Dictionary of Literary Biography,
April 4, 1950-
Profile by Loss Pequeño Glazier, State University of New York at Buffalo
Biographical and Critical Essay
Charles Bernstein is mostly widely known for his early influence in Language poetry. A loose constellation of experimental writers in New York, San Francisco, and Toronto, Language poetry emerged in the late 1970s and early 1980s and promoted new forms of experimental writing that paid attention to language itself. Much as, in the art world, movements such as Abstract Expressionism called attention to the materiality of their artistic medium, Language poetry engaged a similar task for writing. Exploring some of the overlooked breakthroughs of literary and philosophical predecessors such as Gertrude Stein, the Objectivist poets, and Wittgenstein, Language poetry at times is seen as developing and extending some of the experimentalism of the earlier Black Mountain and New York Schools, particularly as those schools had begun to explore the place of the "I" in the poem. At the center of the emerging school was L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine, edited by Bernstein and Bruce Andrews. L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E (from which the movement also got its name) allowed for the circulation of a rich web of essays and literary writings. These writings explored the literary influences, theories, and modes of writing that formed a loose nucleus around which many of these writers conducted their investigations. Bernstein and Andrews edited The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book, a volume that allowed for the much wider circulation of many of the key essays and writings from the magazine. The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book was instrumental in laying a foundation for a new sense of writing and vividly articulated the multidisciplinary and polytextual sweep of this writing's core investigations.
Beyond his highly visible activities at the beginning of Language writing, Bernstein's presence in the world of experimental writing has been consistent and extraordinary. His work has been published in nearly every major experimental magazine over the past two decades; he has been a key voice in many significant conferences. Besides the voluminous amount of poetry he has written, he has been tireless in his devotion to the work of writing. His reviews, essays, and other writings have been influential in championing new voices in literature, in calling attention to overlooked writers from the past, and in exposing the complacent lethargy of what Bernstein calls "official verse culture," that body of conventional opinion that often seems at odds with new possibilities. Now the David Gray Professor of Poetry and Letters at the State University of New York at Buffalo, Bernstein remains a strong literary influence on many through his continued writing and teaching, the many publications published through Buffalo's Poetics program, the Poetics discussion list on the internet (which Bernstein moderates), and the Electronic Poetry Center (for which Bernstein serves as chief advisor). Bernstein has been acclaimed by such important critics as Marjorie Perloff, Jerome McGann, and John Shoptaw; he is a frequent keynote speaker at major literary events, and there are panels about his writing at gatherings such as the Modern Language Association and the Twentieth Century Literature conferences. He continues to be active as both a poet and critic.
Charles Kegel Bernstein was born on 4 April 1950 in New York City to Herman and Sherry Bernstein. His father worked in the garment industry, mainly as a dress manufacturer. The youngest of three children, Bernstein grew up near Central Park in Manhattan. He attended the Bronx High School of Science and edited the school newspaper. In 1968 he met his future wife, the artist Susan Bee (born Susan Bee Laufer). From 1968 to 1972 Bernstein attended Harvard University and was active in the antiwar movement. He concentrated in philosophy, studying with Stanley Cavell and Rogers Albritton. His senior thesis, "Three Compositions on Philosophy and Literature," was a reading of Gertrude Stein's Making of Americans (1925) through Ludwig Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations (1953). Some of his thesis has subsequently been published in Richard Kostelanetz's Gertrude Stein Advanced: An Anthology of Criticism (1990). Bernstein edited Harvard's freshman literary magazine and published Writing , a photocopy magazine. He was also actively involved in radical theater, directing several productions. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1972.
In early 1973 Bernstein won a William Lyon MacKenzie King fellowship, enabling him to move, with Bee, to the Vancouver area. At Simon Fraser University, Bernstein took a seminar on Emily Dickinson with Robin Blaser, an experience that proved influential for him. Following nine months in Vancouver, Bernstein and Bee moved to Santa Barbara where Bernstein worked part-time as a health education coordinator in a community free clinic; his writing from that time would be later published as Asylums (1975) and Disfrutes (1979).Bernstein and Bee moved back to New York in early 1975. They married in New Hampshire in 1977; their children, Emma and Felix, were born in 1985 and 1992, respectively.
Although he had met poets in Vancouver, Santa Barbara, and San Francisco, where he had traveled to meet Ron Silliman, it was not until his return to New York that Bernstein became fully engaged in poetry as public practice. He met Bruce Andrews shortly after his return, spent much time going to St. Mark's Poetry Project and other New York readings, and in 1978 cofounded with Ted Greenwald the acclaimed Ear Inn series, a significant venue for emerging writers. A compact disk of some of the readings was produced by Bernstein in 1993.
While Bernstein devoted himself to poetry and poetics, his income was not related to literary activity. For nearly twenty years his living would come from his work as a medical and healthcare editor and writer. In 1977 and 1978, for example, he wrote medical abstracts full-time for the Canadian edition of Modern Medicine. In an unpublished August 1995 interview he commented that "this immersion in commercial writing and editing--as a social space but more in the technical sense of learning the standardized compositional rules and forms at the most detailed, and numbingly boring, level--was informing in every way." He also noted that he and Bee designed the Health Manpower Consortia Newsletter in the same format that would be later used for L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine. Bernstein has adapted medical vocabulary for poetic purposes and has, like Stein, Wittgenstein, and the Objectivist poets before him, continued to explore "rules and forms."
