Charles Bernstein interviewed by Yubraj Aryal
The Humanities at Work: International Exchange
of Ideas in Aesthetics, Philosophy and Literature
Editor: Yubraj Aryal
Publisher: Sunlight Publication, Kathmandu, Nepal (2008)
and table of contents
body of text
Since you are one of the founder members of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E
and the movement related to it, let me ask you how the movement
marks a new shift in American poetry? And how the movement goes
against the mainstream tradition in the American poetry? I would
be happy if you begin from a brief introduction of language poetry
movement for our readers.
Language Poetry is a term that has come to stand for a rather
raucous period in American poetry, from the mid-70s onward, in
which a group of writers, mostly in New York, San Francisco,
and Washington, D.C., engaged in a large-scale collective effort
to champion poetic invention both in our own work and the work
of other English language poets of the 20th century. Because
most of the established magazines, presses, and poetry organizations
favored a different approach to poetry, we relied on our own
resources, as far as publishing and presenting our work in performance.
This was collective action without dogma, perhaps brought together
as much by we didn’t like as what we shared stylistically.
And while from time to time someone would try to impose order
or a neat history on our unruly and diffident practice, many
of us took those interventions as an opportunity to define ourselves
against just such labeling and schooling. There is no one history
here and no one poetics.
1978, Bruce Andrews and I started L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, a forum
for poetics and discussion, something we felt was crucial and
also lacking, both in the mainstream and in the alternative poetry
scenes, in which there was an antipathy to critical thinking
bordering on anti-intellectualism. The poets of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E,
and there were dozens of us, were interested in both an historical
and an ideological approach to poetics and aesthetics and also
a stand of dissent, both to prevailing poetry norms but also
to U.S. government policies. We questioned all the “given” features
of poetry, from voice and expression to clarity and exposition;
and in the process, came up with many different, indeed contradictory,
approaches to poetry and poetics. Our desire to link our poetry
and poetics with the contemporary critical, philosophical, speculative,
and political thinking – with a visceral connection to
the civil rights movement, feminism, and the antiwar movement – has
become a significant mark of our work, and one that has perhaps
given rise to our various collective names, which have been both
praised and condemned.
You have been neglected and unrecognized long by the mainstream
tradition. But your language poetry movement has earned sporadic
popularity. What discontent do you share with the traditionalists
I shared with my most immediate poetry comrades – Bruce
Andrews, Ron Silliman, Lyn Hejinian, Leslie Scalapino, Susan
Howe, Nick Piombino among others – a dissatisfaction
with the Official Verse Culture of the 1970s and early 1980s,
with its blandness and conformity, and with its high-handed rejection
of the historical and contemporary particulars in poetry that
most motivated us to write, collectively explored alternatives,
going back to radical modernist innovations while at the same
time championing the work we found most interesting in the immediately
prior generation. We actively exchanged ideas about ideology,
arts, politics, aesthetics, and philosophy, expressing our engagements
through intensive small press publishing of books and magazines.
Deep friendships developed in the course of these exchanges,
and lots of disagreements, collective engagements, and concerted
am not sure what to say about what it “shared” with
the traditionalist except perhaps to say that I am as much engaged
with some threads of the poetry tradition as anyone else. Too
often those who claim to speak for “traditional values” forget
that radical innovation in form and content is a fundamental
part of the literary tradition of the West, from Blake to Baudelaire,
Swinburne to Mallarmé, Poe to Dickinson and Melville.
I really appreciate generative novelty of your poetry – in
a way Marjorie Perloff does – but find no strong
reason to counter marxist and cultural
critics who attribute the kind of your avant- garde as regressive
and retrogarde. How do you defend [yourself against] their objections?
I am in the enviable position being attacked for being too
leftist by some and not leftist enough by others. Poetry is not
a form of political action and by itself won’t change the
world. But leftist politics that doesn’t engage with the
way language works to shape our perceptions of the world and
our responses to it will be hoisted on its own positivist petards.
Language is shot through with ideology; poetry can provide a
means for that ideology come out of the closet.
problem for politics, as much as for poetry, is how you define
the real, how you describe the state of things. We see reality
through metaphors and respond to those metaphors. No writing
is innocent. Poetry marks the end of innocence for writing and
the beginning of the imaginary.
