"'Rough Trades': Charles Bernstein and the Currency of Poetry"

Kevin McGuirk
Canadian Review of American Studies, Vol. 27, No. 3, 1997, pp. 205-14.


I began this essay with a heuristic suggested to me by the topic of the conference where this article was presented, by the title of a book by the American "Language" poet and theorist Charles Bernstein--Rough Trades (1991)--and by Bernstein's frequent appearances in literary venues in Canada. Bernstein's work might be read, I thought, as a response to the question: Is poetry marked by trade?

The question is a rhetorical one (the answer is supposed to be yes); and it is also a counterquestion to a prior rhetorical one (which would also suppose the answer yes): isn't poetry's trademark, indeed, its selling point (where it does sell), its very freedom from trade? In the late nineteenth century, the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins elegized an England "seared with trade" in his famous sonnet "God's Grandeur," while poetry assumed the paradoxical social role of antidote to the trademarked world. It's this role that various critical movements within poetics have been trying to shake off this century.

The critic Hank Lazer notes in a recent long essay that Bernstein's name typically functions as a metonym for "Language poetry," the mention of which occasions "evaluation (or attack on, summary, or advocacy) of Language poetry, and his poetry recedes into a more general discussion of the sociology of American poetry-culture" (1995, 35). Lazer aims to examine Bernstein's latest book of poetry on its own terms, not as a symptom. But the first problem, what makes Bernstein a potent trope for Language poetry, is the interesting one, not because it leads to discussions of the poetry scene, but because it leads to considerations of the nature of poetry and the poetic, the renovation of which may be Language poetry's main contribution to cultural knowledge.

Language poetry, or sometimes "Language writing," is the name for work by a loose grouping of mostly American writers (and friends) which emerged in the seventies on the east and west coasts, where they published poetry as well as theory in little magazines and small presses. It was based, negatively, on a rejection of the dominant voice model for poetry--that is, the expressive lyric organized around an individual and putatively authentic self--and related paradigms of authentic experience and unitary knowledge. Positively, it located itself in writing, the meaning-generating structures of language which are exemplified best in poetry, since poetry is the mode that above all displays its own materiality. Bernstein explains the position this way: "All writing is a demonstration of method; it can assume a method or investigate it" (1986, 226). Language poetry differentiates itself by investigating method aggressively, assaulting not just normal poetry but all normal discourse; other poetry, the stuff coming out of what Bernstein refers to as "official verse culture," merely assumes a method.

Some of the theorizing was based on a critique of the sign as commodity under capitalism. According to this critique, the sign supposes transparency, and offers direct access to the "goods" of meaning, disguising its material existence as sound, mark, and historically delimited signifier. Poetry, Ron Silliman (1995, 61) suggests, might be "a model for unalienated worker," fully engaged with the production of meaning in language all the way along. The project had significant affinities with poststructuralist theories associated with the academy, even though it's only in the last half-a-dozen years that some of its best known practitioners have taken university positions or published with university presses (Bernstein's A Poetics was published by Harvard in 1992; Bob Perelman's The Marginalization of Poetry with Princeton in 1996).

Bernstein's role has been, like others, but recently more than others, not just that of a poet (i.e. someone who writes poems) but as a cultural worker. It is because of his cultural work that his is the name most closely associated with Language poetry in the academy. Since 1990, he has headed the Poetics Program at State University of New York (SUNY-Buffalo), established the POETICS e-mail discussion group, and published criticism at an astonishing pace in both alternative and now mainstream journals--not to mention the twenty books of poetry in about twenty years. He is in a sense chief propagandist for Language poetry's version of poetry. He is "a name." One place he has a name is Canada.


I recently read this statement in a proposal for a master's thesis on African-Canadian poetries: "The Canadian signifier struggles to align itself with its signified" (Young, forthcoming). Canada's ongoing identity crisis is a crisis of representation. Our larger neighbours to the south appear to plumb a greater historical depth in their representations because they have a sustaining myth; and with a tradition of melting immigrants into one pot, they seem to have been able to stage, for a long run, a unified identity. American identity, however, has always been based on a promise as much as, or more than, a reality, ever since Winthrop, somewhere in the Atlantic, envisioned a city upon a hill before he and his Puritan brethren had even sighted this continent. The identity named by the word "America" is exactly tropical; which is to say that "America" is a trope, a turning away from the real thing.