Brought out by his and Bee's Asylum's Press in New York, Bernstein's first two books, Asylums and Parsing (1976), were produced in the manner of such influential publications as Adventures In Poetry, C and The World as side-stapled photocopies of manually typed pages. The poem "Asylum," which Bernstein chose to reprint in Islets/Irritations (1983), begins:
This poem is striking in several ways. First, the field of the poem, the way the lines look on the page, is constantly shifting, constantly modified. Not only does this repeatedly modified field suggest chaos and a clash of multiple voices and tones, it marks a direct refusal to accept the concept of poetic "order." This poem will not assume tidy stanzas or give the reader the comfort of predictable line lengths. Second, there is no fixed narrative element to this poem. The first line of the poem seems to be the middle of a sentence, and the poem is built from a series of objects and their sounds, which are placed "in line." Third, this poem is dense in its diction; it is hard to read aloud and the words at time seem to clash, butt up against each other, and grate. Last, the poem is about institutions. (The title is a reference to one type of institution; poetry itself is another type.) The reader can feel the artificial pressure and stark reality of the institution throughout this poem. It has "locked doors, high walls, barbed / wire"; the poem "create[s] and sustain[s] / a particular kind of tension." It warns of danger and also speaks of a victory that apparently comes as long as the literal surface tension of the poem can be maintained.
Critic John Shoptaw describes "Asylum" as "a disturbing poem composed of broken lines unjustly arranged upon the page." Shoptaw asserts that in the poem "Bernstein confronts the objectifying capacity of the list." Asylums also includes an early version of "Out of this Inside," a poem Bernstein later rewrote for Poetic Justice (1979). Parsing contains two sections--the first, "Sentences," giving way to the second, "Parsing," as sentences break up into phrases. Bernstein's concern for order is evident in "Roseland": "this axis this / the human order / more or less / you have a map."
In 1978 Bernstein and Bruce Andrews founded L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine. In "An Interview with Tom Beckett," included in Content's Dream: Essays 1975-1984 (1986), Bernstein recalls that the motivation to publish the magazine grew from the exchanges he had in correspondence with Andrews and Silliman. "The impulse for the magazine was to make that kind of exchange ... more public, to share the thinking and conceptualizing with as large a group of people as we could interest." As to the magazine's prose format, Bernstein comments that the project as conceived would have included poetry, reviews, and art, but this was not affordable. The scope of the original vision was eventually realized through a small group of periodicals. "L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E was one piece of this larger project," Bernstein suggests, "which to some degree did come into being in a modular way--if you think of This , or Roof, or A Hundred Posters or Tottel's as other parts."
Produced as photocopied, coverless stapled booklets, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E was published until 1981. This run encompassed thirteen regular issues, three supplements, an index, and a final number copublished as an issue of the journal Open Letter. Despite its modest format and limited circulation, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E has proven to be one of the most influential little magazines of the period. It introduced many writers who have since enjoyed significant recognition as poets and scholars. L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E also became the namesake for a constellation of literary concerns now common in academic and poetic discourse.
Although contributors to L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E shared a common interest, the magazine was never intended to serve as the center of a literary school or movement. According to Steve McCaffery, "Though many contributors conceived the practice of writing to be primarily a social fact and saw the production of meaning as occupying, with a certain inevitability, a sociopolitical position within the politics of representation, there was never a suggestion of a unitary group of movement." In Content's Dream Bernstein's assertions show him to be uncomfortable with the notion of a L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E school:
Certainly, I do see the magazine, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, and my own work, as expressing certain shared views about reading and about the constituting power of language, about seeing language itself as the medium of the work and foregrounding that medium. And yet this is not a movement in the traditional art sense, since the value of giving an aesthetic line such profile seems counterproductive to the inherent value of the work.
He expresses agreement with Frederic Jameson's statement from The Prison House of Language (1972) that when a literary writing "marks my affiliation with a given social group, it signifies the exclusion of all the others also--in a world of classes and violence, even the most innocuous group-affiliation carries the negative value of aggression with it."
L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E advanced poetic thought by foregrounding specific interests that stood in opposition to the prevailing academic tastes. "Language writers have used structuralist and poststructuralist theory at times, to furnish ad hoc support for assertions about the problematic status of description, self, and narrative in poetry," Bob Perelman asserts in "Write the Power," "But these positions have come out of writing practices closely informed by the modernists, especially Gertrude Stein, and the Objectivists, especially Louis Zukofsky, and to some extent by the New American poets and the New York school. Thus--to be schematic about it--language writing occupies a middle territory bounded on the one side by poetry as currently instituted in the academy and on the other by theory." As to its position between "the workshop poem's commitment to voice and immediate experience" and the ambiguities of texts generated by "theoretical regimes," Language writing is different in its "foregrounding [of] the activity of writing."
Bernstein's next three books were published during the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E years: Shade (1978), Poetic Justice, and Senses Of Responsibility (1979). These books began to establish his work at the vanguard of experimental writing. Shade, a typescript publication in the style of Bernstein's first two books, enjoys the distinction of being the first book publication of Sun & Moon Press, now a major publisher of avant-garde writing. It includes sixteen poems constructed of short lines that challenge the reader to leap from thought to thought. In "Ballet Russe," for example, Bernstein writes: "I love motion & dancing. / I did not understand God. / I have made mistakes." The jaggedness in the progression of phrases becomes even more emphasized when lines are shorter, as in "The Bean Field": "Yet I / gelatinous mildewy tether / hissing of urn / screech-owl or / this vast. Range / too."
