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A CONVERSATION WITH CHARLES BERNSTEIN
by MARJORIE PERLOFF
[This conversation was conducted by email between October 15 and November
22, 2002. I sent Charles one or two questions at a time, and he responded
exactly as he saw fit. There are two major threads here: (1) the changing
state of poetry culture over the past two decades and the response of
pedagogy to those changes, and (2) a discussion of specific Bernstein
poems and how they work. The second area is one Bernstein has often seemed
reluctant to talk about.]
First published in Fulcrum, no. 2, 2003
Marjorie Perloff: Charles, almost twenty years have gone by since
that fateful MLA when you delivered the lecture "The Academy in Peril:
William Carlos Williams Meets the MLA" (1983). I still remember what a
tempest you caused and how furious the old timers like M. L. Rosenthal
were at your demolition job. You were, in those days, a great fighter
against "official verse culture." How does the "situation in poetry" today
relate to that earlier moment? Do you feel the fight against official
verse culture has been won? Can it ever be won? How would you describe
the current scene vis-à-vis that of 1983?
Charles Bernstein: I remember after that speech - and it was more
a speech than a "paper" - Allen Ginsberg told me that while he liked what
I said, I should talk more slowly and breathe between phrases. I think
I must have been going at twice the words per minute than the other people
at the MLA, but they seemed to get the drift. I don't think I've slowed
down in the meantime, but then I'm more a tortoise type than quick like
MP: You a tortoise?? You'll have a hard time convincing your friends
of that because you are in fact super-quick on the uptake though I agree
you're not a bunny!
CB: Well, slow and steady and all that, if not unrelenting.
I take it as a given that the situation
has changed; but I believe the necessity to respond to our current predicament
is as acute now as ever. In 1983, I didn't anticipate that my remarks
would provoke repeated waves of applause, though I did expect the ire.
The response to that talk, and lots of other interventions many of us
were making at the time, suggested that certain long-entrenched views
about American modernist poetry were collapsing under the weight of their
own dogmatism, if dogmatism can be said to have weight and not just bark.
It was a commonplace, in those distant days of yore, to accuse those of
us questioning such dogmatism of being dogmatic; but I have long found
that some of the more narrow-minded people are the quickest to cry "Ideologue!"
at those who question their prerogatives. Of course --
Today we live in far different times:
(I sometimes ask Felix, my ten-year-old
son, if my silliness is going to cause him some future harm, I mean things
like breaking out into doggerel in the middle of lunch, or telling jokes
that are all schtick and no punch line.)
We have no poetry wars, no aesthetic crimes;
At last, we are all one big family
Under the tent of art and harmony.
What I think has changed is that the radical
modernism I was putting forward in that address - poets and poetics -
has received much greater acknowledgement since that time, both inside
and outside the academy, as the result of the advocacy of many poets,
scholars, and editors. At the same time, modern and contemporary poetry
is, if anything, becoming more peripheral to literary studies, in the
universities but also in elementary and high schools. Nor has the problem
with "official verse culture" disappeared, despite far greater prominence
for several of my contemporaries and the continued resilience of many
of the approaches to poetry that met with so much resistance in the 70s
and 80s. I do think that Creative Writing programs, taken in aggregate,
are more open now to alternative approaches to poetic composition; but
when I read The Writer's Chronicle of the Associated Writing Programs,
I mostly see the same problems many of us criticized two decades ago,
though now expressed with a kind of embattled, nostalgic tinge of those
who have know their ground is more like thin ice: better to skate on than
to pound. I find the publication rather charming, in a perverse way.
Almost any poet will tell you not enough
poetry gets reviews in publications-with-wide-circulation (PWC): big city
newspapers, the newsweeklies, and the national journals of culture and
opinion. Part of the problem would simply be solved if poetry were treated
by these publications as a national cultural "beat": if poetry were covered
the way art or TV is. But the reality is that poetry is economically too
small potatoes (even if the potatoes are sweet) to be able to count this
way. The larger problem is that contemporary poetry books suffer the same
neglect as contemporary philosophy books (as Peter Hare pointed out to
me recently) or really any number of "scholarly" books, books not intended
for a "general" audience partly because the general audience is kept ignorant
of their existence and the chronic significance for their lives, if we
consider the life of the mind essential for the body politic. And while
you might make an argument for the fact that poetry ought to be of greater
"general" interest than these other "difficult" books, I wouldn't, since
I see the fate of all of us as related to a lack of judgment, a lack of
cultural and intellectual commitment, on the part of the PWC. In contrast,
I am impressed and grateful that such small publications as The Boston
Review and Rain Taxi can offer more thorough and thoughtful
book reviewing than the combined efforts of the PWC.
