Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 493 words.)