In contrast to the predominant white space of Shade, Bernstein's Poetic Justice exhibits a twisting landscape of intermingled prose utterances stretching from margin to margin, as is shown in the following line from "Lo Disfruto": "One a problem with a fragment sitting. Wave I stare as well at that only as if this all and not form letting it but is it." Also present in this collection are works such as "eLecTrIc" and "AZOOT D'PUUND," a poem in which Bernstein experiments with dislocated typography in the spirit of Jackson Mac Low's change permutations:
In this work, it is clear that Bernstein is exploring the permeability of language. What does one see when one can not be lulled into reverie by what the words say? What is the emotional result when capitals and other typographic markers are radically recast? What does the reader get from such typography--is it sound, a visual work, an assault on conservative poetic value? A final and very important point is the question that such texts raise about where a poetic work comes from. Maybe the above characters are intentional. Maybe they occur as a result of errors by the typist. How could one decide?
One of Bernstein's often cited poems is called "Lift Off," which from its opening challenges the reader:
What does one "see" in such a poem? Pieces of words here leap out (HH, a diminutive of HRH; seineocpcy, the Seine River; me"ius, a parody of Latin; jeuvine+pee, juvenile plus urination) in a hilarious cacophony and raucous visual clutter. If one of the issues that experimental writing explores is to remove the authorial "I," then this poem is an excursion to a terrain that is purely experimental. If one of the issues is where a poem comes from, this poem not only begs the question but laughs at one for asking since it is a transcription of the correction tape from a self-correcting typewriter. As such it is a primarily poetic work constructed from the literal typographic detritus of other works, both literary and nonliterary. The emphasis on typographical elements in these poems creates texts where, as Shoptaw writes, "the characters themselves sometimes make the music."
Originally published by Lyn Hejinian's Tuumba Press, Senses Of Responsibility was reprinted in 1989 by Paradigm Press. This small collection contains six poems made up mostly of short lines, though its sonorous sentences often continue over several lines. Shoptaw has pointed to this collection as showing that Bernstein has "occasionally stopped and hovered over [John] Ashbery's fluid measures." Senses Of Responsibility shows not only Bernstein's consideration of Ashbery's poetics but also his command and translation of them into his own form.
In 1980 Bernstein received a National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship. Also that year he led a workshop at the Poetry Project at St. Mark's Church in New York, and his works Legend and Controlling Interests were published. In Legend Berntein collaborated with Andrews, Ray DiPalma, McCaffery, and Silliman to explore a wide range of textual presentations. Controlling Interests was a milestone volume in Bernstein's career, the first of his books to present poems in heterogeneous formats. The formal variance of its seventeen poems, ranging from single stanza poems to mixtures of prose and verse in fields of words, foreground an intentional unevenness.
"Disrupting chronology," Silliman notes in his essay in Controlling Interests, "is a defense against the reduction of poetry to 'mere' autobiography, particularly when the formation of a subject is taken as the persistent content of the work." Bernstein's use of a temporally fragmented authorial subject, Silliman argues, allows him to focus on the "constitutive aspect of language, rather than treating it as a self-forming object." In the "discontinuous units" that comprise this collection, language is foregrounded as subject. Barrett Watten asserts that "The politics of the work are in [Bernstein's] internalization of 'radical structural means'; oppression, seen as an act of language, will be increasingly revealed. 'To push things into further nature' is the impulse; Controlling Interests intends a further statement conceived entirely on the ability to act." Controlling Interests contains such crucial Bernstein poems as "Matters of Policy," "Sentences My Father Used," and "Standing Target." Writing of "Sentences My Father Used," Perelman maintains: "Language here is investigating itself, proclaiming its opacity, revealing words as code or husk. The bonds of grammar are loosened ... Statement and image half appear and then fade into something other."
The last issue of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E was published in 1981 as were three of Bernstein's books, Disfrutes, The Occurrence of Tune, and Stigma. Disfrutes was written in 1974, published privately in 1979, and then reprinted that same year by Potes & Poets Press. It is an unpaginated, chapbook-sized volume that evokes the alphabet with its twenty-six untitled poems (or sections of a poem). Highly abstract, each poem/page is a single column of text containing one to several words. Phrases, parts of phrases, grammatical parts such as "of it / on / the it / she / on the / it she" make the reader aware of the white space surrounding the words, the silence surrounding language's content. The regularity of the white space or silence is occasionally blurred or broken as certain lines malfunction:
The poems thus suggest an "alphabet" that refuses language's capacity for communication. Shoptaw notes that disfrutes in Spanish means "enjoyment." Alternatively, the poems might be read as the disaffiliated "fruits" of language.
Bernstein collaborated with Susan Bee, who provided photographs, in the creation of The Occurrence of Tune. The third line of the text declares that there is "no presence, no things," a statement that in the context of the volume asserts the limitations of concrete reality (what words describe, what images depict) to imply meaning. The altered photographs by Bee contain recognizable images whose familiar meanings are either overpowered or undermined by the manner of their presentation. In Bee's cover for the book, for example, American icons are overbearing despite their physical decay: a run-down fast food restaurant advertising "Frankfurters, Table Service, Fountain, Hamburgers" hovers over a pattern that suggests a highway landscape. Likewise, the text establishes patterns of words that are at odds with "normal" reality by juxtaposing snatches of conversation in quotes, aphoristic declarations, and blocks of prose showing "much flurry, little regard" for standard syntax.