When it comes to poetry, the PWC do a great
disservice to their readers: their coverage is, to use the terms of opprobrium
so popular in their reviews, inadequate and of poor quality. Almost no
coverage is given of the field, something that is otherwise the prerequisite
of journalism, and the choices of what is reviewed seem at best arbitrary,
though obviously skewed to the trade presses, even though these presses,
by almost anyone's measure, are responsible for only a small proportion
of the significant poetry of our time. (Sometimes this point gets misunderstood:
It's not that I think that any given book that is reviewed is no good
or that no book I care about is ever reviewed nor that I think only the
books I prefer should be reviewed or that if a few of them were that would
solve the problem.)
In any case, and to put it baldly, I think
only a very few of the poetry books published over the past twenty years
that you or I would value most highly have received any attention in the
PWC; no matter how important these works may be for many of us involved
with the art, they remain invisible to the literate reader who relies
on these publications for news of what is going on in poetry. There is
a connection here to literary prizes, too: not so much who wins them -
since there are a great number with many different perspectives - but
which ones get reported in the PWC. The Pulitzer, one among many prizes
at least its equal (and one with a track record as bad as, but similar
to, the PWC) - gets special attention because it is a journalism award:
an award given by a group that cares little or nothing for poetry but
gives plenty of attention to its self-promotion in its own organs. I recall
when Jackson Mac Low won the lifetime achievement award (then called the
Dorothea Tanning and now the Wallace Stevens prize) from the Academy of
American Poets in 1999, there wasn't even a mention of that in The
New York Times, which nonetheless has often reported on the award,
calling it poetry's best paying prize; but then Mac Low, even when honored
by nothing less than Official Verse Culture at its best, is presumably
one of the unmentionables in the land of the PWC.
Does it matter? It's not that the books
don't circulate or are not taught in universities or discussed in small
press and web journals or on listserv discussion groups. What difference
does it make? I know a lot of people are indifferent, focusing their critiques
more on universities than the PWC. But I think what Andrew Ross called
"the oxygen of publicity" matters quite a bit. Poetry survives and thrives
nurtured by its committed readers and practitioners, but I think the value
of poetry is not just for us but indeed for this wider public and that
the culture suffers when it isolates itself from its poets.
MP: What you describe seems to me entirely accurate but it's more
symptom than cause, isn't it? If the PWCs felt that the public "out there"
had even the slightest interest in the material in question, of course
they would review it and write articles about it. And the university presses
would want to do more to promote the work. So where did this vacuum come
from? Is it that English Departments themselves have abdicated their "literary"
role, wanting desperately to teach and study anything but "literature"?
Is it just a general dumbing down of the culture? But if the latter is
the case, why do certain very difficult works get quite a bit of attention?
For instance Oulipo. Perec's Life a User's Manual had, I recall,
a front-page review in the TLS and even La Disparition,
translated by Gilbert Adair, did relatively well. And then in the architecture
world, people will pour into shows of very arcane and avant-garde material--I'm
thinking of a recent Coop Himmelblau exhibit at the Schindler house in
LA--, and my hairdresser, to give just one example, went all the way to
Bilbao to see the Frank Gehry Guggenheim Museum and he'll go see Surrealist
art shows at this or that museum.
So what is it about "poetry" today that
makes it seem so "specialized" to people? Or, to the question another
way, why do people accept the "new" and unexpected in architecture and
often in the visual arts in general, but want their poetry to be "clear"
à la Billy Collins?
CB: You tell me. There are so many directions to go in answer to
your question I feel like the guy at the end of Bergman's The Passion
of Anna who is pacing from the left to the right of the screen with
that drop-dead chilling voiceover, "This time his name is Andreas Winkelman."
This time it's name is American poetry. On the one hand, yes of
course the PWCs are responding to a profound lack of interest in poetry
as an art form; but, on the other hand, do they aid or even foment this
disinterest, or are they just the messengers reporting the news? Why do
they cover the poetry they do cover rather than something else? Why is
the aesthetic right given such free reign to trash "radical poetry" while
the views of the other sides (all 44 and a half of them) go largely unheard?
