The Poem

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 478

“Live Acts” is a twenty-line poem in free verse. The title suggests a sign on a marquee outside a strip joint, one that would read in full, “Live Sex Acts.” There is little in the poem, however, to bear out that legend; rather, the title resonates with the suggestions of something simulated—either the act itself or the passion of those engaged in it, as in a staged sex show. This resonance is often encountered in Charles Bernstein’s poetry, in which the poet examines the question of sincerity and falseness in language and poetry.

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Although the pronoun “I” is twice employed, it would not be accurate to characterize this poem as a first-person poem. The issue of the credibility of a poem (or of any statement) involves for Bernstein a questioning also of what it means to be a person. Bernstein tends to view the person as a social construct rather than as a natural fact, and whatever has been put together by human agency can be dismantled by that same agency. Bernstein’s poetry operates from multiple viewpoints in order to demonstrate his thesis and to embody it for a reader.

While personal experience is involved at one level in “Live Acts” (the experience of a number of persons), the reader is never allowed to forget that a poem’s meanings are primarily generated by its language rather than by the experience to which that language points. Hence, no “scene” is offered—the sentences and phrases do not even lead from one to another in any usual sense of logical progression, but instead juxtapose in sudden and puzzling ways. Puzzling over these, the reader is to be made aware of the role he or she has in generating the meaning of the poem. Sometimes the poem emerges from its own fog to afford a glimpse of a figure who might be the author, uttering something profound: “The closer we look, the greater the distance from which/ we look back.” Here, surely, is a clue to the procedures and to their aims. Faced with such a riddling work, the reader examines closely its abrupt changes, its startling juxtapositions, only to be thrust back, repulsed from any closeness to the text.

As with the “live acts” of a sex show, where the viewer, longing for closeness and intimacy, finds neither of these so easily achievable, so the promise of the poem—the promise that convention holds out for the poem, that it will be an understanding hand laid on the reader’s shoulder, a kind ear, a sympathetic voice—is not kept, and the reader may well feel cheated. If one has the patience to reflect upon the experience of the poem, however, one may find that it makes considerable sense and is indeed a salutary parallel to and preparation for the real difficulties of a real life.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 267

Bernstein’s beliefs find adequate embodiment in the forms and devices of this poem. “What I want to call attention to is that there is no natural writing style,” Bernstein explains in his essay “Stray Straws and Straw Men” (in his collected essays, Contents Dream, 1986). “Live Acts,” with its various tones and dictions, bears this out, sounding more like something written by a committee than the self-expressive utterance of a single individual’s “native wood-notes wild.” The poem sounds learned, low-class, and smart-alecky by turns, a little like a George S. Kaufman script for the Marx Brothers rendered by an aphasiac professor of literature.

Yet Bernstein is “crazy like a fox,” simulating all this and more in the interests of making the reader aware—even painfully aware—of the unexamined assumptions lurking in uniformities of diction, attitude, and interpretation. As the poem declares in its final sentence, “These projects alone contain/ the person, binding up in an unlimited way what/ otherwise goes unexpressed.” One sense of “projects” is surely that they are the brief essays into varieties of tone and diction of which the poem is composed. These bind up—present in poetic form—what otherwise would go unexpressed, and they do it in an unlimited way—that is, in a manner that hints at its own illimitability, at the potential of this particular procedure to go on virtually forever. The range of dictions available for the poet to appropriate is wide indeed, and it is mimetic of the world itself—large, thronged, and spherical, not at all to be contained in any discrete organization of words.

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