Consisting of eleven single stanza poems, each headed with a title in bold type, Stigma presents a more conservative textual format than The Occurrence of Tune. It includes such traditional titles as "New Year's," "December," and "April." This presentation, however, merely serves as a conventional frame from which Bernstein immediately departs. "April," for example, begins:
The flow of juxtaposed words and phrases in the "webbed space" of the poem is neither logical nor predictable. Even as "projected," it breaks down until "haecceity" is invoked. The title word stigma carries the senses of both a mark and a stain. In this collection, it is as if the words themselves stain the text; they are not words but faults that "convene, argue plans, yet point / At any loss, so much, erasing / Our undoing, greatest wildness. Continuous / Focus--shift, blur, become transparent, persists."
The most important event in the reception of Bernstein's early work was the 1982 publication of the "Charles Bernstein Issue" of The Difficulties, edited by Tom Beckett. The issue included Beckett's interview with Bernstein that was reprinted in Content's Dream (a continuation of this interview was published as "Censers of the Unknown-Margins, Dissent, and the Poetic Horizon" in A Poetics in 1992) as well as critical essays, homages, and poems. The contributors include Silliman, Robert Creeley, Perelman, Jackson Mac Low, Watten, Alan Davies, and others. James Sherry commented on the poet's attempt to reshape thought in language: "sentences reflect the constant intrusion of the world on the mind and the impossibility of meditation/mediation.... Bernstein is not concerned with grammar and sentences as correct ... [but with] ... patterns of thought in the patterns of [his] phrases rather than given standards of the shape of the thought as in the grammatically oriented notion of the sentence." Craig Watson maintains that in Bernstein's work "the apprehension of meaning is not conditioned by substance or continuity alone, but by the constitution of relations in a network of possibility; the object is mediated and named by our whole experience with it. Cognition is made up of a vast circuitry within which language is gestural and continually subjective. Through these circuits we conduct and create our selves, a reality." Perelman writes that "Bernstein's ... language centered writing never fails to be centered around the person, and the pressures of culture and history that thwart language's power."
The issue also contains twenty-five pages of poems by Bernstein, concluding with "Substance Abuse" in which the poem's speaker relates, "I feel (felt) stripped by these / changes, I / don't know what I received and what / I was shut up with" and "I feel like a very nervous man." These sentiments are relevant to the occasion of the special issue, and the poem in this context seems a comment on Bernstein's new level of public prominence: "So these sorrows pronounce themselves / in rhymes before my eyes" and "I make this point because your gazing / at a so projected grouping 'at a / distance' clouds your view--." Bernstein astutely displays the dynamics of what such a recognition does to the speaker: "One / guise disguises itself within myself, / the other within my text." The sounds of these lines echo the sentiments of the speaker: "guise" is within "disguise" as the guise is "within myself." Secondly, the guise "within myself" is repeated by the sound of "within my text." "Myself" and "my text" are parallel elements and reveal their difference only in the disparity between "self" and "text." Near the end of the poem, the speaker says, "Anxious and waiting for something, but not / definable-amorphous. What pans out? / I'm afraid to set it down, to contend with / the medium at hand." In "Substance Abuse," Bernstein purposefully dramatizes the poet's public persona.
After editing a selection of Language poetry for the Paris Review in 1982, Bernstein the next year brought out two collections-- Resistance, a gathering of eighteen hard-edged, densely packed poems, and Islets/Irritations . The poems in Islets/Irritations--including "Sprocket Damage," "Gradation," "Asylum," and one of Bernstein's best-known poems, "The Klupzy Girl"--are particularly interesting because they display a wide range of poetic form. The title poem, the first in the collection, is an example of a modified field format--the terrain Berstein can establish through his densely packed, often ironic weave of words. Its first two lines indicate how Bernstein uses regular spacing at irregular intervals to form his field: "to proper to behindless weigh in a rotating, / rectilinear our plated, embosserie des petits cochons." He uses a completely different form in the poem "Contradiction Turns To Rivalry" by juxtaposing colorful sentence-length paragraphs:
On-the-street subjects render fragmented versions; a two-way mirror provides some unexpected "reflections"; a pair of outdoor phonebooths and two muddled conversations befuddle a man.
A backstage view is interwoven with a tragic story.
A detective is captured by a mobster who plans to hook him on heroin and then deny him a fix until he reveals the whereabouts of the jealous hood's former girlfriend.
A retarded young man witnesses a murder but is not articulate enough to tell his story to the police.
In his 149-line single-stanza poem, "The Klupzy Girl," Bernstein engages the reader from its opening lines: "Poetry is like a swoon, with this difference: / it brings you to your senses." Early on Bernstein delares, "Not clairvoyance, / predictions, deciphering--enacting," a line that indicates the energy he strives to attain in his dense poem. He juxtaposes diverse voices (including Walter Benjamin's "'There is no document of civilization / that is not at the same time a / document of barbarism'"), lines propelled by clipped grammar ("It has / more to me than please to note acquits / defiant spawn"), and various forms of address:
"The Klupzy Girl" operates most of all through its sustained sense of music, the sound of its enactment maintaining the poem's velocity throughout.
