so much a part of the sense and texture of my work that I made a decision, at some point, not to write too much about it, or else I would end up just writing about it. So I’ll leave it without further account save the fact of my immersion and the many, many shows I went to each month in the mid-seventies.

And then … then there’re the movies, endless movies, including the visionary and revisionary films of Sonbert, Snow, Brakhage, Gehr, Child, Hills, Kubelka, Jacobs, and such (with Vertov, Eisenstein, etc., not far behind). And the theater—Richard Foreman’s, Robert Wilson’s (I especially appreciated those early “messy” pieces), Richard Schechner’s stuff at the Performance Garage, and so much else, including much of the performance art that was presented in New York at the time. And how about new music, thinking of so many nights at the Kitchen and other spaces, but also, and crucially, the opera? And so many poetry readings, three or more a week.

What I am getting to is that in this context, what most excited me was indeed the work of my immediate contemporaries, just because, let’s say, they are contemporaries and the meaning and the trajectory of their work was not yet determined, historicized (which can happen awfully fast). This work made the most immediate sense to me.

Certainly these are crucial elements in the constitution of a writing. But you still haven’t mentioned specific writers. Where and who were the “elders”? That is, what sense of relation was there to, say, Pound, Williams, or the Objectivists? Of course, there’s also a “middle” layer here: Creeley, Ginsberg (who must’ve been very active in New York)—and also Olson (though he doesn’t fit exactly into either of these categories). At the same time, I am very intrigued by what your sense of “contemporaries” might have been. I want a sense of who your “colleagues” were.

Yes, indeed, there is a literary answer too.

Rothenberg’s anthology Revolution of the Word, which came out in 1974 and included Riding, Zukofsky, Loy, Gillespie, Oppen, Schwitters, Duchamp, Mac Low, and others, is a good map of what was interesting me. At the same time, over those years I read and reread H. D., Williams, Stevens, Eliot, Bunting … not to mention the Russian constructivists, concrete and visual poetry, sound poetry, ethnopoetics, Dadaism—to keep the list neatly, but misleadingly, to the present century.

As for the “middle layer” you ask about, I knew Corso and Ginsberg from high school on and had seen Ginsberg perform many times. I especially loved his recording of Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, which I got when I was a college freshman and used to sing to myself all the time (still do). But from my perspective—thinking again back to the early seventies—I think this work just didn’t seem to me radically modern in the way that, say, Pollock or Rauschenberg or Morris Louis or Twombly or Rosenquist, or Godard or Cage or Coltrane or Stockhausen, or the poets in Revolution of the Word, or indeed Stein or Wittgenstein, did. And that would have gone for Pound, too, whom I read with greater interest only later.

But somewhere in all this, I had to slow up and backtrack a bit, and this is where I started to absorb, in a big way, many of the poets grouped in, around, and about “The New American Poetry,” including Mac Low (whom I went to see perform many times during the seventies), Ashbery, Eigner, O’Hara, Guest, Schuyler, Spicer, Antin, and Creeley (whose A Quick Graph and other essays I read with great interest). The work of these poets, and especially their new and ongoing work, was incredibly exciting for me, and not just as artworks to appreciate. The work made me want to write poetry and also gave me many entry points for how to do it. Reading became intimately connected to writing.

Yet even as I write this, it still seems too pat, too limited, and my suspicion of narrative gets the better of me. When you are just starting to write, all poems seem like maps of possibilities for your own writing, or did to me, and order and sequence is jumbled, irrelevant, maybe an insult. In 1975, I didn’t care very much about generations and influences or the order I read anything in, and I certainly didn’t know what was important and what not, and if I did, probably leapt from the former toward the latter. In 1995, a professor no less, the historical matrix for poetry seems to me not only very interesting but determining. But in that case, these lists are as important for the names I’ve left out that ought certainly to be mentioned, acknowledged.

To chart that warp and woof, you’d have to do a magazine like L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, and this is what we did.

But “charting” implies that the activity surrounding L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E was “fixed” in some sense. In fact, probably the greatest danger for people who write about “language” writing today is that they do so as if it were defined—a finite set of texts. You are on record as once saying that L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E was one part of several efforts, and that these included This, Roof, A Hundred Posters, and Tottel’s. What was the nature of the relationship among the poets involved with the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E project?

In 1976, when Bruce and I first started to discuss what would become L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, there was no forum that addressed the philosophical, political, and aesthetic concerns that were central to us, although there were many poets and a number of poetry magazines that were working in ways with which we felt a strong affinity. Indeed, there was much hostility in alternative as well as “mainstream” circles, not only to the kind of poetry to which we were committed but also to our poetics—both our insistence on the value of nonexpository essays and also our rejection of received and beloved notions of voice, self, expression, sincerity, and representation.

Official Verse Culture operated then, as it does now, by denying its narrow stylistic orthodoxy under the cloak of universalized and unassailable poetic principles. Thus, we had the spectacle of a poetry of abject conformity celebrating its commitment to individuality while flailing rather more viciously than might have seemed decent at actual individual expression. The prevalent phobias against groups and against critical thinking encouraged us to make our opposing commitments specific and partisan. If mainstream poetic “individuality” breeds unreflected conformism, collective formations might actually provide the space for conversation as well as for difference.

In this context, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E was (and in other guises and transformations may still be) an ongoing and open-ended collaborative conVERSation and exchange on a series of particular and partisan, but also mutable and provisional, poetic principles and proclivities conducted in a decentralized manner by a number of differently situated editors, reading series coordinators, poets, and readers: a linked series of poetic tendencies and collaborative exchanges among a range of poets who desired, for a period of time, to make this social exchange a primary site of their work. By “open-ended,” I’m suggesting a context in which, despite shared, if conflicting, stylistic and formal concerns, one doesn’t know what the results will be. No formal rules for participating are ever established. And while I could reiterate our specific and galvanizing preoccupations, the point of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E was not to define its own activity nor to prescribe a singular form of poetry but rather to insist on particular possibilities for poetry and poetics.

I’m also interested in the “may still be” of your answer. How do you see the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E project—or its permutations—projecting into the present? Certainly the locus of such an activity is modified by, on the one hand, a number of these poets now appearing in teaching anthologies and, on the other, the number of “younger” writers entering this “location.”

As names like Language poetry, Language writing, language-centered writing, or language-oriented writing become fixed in time, they lose generic and projective force. About ten years ago, I remember reading a call for submissions of “language” poetry for a new magazine that said “you may be a language poet and not know it!” That seemed right to me: the terms were sufficiently underdetermined that there was room for projection. In contrast, when the New York Times Magazine ran a big poetry feature last spring that purported to map contemporary poetry, they carefully excluded from their list of “Language Poets” every one of the many participants in L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E—a nasty business unfortunately characteristic of the sort of cultural disinformation practiced at places like the Times.

Still, one test of an art’s vitality is that it manages to unsettle, and it seems like this work continues to do that, and I for one am happy to embrace the description of my work as ungainly solipsistic incoherence that has no meaning. No meaning at all.

Which is to say, projection has its consequences, and one of them is that the recognition (positive or negative) accorded even a projection tends to split off, objectify, and atomize the “project,” both stylistically and generationally. Then again, there’s no need to get glued to a bill of particulars circa 1978 or 1988 when you can just as easily remain attentive to shifting conditions and contexts, new names and new work. But when this happens, and this is why it’s appealing, the “location” you mention in your question changes: just that it’s my desire to participate in the emerging locations, to reground myself. So my current identification is not with work that takes the same positions as L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E but with work that pursues these and related issues. I find extraordinary company just now in so many magazines and books that I can hardly begin to keep up. For example, the Poetics e-mail discussion group and the Electronic Poetry Center, with which we are both involved, seem to me to be continuing the work of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, Segue Distributing, and the like; just as the poetry publishing of Sun & Moon Press, Roof Books, and the Ear Inn reading series, for example, continue to flourish, partly because they have welcomed new writers.

And of my companions of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E days, I find it less remarkable than it probably is how contemporary, how crucial, our exchanges remain—not all, of course, but many and profoundly—after twenty years. And yet I am leery of how loyalty to old friends can form a closed circle, and I have tried, no doubt clumsily, fitfully, inadequately, to resist the temptation.


  1. See “Imagining the Other: 1,” in The Writer in the Jewish Community: An Israeli-North American Dialogue, ed. Richard Siegel and Tamar Sofer (Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press; London: Associated University Presses, 1993), 122.

Kevin McGuirk (essay date 1997)

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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 recent long essay that Bernstein’s name typically functions as a metonym for “Language poetry,” the mention of which occasions “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” (1995, 35). Lazer aims to examine Bernstein’s latest book of poetry on its own terms, not as a symptom. But the first problem, what makes Bernstein a potent trope for Language poetry, is the interesting one, not because it leads to discussions of the poetry scene, but because it leads to considerations of the nature of poetry and the poetic, the renovation of which may be Language poetry’s main contribution to cultural knowledge.

Language poetry, or sometimes “Language writing,” is the name for work by a loose grouping of mostly American writers (and friends) which emerged in the seventies on the east and west coasts, where they published poetry as well as theory in little magazines and small presses. It was based, negatively, on a rejection of the dominant voice model for poetry—that is, the expressive lyric organized around an individual and putatively authentic self—and related paradigms of authentic experience and unitary knowledge. Positively, it located itself in writing, the meaning-generating structures of language which are exemplified best in poetry, since poetry is the mode that above all displays its own materiality. Bernstein explains the position this way: “All writing is a demonstration of method; it can assume a method or investigate it” (1986, 226). Language poetry differentiates itself by investigating method aggressively, assaulting not just normal poetry but all normal discourse; other poetry, the stuff coming out of what Bernstein refers to as “official verse culture,” merely assumes a method.

Some of the theorizing was based on a critique of the sign as commodity under capitalism. According to this critique, the sign supposes transparency, and offers direct access to the “goods” of meaning, disguising its material existence as sound, mark, and historically delimited signifier. Poetry, Ron Silliman (1995, 61) suggests, might be “a model for unalienated worker,” fully engaged with the production of meaning in language all the way along. The project had significant affinities with poststructuralist theories associated with the academy, even though it’s only in the last half-a-dozen years that some of its best known practitioners have taken university positions or published with university presses (Bernstein’s A Poetics was published by Harvard in 1992; Bob Perelman’s The Marginalization of Poetry with Princeton in 1996).