By the standards of "massed" media, none of this poetry - not any of it
- amounts to a hill of beans in Iowa or a barrel of orangutans in the
new Times Square. On the one hand (if you can keep all these hands away
from the threshing machines), some poets and poetry do-gooders think the
answer is to go with the flow, to try to make poems that, while still
unpopular at the Prom of American Culture are a little more popular (and
don't assume I am not one of them). The classic 50s response is to become
Raincoat Adolescents, the hip-without being-cool dropouts or rebel saints
that figure, as social gesture, into the Romantic Ideology of a Rock 'n'
Roll culture that replaces poetic work with poetic attitude and whose
heroes are not poets at all but pop stars like Jim Morrison or Bob Dylan
or Patti Smith. I don't really need easy listening poetry if I can listen
to the Sex Pistols or New Formalism if I have Randy Newman. For "My Generation"
(formally the journal of the American Association of Retired Persons),
it's not the anti-modernist poetry championed by the Mediocracy that is
clawing at poetry's share of the consciousness of the American muddled
class but the Golden 60s Boxed Set rerereleases of The Who's Greatest
Hits (What's on second, Leonard Cohen shortstop, Joni Mitchell on
bass). They paved Poetry Paradise and put up a Pop Music Lot.
Popularity or immediate accessibility is
not a criterion of value for poetry in our time. Poetry can provide not
an extension of the dominant values in American culture - as the poetry
favored by the PWC does - but multiple, discrepant alternatives to them:
often messy, inchoate, disturbing, unhappy - indeed sometimes worse
- alternatives to boot. How the culture and how the PWC responds to this
is a judgment on them. A culture's refusal of its poetry is not without
consequence or redress. So when you ask if "the public [has] even the
slightest interest in the material in question," I would say that
the PWC's spurning of this, indeed, material in question, is a direct
violation of the public interest, that we won't have a public worthy of
the name until we engage with such material, in poetry, philosophy, history,
sociology, theology, and, indeed, politics.
MP: Touché. I think there's also a "skill" or "expertise"
problem. To be an architect, you do have to learn very specific things.
And a composer obviously has to know something about music. But anyone,
it seems, can be a poet. The New York Times praised Dana Gioia
precisely because he had worked for ten years for General Foods and made
his mint before turning to poetry-evidently something one can do by a
sheer act of will. One declares oneself a poet, period. So then anyone
of course can also be a poetry critic and comment on the quality of the
poetry. This past week The Wall Street Journal announced that Gioia
was one of "our finest poets" without ever saying how or why. It seems
their columnists simply know. And in response to the staggering
multi-million Gertrude Lilly bequest to Poetry magazine, Joseph
Parisi, the venerable journal's current editor, produced some sobering
statistics. For instance, the circulation of Poetry today is 10,000.
But every year the journal gets 90,000 submissions. Poetry, it would seem,
is much more fun to write than to read!
Clearly, Ph.D. programs like the Poetics
Program at Buffalo have gone a long way in rectifying this situation and
demanding some knowledge on the part of their would-be poets. Could you
comment on how this has worked at Buffalo? Since the program is largely
your brainchild, how did you go about inventing it? What are its best
features? Are there things you would now do differently?
CB: In terms of reviewing and awards, there is sometimes a presumption
that a person who never reads poems and has no apparent interest in poetry
should be able to judge what's good or bad in poetry, because we are all
"human beings" after all, as the coordinator of a recent very-minor-award
panel informed me a few days ago. Sometimes that goes for the "general
reader" qualifications of the reviewer/judge and sometimes it's a criteria
used to evaluate poetry. The "we're all humans" proposition is not just
a harmless shibboleth: it is a chief means of riding roughshod over aesthetic
and ideological differences and enforcing - now here's a ten buck word
- uniformitarianism. The poets I most care about are, maybe, trying
to become human - or nonhuman; anyway, they are not so quick to
assume what the human is or how it manifests itself.
The problem with lots of poetry that bills
itself as easy reading is that there's not a lot of there there, or what
there there is doesn't hold up to more than a quick and casual glance.
The irony is that "difficult" poetry may actually provide a good deal
more immediacy and affect than much of the more "I am my subject matter
and don't you forget it" variety. That's why I would cast the issue in
terms not just of aesthetics but aestheticism - linguistic sensation.
There is much still made of the alleged problem that lots of the poems
you and I like to read are not point, click, and play; but the alternative
provided is not like asking the readers to write their own poems (though
that's a fine activity too, for another time) or stare into the abyss
(though that may be something that comes up along the way). The difference
is more like the one between riding a motorbike and taking a taxi (substitute
your own engine-free metaphor if you like). Personally, I prefer teleportation,
since that gives me more time for reading hard-core poetry.