Poets have often made large claims for America at the same time they have made claims for a poetry which must be commensurate with whatever they take "America" to signify. Not that they have had firmer ground or larger constituencies than Canadian poets, I think. As Stephen Fredman has pointed out, American poetry has been in crisis since the beginning, lacking the traditions that give it a place in Europe (1990, 6). And in a nation manically developing industrially and economically, there has been little space upon which to build, or stage, a tradition. That problem, in a sense, has become a tradition; or, as a major preoccupation of American poets, it has sustained an antitradition. But if the American poet has always been a marginal figure, it is this very marginality, and the inconsequentiality of poetry, that have challenged the poet to justify his or her practice in part by making outrageous claims for symbolic centrality. Walt Whitman is exemplary here. If America is a poem, as he says, then poets must be its authors--he himself in the first instance.

Language poets, too, stake out large claims for poetry. As Perelman points out, for Bernstein poetry is the chief theoretical instrument. Like Ralph Waldo Emerson, they absorb contemporary continental philosophy, but mainly to direct it toward the matter of America. Indeed, the thing that may provoke hostile responses to Language writing is this pointed argument for the social efficacy of poetry, effacing its privacy as a practice of the sensitive self. In their desire for a personal lyricism of modest but authentic emotions, most mainstream readers, poets, and critics, see Language writers as self-alienated and alienating thinkers and forget the provocative theoretical gestures of poets like Milton and Shelley, Whitman and Williams, who belong to the verse tradition they revere. Vital poetry (especially in the United States) has always been fed on radical and probably indefensible claims about its necessary relation to "the social body," the "first fact," as Bernstein calls it (1991, 11). And since Language poets are the only ones making such claims nowadays, that is where the excitement is, whatever you think about the poems themselves. Reading through their writings reveals them as not abstract intellectuals preoccupied by ideology, but classic American cranks and enthusiasts, Bernstein not least of all.

Rough Trades

The idea of rough trades suggested a thematic for Bernstein's essays, and a rhetoric or poetics for the poems themselves. Bernstein typically works through collage or juxtaposition not of images but of phrases and sentences from wildly disparate discourses. He sometimes resembles John Ashbery in his disjunctiveness, only Bernstein is much more aggressive in his madcap, or "malaprop" humour (Perelman 1996). The poetry is always fun, but while its very difficulty forces engagement it also quickly produces fatigue, like jogging with a runner vastly better trained than oneself. Which is why, I think, his essays are read more generally than then the poetry, at least read for comprehension.

Bernstein's engagement with the social body beyond the world of culture, (i.e. with the rhetoric of economics I am highlighting here), is reflected in his pertinently impertinent titles: a book of poetry called Controlling Interests (1980); an essay called "The Dollar Value of Poetry" (1984); a book of essays he edited, subtitled Poetry and Public Policy (1990). For Bernstein, poetry participates in the world seared by trade. Poetry as "dirty language" (Rasula 1996, 42), "the noise of culture" (Paulson 1988): rough trades are built into the work of poetry, beginning with the trades between writer and reader. Not to purify the language of the tribe, as certain modernist poets would have it, but to mix it up. Poetry, in these terms, can be defined neither by the self that produces it, nor by the self-contained universe of literature theorized by Northrop Frye. It exists discursively in the present moment, giving and taking from all other discourses that make up the social body. These include economics.

So what distinguishes Bernstein's economics-cum-poetry from Ezra Pound's? Pound was a crank and enthusiast of the first order who, we might say, took his economics too literally. In the twenties, Pound (the chief counsel for a modernist version of poetry) took up Social Credit, as if it were an emanation from his own poetics in the economic sphere. Use only the adequate symbol, he advises; words must correspond to things in the world, else usury, a system that values money only in relation to other money, will poison western society.

