Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 493

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Bernstein’s poems have the awkwardness of the new, an unassimilability struggled for and wholly deliberate. Bernstein, who has written extensively on ideas of poetry, has admitted that such work as his and his associates’ might prove a “discomfort” to customary expectations—expectations that would include transparency of language and intention, “personal communication,” and the appearance of words “flowing freely” from poet to reader, a sort of “lisping in numbers” which sanctifies the notion of poet as Nature-inspired genius. To Bernstein, those and other devices are too easy, thus too glib, a means to emit poetic signals. It tends to reduce the poem to nothing more than the poet’s personality. He wants the attention on the text, not on the character of the person who assembles the text. Even better, emphasis should be placed on the person who is immediately assembling the text: the reader. Bernstein wants to make texts that challenge readers to put the meanings together for themselves. He wants active engagement, not passive consumerism. Bernstein writes: “The cant of ‘make it personal’ & ‘let it flow’ are avoidances—by mystification—of some very compelling problems that swirl around truth-telling, confession, bad faith, false self, authenticity, [and] virtue.”

These, then, are some of Bernstein’s themes—in this poem as in his work generally—and the reader needs to see that they are implicit and tacit rather than spelled out and obvious. Bernstein does not believe in handing to the reader a poem precooked on a plastic platter; the meaning of a poem lies in the effort required to decode it. This much is clear: Bernstein’s is a poetry of demystification, one that foregrounds language and not personality, and his poems are not to be “plugged into” “indiscriminately”; they must rather be wrestled with until their particular qualities become apparent to the reader-agonist.

To all of this, there is a political dimension, indicated by the poet in his interview with Tom Beckett. Bernstein speaks of his own poetry as concerned with the constituting power of language, as seeing language itself as the medium, which it foregrounds. He says that he is committed to changing society and that, since language controls how people think, he believes that people must be brought to examine their own words, phrases, and assumptions. This cannot be done through a perpetuation of past poetries, but through a poetry that calls the reader’s attention to the ways in which it makes meanings. He notes that “objects are constituted by social values encoded in language.” He also notes that reading and writing “can partake of non-instrumental values and thus be utopian formations.” In other words, as “Live Acts” puts it,

Impossible outside you want always the other. A continualrecapitulation, & capture all that, against which our redactionof sundry, promise, another person, fills all theconversion of that into, which intersects a continualrevulsion of, against, concepts, encounter,in which I hold you, a passion made of cups, amidstfrowns.