As to the Poetics Program: university English
departments typically separate poetry writing courses from poetry reading
courses and we all know that the former are on the rise while the latter
are on the wane. The Poetics Program, as we formed it in the early 1990s
in Buffalo, rejected this dichotomy, not just in an informal, or class-by-class,
basis, but as a matter of policy; and not just at an undergraduate or
master's level, but also, and even primarily, in the Ph.D. program. The
poets teaching in our graduate Poetics Program - Susan Howe, Robert Creeley,
Myung Mi Kim, Loss Pequeno Glazier, Dennis Tedlock - teach not creative
writing but rather doctoral seminars; the students don't submit poems
or manuscripts, but essays and dissertations. The Poetics Program students
are often poets and we support the activity of writing poetry as a positive
contribution to teaching literature classes, writing criticism, and doing
scholarship. This is not to say that all the Poetics students are poets,
but lots of them are and they have formed their own immediate local context
of exchanging work, publishing magazines and books, and organizing reading
No poetry community is without troubles,
and ours has its share, but it is vital and sizable and even formidable
since our program, having surprising little competition among Ph.D. programs,
has attracted (in early and not-so-early stages) some great poets, scholars,
critics, editors over the years. Because we have some funds available,
we are able to provide a small amount of money to any of the students
who want to have a series or press - and that little bit of money goes
a long way. This approach to funding - giving to a highly decentered not
to say idiosyncratic set of project can lead, as Joel Kuszai put it a
while back, to a place with "all leaders and no followers"; but at least
it avoids the committee-driven decision making of many official university
magazines and reading series, where money is centralized and consensus
is emphasized. Anyway, this has been my philosophy. We also have lots
and lots of visitors, who meet with students in seminars as well as give
readings or lectures. So it's all very poetry intense, with lots of fellow
poetry devotees and lots of activities. And also a strong web presence,
with the Electronic Poetry Center and also the Poetics List.
Looking back, I think the Poetics Program
was an intervention particularly relevant for the 1990s and so one that
now needs to undergo some serious and necessary transformations, as I
think all institutions do, less they become stagnant, victim of their
own successes or preoccupied with their own failures.
There is always a lot of concern expressed
among poets about the relation of poetry to the academy. (I wish I could
say there was comparable concern in the literary academy for this topic.)
Without jumping into the quicksand of this topic, I would say that my
own commitment has been to find ways to use the university and its resources
to support poets and poetry, especially poets outside the academy. As
I said in an interview with Andrew Epstein for Lingua Franca on
this topic, the issue isn't that, as a poet, you have a university job,
but what you do with it.
MP: I've always felt the "issue" of the poet in the academy was
a red herring. Poets have to make a living somehow and some choose teaching
even as others (Kit Robinson, Ron Silliman) work in the computer industry,
and others as lawyers or psychiatrists. But enough sociology; I want to
turn now to your poetry, which, it seems to me, has gotten somewhat short
shrift vis-à-vis your essays, manifestos, lectures, etc. Especially
in the UK, critics and reviewers talk of you as the chef d'école
of the Language school rather than as the very particular poet than you
Suppose we look at what I take to be a
particularly brilliant recent poem, "The Manufacture of Negative Experience,"
in With Strings (Chicago, 2001). What was the actual process of
composing this long poem? Where did you begin? Do you start with a particular
conception and then "fill in," or does one perception immediately lead
to a further perception, as Olson put it? Do you assemble the found texts
ahead of time? Do you move passages around a lot? In short (ha!), can
you describe for our readers how composition took place.
CB: I wrote the poem, using some notes I had assembled over the
previous year, in Provincetown in August 1992. I was there with Susan
of course, but also with Emma, who was seven (echoes of her presence in
§41 - "When I say 'no' I mean /maybe, probably not, what's / the
matter with you?, do I / make myself clear? ..."), and Felix, who, at
a few months old, may well be the "beeper" of §333. Like most of
my poems, I wrote this one in a bound "sketch"-type notebook, then typed
it up and revised. "The Manufacture of Negative Experience" is one of
a number of longish serial poems: loosely linked stanzas, all bouncing
off of, or getting sucked into, the black hole of the title. It's a constellation
or array, or then again maybe something like a charm bracelet. One of
the charms is §482: the set of jokes in the form of one-line questions,
all with same answer, "No." One of my obsessions has been to include -
fully and faithfully (or is it faithlessly, I always get those confused)
- a set of Henny Youngman-style jokes within a poem. So here it's 11 questions
spread over 15 lines. And those questions also rhyme with similar jokes
or quasi jokes in other parts of the poem. (Was that a real joke or did
you just mess it up?)