Bernstein’s role has been, like others, but recently more than others, not just that of a poet (i.e. someone who writes poems) but as a cultural worker. It is because of his cultural work that his is the name most closely associated with Language poetry in the academy. Since 1990, he has headed the Poetics Program at State University of New York (SUNY-Buffalo), established the POETICS e-mail discussion group, and published criticism at an astonishing pace in both alternative and now mainstream journals—not to mention the twenty books of poetry in about twenty years. He is in a sense chief propagandist for Language poetry’s version of poetry. He is “a name.” One place he has a name is Canada.


I recently read this statement in a proposal for a master’s thesis on African-Canadian poetries: “The Canadian signifier struggles to align itself with its signified” (Young, forthcoming). Canada’s ongoing identity crisis is a crisis of representation. Our larger neighbours to the south appear to plumb a greater historical depth in their representations because they have a sustaining myth; and with a tradition of melting immigrants into one pot, they seem to have been able to stage, for a long run, a unified identity. American identity, however, has always been based on a promise as much as, or more than, a reality, ever since Winthrop, somewhere in the Atlantic, envisioned a city upon a hill before he and his Puritan brethren had even sighted this continent. The identity named by the word “America” is exactly tropical; which is to say that “America” is a trope, a turning away from the real thing.

Poets have often made large claims for America at the same time they have made claims for a poetry which must be commensurate with whatever they take “America” to signify. Not that they have had firmer ground or larger constituencies than Canadian poets, I think. As Stephen Fredman has pointed out, American poetry has been in crisis since the beginning, lacking the traditions that give it a place in Europe (1990, 6). And in a nation manically developing industrially and economically, there has been little space upon which to build, or stage, a tradition. That problem, in a sense, has become a tradition; or, as a major preoccupation of American poets, it has sustained an antitradition. But if the American poet has always been a marginal figure, it is this very marginality, and the inconsequentiality of poetry, that have challenged the poet to justify his or her practice in part by making outrageous claims for symbolic centrality. Walt Whitman is exemplary here. If America is a poem, as he says, then poets must be its authors—he himself in the first instance.

Language poets, too, stake out large claims for poetry. As Perelman points out, for Bernstein poetry is the chief theoretical instrument. Like Ralph Waldo Emerson, they absorb contemporary continental philosophy, but mainly to direct it toward the matter of America. Indeed, the thing that may provoke hostile responses to Language writing is this pointed argument for the social efficacy of poetry, effacing its privacy as a practice of the sensitive self. In their desire for a personal lyricism of modest but authentic emotions, most mainstream readers, poets, and critics, see Language writers as self-alienated and alienating thinkers and forget the provocative theoretical gestures of poets like Milton and Shelley, Whitman and Williams, who belong to the verse tradition they revere. Vital poetry (especially in the United States) has always been fed on radical and probably indefensible claims about its necessary relation to “the social body,” the “first fact,” as Bernstein calls it (1991, 11). And since Language poets are the only ones making such claims nowadays, that is where the excitement is, whatever you think about the poems themselves. Reading through their writings reveals them as not abstract intellectuals preoccupied by ideology, but classic American cranks and enthusiasts, Bernstein not least of all.


The idea of rough trades suggested a thematic for Bernstein’s essays, and a rhetoric or poetics for the poems themselves. Bernstein typically works through collage or juxtaposition not of images but of phrases and sentences from wildly disparate discourses. He sometimes resembles John Ashbery in his disjunctiveness, only Bernstein is much more aggressive in his madcap, or “malaprop” humour (Perelman 1996). The poetry is always fun, but while its very difficulty forces engagement it also quickly produces fatigue, like jogging with a runner vastly better trained than oneself. Which is why, I think, his essays are read more generally than then the poetry, at least read for comprehension.

Bernstein’s engagement with the social body beyond the world of culture, (i.e. with the rhetoric of economics I am highlighting here), is reflected in his pertinently impertinent titles: a book of poetry called Controlling Interests (1980); an essay called “The Dollar Value of Poetry” (1984); a book of essays he edited, subtitled Poetry and Public Policy (1990). For Bernstein, poetry participates in the world seared by trade. Poetry as “dirty language” (Rasula 1996, 42), “the noise of culture” (Paulson 1988): rough trades are built into the work of poetry, beginning with the trades between writer and reader. Not to purify the language of the tribe, as certain modernist poets would have it, but to mix it up. Poetry, in these terms, can be defined neither by the self that produces it, nor by the self-contained universe of literature theorized by Northrop Frye. It exists discursively in the present moment, giving and taking from all other discourses that make up the social body. These include economics.

So what distinguishes Bernstein’s economics-cum-poetry from Ezra Pound’s? Pound was a crank and enthusiast of the first order who, we might say, took his economics too literally. In the twenties, Pound (the chief counsel for a modernist version of poetry) took up Social Credit, as if it were an emanation from his own poetics in the economic sphere. Use only the adequate symbol, he advises; words must correspond to things in the world, else usury, a system that values money only in relation to other money, will poison western society.

Wallace Stevens, Pound’s contemporary, usually considered his opposite number poetics-wise, and a very rich man, averred that “money is a kind of poetry,” absorbing money into a poetic (a symbolist, even) economy. What he termed the supreme fiction (poetry) would render the most supreme social fiction of modernity (money) a mere adjunct to poetic process (Stevens 1989). Martin Amis showed, in his novel Money (1985), that money was a potent fiction, degrading and nearly fatal for his every-man narrator John Self, pornographer of the body and spirit. “Martin Amis” appears in the novel as a bookish type reading in the corner of Self’s local pub, faintly contemptible to Self, because he is a writer, but oddly compelling nonetheless, also because he is a writer—that is, the explainer to whom Self turns when his money-driven world comes apart. The fictional Amis, holding forth on fiction, dismisses motivation and character (which I would correlate with the self of mainstream lyric) as irrelevant to the contemporary milieu: it is “shagged out” (1985, 359). Authorial self-reflexivity here (this mixing of fictional and nonfictional codes) aims to neutralize the fetishistic power of the novel with its “pornographic” offer of transparent access to the goods of narrative meaning, which is the kind of smooth trade novel-readers want.

What Bernstein advocates is getting your hands dirty in the inescapable symbolism of the world, in the rough trades, the traffic in language. Not the rather chaste “money is a kind of poetry” but “poetry is a kind of money.” Poetry falls into experience. It is exposed as merely, in Bernstein’s words, “a souvenir of what was once supposed to be prestige goods” (1994, np), that is, a commodity in the nostalgia trade, a counter in the game of capital-C culture. Or—and this is where Language poets come in—poetry becomes a dynamic agent de-forming and re-forming symbolic trade through irony, juxtaposition, inappropriate contextualization, and a pervasive and bracing disrespect for normal discourse. “Poetry,” Bernstein declares, “is aversion to conformity in the pursuit of new forms” (1992, 1).

That sounds a lot like Emerson to me, and Bernstein’s Emersonianism is worth exploring, but I want to get in a few words on the Canada-U.S. topic before I summon the romantic fathers. In his very lengthy essay-in-verse, “Artifice of Absorption” (in A Poetics [1992]), Bernstein shows that he knows that Canada does not want to be absorbed into the United States. Among American poets he has been uniquely willing, actively, to divest himself of the colonialist view of Canada as a cultural and economic hinterland of his own country. We Canadians are either agape or aghast before the paradise of cheap commodities across the border, but he reverses the cross-border traffic by actually buying Canadian—reading Canadian poets as participants in the great multiplicitous project of poetry, visiting or publishing in Canadian sites of critical and creative work, and by pondering our differences. Midway through a statement (in verse) on poetics read at the (Canadian) Kootenay School of Writing in 1985, he states:

in the defense of free enterprise is no vice; violence
in the pursuit of justice is no virgin. This is
what distinguishes American and Canadian verse—a topic
we can ill afford to gloss over at this
crucial juncture in our binational course. I
did not steal the pears.

(1991, 29)

Yet despite the kind acknowledgements, what I am afraid of is that these references are merely tokens for the poet’s Canadian colleagues. The highly absorptive “I-contain-multitudes” Whitman (who himself in buying Canadian absorbed Dr Bucke into his own persona and, like others, daydreamed Canada as part of the American union) similarly made his visitations to Canadian disciples (and not just in his body, apparently). Anyway, it is difficult to read these lines with any confidence: those allusions to free enterprise and violence in the same sentence will make Canadian readers think of the United States. But Bernstein actually denies viciousness in free enterprise while intimating that a Canadian emphasis on justice instead of freedom is “no virgin.” We’re bad sometimes but you’re bad too. Finally, all these serious lines are undercut, and exposition arrested, by the deadpan statement: “I / did not steal the pears.”

What is noteworthy in Bernstein to me, a Canadian, is not his Canadian connections, but his persistent Americanness. “State of the Art,” the first essay in his A Poetics (1992), and thus Language poetry’s letter to the world—celebrates the turbulent counterstate of poetry.1 Poetry is Bernstein’s city upon a hill and “State of the Art” is his “I hear America singing.” Bernstein is more critical, better informed theoretically than Whitman was—he is versed in poststructuralist theory. He is also in the know about multiculturalism, though he criticizes new curricula that offer only “a packaged tour of the local color of race, gender” etc. (1992, 4). Bernstein stresses rather the difficulty of listening: “the trades are rough” (1991, 7). For Whitman, it did not appear to matter whether all those single separate persons heard each other, they were caught up in the en-masse, the oversong, of America,—and Whitman catches them all up in his own sufficient listening.


This is Emerson: “The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion” (1994, 1544). This is Bernstein through Emerson: “The virtue in most request is conformity. Poetry is its aversion in the pursuit of new forms” (1992, 1). Rather than con-forming with the status quo, de-forming and re-forming its materials. Linda Reinfeld (1992) argues that Bernstein employs irony and disjunction as weapons against romantic writing—but that means romantic as Jerome McGann (1982) conceives it: writing that tends to be absorbed in (that is, unconscious of) its own means of self-representation. I don’t recognize that romantic Emerson, especially when I read him through Bernstein. Emerson’s doctrine of the sovereign self is finally about Will, or “Whim” (1994, 1544), which is an artifice, however much he appears to argue from nature. He is motivated, moreover, like Bernstein, by exasperation with the prevailing norms of (poetic) behaviour. And like Emerson, Bernstein combines romantic energy with antiromantic artifice.

