"P oetry will never win the war on terror/But neither will error abetted by error," is the stinging couplet Charles Bernstein drops midway into his seriocomic tour de force "The Ballad of the Girly Man," the poem that concludes his latest collection, "Girly Man," published last month by the University of Chicago Press.
Bernstein, who succeeded Robert Creeley as Gray Chair of Poetry and Letters at the University at Buffalo and served for nearly a decade and a half as director of the UB poetics program, returns to Buffalo this weekend as a participant in UB's "On Words: A Conference on the Life & Work of Robert Creeley." At 8 Saturday, he will join celebrated poet and former MacArthur Fellow Ann Lauterbach in the conference's concluding reading at Trinity Church, 371 Delaware Ave. Bernstein co-founded the groundbreaking journal L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E in 1978 and soon emerged as the most persuasive advocate and spokesman for what came to be known as the "Language" movement in American poetry. In recent years he has risen to even greater prominence as a public intellectual, champion of formalist innovation in poetry and all the arts, and perhaps the wittiest and most philosophically savvy of the second-generation poets associated with the so-called "New York School."
Bernstein's mastery of conceptual approaches to writing produces some compelling ready-mades, including the stipulative "Let's Just Say" with its harrowing last line: "Let's just say that the lie of the mind is the light of perception." No American poet traverses the ground between high and low culture more entertainingly either, as demonstrated by the juxtaposition of "Language, Truth, and Logic" (an abstract on A.J. Ayer's 1936 classic text of logical positivism) with the hilarious "Slap Me Five, Cleo, Mark's History," which reads like a Mel Brooks monologue on art history.
If there is a gradual warming shift in tone from Bernstein's earlier, more self-consciously experimental work, it manifests itself primarily in poems addressed to his children and colleagues. "Castor Oil," a poem dedicated to his daughter Emma, begins: "I went looking for my soul/In the song of a minor bird/But I could not find it there/Only the shadow of my thinking."