Wallace Stevens, Pound's contemporary, usually considered his opposite number poetics-wise, and a very rich man, averred that "money is a kind of poetry," absorbing money into a poetic (a symbolist, even) economy. What he termed the supreme fiction (poetry) would render the most supreme social fiction of modernity (money) a mere adjunct to poetic process (Stevens 1989). Martin Amis showed, in his novel Money (1985), that money was a potent fiction, degrading and nearly fatal for his every-man narrator John Self, pornographer of the body and spirit. "Martin Amis" appears in the novel as a bookish type reading in the corner of Self's local pub, faintly contemptible to Self, because he is a writer, but oddly compelling nonetheless, also because he is a writer--that is, the explainer to whom Self turns when his money-driven world comes apart. The fictional Amis, holding forth on fiction, dismisses motivation and character (which I would correlate with the self of mainstream lyric) as irrelevant to the contemporary milieu: it is "shagged out" (1985, 359). Authorial self-reflexivity here (this mixing of fictional and nonfictional codes) aims to neutralize the fetishistic power of the novel with its "pornographic" offer of transparent access to the goods of narrative meaning, which is the kind of smooth trade novel-readers want.

What Bernstein advocates is getting your hands dirty in the inescapable symbolism of the world, in the rough trades, the traffic in language. Not the rather chaste "money is a kind of poetry" but "poetry is a kind of money." Poetry falls into experience. It is exposed as merely, in Bernstein's words, "a souvenir of what was once supposed to be prestige goods" (1994, np), that is, a commodity in the nostalgia trade, a counter in the game of capital-C culture. Or--and this is where Language poets come in--poetry becomes a dynamic agent de-forming and re-forming symbolic trade through irony, juxtaposition, inappropriate contextualization, and a pervasive and bracing disrespect for normal discourse. "Poetry," Bernstein declares, "is aversion to conformity in the pursuit of new forms" (1992, 1).

That sounds a lot like Emerson to me, and Bernstein's Emersonianism is worth exploring, but I want to get in a few words on the Canada-U.S. topic before I summon the romantic fathers. In his very lengthy essay-in-verse, "Artifice of Absorption" (in A Poetics [1992]), Bernstein shows that he knows that Canada does not want to be absorbed into the United States. Among American poets he has been uniquely willing, actively, to divest himself of the colonialist view of Canada as a cultural and economic hinterland of his own country. We Canadians are either agape or aghast before the paradise of cheap commodities across the border, but he reverses the cross-border traffic by actually buying Canadian--reading Canadian poets as participants in the great multiplicitous project of poetry, visiting or publishing in Canadian sites of critical and creative work, and by pondering our differences. Midway through a statement (in verse) on poetics read at the (Canadian) Kootenay School of Writing in 1985, he states:


in the defense of free enterprise is no vice; violence

in the pursuit of justice is no virgin. This is

what distinguishes American and Canadian verse--a topic

we can ill afford to gloss over at this

crucial juncture in our binational course. I

did not steal the pears.

(1991, 29)

Yet despite the kind acknowledgements, what I am afraid of is that these references are merely tokens for the poet's Canadian colleagues. The highly absorptive "I-contain-multitudes" Whitman (who himself in buying Canadian absorbed Dr Bucke into his own persona and, like others, daydreamed Canada as part of the American union) similarly made his visitations to Canadian disciples (and not just in his body, apparently). Anyway, it is difficult to read these lines with any confidence: those allusions to free enterprise and violence in the same sentence will make Canadian readers think of the United States. But Bernstein actually denies viciousness in free enterprise while intimating that a Canadian emphasis on justice instead of freedom is "no virgin." We're bad sometimes but you're bad too. Finally, all these serious lines are undercut, and exposition arrested, by the deadpan statement: "I / did not steal the pears."

What is noteworthy in Bernstein to me, a Canadian, is not his Canadian connections, but his persistent Americanness. "State of the Art," the first essay in his A Poetics (1992), and thus Language poetry's letter to the world--celebrates the turbulent counterstate of poetry.1 Poetry is Bernstein's city upon a hill and "State of the Art" is his "I hear America singing." Bernstein is more critical, better informed theoretically than Whitman was--he is versed in poststructuralist theory. He is also in the know about multiculturalism, though he criticizes new curricula that offer only "a packaged tour of the local color of race, gender" etc. (1992, 4). Bernstein stresses rather the difficulty of listening: "the trades are rough" (1991, 7). For Whitman, it did not appear to matter whether all those single separate persons heard each other, they were caught up in the en-masse, the oversong, of America,--and Whitman catches them all up in his own sufficient listening.