There are thirteen parts to the poem. Another
way I think of these is as something like conical sections arcing around
a numinous center (negative experience). That's one way to understand
erratic numbering (3, 17, 37, 38, 41, 46a, 57, 71, 333, 334, 482, 501,
788), which is both one of those stock jokes I like so much, while at
the same time giving a sense of the space between the sections. The form
is probably more like Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations
than Olson's Projective Verse, but it's true I want the parts to
Lots of contrasting materials by way of
language, style, prosody, subject matter: fractured aphorisms and slogans
(§38), semi-nursery rimes (§17, §57), speech acts (§41),
riddles with no answer if not no for an answer, and some parts that combine
these (§3). A lot of the poem sounds like you've heard it before
but can't place it or just when you think you remember, it's on the slip
of your tongue until it gets bounced out of mind by a quick dissolve to
the next illusionless allusion or allusive elision, or a pop fly to third
when you still don't know who's on first.
And that, again, brings up the title as
organizing principle: less negative experience as in "I had a very negative
experience at polka night at the supper club" and more as in Adorno's
"Negative Dialectics": "Truth is the antithesis of existing society" (which
is the epigraph to a related poem, "Emotions of Normal People" in Dark
City). Or like that great "Not this" in Ron Silliman's Tjanting.
Section 37 is taken from a school report
on my twin nephews, who were in elementary school at the time. I jotted
those sentences down when I was over to my sister- and brother-in-law's
house for Thanksgiving. I am one of these mildly unsocial people at family
gatherings who do things like that: scribble things in my notebook from
school reports, scan the popular magazines on the table, record overheard
conversation, all in the endless quest for material. School reports are
classic fodder for my hypnopompic mill: such school blotter characterizing
may not kill you but the wounds ... they don't so much heal as morph.
I identify with everything that's said about David and Ian and so those
statements form the poetics of the piece.
I guess, to get back to your question,
a lot of the poem is pulled from the air, from signs in my mind and on
the street, from what I am reading in the newspaper or hearing on the
radio, everything gets considered as possible material to be transmuted,
sputtered, turned topsy turvy or tipsy flopsy. As if "negative experience"
could be the portal into a world next to the one we usually pretend to
inhabit, less through the looking glass than the blank side of the mirror
that doesn't reflect but allows for reflection.
For example, in writing this I was casting
around for an adjective to go with "mill" to describe the fuzzy logic
of interconnections in the poem; for some reason hypnogogic came to mind,
but I wanted something that meant the opposite, which is when I lighted
on hyponopompic: a state of dawning consciousness, just after sleep. Meanwhile,
while working on this explanation, and it was getting late, Emma wanted
to use the computer to play a biology CD-ROM, so all of a sudden, out
of the blue, I heard this disembodied, hypercalm voice, talking about
the plasma membrane of a cell as a "fluid mosaic" and I realized this
was another way of talking about poetic structure; in this case, the internal
elements that make up each section as well as the relation among the sections.
Which leads me to §3: "Madder / than
a scratched eel at a / Crossing Guard kettle-shoot." The kettle shoot
is always the highlight of the Crossing Guard annual convention in Whipsalantamariaozoola,
even though the scratched eel underwater diving meet is my personal favorite.
Well ,you'd have to have been there to take it in fully; this was the
best way to evoke the experience, a painful one that I will remember for
the rest of my life.
What else to say? As you see, I guess I
am more tempted to write another stanza than offer up an explanation.
Not that I mind explaining anything, which anyway is always more a supplement
than a substitute, or so I would hope.
MP: Your account shows how absurd it is to talk of yours as a poetry
where "anything goes," indeed, how carefully you plan the poem's overall
architecture. But I still have some questions. First and foremost-and
this would apply to most of your poems, whether in With Strings or in
earlier volumes-how does the reader deal with the hermeticism of the allusions?
In §37, for example, once you explain that Ian and David are your
sister-in-law's twins, the section is perfectly clear. But if I didn't
know that, I would assume that Ian is a character, perhaps in Cowper's
Task, perhaps in another Cowper poem or related text, and that you're
modernizing the situation for parodic effect. Now, you can say it doesn't
matter, that the thematic import would be the same. But it does help (I've
found) if the reader knows the New York world you're so often referring
to-a world of those Henny Youngman jokes and phrases like "a wolf in schlep's
clothing." So I wonder whether you think some day your poems will or should
be annotated by editors? And of course if this were the case, the annotations
would be longer than the original poem or perhaps themselves a new poem,
which might be fun.
I'm of two minds about the question of
reference. Part of me feels that anyone living in today's media world,
whether in Helsinki or Hackensack, will read "The Manufacture of Negative
Experience" with a big smile and a great shock of recognition. But then
I'm always surprised how many people even in (or perhaps especially in)
our own social circles, have never heard of No-Doze, pastrami, the Aswan
Dam, or the self-help movement. For example, at the recent Modernist Studies
Association meeting in Madison, I was astonished to learn that none of
the people I was dining with-the poet Cole Swensen, the philosopher Jean-Pierre
Cometti (French visitor, very sophisticated, who writes on Wittgenstein
and Musil), or the young poet-critic-academic Craig Dworkin-had ever seen
The Godfather or knew anything about it. I assumed EVERYONE had
seen that film, or part of it, at one time or another.