Bernstein would choose, he says, given a call for “a large common profile,”

the social project of writers committed to a transformation of society at a large-scale social level, of which writing can be an important arena in terms of its investigation of the nature of meaning, how objects are constituted by social values encoded in language, how reading and writing can partake of non-instrumental values and thus be utopian formulations.

(1986, 386)

Perelman observes, however, that although Bernstein views “writing [as] an engine of social change,” he can only “envision individual enclaves of textual freedom standing in for politics” (1996, 95). This is Emerson with text rather than self as ground: textual self-reliance, impetuous refusals of normative textuality. Account for yourselves as self-reliant poets, and the counterstate of poetry, unaccountably, may emerge. Utopia is nowhere, and in formulating away from what is to what is not, poetry becomes a negative economy (the phrase is Bernstein’s).2 “Language” poetry, then, might be said to be in the antibusiness of rescuing readers (the active verb is Reinfeld’s)—that is, citizens—from empty contemplation of the art-object as well as passive consumption of commodity-language within or without poetry. Language poetry, I suggested at the outset, has advanced cultural knowledge by refitting the notion of the poetic, but what might be even more significant is its invitation not to interpretation (which it resists), but to the practice of language. Not simply reading but writing along—or what Jed Rasula writes as “wreading” (1982, 191).


  1. The phrase is Perelman’s: “poetry as counter-state” (1996, 81).

  2. “A piece of paper with nothing on it has a definite economic value,” he notes following James Sherry. But “if you print a poem on it, this value is lost.” Here, he says, is “an economy of loss rather than accumulation” (1994, np).

Works Cited

Amis, Martin. 1985. Money. London: Penguin.

Bernstein, Charles. 1980. Controlling Interests. New York: Roof Books.

———. 1984. “The Dollar Value of Poetry.” In The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book. Edited by Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.

———. 1986. Content’s Dream: Essays 1975–1984. Los Angeles: Sun & Moon.

———, ed. 1990. The Politics of Poetic Form: Poetry and Public Policy. New York: Roof Books.

———. 1991. Rough Trades. Los Angeles: Sun & Moon.

———. 1992. A Poetics. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

———. 1994. “Provisional Institutions: Alternative Presses and Poetic Innovation.” Essay posted on the e-mail list: POETICS

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. 1994. “Self-Reliance.” In Heath Anthology of American Literature, Volume 1. 2nd ed, edited by Paul Lauter et al. Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath.

Fredman, Stephen. 1990. Poet’s Prose: The Crisis in American Verse. 2nd ed. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Lazer, Hank. 1995. “Charles Bernstein’s Dark City: Polis, Policy, and the Policing of Poetry.” American Poetry Review 24 (5): 35–44.

McGann, Jerome. 1982. The Romantic Ideology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Paulson, William. 1988. The Noise of Culture. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Perelman, Bob. 1996. The Marginalization of Poetry: Language Writing and Literary History. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Rasula, Jed. 1982. “The Compost Library,” Sagetrieb 1.

———. 1996. The American Poetry Wax Museum: Reality Effects 1940–1990. Urbana, IL: NCTE.

Reinfeld, Linda. 1992. Language Poetry: Writing as Rescue. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.

Silliman, Ron. 1995. The New Sentence. New York: Roof Books.

Stevens, Wallace. 1989. “Adagia.” In Opus Posthumous. New edition. New York: Knopf.

Young, Melanie. Ongoing. “Object of Rage.” MA thesis. University of Waterloo.

Leslie Scalapino (essay date 1998)

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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 being alike everything is naturally simply different, and romanticism.


Romanticism is not a confusion but an extrication. Culture is a transformative composite separate from individuals. The quality in the creation of expression in the composition has to do with the unique entity, being in balance and moving as it ceases to be identical with itself. This has to do with apprehending what occurs now—with it being always now, which constitutes being in a state of turmoil:

There must be time that is distributed and equilibrated. This is the thing that is at present the most troubling and if there is the time that is at present the most troublesome the time-sense that is at present the most troubling is the thing that makes the present the most troubling.


The present is the loci (i.e., multiple) of change. The travel book as a genre is a stylized mode having its own laws and pattern, which is realistic with present-time events and people: Hemingway, in Green Hills of Africa, creates a new form while using the travel book format describing an actual hunting expedition that lasted for a month.2 It is not fiction; there is no beginning, middle, or end as such. There are potentially an infinite number of animals and events as the condition of writing.

Therefore his pattern is a list of places, objects, animals, and actions. Reading is somehow the means of their actual occurrence.

Style is cultural abstraction—i.e., that period—how relationships with people take place (how they’re seen) in a period. They become visible by being simplified—by indicating this is occurring—as the canned scenario.

The narrator does not write while hunting, only reads. Therefore action is “doing something you are ignorant about.” So killing is everything being the same and therefore different, the trigger of the gun being “like the last turn of the key opening a sardine can.” A unique connection is the vulcanized rubber faintly transparent looking (as if miming) rhino discovered in death. As the relation between life and writing:

The rhino was in high grass, somewhere in there behind some bushes. As we went forward we heard a deep, moaning sort of groan. Droopy looked around at me and grinned. The noise came again, ending this time like a blood-choked sigh. Droopy was laughing. “Faro,” he whispered and put his hand palm open on the side of his head in the gesture that means to go to sleep. Then in a jerky-flighted, sharp-beaked little flock we saw the tick birds rise and fly away. We knew where he was and, as we went slowly forward, parting the high grass, we saw him. He was on his side, dead.


In Green Hills of Africa, the pattern of experience and the account (expressed as being the mode of “genre”) are not parallel, which makes this text similar to the dissimulation and simulacra of artists of the postmodern period. …

Charles Bernstein’s The Sophist presents a multiplicity and potentially endless proliferation of voices and characters.3 In terms of the use of genre: the poem “Fear and Trespass” is an example of being entirely inside some other voice. The details of the circumstance of the couple in this piece are never given; but the circumstance is conveyed in a deliberately bathetic language of Harlequin romance or soap opera. Bathos and turgid vocabulary are as valid as any other information. There is no introspective or conscious voice that would have a different or outside perspective; in that sense the form of the writing goes beyond or outside the confines of the convention of a “poem” and is someone else’s “book.” The piece is language as a jostling whipped-up surface—its motion is entirely in that, in terms of it being the whipped-up singular perspective. So it is not simply satire.

Other examples of the use of “genre”—which are therefore unlike the model: “The Only Utopia Is in a Now” uses a voice or perspective reminiscent of eighteenth-century genre describing people’s attitudes and behavior and criticizing their manners and morals. The authorial voice criticizes the inhabitants of this imaginary utopia by assimilating their constructs of emotion and antiemotion:

You see, emotion doesn’t express itself only in words we already know. But people here who talk about emotion don’t really want to experience it. They only want simulations of it in patterns of words they’ve already heard.

Other examples of “genre” are ostensible imitation of some other writer, as in “From Lines of Swinburne,” in which the poem speaks of itself as a voice—maintaining that singular perspective—as aping itself, being a play on itself. The writing is different from either the old model or the present conception of a poem.

Poems may in The Sophist actually be plays, as in the piece titled “Entitlement,” in which named characters speaking to each other—things being like something else—simply make statements of those resemblances, rather than having dramatic situations or action. The statements of resemblances are an aping of actions.

In “The Last Puritan,” a hypothetical character is projected as “anything merely seen or heard.” A single poem or prose piece may have multiple voices or perspectives. The voice in a piece may seem to be the author’s, or there may be a variety of characters, or simply voices interweaving ideology, information, commentary on the writing, or contradiction of previously declared opinions or assertions. The text uses words that aren’t real or are hybrids or deliberately misspelled; its language also consists of blank spaces, slang, nonsense sounds, capitalization of parts of words; the text introduces as one character a Mr. Bernstein who turns out not to be the author; it introduces someone else’s book, The Odyssey, misquoting it. Word and object are expressions or formal projections of each other.

Bernstein comments in reference to the proliferation of perspectives or detail: “There is never annul / ment, only abridgement.” Nothing is left out of the writing; so it goes past the confines of a “book.” Distortion of the individual unit by the whole is part of the writing’s acknowledged mode; comparable to Peter Schjeldahl’s notion, in his introduction to Sherman’s work, of “Presence” as emerging in the costume dramas with the photographer finally being there as only herself the actress.

The order of The Sophist is carefully composed to create “a single but layered structure.” The book does not have a beginning, middle, and end as would occur in the unfolding of a drama or story. As in the play “Entitlement,” which consists of statements of resemblances, there is no progression of development of a plot. The poem, “the order of a room,” is a series of statements or types of order:

a geometric order
a cosmetic order
a temporal order
public order

Some of the ways of seeing the structure or order of the “book” are “hypostatization of space, the relations detemporalized,” “idea of explaining the visible world by postulated invisible world,” distance, arrangement of letters on the page, blanks that could be filled in thereby changing the order, abbreviations, and so forth. In terms of a geometric model, the notion is of the “book” being detemporalized and spatial.

Aping doing imitations (as in the Swinburne poem) is an example of incorporating a sense of relativity in terms of time.

The book is the “single but layered structure”—the notion of “a body that seemed genuinely music”—given more as the idea of music than the actual formal rendition and sound of that music. In other words, the latter occurs as the abstract configuration of the idea.

Similar to aspects of Stein’s view of composition or Hemingway’s cultural abstraction in Hills, yet seeing experience differently from them (for example, all times operating at the same time, a different sort of cultural analysis), Bernstein’s work projects a symphonic structure that would reflect multiple changes occurring in the present instant. Such a projected work need not be seen as a dissipated version of modernism nor as leading to confusion but rather as actively engaging reality as Maya. …


  1. Gertrude Stein, “Composition as Explanation,” in Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein (New York: Random House, 1962), 516.

