The Times Literary Supplement

Published: 2 March 2012

Charles Bernstein, Attack of the Difficult Poems


Charles Bernstein ATTACK OF THE DIFFICULT POEMS Essays and interventions
288pp. University of Chicago Press.
Paperback, $26; distributed in the UK by Wiley. £17. 978 0 226 04477 4

Since the mid-1970s, Charles Bernstein has pursued a career as one of the chief provocateurs on the American poetry scene. As an experimental poet, he has earned a reputation for exploring the critical potential of "bad" or "lesser" forms and modes of poetry: doggerel, bathos, nonsense, sentimentality, camp. By ventriloquizing marginal, discordant and otherwise minority voices, his (often hilarious) poems foreground the ways in which mainstream culture works to absorb and snuff out the sounds of difference and dissent. In his other writings - essays, speeches, collaborations, translations, libretti, parodies - he has articulated what he calls an "apoetics" that favours "ethical, dialogic, and situational values" over "fixed and immutable moral laws".

Bernstein's writing might best be viewed as a single "anti-absorptive" enterprise aimed at resisting and undermining the topdown traditionalism of what he calls "Official Verse Culture". "Against the priestly function of the poet or of poetry", he writes, "I propose the comic and bathetic, the awkward and railing: to be grounded horizontally in the social and not vertically in the ether." The grounding of reading and writing practices (the creative intersection of which Bernstein calls "wreading") in the "social materiality" of literary texts has long been a staple of the Language Poets collective, of which he is a charter member, and is the guiding focus of Attack of the Difficult Poems, his fourth essay collection.

Written over the past fifteen years for a variety of occasions and venues, his "essays and inventions" cover such subjects as the pedagogy of "creative wreading", the impact of digital media on poetic practice, sound poetry and homophonic translation, ordinary language theory, recent literary frauds (of which his essay is an example), secular Judaism and the avant-garde, and the intersections of modernism and African American culture. In a characteristic show of faith in "poetry's coming digital presence", this last essay features an interactive musical component, to be accessed separately on the Pennsound website (an indispensable repository of audiovisual recordings which Bernstein co-curates from his teaching post at the University of Pennsylvania).

In several essays, Bernstein aligns himself with an "in between" aesthetics which "troubles the distinctions made both within and between high and low culture" and which, by his reckoning, had its first great flowering among the "Second Wave Modernists", a generation of practitioners born between 1889 and 1909 that includes such disparate figures as Louis Zukofsky, Paul Robeson, Cole Porter and the blues singer Charlie Patton. This aesthetic approach would later achieve a magnificent second flourishing in the work of the New York School poets and their inheritors, including the Language Poets. Such artists tend to reject aesthetic binaries of difficulty/accessibility, high/low culture, good/bad. Rather than seek to produce meritorious "difficult" art, they ask what it means for art to be meritorious in a given social situation, and whether merit is something to aspire to at all. Bernstein has made a career of testing the nature and function of merit. Awkward coinages, misspellings and other wordplay form a central feature of his oppositional politics and poetics. His prose is studded with phrases like "anoriginal", "anti or acanonical", "antiseminal", and, best of all, "Midrashic Antinomianism". Part of the point in deploying these ponderous terms is to entrap the reader in a ridiculous web of "difficult" language, to induce a kind of textual hiccuping and stuttering that restores attention to the material conditions of the "wreading" experience. With the publication of these essays, along with a Selected Poems published last year by Farrar, Straus and Giroux and a forthcoming Salt Companion, Bernstein is poised to assume a far more conspicuous, if still unabsorbed, presence in the mainstream.