So-to pose what is probably an impossible
question: how do we deal with complex cultural reference in the Age of
Billy Collins and Dana Gioia? Yours is, to quote William James on Gertrude
Stein, "a fine new kind of realism." I see you as one of the central chroniclers
of our culture. But can we ask readers to know what Charles Bernstein
CB: We have to make the reader an offer she can't refuse, can't
even imagine refusing, whether or not all the references are known, and
all this within the limits of poetry alone (that is, the threat is not
of diminished physical capacity but of diminished aesthetic capacity,
which remains a looming threat for many Americans). By refuse,
I mean that turning away in the face of the daunting challenge of decoding
the references, conceits, forms before even starting to read the poem.
My idea, and certainly not mine alone, was to make poems that allowed
for ambient access, that you start by getting the hang of, more than figuring
out. It doesn't mean that at some other point in your experience with
the poem you won't ponder those obscure references but that the poem encourages
you to go on what you experience not just what you already know. Pragmatism,
pragmatism, joggity jag.
You'll remember the Chinese translator,
in the giddy conclusion to A Test of Poetry (in My Way), asked
just the question you raise about the title of my poem "No Pastrami" ("Does
the pastrami refer to a highly seasoned shoulder cut of beef?"). But,
then, what is the meaning of pastrami? Would it be enough to define it
ethnically or would you really have to have a slice and not just a slice
but a pastrami on rye at the Carnegie, but wouldn't the Stage be better?,
or maybe only the Second Avenue Deli would do.
Yes we have no pastrami, yes we have
no pastrami today.
The interesting thing about the translator's
questions in A Test of Poetry is that the difficulty posed by the
poems were not syntactic or grammatic or even structural but rather questions
of cultural reference, especially from American popular, local, and mass
culture. That's partly because this particular translator was a scholar
of American poetry and was able to navigate through those formal aspects
of the poems more readily; though another reader, someone who shared my
mass and pop cultural experience but not my poetic interests, might have
just the opposite difficulty. Still, the Chinese translator's predicament
is hardly unique to non-Americans, but, rather, is a defining condition
for everyone in American culture.
Anyone who teaches contemporary literature
will have the experience that the most common cultural references of their
own younger days are as obscure as Greek myths to those waves of ever
younger people who were not "in" the culture at that time. The bigger
they are, the harder they fall. ("All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for
my close-up," as some of us will recall Norma Desmond saying in Hollywood
Boulevard.) You sometimes hear people lament the decline of the big
three TV networks as creating a crisis of decentralization, as if Lloyd
Bridges on Sea Hunt provided a shared national experience that
we now suffer from the lack of, as we contend with the dispersed sons
of Lloyd: Beau and Jeff. I use this example - knowing full well that you
may never have heard of Sea Hunt, which had its TV first run from
1957 to 1961 and which had a kind of ominous, not quite existential, feel
- because it was turned down by the networks and was an early example
of syndication that ultimately robbed "us in the U.S." of the common culture
... like they had over there in Russia, with the one TV station?! The
web, which makes 50s TV syndication seem like the tiniest hairline fracture
of network hegemony, provides quick information on an amazing range of
once-famous references, Sea Hunt and the Aswan Dam included. (I guess
for my work you can't go too far wrong thinking of the 50s and the Cold
War as a possible backdrop, once you start to see the pattern.) Google
is both a veritable Guide to the Perplexed and a fomenter of perplexity,
both a handle on, and a downward slope into, the Babel (or is it Bible?)
of information on the Internet and the concomitant eclipse of central
authority. (Lately I've been fascinated by the difference between the
web sites developed for poets, say on the EPC, and the fan sites you get
for every which manner of things, like the one for Sea Hunt.)
You touch on some of these issues in fundamental
and illuminating ways in your recent essay, "The Search for Prime Words:
Ezra Pound as Nominalist" on the use of proper names in Pound, and Yunte
Huang also addresses this issue in a recent piece, "Was Ezra Pound a New
Historicist?" The question in both your essays is - How are we supposed
to know the significance of certain anecdotal references in The Cantos?