  2. Ernest Hemingway, Green Hills of Africa (New York: Scribner’s, 1935).

  3. Charles Bernstein, The Sophist (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1987).

Charles Altieri (essay date 1999)

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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 characterize the strengths and limitations of this new writing?

As a precondition for undertaking such tasks, however, we have to qualify the claims just made about the contemporary status of objectivist writing. While objectivist styles per se are no longer generative, there are, I think, substantial continuities linking objectivist poetics to the theories inspiring some of the most highly regarded recent efforts to develop alternative poetic modes. Therefore, emboldened by the license afforded by the genre of the afterword, I will try to sketch briefly the case for considering the three objectivist styles I deal with as constituting one of the two basic imaginative frameworks out of which experimental contemporary writing has emerged—the other being the New York school. Rather than ask how contemporaries repeat objectivist strategies, I will try to show how the original practices have inspired different but parallel alternatives to the indulgent lyricism that remains the common enemy. This project should help us appreciate the values driving these more radical experiments, and it can establish contrasts with those experiments helping us to speculate on alternative paths and so to locate pressures within or limitations of the roads that were taken since the seventies. And that should help us appreciate some of the basic challenges now facing younger writers as they wonder how to transform the prevailing transformations.

The dominant contemporary transformations of Objectivism can be mapped in quite broad strokes. Objectivist ideals of sincerity still drive work extending from Creeley and Duncan to Lyn Hejinian, Leslie Scalapino, and Nathaniel Mackey, while the Objectivist insistence on the poem as material object, most influentially summarized in Olson’s claims about the intelligence manifest in the vitality of the poem’s play among syllables, carries over into the ways Language writers like Charles Bernstein, Bruce Andrews, and Ron Silliman foreground the centrality of the medium. But the large picture is not very helpful unless we develop a more finely grained analysis of just how each of these objectivist principles takes new form. …

Charles Bernstein’s “Poem” presents a very different tone. Here the poet’s genius consists in the ways it deflects the urgencies driving Hejinian’s version of sincerity, while in the process guiding us to reexamine what is embodied in the spaces that poetic attention composes. I cite the opening and closing lines:

here. Forget.
There are simply tones
cloudy, breezy
birds & so on.
Sit down with it.
It’s time now.
There is no more natural sight.
Anyway transform everything
silence, trees
commitment, hope
a bulk of person
“ascending,” “embodied”.

(Shade 3, 5)

I love this opening. The initial “here” invokes all the immediacy staged by the romantic lyric and recast in the Objectivist’s stress on sincerity as a condition of writing. But all that actually flows from the uncapitalized “here” is an enigmatic imperative to forget. Where we might have expected some urgent state of attention to emerge, we get only the sly presence of a composing intelligence insisting on its right to replace the evocation of presence with imperatives organized from within the writing. Is this “forget” telling us what writers need from their audience as the precondition for their remaking the world, or does it remind readers of what they are in fact seeking when they try to identify with the “here” that the poem seductively holds out to them?

This dense opening line suffices to indicate to an audience that it has operate here primarily in terms of a second-order self-consciousness concerned less with what words refer to than with the social and psychological functions they perform. Then we realize that the poem expands simply as a repository of elements and worries that go into the writing of poems, now all a part of some kind of meta-poem. But this meta-poem is not Mallarmé’s comprehensive Book. Rather, it is an ironically self-emptying site, with each element partially deprived of any direct emotional reference by the virtual quotation marks (or citationality) that writing as reprocessed language cannot avoid. Yet as poetry is ironized, its “here” begins to take on a new strangeness as the one place where we can enjoy hearing those quotation marks and trying out the combinatorial possibilities that emerge when expressions lose the urgency of that other “here” where choices are constrained by circumstance. As the poem puts it, “The distance positively entrances,” even when that “positively” makes us wonder if we do better to treat “entrances” as a verb made from a noun which makes the positive simply a matter of what can enter the poem.

Bernstein’s way of materializing language by dematerializing its referents takes us a long way from Objectivist ideals of the material substance that art becomes. But the genealogy is not hard to locate—first in the general sense of having the poem stress the materiality of its building blocks, as in Oppen, and second in the disjunctive efforts to enhance the internal properties of language that one finds in Zukofsky. Indeed, one can almost hear late Zukofsky in the air that circulates through the disjunctive elements and in the strange sense of substance that stems from our learning to replace the order of reference by attention to qualities directly exhibited by the expressions. But what matters in those material qualities is very different in Bernstein.

Where Zukofsky stresses musicality, Bernstein stresses rhetoricity. For Bernstein these isolated phrases do not so much echo in any one harmonic register as lead out to the voices that might speak them and the ideologies that govern the practices where such speech has material effects. So with Bernstein what for Zukofsky had been a poetics devoted to meditative composure instantly becomes one forcing us to recognize the degree to which even our lyrical projections are caught up in the ideological structures betrayed by what we cannot quite forget in what we hear. Perhaps working with quotation marks provides a richer means of engaging the real than the modes of assertion relied upon by traditional lyrics, since in Bernstein we directly engage the social rather than attempting to forget it. And maybe poetry now is more useful if it no longer tries to purify the language of the tribe but teaches us to hear the various tribes whose values the demotic language simultaneously expresses and exposes.

Bernstein offers a more eloquent and precise summary of the values at stake here than I can. For him composition is no longer a matter of Olson’s “breath” but of how the poet makes “the structures of meaning in language more tangible and in that way allowing for the maximum resonance of the medium” (Content’s Dream 35).1 What for Hejinian is a density of information becomes for Bernstein a plenitude of combinatorial possibilities no longer anchored in anything so situated as a person’s breathing:

By rotating sentences within a paragraph (a process analogous to jump cutting in film) according to principles generated by and unfolding in the work (rather than in accordance with representational construction patterns) a perceptual vividness is intensified for each sentence since the abruptness of the cuts induces a greater desire to savor the tangibility of each sentence. … The text operates at a level that not only provokes projections by each sentence but by the sequencing of the sentences suggests lines or paths for them to proceed along. At the same time, circumspection about the nature and meaning of the projections is called forth. The result is both a self-reflexiveness and an intensification of the items/conventions of the social world projected/suggested/provoked. A similar process can also take place within sentences and phrases and not only intersententially. Syntactic patterns are composed which allow for this combination of projection and reflection in the movement from word to word.

(Content’s Dream 36–37)

Clearly the transformations worked by poets like Hejinian and Bernstein give objectivist principles new theaters—at one pole by providing a fuller phenomenology of consciousness engaging itself simultaneously as subject and as object; at the other pole by linking objectivist materiality to a self-reflexiveness that Bernstein calls an “intensification of the items/conventions of the social world projected/suggested/provoked” by literary composition. But no advance is without its price, and hence without its internal gaps, tensions, and sense of limitations that provoke constant need for self-modification. By attending to the roles Objectivism played in providing ideals that proved fundamental to this new writing, I think we can be fairly precise in locating some of the more central gaps, tensions, and limitations that younger writers are likely to explore as they work to transform what is now their heritage of experimental possibilities.

An objectivist critique of this heritage would focus on statements like Hejinian’s locating the demands on poetry in an “enormous vertical and horizontal pressure of information, potent with ambiguity, meaning-full, unfixed and certainly incomplete.” For it is difficult to understand how any structure of information per se can on its own provide a sufficient basis for showing how poetry seeks out cultural pressures in order to demonstrate what powers it affords a given cultural moment. Conversely, the same line of critical thinking would find Bernstein’s poetics even more disturbing because his resistance to representation of all kinds makes the question of pressure become very difficult even to formulate. Bernstein’s emphasis is entirely on the writer’s compositional freedom to elaborate “syntactic patterns … which allow for this combination of projection and reflection in the movement from word to word.” This emphasis, I hasten to add, is sufficient to make him deeply concerned with how writing reaches out toward the world without succumbing to the scenic mode that representational ambitions now find it very difficult to avoid. And his work intricately develops a range of voices and ideological crossing reminding us how much of our values are reflected in our language uses. But Bernstein’s poetics does not foreground the situation from which the experiments derive; nor does it dramatically stage poetry as an interpretation of specific situations or even of ways of interpreting situations. Where Hejinian constantly risks collapsing the agent and world into the immediacies of a mind attempting to negotiate the flow of information, Bernstein expands the composing agency to the point that there is very little room for working out how that agency might be tested by the world.

Probably the easiest way to measure what seems missing in Hejinian’s version of pressure (and Bernstein’s non-version) is to make comparisons with Wallace Stevens’s vision of poetry establishing a counter-pressure to the pressure of reality. But for my purposes it is better to insist on the limitations of Stevens’s position because these highlight what is distinctive about the Objectivist versions of lyric agency. Hence the contrast may help indicate what contemporary writing may be able to learn from that Objectivist work. Objectivist poets have to reject Stevens’s schema as too abstract: his sense of pressure remains philosophical and therefore invites interpretations of the world rather than acts within it. Objectivism can preserve Stevens’s overall model of poetry as counter-pressure, but only by adding a demand that this pressure manifests itself within the concrete situations that specific poems project as underlying the work of poetic composition. Only then will aesthetic choice be inseparable from existential choice, and poetry literally take on immediate ethical force.

For example, even though Oppen’s “Eclogue” is quite abstract in its contrasts, the poem sets a clear emotional problem to which the writing must pose a partial answer—not as an interpretation or smug resolution, but as the testing of how an evocation of the small ones outside might provide a means of adjusting to the sense of emptiness produced by version of talk with which the poem begins. The sense of agency produced is by no means a conventional one, since we have to be able to imagine ourselves dwelling in an imaginative space where “flesh and rock and hunger” occupy the same plane, and where being born is inseparable from a stark sense of self as learning to bear its alienation. However Oppen’s innovations remain grounded in projected situations that provide both test and reward for the powers of concentration and precise reserve that the poetry elaborates. Without its strong sense of the demands on it, Objectivist poetry’s resistance to the lyric ego would not be nearly as compelling or as convincing as it often is.

I cannot argue that all poetry has to have the foregrounding of composing agency which Objectivism so richly separates from self-reflexive egocentricity. One cannot dismiss the forms of intensity and intelligence that poets like Hejinian and Bernstein produce. And one cannot ignore the ways that modern writing has taken on itself the challenge to decompose and reconfigure our conventional views of subjective agency. Yet it is important that we at least notice some of the consequences of what for contemporary experimental poetry has become a road less taken, if only because such noticing helps appreciate just how humanly rich the earlier Objectivist work is.