Bernstein's next project was to edit The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book (1984), in which he included a selection of work published in L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine. The same year he also published some of his own translations of Claude Royet-Journoud's work from The Maternal Drape (1984). The nearly three-hundred-page The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book reprints material from the first three volumes of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, about half of the material published in the original magazine. Awarded a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship in 1985, Bernstein attended the New Poetics Colloquium in Vancouver that year. During this period he wrote the essay "Being A Statement On Poetics," later published in Rough Trades (1991). He makes a strong argument for a new poetics, declaring that "A poem should not be but become" and humorously insisting on the poem's social materiality: "The problem / is not the bathwater but the baby. I want / a poem as real as an Orange Julius."
Bernstein's first essay collection, Content's Dream: Essays 1975-1984, contains work that originally appeared in L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, Open Letter, Sagetrieb, Boundary, Code of Signals, Poetics Journal, The Paris Review, Sulfur, The Poetry Project Newsletter, The Difficulties, Credences, What Is A Poet?, and Writing/Talks. Titles include such crucial works as "Three or Four Things I Know about Him," "Thought's Measure," "Writing and Method," "Characterization," "Words and Pictures," "The Objects of Meaning: Reading Cavell Reading Wittgenstein," and "Blood on the Cutting Room Floor." As Jerome McGann points out,
The problem of poetry's relation to prose (and vice versa) is a recurrent preoccupation of Bernstein's work. Content's Dream, for example, is subheaded 'Essays 1975-1984' but the collection itself calls into question the distinction between poetry and prose. 'Three or Four Things I Know About Him' (which opens the collection); 'A Particular Thing'; 'G--'; are these texts poetry or are they prose? It is not easy to say. Similarly, his books of 'poetry' all print texts which do not, for various different reasons, 'look like' poetry at all.
Bernstein investigates writing as a practice that is not subordinate to a particular genre. In "Writing and Method" he asserts that "One vision of a constructive writing practice I have, and it can be approached in both poetry and philosophy, is of a multi-discourse text, a work that would involve many different types and styles and modes of language in the same 'hyperspace.' Such a textual practice would have a dialogic or polylogic rather than monologic method." In "Thought's Measure" Bernstein argues that "Language is the material of both thinking and writing. We think and write in language, which sets up an intrinsic connection between the two." Content's Dream allows the reader to trace the interweavings of writing and philosophy that inform the poetry that Bernstein writes and admires. He believes that "language is measure. And it is with this that we make our music--by ourselves, privately (if so that the measure's heard)--a private act, a revelation of the public. So that writing that had seemed to distance itself from us by its solitude--opaque, obscure, difficult--now seems by its distance more public, its distance the measure of its music. A privacy in which the self itself disappears and leaves us the world."
Bernstein also puts forth a precise description of the forces that are at odds with the poetry that attracts him. He refers to the "nexus of poets and critics who enforce norms of poetic value based on transparent language" as "official verse culture." In the essay "The Academy in Peril: William Carlos Williams Meets the MLA" he explains his definition:
Let me be specific as to what I mean by "official verse culture"--I am referring to the poetry publishing and reviewing practices of The New York Times, The Nation, American Poetry Review, The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, Poetry (Chicago), Antaeus, Parnassus, Atheneum Press, all the major trade publishers, ... [and most] major university presses.... Add to this the ideologically motivated selection of the vast majority of poets teaching in university writing and literature programs ... as well as the interlocking accreditation of these selections through prizes and awards judged by these same individuals.Bernstein's objection is to "biased, narrowly focussed and frequently shrill and contentious accounts of American poetry, [which claim,] like all disinformation propaganda, to be giving historical or nonpartisan views."
Bernstein's struggle in the arena of literary politics is a major thrust of his work. His premise is that writing is the practice of ideology, not an occupation that uses a transparent or neutral medium. As McGann comments in Black Riders: The Visible Language of Modernism (1993), "Bernstein manipulates the visible and audible features of his work because those features give material shape to the writing's social and intellectual commitments. The writing means to declare its ideological goals." In describing the concerns of Bernstein's writing, McGann uses the phrase "the poet's office," an expression that well fits Bernstein's conception of writing as a political act. Bernstein has edited a volume titled The Politics of Poetic Form: Poetry and Public Policy (1990). In the essay "Optimism and Critical Excess (Process)" in Content's Dream he argues that "Poetics is the continuation of poetry by other means. Just as poetry is the continuation of politics by other means," echoing Silliman's assertion that "Poetry, like war, is the pursuit of politics by other means." In his consideration of Bernstein's A Poetics (1992) in "Write the Power," Perelman argues that "Bernstein frames the book with gestures that make poetry a counter-State or non-State." Such a view of poetry may account for the title of Bernstein's forthcoming collection of poems, "Republics of Reality."
In 1986 Bernstein received the University of Auckland Foundation Fellowship and became a visiting lecturer in the English department of the New Zealand school, an appointment that enhanced his international reputation and brought him into contact with active New Zealand poets. His sojourn in New Zealand was followed by the publication of several works, including Veil (1987), a work he had written in 1976. The collection is prefaced by a quotation from Nathaniel Hawthorne's story "The Minister's Black Veil": "There is an hour to come ... when all of us shall cast aside our veils. Take it not amiss ... if I wear this piece of crape till then." The "veil" of this book is manifested by unreadable print a text of superimposed and blurred characters. In effect Veil is a collection of visual poems. According to Perelman, "its wordless pages, light gray with an overlay of letters, furnishes a textbook illustration of [how] ... dissonances, fore-grounding their own incompleteness [can be] considered in some sense normative." Bernstein also published Artifice of Absorption and the collection of poems The Sophist in 1987. The next year he brought out Four Poems, a fine press edition of short poems on a single large sheet. He also edited an issue of the journal Boundary 2 titled "43 Poets (1984)" and a collection of statements about the line, "L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Lines," which was included in The Line in Postmodern Poetry (1988).