In both Eliot's and Pound's modernist practice, there is a professed commitment
to a canon of Historical Events and Cultural Works that are presented
with the (implied) injunction that readers have an obligation to know
what they are or, if not, learn about them. Stein and Williams might stand
for the opposite if those Proper Names weren't ones that you and I, after
all is done and said, would expect those reading this exchange to know
about (or if they didn't possibly prompt them to find out). The problem
you and Yunte raise in regard to Pound's work is whether we are take his
anecdotal references as such luminous details, especially if they refer
to his own particular experiences, such as restaurants he visited in New
York or Paris. (Do readers of this exchange really need to know the difference
between the Stage and the Carnegie?) Yunte argues that you always need
paratextual information and that there is not necessarily a value in imagining
a poem as self-evident: I stare at the page and all the significance of
the Proper Names immediately manifests itself to me, to ponyback (or is
it pigtail?) on Pound's famous and equally problematic remark about the
status of the Chinese written character.
Poems can't go it alone and never could,
relying, as they so often do, not only on the kindness of strangers but
the testimony of friends.
Poetry is too important to be left to
its own devices.
Interpretation is act, editing a form of
writing, translation a condition of reading.
There is no end to what you might need
to know to read a poem and maybe no beginning either. In my textual economy,
each poem is an initiation into a world of particulars both inside and
outside the reader's information databank. The question is: Does that
which is unrecognized in the poem make the work more forbidding or more
beckoning. In the kind of poems I want, you don't need secret "abracadabra"
words or some special knowledge or even explanatory annotations to open
the door of the poem. Rather, all that's needed is a willingness to jump
into the middle of a flow of experience, just as you do every time you
open up the door to your house onto that other world we sometimes call
everyday life. The fact is that as a culture we don't share a fixed set
of given, all purpose, cultural and historical references or, insofar
as we do, there are relatively few of them and, taken as topological points,
they make an inadequate map of our history, our contemporaneity, our aspirations
and destinies. I don't want my poems to impose a sense of what's most
important on the world or on those readers who care to take the journey
the poems offer. But the ecology of reference does concern me: creating
a mix so that everyone gets some things but no one can get everything
- and counting on both.
You mention the wolf's in schleps' clothing
but I remain more concerned about the schleps in wolf's clothing, the
paper tigers of poetry. Or there is the one about the difference between
the schlemiel and schlemazel: the schlemiel is the one spills the soup;
the schlemazel is the one who it gets spilled on. You could say that this
is just the difference between the poet and the reader, in my semiotic
So maybe, going back again to §37,
the dedication to William Cowper's The Task is the more significant
frame and I was leading you down the garden path of anecdote in my comments
on David and Ian. Negative experience necessarily engages what you don't
know: The manufacture of negative experience - going on in the midst of
uncertainty of reference, bearing, morality, truth - is the task of poetry.
In The Task (1782-85), Cowper writes:
When Winter soaks the fields, and ... feet
If the task of poetry is "new discoveries,"
what is the task of criticism?
Too weak to struggle with tenacious clay,
Or ford the rivulets, are best at home,
The task of new discoveries falls on me.
At such a season and with such a charge
Once went I forth, and found, till then unknown ...
MP: I love the aphorism "Poetry is too important to be left
to its own devices." Vintage Bernstein in that it sounds at once wholly
familiar (we're always talking about something being too important to
be left to its - or his or her - own devices) and yet it is completely
absurd. Or is it? Poetry does have "devices"-rhyme, repetition, anaphora,
assonance, onomatopoeia, metaphor, metonymy, pun, simile-but device alone
can't make something poetry, as too few "poets" realize. So your little
proverb is only too true, it turns out. The particular feat of your poetry,
I'd say, is this doubleness or tripleness or quintupleness .... Every
statement looks in more than one direction, which is, of course, what
poetry is all about and always has been.
The reader needn't know all the allusions.
When I first read "Gertrude and Ludwig's Bogus Adventure" (My Way)
I had no idea what those Pete Hewitt "Excellent Adventure" films were.
Boy films, kid films, science fiction-not at all my thing. But even without
knowing the actual films referred to, the meanings come through well enough.
On the other hand, once told about the films, I became quite intrigued
with looking them up, rather the way I now love reading about "the cake
shops on the Nevsky" Pound writes of and which he never saw any more than
I've seen them! That's what makes poetry so infinitely re-readable. And
poetry that has none of this thickness quickly gets boring.