The most important concrete contrast between Objectivist poetry and the new poetries consists in the ways that writerly agency is handled. Objectivism insists on clear connections between the effort to establish a style and the exemplifying of existential commitments to pursue lives self-reflexively worth living. “Sincerity” combines an effort at clarity and measure inseparable from ethical ideals that entail standing by one’s words and submitting that life to assessments of how well this taking of responsibility keeps social relations in dynamic balance. Because objectivist poetics resists the distance involved in traditional allegorical versions of interpretation, it forces writing to take on ethical obligations that cannot be satisfied by noble pronouncements offering opinions about the good. It wants nobility earned by the measures poetry composes.

This model of responsibility then generates two basic concrete differences from the values central to Hejinian and Bernstein—in how readers are engaged and in how poetry can establish possible political projections. Almost all contemporary experimental writing has insisted on its commitment to a poetics of participation that transforms the reader from passive witness to an authorial performance into an active co-creator of whatever meanings the texts can be said to possess. I find this view objectionable on many counts—not the least being the psychology of agency that underlies equating active readerly participation with generating individual readerly meanings. But here I want simply to point to how attributing this participation to readers follows necessarily from the ways that these poets envision the structures of demand from the world that poetry must engage. If the demand is to appreciate the density of emotional fields as the poem creates a texture of differentiations, or if it is to hear the range of embeddings that language carries, then there is no specific pressure on what we might call the quasi-ethical dimension of the authorial performance. Composing intelligence need not establish provisional exemplars for imaginative emotional economies, and texts are not quite tests of how certain attitudes might provide measures within typical situations. Correspondingly, readers need neither try identifications with the agency dramatized nor make demands that the performance afford terms by which we might explore the values and limitations of such identifications. The co-creative, participatory reader posited by Language writing may pay for that freedom by surrendering the opportunity to try out different selves and to explore specific emotional configurations that insist we surrender our petty individualisms, as well as our perhaps equally petty postmodern absolutizing of sheer mobility as our basic orientation toward the world.

Bernstein or Hejinian might reply that I am purchasing a sense of the dramatic force of poetry by pushing it back into representational straitjackets. And I would have to admit that I certainly risk that. But the danger can be substantially modified if we distinguish among ways of bringing representational content to bear, or, better, among ways of being representative. At one pole there is conventional realism, definable by a demand structure calling for specific representational illusions that become representative by providing types; at the other pole there are various modernist experiments emphasizing the capacity of texts to foreground authorial actions by projecting their possible exemplary roles in the world. Objectivist writing managed to use the second orientation to justify a radical version of the first, wherein representation is not a matter of types but of quite specific denotations. For the emphasis remains on how the particular authorial performance finds a language capable of measure that does not impose the lyrical ego, and how that language can establish a means of taking responsibility for one’s own political commitments.

There is no compelling reason that a contemporary poetry so directly take on specific political concerns. But Bernstein’s, Andrews’s, and Silliman’s early theorizing made the capacity to engage politics a basic virtue of their poetics. Their concentration on language as medium seemed to afford fresh access to the political, since they were not bound to the constant process of just setting one set of ideological slogans against others. And, more important, they would no longer suffer from the contradictory position in which the most radical political poetry tended to be formally the most conservative, so that any change in ideas would still depend on overall models of person and language that simply repeated at our most fundamental levels of self-understanding the very notions that sustained the now dominant social powers. For the Language writers, change would only come if we could shift our focus from the content of political stances to the specific relations of signification shaping our very ideas of content. Language writing could be political because it disrupted the syntactic forms by which hegemony is maintained. Such work would lead us to recognize the ideological structures inherent in the languages we use in our practical lives; and it would exemplify modes of release and of pleasure that might emerge if we invested our imaginative lives in working against that hegemony.

These are not insignificant ideals. But, as I have argued elsewhere, it is questionable whether they deserve to be called political, since they do not directly affect any of the agendas we pursue in public life or the specific commitments we make to actual political communities.2 There is, in other words, no concrete demand for specific responsibilities or for bearing witness to concrete political values. My argument need not be taken as a call for a renewed socialist poetry, although that might not be a bad thing. I simply want to recall the powerful sense of witness in Reznikoff, in Oppen, and, somewhat differently, in Niedecker. If we compare these writerly attitudes to the politics of action writing, we have to be struck by how vague these contemporary stances have to be because the need they respond to is so pervasive and unfocused. The contemporaries want to base politics on resistance to the entire structure of representation. But politics may be a practice that only makes sense within some form of representation, some form of showing how positive claims might be both warranted and representative. Poetry may matter most for and as politics when it takes on the task of working out specific equations between responsiveness and responsibility as the ultimate measure of art. …


  1. Let me also use this note to comment on differences between the Objectivist notion of material form and the formal site composed by Bernstein’s way of giving tangibility to the projective force of sentences proceeding along different paths. Bernstein’s theorizing does return to contemporary writing a sense of the relation between citation and siting basic to modernism. By making the poem abstract, one can also offer new ways of its taking on a material force in terms of how its elemental properties relate to each other, so that we can appreciate poems as distinctive kinds of objects or even ontological sites with their own independent imaginative physicality. Bernstein’s version of synthetic composition, in fact, may take on its fullest resonance if we link its treatment of folds and textures to the ways that synthetic cubism defined a complex interface between the precision of attention and the dense otherness of what would become surreal speculative space. But from the point of view of Objectivist poetics, Bernstein’s spaces may be too verbal, too exclusively a matter of layering textual properties, without sufficient attention to the kinds of push-and-pull tensions that a more referential language might evoke. Compare the layering folds of Bernstein’s “Poem” to the work done by the two structural patterns we observed in Oppen’s “Eclogue.” Oppen’s materiality is not simply a matter of folds but also of concrete forces held in considerable dynamic tension—in my view more like Picasso’s and Braque’s analytic work from 1909 to 1911 than like synthetic cubism. So if we were now to heed examples like Oppen’s, poets might explore more elemental conflicting structures as ways of extending not only the play of intellect but its very phenomenological status as it takes on material forms.

  2. I have discussed these problems in the political claims of Language writing at greater length in my essay “Without Consequences Is No Politics” in von Hallberg, Politics and Poetic Value. This volume also has interesting responses to my argument by Jerome McGann and Jed Rasula.

Keith Tuma (review date January 1999)

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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 identify the essence of this medium and activity now ubiquitously present in and beyond academic culture, if rarely discussed.

The poetry reading, in its purest form, is of course “live.” Liveness, as performance theorist Philip Auslander reminds us, assumes its value and meaning today against the possibility and existence of the recorded or re-presented—it makes no sense to speak of Greek theater as “live”—which would seem to suggest that, real oasis or only mirage, the desert remains in view at the poetry reading. This is one reason that discourse concerning poetry readings cannot elude politicized and moralized referents, even that deadly self-satisfaction and lilting uplift one fears most at the poetry reading itself.1 Bernstein’s poetry reading as oasis does not avoid such referents, distantly echoing critiques of mass culture from the past, though it is possible that what poetry readings need most is a discourse of unabashed pleasure, a defense of the activity as exactly entertaining. Bernstein cedes a lot of ground when he writes that readings are not required or able to compete “with music in terms of its acoustic complexity or rhythmic force, or with theatre in terms of spectacle” (11). The poetry reading looks for its successes elsewhere. What the performance of poetry has especially to offer, he argues, is intimacy, by which he means not the intimacy of a person confessing or speaking as person but the intimacy of aurality as it binds performer and audience, the intimacy of a non-theatrical “sounding of the writing.” Not wanting to limit aurality in what some have called the era of “secondary orality,” he writes that “Aurality precedes orality, just as language precedes speech. Aurality is connected to the body—what the mouth and tongue and vocal chords enact—not the presence of the poet. … The poetry reading enacts the poem not the poet” (13: author’s emphasis).2

His is, Bernstein admits, a formalist approach to the poetry reading, though he will acknowledge that the study of the social and institutional function of the poetry reading might also be expanded. His term “anti-expressivist” means to identify a specific mode of reading and performance that goes to the essence of the medium; Bernstein knows that other modes have been employed and continue to exist. As someone who once rang a tiny bell between sections of a long poem he performed for an audience consisting primarily of other “experimental” poets, he surely knows of (and is capable of satirizing) varieties of theatricality beyond the rotund vocal posturing which we associate with actors reading poems or the vocal gymnastics of Dylan Thomas. But because the essays he has collected hope not only to contribute to the study of a neglected subject, poetry in and as performance, but also to “fundamentally transform” (4) our thinking about the sounding of poetry and “the contribution of sound to meaning” (5), his emphasis on the acoustic intimacies of the poetry reading seems appropriate.

Among the best essays in the volume are those offering critical frames allowing us to think once again, as we haven’t thought for some time now in the wake of Jacques Derrida and others, about “sound as material, where sound is neither arbitrary nor secondary but constitutive” (4). Nudging the New Critics aside, but perhaps also remembering their attention to poetry, Bernstein’s “close listening” invites discussion of matters such as the cognitive differences distinguishing speech and sound perception (Bernstein on Reuven Tsur); the distinction between listening and hearing (Jed Rasula); the legacies and limits of Roman Jakobson’s and others’ sound symbolism (Bernstein: Peter Middleton); the social and political possibilities and consequences of “noise” and the “emancipation of sound” (74) from pedestrian functionality (Bruce Andrews); the history of avant-gardists reading the “sheer physicality” (21) of poetry’s voiced or technologically-assisted auralities and their extrasemantic, alogical force from within discourses as various as Hugo Ball’s mysticism and Georges Bataille’s “general economy” (Steve McCaffery). Close listening will also teach us, Bernstein writes, the limits of most prosodic systems, which involve their reliance on “context-independent ratios” unresponsive to “the intervallic irruption of acoustic elements not recuperable by monologic analysis” (13). The most extensive discussions of prosody in this book are Jed Rasula’s and Marjorie Perloff’s: the latter also takes the visual field of the book-page into account together with technologies of font and print. Such matters are more extensively and exclusively Johanna Drucker’s subject in an essay called “Visual Performance of the Printed Text,” which is generous in its sampling of avant-garde texts from Filippo Marinetti to Ana Hatherly.