The poems in The Sophist have sparked considerable critical interest. Literary critics such as Marjorie Perloff, Jerome McGann, and John Shoptaw have hailed such poems as "Safe Methods of Business," "The Simply," "The Years As Swatches," and "Amblyopia" as important to contemporary poetry. "Dysraphism" is a poem from the collection that charts new poetic ground:
A major poem in his oeuvre, "Dysraphism" brings together many of the approaches Bernstein made in earlier work: his humor, the auditory density of his words, and the dramatic compression of a multitude of voices into a continuous hiss or apparent scrawl. The impermeability of texts such as "Shade" and the accidentalism of "Lift Off" collide here. The qualities of typographic compression and density are present despite the readability of the text. Further, the accidental qualities of the voices and phrases seem completely natural and effortless though the poem unwaveringly drives home its powerful presence, establishing an argument and an enactment of Bernstein's poetics.
In a footnote to this poem, Bernstein makes clear that he is using a medical term to describe a method of constructing poems. Raph means seam, Bernstein writes in a note to the poem, "so for me disraphism is mis-seaming--a prosodic device." Perloff remarks in The Dance of the Intellect: Studies in the Poetry of the Pound Tradition (1985) that "'Dysraphism' playfully exploits such rhetorical figures as pun, anaphora, epiphora, metathesis, epigram, anagram, and neologism to create a seamless web of reconstituted words" and that "sensitivity to etymologies and latent meanings is reflected in the poem itself, which is an elaborate 'dysfunctional fusion of embryonic parts' a 'disturbance of stress, pitch, and rhythm of speech' in the interest of a new kind of urban 'rhapsody.'" The sound of "Dysraphism" almost achieves the status of a rhapsody or a song while in it Bernstein achieves moments of brilliant poetic speech. For example, "blinded by avenue and filled with adjacency" demonstrates exactly how this "seaming" that Bernstein proposes would work. The monolithic, ordered path ("avenue") is blinding; that is the traditional form of poeisis. What intrigues the reader is the idea of "adjacency," the materials at hand, next to us, next to each other. These are the materials that will be dysraphically combined. Even as Bernstein makes this assertion, his next words are "arch or arched at," words that are "adjacent" because of their sound.
Bernstein's Artifice of Absorption , published as a special issue of Paper Air in 1987, is a further articulation of his poetics. Called "the best introduction to Language poetry likely to be written" by Shoptaw, this essay in poem format immediately foregrounds the question of genre by its own form. In his introduction to A Poetics (where an emended version of this text was later republished), Bernstein comments, "If there's a temptation to read the long essay-in-verse ... as prose, I hope there will be an equally strong temptation to read the succeeding prose as if it were poetry." He makes a similar point later in Rough Trades, "Nowadays, you can often spot a work / of poetry by whether it's in lines / or no; if it's in prose, there's a good chance / it's a poem." Shoptaw points out that genre-blurring occurs in Bernstein's "versified narrative summaries" where he "blurs the lines between poetry, fiction, and prose."
In Artifice of Absorption Bernstein writes an essay that looks, on the page, like a poem. It is through this positioning that this text is able to so clearly set the stage for the description of the frame of Language poetry. The operative vocabulary of this description consists of two main terms, "absorption" and "artifice." A poem, Bernstein asserts, is writing "designed to absorb." Artifice is "a measure of the poem's intractability to being read as the sum of its devices and subject matter." Perelman notes that "even though its line breaks foreground its artifice, the poem-essay contains much conventional wiring. A large part of it is devoted to an omnibus review of contemporary poetry, providing capsule summaries of a number of language writers," including McCaffery, Susan Howe, Perelman, Nicole Brossard, David Antin, and Lyn Hejinian. The essay is an excursion, concisely stated, into poetry's terms, and gives, through references to other crucial texts in the terrain, specific descriptions of the textual particulars that constitute such writing specifically, what alternatives there are to a view of the text as a "transparent carrier of 'meaning.'" Bernstein writes that meaning, in such poetry, "is not absent or / deferred but self-embodied as the poem / in a way that is not transferable to another code / or rhetoric." Thus, the significance of this essay is that it does not surrender the ground of the essay, but redefines it--and in a way that is consistent with Bernstein's poetic achievements.
"Most of [Bernstein's] poetry," McGann writes in Black Riders, "does not surrender any of the territory of writing, any of the means to meaning. As a consequence, his writing extends across an unusual semiotic range--from the most minimal textual units, pre-morphemic, to the most complex rhetorical and semantic structures; and it carries out this 'opening of the field' not as an exercise in, or display of, imaginative mastery, but as an enactment--literally--of the world of writing." Bernstein's achievement in Artifice of Absorption is that he goes beyond simply mapping this new territory to claiming it through his own parody of artifice.