Aversion Therapy

This is Emerson: "The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion" (1994, 1544). This is Bernstein through Emerson: "The virtue in most request is conformity. Poetry is its aversion in the pursuit of new forms" (1992, 1). Rather than con-forming with the status quo, de-forming and re-forming its materials. Linda Reinfeld (1992) argues that Bernstein employs irony and disjunction as weapons against romantic writing--but that means romantic as Jerome McGann (1982) conceives it: writing that tends to be absorbed in (that is, unconscious of) its own means of self-representation. I don't recognize that romantic Emerson, especially when I read him through Bernstein. Emerson's doctrine of the sovereign self is finally about Will, or "Whim" (1994, 1544), which is an artifice, however much he appears to argue from nature. He is motivated, moreover, like Bernstein, by exasperation with the prevailing norms of (poetic) behaviour. And like Emerson, Bernstein combines romantic energy with antiromantic artifice.

Bernstein would choose, he says, given a call for "a large common profile,"

the social project of writers committed to a transformation of society at a large-scale social level, of which writing can be an important arena in terms of its investigation of the nature of meaning, how objects are constituted by social values encoded in language, how reading and writing can partake of non-instrumental values and thus be utopian formulations.

(1986, 386)

Perelman observes, however, that although Bernstein views "writing [as] an engine of social change," he can only "envision individual enclaves of textual freedom standing in for politics" (1996, 95). This is Emerson with text rather than self as ground: textual self-reliance, impetuous refusals of normative textuality. Account for yourselves as self-reliant poets, and the counterstate of poetry, unaccountably, may emerge. Utopia is nowhere, and in formulating away from what is to what is not, poetry becomes a negative economy (the phrase is Bernstein's).2 "Language" poetry, then, might be said to be in the antibusiness of rescuing readers (the active verb is Reinfeld's)--that is, citizens--from empty contemplation of the art-object as well as passive consumption of commodity-language within or without poetry. Language poetry, I suggested at the outset, has advanced cultural knowledge by refitting the notion of the poetic, but what might be even more significant is its invitation not to interpretation (which it resists), but to the practice of language. Not simply reading but writing along--or what Jed Rasula writes as "wreading" (1982, 191).


1The phrase is Perelman's: "poetry as counter-state" (1996, 81).

2"A piece of paper with nothing on it has a definite economic value," he notes following James Sherry. But "if you print a poem on it, this value is lost." Here, he says, is "an economy of loss rather than accumulation" (1994, np).

Works Cited

Amis, Martin. 1985. Money. London: Penguin.

Bernstein, Charles. 1980. Controlling Interests. New York: Roof Books.

------. 1984. "The Dollar Value of Poetry." In The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book. Edited by Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.

------. 1986. Content's Dream: Essays 1975-1984. Los Angeles: Sun & Moon.

------, ed. 1990. The Politics of Poetic Form: Poetry and Public Policy. New York: Roof Books.

------. 1991. Rough Trades. Los Angeles: Sun & Moon.

------. 1992. A Poetics. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

------. 1994. "Provisional Institutions: Alternative Presses and Poetic Innovation." Essay posted on the e-mail list: POETICS <POETICS&commat;UBVM.CC.BUFFALO.EDU> 16 August.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. 1994. "Self-Reliance." In Heath Anthology of American Literature, Volume 1. 2nd ed, edited by Paul Lauter et al. Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath.

Fredman, Stephen. 1990. Poet's Prose: The Crisis in American Verse. 2nd ed. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Lazer, Hank. 1995. "Charles Bernstein's Dark City: Polis, Policy, and the Policing of Poetry." American Poetry Review 24 (5): 35-44.

McGann, Jerome. 1982. The Romantic Ideology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Paulson, William. 1988. The Noise of Culture. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Perelman, Bob. 1996. The Marginalization of Poetry: Language Writing and Literary History. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Rasula, Jed. 1982. "The Compost Library," Sagetrieb 1.

------. 1996. The American Poetry Wax Museum: Reality Effects 1940-1990. Urbana, IL: NCTE.

Reinfeld, Linda. 1992. Language Poetry: Writing as Rescue. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.

Silliman, Ron. 1995. The New Sentence. New York: Roof Books.

Stevens, Wallace. 1989. "Adagia." In Opus Posthumous. New edition. New York: Knopf.

Young, Melanie. Ongoing. "Object of Rage." MA thesis. University of Waterloo.