The idea of a “theater” or “performance” of and on the page is one of those analogical extensions of “performance,” like Judith Butler’s use of the word with reference to identity, that Peter Middleton mentions elsewhere, just a little worried about the myriad ways in which the term is recently finding use. One position, evident in some of the essays here and certainly in the decision to include studies of a visual and book-bound poetry, would argue that it is simply impossible for any writer, no matter how monkish, to avoid issues of performance, as every edit and re-edit, every testing of the conventions and frames for presenting even bald text finds language “performing.” Attention to the extralexical and extrasemantic aspects of writing and text as well as to the “incidentals of orality (pauses, tonal inflections to pARTs of words, stutters, tongue clicks, erms and ums, sputters and so forth)”3 does distinguish an avant-garde tradition—the “mainstream” position more typically being that sound should be corralled for the purposes of expression, for emphasis and the underscoring of meaning. The page no less than the sounded word must negotiate what can be an ideologically tense and mobile line between focus and distraction, between what Auslander calls the “matrixed” and “nonmatrixed” and what Bernstein, following Erving Goffman’s frame analysis, writes of as “cued frame” and “disattend track” (5).

Perhaps the dominant framework in the academy for understanding what I will call in reductive shorthand the force of sound in poetry is still Julia Kristeva’s post-Lacanian one, here resoundingly rejected for the developmental narrative encoded in its terms; her “presymbolic” is replaced with an “asymbolic” or “heterosymbolic.” Bernstein’s defense of poetry as performance has little use for psychoanalysis and understands itself as materialist. It is the ability of particular modes of poetry (especially) to resist the “transparency effect” of familiar speech and writing and thereby to remind us of “our opaqueness to the transhuman world,” our deafness to the “nonanimate” that he values (19). The contribution of the essays in this volume to the many questions raised by the sound and sounding of poetry strikes me as considerable, and the poets (most of the essayists are also poets) are able to hold their own against if not altogether trump more influential theorists. …

I’ve set aside three essays which belong more consistently or exclusively to literary history, ethnography, or cultural studies. These are Lorenzo Thomas’s “Neon Griot: The Functional Role of the Poetry Reading in the Black Arts Movement”; Maria Damon’s “Was That ‘Different,’ ‘Dissident’ or ‘Dissonant’? Poetry (n) the Public Spear: Slams, Open Readings, and Dissident Traditions”; and Susan Schultz’s “Local Vocals: Hawai’i’s Pidgin Literature, Performance, and Postcoloniality.” The question raised or implicit in all three essays involves the nature or composition of the audience and thus might be dubbed, after the academic mantra Silliman alludes to in his anti-academic essay, “Who Speaks.” All three essays also sit a little uneasily beside Bernstein’s introductory discussion of the “social character” and social function of the poetry reading. The poetry reading, Bernstein suggests, is the site where the “audience of poetry constitutes and reconstitutes itself,” where it “makes itself visible to itself” (22). Noting that much of the attention to readings in literary history and anecdote has focused on moments when readings provided “a means for poetry to cross over to a wider audience”—such as in the anti-war movement of the 1960s—Bernstein proposes that “the fundamental, social significance of the reading … has to do with infrastructure not spectacle” (22–23), which is to say that its social significance resides in its structure as an institution rather than its effects or consequences for an audience not already participating in the institution’s life. Just as he is willing to acknowledge that there are more or less theatrical as well as “anti-expressivist” performance styles, Bernstein does acknowledge the value of other kinds of readings (those for a more general audience, for instance, or students), but the outline of his ideal reading describes something close to a workshop of adepts, “foundries” for “creation and exchange” (23) among poets.

This is meant to counter the banal complaint that the audience at some poetry readings is often largely other poets. But if Bernstein is right that readings demonstrate the extent to which poetry is a “socially responsive” and dialogic activity, “one of the most participatory forms in American cultural life” as he enthuses, and not “the activity of isolated individuals writing monological lyrics” (23), we might also do well to wonder to what extent a neo-avant-garde amply represented by the essayists in this volume is content with its audience and willing to subordinate other ends to aesthetic ones. “It is a measure of its significance that it is ignored” (23), Bernstein writes, referring to poetry and its performance both, one supposes, in mildly defiant tones that ultimately amount to special pleading—in these terms my unwritten novel also bears significance. Mark Morrisson’s history of verse recitation in England early in the century shows the extent to which, by comparison, Harold Monro and others surrounding him (such as Ezra Pound) “attempted to tap into the popular practice of verse recitation” as promoted by the Poetry Society in order to promote a modernist poetry.4 Rejection of the “artificiality and visual spectacle of elocution” (32) were also common at the Poetry Society; far from being exclusive to an avant-garde, this was part of an effort to shape and legitimate poetry for the middle classes. Perhaps it is a measure of the security or even middle-class status of such a self-consciously avant-garde practice as the one Bernstein aligns with his ideal reading that the continuing production of poems and readings should be measured and taken as a sign of health rather than the effects or consequences of poetry in and on adjacent (or containing) institutions. It is revealing that there is no essay devoted to the academically-sponsored poetry reading in this book.5

One might read Bernstein’s ideal reading either as reflecting resignation or realism about the limits of the medium in a culture clustered in professional groups and hobbies splintering a mass united only by spectacle-blinding mediatization, but it’s certain that, in the past just as today, such an ideal reading is far from the only reading. Lorenzo Thomas’s essay on the poetry reading in the Black Arts Movement begins in the nineteenth century by discussing the multiple purposes and valences of dialect, and then remembers the self-consciously “lowbrow” entertainment of the “poet-performer” movement of 1870–1930 (Will Carleton, Ella Wheeler Wilcox, James Whitcomb Riley, Vachel Lindsay). He notes that Langston Hughes, like Paul Laurence Dunbar, “understood what his audience wanted” (304), meaning by “audience” something other than the professionals and quasi-professionals alluded to in Bernstein’s participatory democracy of writers. The purer space and functions imagined by Bernstein pertain less to the history of readings detailed here by Thomas as these involve form and function both. The community-building, political goals of readings by (or organized by) Amiri Baraka and others as part of the Black Arts Movement are closer to the purposes or effects of the Hawaiian poetry readings Susan Schultz discusses in her essay, which begins by admitting that, at first, she felt altogether outside the identity-gathering affirmations being performed and received at a reading she attended, prepared as she was to be “participating in an aesthetic drama” while “almost everyone else was participating in a social one” (343). Thomas’s contextualism in identifying different and plural functions for the poetry reading is useful in refusing the nearly discrete categories and the less discreet, if more familiar, valuations implicit in Bernstein’s defense of the reading as a medium. Thomas’s judicious appraisal of the interaction of the poetry reading with other media is welcome too. He notes the unenthusiastic reception by jazz fans of Kenneth Rexroth’s readings to jazz, and the more successful multimedia performance of Charles Mingus’s A Modern Symposium of Poetry and Music (1960). He quotes approvingly another scholar arguing that, for Black Arts Movement artists habituated to if sometimes ambivalent about pulpit oratory, “poetry becomes theatre” when read aloud (310; my emphasis). Poets admitting their status as entertainers on the one hand and as community activists on the other; a willingness to compete with other media by inhabiting or hybridizing its forms—all of this seems crowded out of Bernstein’s ideal.

No doubt this late in the century the economic success of the “poet-performers” mentioned above might well seem out of reach, though there is an economics of the contemporary poetry reading which goes largely undiscussed in this book, one with shapes and possibilities varying from location to location. (The English critic Andrew Duncan writes recently that “Today, a poet has to perform in public in order to have a career.”)6 Most curious about the discourse sustaining what one might call Bernstein’s “poetry-reading-essentialism” is his comparative neglect of multimedia creations such as Mingus’s or, more recently, Nathaniel Mackey’s Strick (poetry and world music) as well as of the performances of poets such as Brian Catling or cris cheek who sometimes mix poetry reading and performance art. (Catling’s performance of his text “Cyclops,” he writes, “was structured to sound the building, to use its layers to echo a contrast to the seated audience who faced a vast humming screen, the video projector behind it, impatiently itching the surface. A long lead ran from there through the basement rooms to a handheld video camera.”7 I am certain that Bernstein is aware of such hybrid, multimedia performances, including at the low tech end Tom Raworth’s “Poem Poem,” but it’s hard to see how such phenomena wouldn’t be demoted by a hierarchy of values in which a live, untheatrical, and unaccompanied “sounding” of poems is king. Bernstein does hope that proliferating recordings of readings will retune our ears for poetry, and few would disagree, but this is a different matter. What Bernstein is ultimately defending is not performance but poetry, it seems to me, though it is not as if—the entire book surely demonstrates this much—the two can be wholly separated. And his defense is not all that unconventional except insofar as it displaces the scriptural from its position of privilege. …

Bernstein’s collection provides analysis that should help us at least begin to think more about kinds of readings and the formal and social factors to be considered in writing about or discussing them, and to his credit his own preferences are there for all to see. I will admit that I found these just a little surprising, given the strains of populism and theatricalism I’ve witnessed at some self-consciously avant-garde events, where I’ve heard others whisper that Bernstein himself is a frustrated standup comic. The wager of these essays is a very serious one indeed, to the extent that academic capital can be tossed in specific directions and impact the future of an art form. While it is possible, as the English critic Andrew Duncan has argued, that the study of poetry in performance, by scholars and practitioners alike, will lead to a “performance academicism” (74) as well as to the devaluation of some good poets inattentive to performance and performance spaces, it is a risk that Bernstein seems prepared to take, if not without the several cautions that I have outlined above. I’m left to wonder whether the reading in Cambridge, perhaps the product of a refusal to breed “performance academicism” as much as of plain old crusty tradition, might be close to the ideal that Bernstein identifies, and I’ll admit that the possibility leaves me a little befuddled.


  1. See Philip Auslander. “Liveness: Performance and the Anxiety of Simulation,” in Elin Diamond, ed., Performance and Cultural Politics New York: Routledge, 1996), 196–213.