Bernstein had several appointments as a visiting professor during the late 1980s at such schools as the University of California at San Diego, the New School for Social Research, the State University of New York at Buffalo, and at Princeton University. In 1989 Bernstein and Bee published the lavishly illustrated The Nude Formalism , a book of short parodic poems, described by McGann as "parodies of the emblem tradition in [a] witty collaborative collection." Also interested in musical theater, Bernstein worked with composer Ben Yarmolinsky and wrote three librettos, Blind Witness News, The Subject (1995), and The Lenny Paschen Show. Bernstein also wrote Cafe Buffe, a libretto commissioned for composer Dean Drummond's New Band.
A milestone in Bernstein's career was his appointment in 1990 as the David Gray Professor of Poetry and Letters at the State University of New York at Buffalo, where he is also an associate member of the Department of Comparative Literature. After his appointment, Bernstein cofounded the Poetics Program, through which he has supported the New Coast and other conferences as well as publications such as Chain, Poetic Briefs, and Situation and resources such as Leave Books, Meow Press, and the Electronic Poetry Center. He coordinates the "Wednesdays At Four Plus," a reading series that has brought in important literary figures to read and discuss their work, and also directs the Poetics discussion list, an international online discussion group. Bernstein received a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in 1990.
Among Bernstein's publications in the early 1990s was Rough Trades, a large collection that presented poems in three sections: "The Riddle of the Fat Faced Man," "Rough Trades," and "The Persistence of Persistence." Notable for its display of Bernstein's sense of comedy, the collection opens with a clever poem whose title evokes a tropical geography: THE KIWI BIRD IN THE KIWI TREE
The reference to the "downpour of words" suggests not only a tropical climate but also a profusion of tropes and literary devices. Bernstein uses the poem to call for heterogeneous writing, not the "paradise" of a rigidly hegemonic model in which all is subordinated to a central image or insight. This fourteen-line poem makes notable use of enjambment in its decasyllabic lines. The hyphenated words beyond, encircling, and versions add a stammering element to the sound of the poem but also relate to its meaning: be- emphasizes being; encir-cling breaks the very circle the word means to circumscribe while clinging to the attempt; and vers-ions suggests both verse and vers, which means toward or against in Latin. The sense of direction in "vers-" is reinforced by the word's second half's being in a different direction, on the far left of the next line. Thus, the word version itself becomes a contortionist, dramatizing its own adjective, acrobatic. In this poem and others Bernstein calls for writing described in "Reading the Tree: 1," that is "turned into creamed figures, like constant / commotion, [is] repeatedly connoting."
A significant theme of Rough Trades --one that recurs in Bernstein's work--is suggested by its title. For Bernstein poetry not only is a vocation but also a business--and in either sense, a rough one. This theme is more than literary; it is true to Bernstein's generous and tireless involvement with poetry. As McGann notes in Black Riders, "The meaning of the work of poets like Lyn Hejinian and Bernstein is partly a function of their involvement with the social and material production of texts," and "like Morris and Pound, both have been actively involved in every aspect of poetry's production--from writing to book design to editing to distribution." While the difficulty of Bernstein's poetry limits his audience, he believes in the poet's social role: "The first fact is the social body, / one from another, nor needs no other."
Bernstein's "How I Painted Certain of My Pictures" was included in Best American Poetry, 1992, but the more significant event of the year was the publication of Bernstein's second book of essays, A Poetics. Significant essays, including "State of the Art," "Play It Again, Pac-Man," "Optimism and Critical Excess (Process)," "The Second War and Postmodern Memory" and the revised "Artifice of Absorption," explore poetics, philosophy, and the social dimensions of the text. Perelman comments, "Bernstein's continual humor--certainly a pleasure in the critical landscape--and the finesse with which he traverses institutional contexts (contemporary photography and painting, TV news and ads, video games, poststructuralism) mask the intransigence that ultimately informs the book where poetry is concerned."
Everywhere in his writing Bernstein's direction is toward the plural. In "State of the Art" he asserts, "Poetry is the aversion of conformity ." "Occasionally," Perelman points out, "Bernstein envisions a capacious unity, as in his call for 'a poetry and a poetics that do not edit out so much as edit in....'" This is difficult ground, however. As Perelman observes, "Such unities of poetry and poetics, modern and postmodern--e pluribus unum--flip into their opposite. Instead of an enlarged identity ... writing becomes the site of an intimate demonstration of the impossibility of identity."
An engaging piece in this collection is "Optimism and Critical Excess (Process)," the recast transcription of a talk given in Buffalo in 1988, which begins with the statement, "This is not a transcription." This essay is particularly valuable because of Bernstein's consciousness of it as a performance and his working through his main points with multiple voices--the literary historian, the comic, the truly poetic in a manner that crosses multiple disciplines. Poetics itself, in Bernstein's view, is the site of a confluence of possibilities. It is exploratory and declines reductive conclusions; it is "an activity that is ongoing, that moves in different directions at the same time, and that tries to disrupt or problematicize any formulation that seems too final or preemptively restrictive."
Furthering his efforts to give experimental poetry a platform, Bernstein edited two works in 1993. He chose and edited recordings for the compact disk Live At the Ear, which made available selections from the reading series conducted from 1984 to 1993 at Ear Inn, a restaurant-bar in lower Manhattan. The poets who can be heard include Bernstein as well as Susan Howe, Ron Silliman, Bruce Andrews, and Rosmarie Waldrop. Bernstein also worked with Howe to edit "13 North American Poets" for TXT magazine in France.
