Disclaimers are necessary

Charles Bernstein directs the Poetics Program at the University at Buffalo.

Special to The Buffalo News

"Readers are cautioned that certain statements in this poem are forward-looking statements that involve risk and uncertainties."


"These statements are based on current expectations and projections about the aesthetic environment and assumptions made by the author and are not guarantees of future performativity," writes Charles Bernstein in "Today's Not Opposite Day," a poem in his new collection "With Strings" published this month by the University of Chicago Press.

"Actual events or performances may difference materially from those expressed and projected in the poem due to factors such as the effect of social changes in word meanings, material changes in social conditions, changing conditions in the overall cultural environment, continuing aesthetic turmoil, risks associated with product demand and market acceptance, the impact of competing poems and poetry distribution systems, delays in the development of new poems, imagination capacity utilization (ICU), and genre mix and media absorption rates," he continues with tongue firmly planted in cheek. "The author undertakes no obligation to update any projective statements in this poem."


Bernstein may not be the only contemporary poet to incorporate disclaimers into his own work, but he is probably the only one to paraphrase standard contract language to do so. As is usually the case with his literary parodies, there is a serious point about language to be made: not only are extravagant claims for the truthfulness of poetry skewered, but Bernstein also points out how obtuse and nonreferential ordinary language becomes when forced into a defensive, legalistic posture. Elsewhere in the same poem, he rewrites the Gettysburg Address as a manifesto for language poets.


Bernstein, who holds the Gray Chair in Poetry and Letters and directs the Poetics Program at the University at Buffalo, is the leading advocate and public spokesperson for the language movement in contemporary poetry. For much of the past quarter century, dating back to his days as co-founder of the groundbreaking but short-lived literary journal L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, he has operated as a outspoken critic of what he calls the official verse culture in the United States for its tacit acceptance of poetry as a tradition bound self-marginalizing American art form.


More recently, however, as lifelong avant-gardists such as John Ashbery and Robert Creeley have won recognition as major figures in late 20th century American poetry, and leading mid-career figures such as Jorie Graham seem more and more influenced by the experimental spirit of the language movement, Bernstein's work has received a fairer reading in the mainstream literary press. His last major collection, "Republics of Reality: 1975-1995" was nominated for one of the literary world's most respected awards, the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize, by the American Academy of Poets and the Nation magazine.


If certain elements in the literary establishment seem to have warmed to Bernstein and the language movement considerably, it's not because he has simplified his message. In his notes and acknowledgments to "With Strings" he explains that the book is organized as a vortex, with each poem furthering the momentum of the book while curving its arc of attentional energy. The structure is modular: a short work might become part of a serial poem or a section of a serial poem might stand on its own. The effect is to make the book as a whole a string of interchanging parts. Political, social, ethical, and textual investigations intermingle, presenting a linguistic echo chamber in which themes, moods, and perceptions are permuted, modulated, reverberated, and further extended.

Perhaps the only sense in which Bernstein has made any concessions to his expanding readership is in the foregrounding of wordplay, punning, and the comedic elements of his work. While he has always acknowledged his debt to Marx -- that's Groucho far more than Karl -- the literary high jinks sometimes drive the narrative in ways that remind us of the dialogue of playwrights Samuel Beckett and Tom Stoppard or the grammatical slapstick of Abbott and Costello. "The shortest road from transcendence to immanence is hilarity," he writes in "Ms. Otis Regrets."


In the absence of any of Bernstein's genre-bending essays in verse form, a staple of many of his recent volumes much of the focus in "With Strings" appears to be on the function of grammar as a random generator of meaning. "I've got a hang for langue, but no truck with/ Parole," he jokes in ruminative ablution making reference to linguist Ferdinand de Saussures seminal distinction between language and speech. The same poem closes with a knee-slapping rhyme: "What's sauce for the gander / Is gravy for the geese -- if you cant buy / Redemption may I recommend you lease?"