  2. The term “secondary orality” is primarily associated with Walter Ong. For recent essays on the effects of technology on poetry, sound, and “orality,” see Adalaide Morris, ed., Sound States: Innovative Poetics and Acoustic Technologies (Chapel Hill: North Carolina Press, 1997).

  3. Letter from cris cheek to the author. 1 April 1998.

  4. Ibid. 36.

  5. One essay that begins a discussion of the economic function of poetry readings in the university is Hank Lazer, “Poetry Readings and the Contemporary Canon,” in Opposing Poetries (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1996), 47–54.

  6. Andrew Duncan. “Born in the 1960s: Speculations on a new generation,” Angel Exhaust 15 (autumn 1997), 74.

  7. Brian Catling, “Cyclops,” Language a Live 2 (1996): n. p.

Paul Quinn (review date 30 April 1999)

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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 HATE SPEECH”, published in the proto-Language-journal This in 1971, is seen by some as an inaugural moment, ushering in a new era of Writing writ large, where the signifier was foregrounded; where, borrowing a phrase of one of their elected forefathers, Louis Zukofsky, the “actual word stuff” was paramount. One of the things that made the Language poets so interesting and unusual, was that despite their outsider status, their determined distance from the Academy (the editors of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, Charles Bernstein and Bruce Andrews, were at the time of its initial publication, respectively, a freelance writer of medical abstracts and a political economist), and from its conservative writing programmes, they shared an easy familiarity with the Continental theory and philosophy about to sweep through the literature programmes, if not the creative-writing departments, of America. Where their Poundian and Olsonian antecedents had looked to Chinese or Mayan cultures for working models to make modernity’s fragments cohere, the Language poets drew on the likes of Wittgenstein, Benjamin, Adorno, Althusser and, more problematically, but still productively, Derrida, Barthes and Lacan, to think through the fragmentation; it was as if the Beats had been schooled at Frankfurt, rather than Columbia.

The Language poets, then, were and are a group of writers more than prepared to hoist a flag proclaiming Here Be Theory over a literary terrain hitherto either oblivious to or sealed off from it. Opponents of Marxist aesthetics and post-structuralist thought could no longer say such work was hopelessly aether-bound and ipso facto redundant for literary practice; whatever they thought of the results, here was a poetry palpably grappling with it. Poets within the movement, however (and “movement” itself should be placed carefully within quotation marks), have always been keen to stress that the poems should not be seen as secondary, or merely elaborate illustrations of abstruse Continental theories. Language poets have most often drawn their inspiration from earlier poetic experiments, arguing in their critical writing that this precursor poetry often goes far beyond the meditations on language of much theory. Thus, Gertrude Stein has been read as attentively as Wittgenstein; Zukofsky’s great poem including history and (Marxist) economics, “A”, is as much a favoured resource as Adorno’s Negative Dialectics; other antecedents include poets as diverse as William Carlos Williams, Larry Eigner, Jackson Mac Low and the John Ashbery of The Tennis Court Oath, that extraordinary poetic toolbox and toybox; the constructivist Ashbery, that is, rather than the post-Pulitzer, late-Romantic Ashbery, promoted by Harold Bloom into an eternal agonistic contest with Wallace Stevens.

From this conflux of influences has emerged a remarkable range of poetry too little known in Britain: Susan Howe’s skilled use of textual and literary history to produce poems that read like a haunting and haunted combination of variorum edition and palimpsest; Bruce Andrews’s rebarbative lyrics that fizz with the slang, the obscenities and the ecstasies of modern communication; Ron Silliman’s ongoing long poem The Alphabet, which mingles quotidian observation, linguistic-philosophical reflection and street-level social critique to produce as vivid, systemic and cumulatively moving an account of contemporary life as any poet now writing.

This latest batch of studies testify to a transitional moment in the movement’s history. The outsiders have to some extent come inside: Charles Bernstein is a now a distinguished professor, albeit at an institution capacious enough to have once housed Charles Olson’s maverick spirit, the State University of New York at Buffalo; reciprocally, there have been steadily increasing signs of rapprochement from the academy, pioneered by long-time advocates such as Marjorie Perloff, who in a number of critical works has been keen to place the Language poets in a post-Poundian tradition of experiment, and Jerome McGann, for whom they represent an inspirational and exemplary fusion of politics and poetics. Language poets like Silliman, who intransigently remain outside the academy’s co-opting gates, have been somewhat barbed in their attitude to those like Bob Perelman, who have moved within. Language poetry is concerned, then, with what it is to be radical in theory, practice and institutionally: should an avant-garde adopt and adapt existing institutions, or must it remain resolutely within its own alternative networks? Certainly, with its impressive range of small presses, journals, web-sites and dedicated distributors, Language poetry has hitherto fought hard to avoid both dependence on academic patronage and the lurking threat of the market’s maw.

The title of Charles Bernstein’s collection of essays, My Way, is characteristically ironic; only in the most alternative of universes could Bernstein be imagined as Old Blue Eyes, leader of his own literary Rat Pack. More seriously, virtually every sentence in the book demonstrates that there can only be ways—provisional and plural. Moreover, the book’s caustic and cautionary comments on identity politics—the dominant preoccupation in American literary practice and theory alike—suggests the “My” is equally problematic. As ever, Bernstein puts into practice what he preaches; far from being conventional expository prose, the volume is a bricolage of poems in essay form, essays in verse, interviews, polemics, provocations (“There’s more innovation and more cultural acumen in any episode of Ren and Stimpy than in any of the books of our last trio of [American] poet laureates”), puns and jokes. This seems appropriate for a poet who, in an earlier essay on comedy, boasts of working under the influence of the three Marxes—Chico, Groucho and Karl—and the four Williamses—Raymond, William Carlos, Tennessee and Esther. There is even (a somewhat revisionist gesture for so pointedly impersonal a poet) an autobiographical interview, which is, nevertheless, a good introduction to the poet and his preoccupations.

Trained in philosophy under Stanley Cavell at Harvard, Bernstein has long argued for “poetry as epistemological inquiry”. As befits a writer whose pivotal collection of poems is called The Sophist (1987), he is joyfully contrarian and ever ready to reveal the rhetoric in both his own writing and the world’s prevailing narratives: “Verse is born free but everywhere in chains. It has been my project to rattle the chains.”

The project in My Way is not “to break down generic distinctions as much as to bring genres and styles into rhetorical play with one another”. The key institutional corollary of this is a desire to alter the discursive practices of academic writing, to challenge the “tone lock” that limits thought to MLA guidelines. Bernstein’s brief, then, is to extend poetic thinking to pedagogy, aware, as he is, that “You can’t fully critique the dominant culture if you are confined to the forms through which it reproduces itself”. This is demonstrated in various instances through the book, not least in the charged arena of identity politics, where, through the agency of the workshop poem, diverse ethnic material and experience is refamiliarized into the cultural norm. In an earlier book, A Poetics, Bernstein satirized such workshop formulas that can easily replace “I see grandpa on the hill / next to the memories I can never recapture” with “I see my yiddishe mamma on hester street / next to all the pushcarts I can no longer peddle”, and so on, inserting your ethnic variant at will.

Bernstein’s own poetry practice has been tireless in striving to find a language fit to reflect and affect the times. If his essays are an ambitious and exciting attempt at a formally various methodology, his poems are collages of extraordinary range and texture; no American poet since Ashbery has woven such multifarious material into his poems. This is allied to a full-blown and mordantly funny critique of the roles we are made to adopt, of socialization’s masquerade. In a poem like “Standing Target” from Controlling Interests (1980), the poet includes his own reports from summer camp (“Charlie has grown to enjoy our organised games / His interest carries throughout the / period, as a rule …”); similarly in “Asylum”, from Islets/Irritations (1983), the language of definition with all its damaging shorthand is again to the fore, but proceeding in syntactically severed sentences, so that each line plunges us in medias res, encouraging the reader to construct a fuller sense, rather than take the word of authority on trust.

The much-anthologized “The Klupzy Girl”, from the same collection, with its beguiling opening lines (“Poetry is like a swoon, with this difference: / it brings you to your senses”), is another compelling combination of found texts, exaggerated euphony (unlike some of his contemporaries, Bernstein veers often from “ordinary” speech, finding echoes in those poets he claims possess a “double hearing”, in the sound-play of Ossian, Swinburne, Hopkins), and the palpably designing:

To stroll on the beach is to be in the company of the wage-earner and the unemployed on the public way, but to command a view of it from a vantage both recessed and elevated is to enter the bourgeois space; here vantage and view become consumable.

This poem, then, rejects the view from the honeymoon suite on to “Dover Beach”, an ear cocked for the “long, withdrawing roar”, just as it rejects the distanced and raised Romantic position of “Lines Composed A Few Miles above Tintern Abbey”; it insists instead on the thick of things, on the web of words one cannot remove oneself from and contemplate in tranquillity. Much purportedly modern poetry in fact cleaves to Romantic and pastoral models; Bernstein calls instead for a poetry “that engages the social world directly, by taking on its jargon and its technologies, its blather and its displacements, not only as subjects but as methods of organisation, as environments, to be sounded and tested and thought through by and in the poem”.

Bernstein’s latest book of poetry, Log Rhythms, a serial poem made in collaboration with his wife, the artist Susan Bee, contains a segment that uses the Manhattan Yellow Pages as a resource, both to suggest the modern world’s infinite variety and to track our circumscription by designation (“Bob’s Construction / Bob’s Diner / Bob’s Hardware / Bob’s Train and Hobby Center”); elsewhere in the poem’s echo chamber, it is as if we are experiencing bourgeois culture’s thousand twangling instruments, humming about our ears: advertising jargon, skewed commonplaces, nonsense verse and mock nursery rhymes abound. Nursery rhymes have a special significance in Bernstein’s verse: they offer both a reminder that ideology coos at us over the crib and a potential liberation from conventional sense, a dawning awareness that the world is still to be made.…

In a typically combative essay on literary journalism’s mistreatment of innovative poetries, Perloff includes among her exhibits a review in the TLS in 1993 by Glyn Maxwell of a range of books of poetry criticism (including some Language-oriented titles), in which the exasperated reviewer bemoans the fact that these poets continue to write about each other “long after the magazine that gave them their name has disappeared along with the likelihood of anyone else taking an interest”. One wonders when exactly was the literary moment when (to borrow one of Charles Bernstein’s splendidly chippy catchphrases) “official verse culture” actually did take an interest; but the objects of such neglect thrive regardless. Works as stimulating, calculatedly cantankerous, and irrepressibly entertaining as My Way, and readings as acute and suggestive as those offered in Poetry On and Off the Page, suggest it will be worth following Language poetry and poetics for some time yet.