Bernstein's thirteen-poem collection Dark City shows his continuing mastery of multiple approaches to experimental poetry. Its major poems include "The Lives of the Toll Takers," "How I Painted Certain of My Pictures," "Emotions of Normal People," "The Influence of Kinship Patterns upon Perception of an Ambiguous Stimulus," and its title poem. According to Hank Lazer, "The Lives of the Toll Takers," the first poem in Dark City, "establishes a consideration of the state of poetry today as one ... recurring concern for Bernstein." Lazer also suggests that this poem contains "some seemingly simple and straightforward axioms or conditions for poetry." Early on in the poem Bernstein rejects an alliance with theories of empty signifiers:
As Bernstein has consistently argued, no single theoretical approach can ever be as fruitful as a framework that allows multiple possibilities for writing. "The Lives of the Toll Takers" exhibits Bernstein's humor ("What? No approach / too gross if it gets a laugh"), his use of intrusions from the external world ("Fatal Error F27: Disk directory full"), and playful typography:
A diverse collection, Dark City , as Lazer explains, is "built on a principle of difference--i.e., each poem different from those which surround it and a book of poems which offers conscious resistance to signature and the cults of personal voice [and] personality." Lazer points to "Emotions of Normal People," a catalogue of seemingly found language in the form of "an extended collage-poem," as one of the most important in the collection and praises Bernstein's "compositional arsenal," which includes "a wide-ranging vocabulary..., the recurrence of a peculiarly clotted sound-effect, a kind of line and sound that is deliberately but interestingly difficult to say, [and] a kind of anti-melliflousness." The collection has the difficulty, rewards, and delight ("as difficult as / Keeping a hat in a hurricane / Or an appointment with an erasure," Bernstein writes in "The Influence of Kinship Patterns") that one would expect from a major poet.
Bernstein's work has commanded the attention of leading national scholars and been widely read. Lazer reports that his writing has been published in Argentina, China, Spain, Australia, New Zealand, France, Switzerland, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, England, Canada, Mexico, Finland, Yugoslavia, and Japan. A correspondent for Sulfur, Bernstein also serves on the editorial boards of M/E/A/N/I/N/G (New York), the Segue Foundation (New York), and many other organizations. His readership and reputation as a poet will probably rise when his next collection, Republics of Reality: Poems 1975-1995, is published by Sun & Moon Press. It will include Bernstein's earlier, nearly unobtainable books--Parsing, Shade, Poetic Justice, Resistance, Stigma, Senses of Responsibility, The Occurrence of Tune, and The Absent Father in Dumbo (1990)--and will feature a new sequence of poems titled "Residual Rubbernecking."
Bernstein has been called a "difficult" poet, but such a label surely in part indicates his integrity as an artist. The body of Bernstein's writing is evidence of his tireless investigation not only of but also inside language. It is a record that cannot be collected in a single volume because the disparate nature of each investigation must, of necessity, modify the form it undertakes. As Bernstein remarks in his essay "Optimism and Critical Excess (Process)," "We don't know what Art is or does but we are forever finding out." McGann puts the case well in his essay in Contemporary Poetry Meets Modern Theory:
For Bernstein, poetic "meaning" is never a product, and hence cannot be coded or decoded. It is a process of writing through which [in Shelley's words] "the before unapprehended relations of things" have to be attended to (in both senses of that phrase). Among the most important of those unapprehended relations are the ideological formations--the constellated sets of different social opinions and understandings--which define (sometimes even dominate) "the way we live now." The poet's office, for Bernstein, is to put those constellations at the reader's disposal."Like Shelley," McGann continues, "Bernstein pursues this revelation not for its own sake, but to break the spell of ideology by dislocating its forms of representation."
Much of the difficulty of Bernstein's work is part and parcel of his aim as a writer. "The function" of such writing, according to Silliman, is "to make the reader aware of the role of projection as a response to form in the constitution of the reader as subject." McGann in Black Riders also recognizes the centrality of the reader in this process: "Poetry pursues its truth-functions by revealing agencies of meaning and by implicating the reader in the processes of revelation." Being implicated in this "process of revelation" places a demand on the reader. In Radical Artifice Perloff suggests that a text is called difficult because it does not meet the expectations of readers: "It is not because meaning won't reveal itself to a receptive reader, but because the culture has preconceptions of how images should be articulated and connected. The stumbling block, that is to say, is not so much obscurity as convention."
Discussing the kinds of texts that have been called difficult in his essay "In the Middle" from A Poetics, Bernstein suggests that one must first differentiate between types of textual fragmentation: "To do this, one has to be able to distinguish between, on the one hand, a fragmentation that attempts to valorize the concept of a free-floating signifier unbounded to social significance ... and, on the other, a fragmentation that reflects a conception of meaning as prevented by conventional narration and so uses disjunction as a method of tapping into other possibilities available within language." In "Writing" from Content's Dream he argues that the latter kind of text is not so much difficult as incomplete, in the sense that it must be completed by the reader: "In contrast to the predetermined interpretations of a text based on the primacy of the self or of logic, it is the formal autonomy of the text as model that elicits a response, an interpolation." The response that such a text demands makes the text inclusive rather than exclusive, since the reader's interpolation enters the fabric of the text. Ultimately, such a text enters a new realm of truth because "its autonomy is not of the self or logic but of nature, the world. Its truth is not assumed but made." What Bernstein attempts to make with his reader is a truth far greater than the tradition of author-centered texts could ever achieve. Bernstein's work--beyond the issue of its so-called difficulty--positions the text,its reader, and its meanings into a constellation of activities that open new possibilities made real in writing.
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