But in the case of the spatial world like Nepal which
has been still striving to free herself from the grip of
feudalism, how your poetry can promise the dream of new social
(maybe artistic) humanism?
I often wonder what I have in common with some of my closest
poetry friends. Over time, I see how much difference there was
in the 1970s between the poetry climates of New York and San
Francisco. I have this no doubt perverse interest in accentuating
differences as a way to find what might be common. Common ground
scares me because it is so often imposed, either by the most
control-driven people from within or the most paranoid, or maybe
both. Or maybe better to say that we have in common is
a willingness toward conversation with a resistance to conversion.
For that reason I certainly can’t say what value this work
might have for you, except as a model for a poetry that is not
universal, not the truth, not righteous. But open for exchange
and for use.
Then, how does language poetry absorb the basic tenets
of poststructuralist theoretical orientation?
Please bear with my having to go back to this again: Language
Poetry does not exist. L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine published its
first issue nearly 30 years ago; it was an interesting project
but not one that defines the poetry of the time or that which
comes after, including my own work. Our magazine, and some of
the other magazines and presses of the time, represent a particular
constellation of concerns in a shifting landscape. But one thing
I stood against then, as now, was any set of “basic tenets” defining
a poetry or poetics.
for post-structuralism – that’s a common view based
on the fact that many people are more familiar with these cultural
developments than they are with what was going on in poetry.
In truth, you can say that our work was contemporary with those
other developments but not derived from them. Although, in the
long view, mutual interactions and cross-connections will be
more apparent. The poets of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E often offered
a very sharp critique of structuralism, post-structuralism and
postmodernism; certainly, that was a significant part of my critical
writing of the period. But all of shared much, if contrasted
with technorationality, religious fundamentalism, and market
Doesn't it become too much theory-laden? Mayn't one blame
you a theoretician? Here I want to underscore that I am , however,
the advocate of the theory and perfectly hold your claim that "theory
is what one does."
The danger is not being theoretical enough, of slipping into
the assumptions of the mediocracy: the tried and true all
over again. I often make the point that I prefer the terms philosophy,
aesthetics, and poetics to theory. In that sense, I am not so
much a theorist as a practitioner who reflects on his practice.
Much of my poetics is pragmatic; none of it is systematic. This
distinction between poetics and theory, though, would fall on
deaf ears to those who are against “thinking” or
against critical reflection, favoring instead what they claim
to be unmediated personal expression. I won’t get into
a chicken-or-egg debate here about which comes first; poetics
and poetry are mutually informing. But those who wish to deny
the conceptual basis of their writing in favor of unmediated
expression risk falling into a dogmatic rigidity about writing.
I am especially interested in extreme forms of poetry, odd and
eccentric forms, constructed procedures and procedural constructions.
I never assume that the words I use represent a given world;
I make the work anew with each word. Poetry is as much a product
of delusion as illumination, illusion as reality.
There is often misunderstood relation of theory with Avangarde
of which you are one of the greatest advocates ? The misunderstanding
is: Is Avantgarde work a theoritical (and critical) piece or
a literary piece formed by creative imagination? When literature
or art heavely become theoretical and complex readers miss
the chance of enjoying aestheitc pleasure. What would you
say about it all? Should we need theory to express our creative
impulse? Should we need theory to appreciate a work of art?
My old illiterate grandmother does not know theory but wonderfully
appreciates a willow she often hums. Is she a mediocre? Yes,
of course, we now live in the postliterary age (except people
like my grandmother).
Theory is never more than an extension of practice. That's
my motto; I'd have it monogrammed to my napkins, but I use paper.
I have always resisted the word theory: I don't have theories,
I have aesthetics and ethics. And I'm not interested in explaining
anything, just continuing the conversation. I have an old-time
sense that it's ideology we need to talk about not theory. Blake
says "A Tear in an Intellectual thing." In other
words, I find a good deal of conventional poetry, with it's commitment
to theatricalizing emotion, is far too theoretical for me. I
want "actual word stuff" (in Zukofsky's phrase) not
representations of feelings; I want aesthesis not ideas; sensation
not refried (reified) emotion.
can't speak about your grandmother (mine was born in Russia and
came to Brooklyn by herself when she was 9), but mediocrity
surrounds us in the palaces of culture and the thrones of mass
media; literacy is no protection. Smugness and condescension
are the problem and you don't need no theories to smell that.