Andrew Osborn (review date Summer-Fall 1999)

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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 eminently useful, allowing one to extend the logic of traditional metrics of ictus and non-ictus to, say, the non-sequitur sentences of Silliman or Hejinian or the fragmented phrases of Ashbery’s “Europe.” Bernstein later developed the Brechtian critique of readerly “absorption,” begun in this same first collection, into the flagship chapter of A Poetics (fetchingly ambiguated as a poetics, Harvard, 1992), a volume which also featured essays on postmodern memory, the relevance of Pound’s fascism to his poetry’s canonization, and clever variations on Bernstein’s standby, the politics of poetic form. Few have done as much to keep fin-de-siecle debates about poetics not only alive but intelligent.

My Way is Bernstein’s third collection of mostly prose works which are not in most cases also poems. The awkwardness of this description is due to his breakdown of the traditional boundaries between verse and prose theory. As Bernstein notes in one of the new book’s four interviews, “If I write an essay in verse it’s not because I think there’s no difference between poetry and prose but because I think it does make a difference to use the poetic form.” Indeed, these speeches and poems both bespeak his conviction that form is at least as effective a prod toward new ways of thinking as “content.” The book launches itself directly into “A Defence [sic] of Poetry,” a lineated and—when I heard Bernstein read it aloud last December—alarmingly funny—and aphasic—sounding argument which begins:

My problem with deploying a term liek nonelen in these cases is actually similar to your cirtique of the term ideopigical unamlsing as a too-broad unanuajce interprestive proacdeure.

[sic] ad nauseum, with liek for like, nonelen for nonsense, ideopigical for ideological, et cetera (which is my way of admitting I don’t know what unamlsing or unanuajce stand in for). It’s a good piece to open with. For, as an argument, it evinces Bernstein’s studied yet whimsical engagement with academe—“Defence” is a response to Poetics Today editor Brian McHale’s 1992 essay “Making (Non)sense of Postmodernist Poetry,” which was in part a response to “Artifice of Absorption.” At the same time, it poetically exemplifies Bernstein’s knack for using what in “Artifice” he called antiabsorptive techniques toward absorptive ends. The conspicuous device of seemingly random typographical substitution slows readers down and forces them to recognize the degree to which the sense we make depends on what we expect and that this way of reading, like language’s redundancy, has its limits. Turns out he employs a similar technique in his speeches. Every now and then, Bernstein will throw in a throwaway sentence, usually punful, as if to catch us zoning out. Its purpose, I presume, is to make us take responsibility for threshing the kernels from the chaff. “Could I possibly be saying that the crisis of American culture is that there is inadequate support and distribution of difficult and challenging new art?” he asks. And then, in lieu of a pre-fab rhetorical question: “Does a tire tire without air, an elephant blow its horn in the dark, a baby sigh when the glass door shatters its face?” Yes. Yes. Say what?

The reviewer of My Way faces a dilemma. One wants to tell readers which of the book’s inclusions are worth scrutinizing because they’re sophisticated or insightful or entertaining and which can be skipped because they’re not. But one of Bernstein’s more interesting (and oft-repeated) premises is “Just because something is neglected is sufficient reason to consider it”—that is, we should heed what frames analysis calls the “disattend tracks.” I became a bit anxious about the posited rise in value of exactly those passages or poems or entire speeches I was inclined to discount. Be that as it may, and despite being thankful for Bernstein’s continued attention to neglected poets, I was underwhelmed by the brief, mostly honorary pieces about Gertrude Stein, George Oppen, Robin Blaser, Larry Eigner, and Susan Howe. The three-part chapter on Charles Reznikoff is significantly more comprehensive but comprised largely of lecture notes.

Much more rewarding is one of the collection’s longest essays, “Poetics of the Americas,” which in the course of promoting the coined term ideolect (“ideologically informed nonstandard language practice”) as an alternative to dialect, introduces an exquisitely shrewd protest poem by the Jamaican Louise Bennett and performs close readings of work by several of her compatriots. In another favorite, “Frame Lock,” Bernstein decries the unnecessary decorums of professionalization, focusing on the conservatism of academic writing style, especially ironic when so many essays these days themselves “decry assumptions of totality, continuity, narrative progression, teleology, or truth.” Some of the speech’s ostentatiously mischievous informalities—witty digressions, ludic interludes—seem too cute in print but must have provided welcome comic relief when originally delivered at the 1992 Modern Language Association conference. Two other essays I can strongly recommend: “Provisional Institutions,” which details the red-ink economics of alternative publishing and distribution, and “Unrepresentative Verse,” which presents Allen Ginsberg as an anti-Eliot in many dimensions (uncloseted vs. repressed, anarchistic vs. authoritarian, adolescent vs. sedately wise in a way that makes us forget how wonderfully adolescent “Prufrock” was).

Bernstein has argued forcefully again and again that poetry worthy of the honorific is investigatory and has as much to contribute to theoretical discourse as so-called Theory. Turning Eliot’s 1921 dictum on its head, he has implied that while poetry need not be difficult, it must elicit (and thus be a type of) philosophy. Here, in “Revenge of the Poet-Critic,” he writes: “Poetry continues to make active methodological interventions into critical and philosophical discourse so that any serious consideration of the longstanding ‘discrepant engagement’—to use Nathaniel Mackey’s great term—between criticism and poetry needs to look closely at the work of contemporary poets fully as much as the work of contemporary theorists.” Readers who have enjoyed the fruits of Bernstein’s familiarity with the Philosophical Investigations and his well-grounded skepticism about Romantic projections of the self will be somewhat disappointed, however. Not surprisingly in a collection titled My Way, much of the carefully argued underpinnings of earlier essays have given way to the bald, opinionated statements of someone who knows he has beaucoup cachet.

A few examples: Bernstein sees resistance to “the inchoate processes of turbulent thought (poetic or philosophic)” as a symptom of paranoid fear. One could counter, however, that while it is all very well now and then to stir things up, turbulence and blur do little to assure readers and listeners that communication is being treated as a high value, that what philosopher H.P. Grice calls the Cooperative Principle is being upheld. In “Thelonious Monk and the Performance of Poetry,” Bernstein argues, incontestably, that “all reading is performative,” but then goes on to suggest that performativity is a value in itself:

mumbling, stumbling over words, fumbling through papers, virtual inaudibility, sitting in a chair bent over page, no discernible shape or rhythm in the projected sound of the work. Yet this is just as much a performance style as the most declamatory reading: all readings are performative, whether they appear to deny the performative or flaunt it.

Well, sure, but that doesn’t mean those readings are any good. I for one don’t care for virtually inaudible readings. As Wittgenstein or his English translator G.E.M. Anscombe could have told Bernstein, apparent intentionality counts. And our sense of whether a person knows what he or she is up to depends on the circumstances of the performance. John Cage’s conducted silences please (some) while Joe Schmoe’s nervous silence irritates. The non-narrative, often asyntactic reviews and prose poems in the first volume of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E were less readily dismissed as dada nonsense appearing as they did side-by-side with sophisticated theoretical prose including a translated excerpt from Roland Barthes’s Writing Degree Zero. I (performatively?) expressed my delight at hearing Bernstein’s “Defence” with laughter; I hope I would have responded differently had someone with a speech impediment “performed” the same noises.

Nor should we let Bernstein get away with his claim that “if I really care / about a poet’s work, then I am interested / in hearing them read regardless / of their attitude to performance …” What is this “work” he has already come to care for if not prior to the performance? And yet he’s just said that he has “come to feel / (that the idea of the written / document as primary makes for an unwarranted / or anyway unwanted / hierarchy.” One can only admire the verve with which Bernstein commits to the notion that “An [sic; a genuine typo this time?] provocative poetry will provoke those who would shirk from their own responsibility to make values rather than mimic them.” But in being so rigidly provocative (in both senses: like a bonnetted bee and in favor of speech), he gives short shrift to values which need neither be made nor mimicked but maintained and lived up to.

Official Verse Culture is another topic on which shooting from the hip gets the better of Bernstein. I wish he would give us a peek at the OVC membership list. At one point he bemoans “the spectacle of a poetry of abject conformity celebrating its commitment to individuality while flailing rather more viciously than might have seemed decent at actual individual expression.” If, as he says in “Water images of The New Yorker,” OVC is “a high-fallutin’ name for mainstream poetry editing,” then it isn’t the poems or poets who are disingenuously expressing their individuality. Rather than waste his time on silly “studies” like counting how few New Yorker poems fail to include words related to water, he’d do well to write a critique of a mainstream (oop, there’s some water), influential (more water), yet philosophically/grammatically/formally innovative poet like John Ashbery or Jorie Graham. Either that or make it clear that his gripe is with the editors only, not the poets.

To my mind, My Way’s interviews and especially the autobiographical interview offer the biggest bang for the buck. Therein Bernstein identifies himself as a kind of businessman: “I have wanted to bring poetry into the ‘petty, commercial,’ indeed material and social world of everyday life rather than make it a space in which I could remain ‘free’ of these things, or, better to say, chained to an illusion of such freedom.” I was fascinated to learn that young Charles grew up among his tailoring father’s oversized books of fabric samples and of that epiphanic moment when his junior high teacher chalked on the board Beckett’s “Bun is such a sad word is it not, and man is not much better is it.”

What Bernstein says of Laura (Riding) Jackson’s deeply flawed study Rational Meaning—that “by making this otherwise largely unrepresented argument, [it] brings into full view the spectrum of views on the relation of meaning to language”—might be said of My Way, although the latter needs no apologia. Just as readers of Lyn Hejinian’s My Life can’t help but inscribe there their own associative quirks of self, their own lives, even those who vehemently disagree with Bernstein will come away from My Way provoked into finer articulations of their own ways and means.