But there's another point. Yes, one can
do without knowing all the references but there's also the unavoidable
fact that sooner or later, readers WILL look them up. In twenty year's
time, someone will write an essay or thesis on your poetry and they'll
go to the Stage and the Carnegie and have a look at the pastrami!! After
all, in their day, Eliot and Pound, not to mention Stein or Duchamp, were
felt to be hopelessly hermetic, and now students talk about the Oculist
Witnesses in the Large Glass, as if it were all part of normal
discourse. And in the case of Frank O'Hara, where I used to think most
of the person and place names were intentionally fortuitous, now scholars
are writing solemn treatises about the significance of lunching at Larré's
on 56th St, or on the meaning of Gauloises. And since younger people
have no idea who Billie Holiday was, there's much writing about her voice,
cultural role, and so on.
So time catches up with the poetry! And
that's OK because, in the end, nothing substitutes for "close reading,"
which needn't be arid New Critical exercise at all, but just the habit
of paying attention to the words and sentences on the page or on a CD-whatever.
I will sound like an Old Wolf in kvetch clothing when I say it's a practice
that has been largely lost. So afraid are teachers and their students
of actually looking at a text, so fearful that they will be endowing that
text with "autonomy," that crucial things get missed. I was dismayed the
other day in my graduate class when, in reading Stein's "Miss Furr and
Miss Skeene," three of the eighteen seminar members thought Helen Furr
was the same person as Mrs. Furr and that she had left her husband to
be with Georgine Skeene because she was stifled by bourgeois capitalism,
or some such thing. The seven-page story does refer to Helen not liking
to live "where she had always been living," which-common sense tells us-could
hardly have always been with her husband, could it? And on the next page
we read explicitly that Helen Furr went home to visit "her mother and
father." Accordingly, when you get this kind of reading, you know the
student hasn't actually read through the text.
Teaching poetry thus remains a challenge.
And I can't think of a more perfect comment on all this than your words
in "What's Art Got To Do With It?":
The shortest distance between two points is a digression.
I hold for a wandering thought just that I may stumble upon something
worthy of report.
Who knows, ahead of time, what those items
worthy of report, might be?
CB: And that goes as much for criticism as poetry, where the value,
in part, comes from the searching for something not yet defined. Maybe
close reading would get a better rap if we called it PSI: Poetry Scene
Investigation. Of course, that would mean treating the poem as a crime,
but maybe it is: a crime against mass culture.
"Poetry is too important to be left to its
own devices," also means that poems can't do all the work of poetry by
themselves. For poems to come into being, we need editors, publishers,
designers, proofreaders, booksellers, web sites, teachers, critics, detractors,
supporters, and of course, not to leave them out of the picture entirely,
poets and readers. I think the phobia about explication comes from the
fact that some of what calls itself that is obtuse, dishearteningly literal
or thematic, in short, deadening. But bad teaching about poetry is a comparable
problem to bad writing of poetry; poetry as an art may seem to suffocate
under the blankets applied in a well-meaning effort to keep it warm (as
if the body of the text was growing as cold as a corpse), but poems go
their merry way irrespective and irregardless. Cut-'em up, mangle their
meanings, weigh them down with unsupportable symbolism, reduce them to
a sentiment, strip them to their empty cores ... and they still keep coming
back for more. Poems are remarkably resilient, and far less likely to
be injured by incursions into their autonomy or excursions into their
associations, than we have any reason to expect.
Yet if poems are uncannily resilient, poets,
alas, are not.
But, there I go again, off on a tangent.
(How many tangents can play the harp on the edge of a pin? Or is it pine?)
That is, I don't mean to suggest that criticism
is always, or even mostly, agonistic. Your own approach to close reading
is not as a contest between poem and reading, but as dance, the two in
tango. Moreover, without such external interventions, poetry would, indeed,
be a dead art.
The poem is not finished even when it
is completed. Completion or publication marks not the end of the poem
but rather its entry into the world through the responses to it. And that's
another dimension of the sort of close reading you encourage; for the
poems we reread over time become cultural time capsules, linguistic dioramas
in which each phrase is an imaginary hyperlink for our further exploration
of - or reentry into - a particular time and place. In other words, crucial
to any sense of the cultural details in a poem is the world they constitute;
not only what the particulars are but also the economy of the particulars
- how they are distributed and arranged. That's the way poems lend themselves,
are made for, reinhabitation; why chasing down the references or the milieu
the references evoke doesn't detract from the poem but rather opens it
Inspiration is not what comes before the
poet writes the poem but what happens when the poem is read (or heard).
A criticism is responsible to the degree
it is able to respond.
Criticism engages and extends the work
of the poem, but criticism is not the end of poetry. Nor is the poem the
final destination of a process of analysis and research.
The poem is an initial point of embarkation
on journeys yet to come, on earth as they are in the imaginary space between
here and there, now and then, is and as.
So, hey, if you have time now, let's go
together on a trip to those cake shops on the Nevsky.
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