Douglas Messerli

Making the Mind Whole

(on Controlling Interests)

[This essay originally appeared in Paper Air magazine in 1982. It is republished with the permission of the author.]

In the past few years, Charles Bernstein has gained national reputation for his involvement with what he and others have described and defined as “Language” poetry. But that reputation has accrued more as a result of his theories than of his poetic output (amazingly, nine books to date); and, invariably, it is more of his poetic practices than of specific poems of which his critics and admirers write and speak. Much of this focus has been incalcated by Bernstein himself; like Ezra Pound earlier iln this century, Bernstein (as well as other “Language” poets) has felt the need to write about writing almost as actively as to write poetry. Indeed, for this author, as for many contemporary writers, there has been a purposeful equivocation of the lingusitc activity of creating a poetics by which to live and that of creating an artifact. That Bernstein’s particular poetics, moreover, has been perceived as a kind of “warrior” movement–is a poetics that has enraged as many readers as it has engaged–has helped to divert attention from the his poems to his allegiances.

     Concomitantly, it is clear that many critics of contemporary poetry find it terribly difficult to discuss a particular poem that is not about something, but is something “fixed “ in perpetual process. Reflecting this, obviously, is the conversion from New Critical practices to Phenomenologist, Structuralist, Semiotic, and other methodologies–all shifts from a reading of the poem to an exploration of what causes and determines the poetic act. But although this has been a healthy antidoe to the textual stupor into which American critics of previous decades had fallen, for younger poets it has resulted in a radical disregard of their writings. This is particularly unfortunate in this instance, for not only have Bernstein’s ideas stirred and stimulated the literary community, but his poems are some of the most original and imaginative of American lyric verse. Those of his recently collection, Controlling Interests, especially lie in wait for a contextual reading, if not for an old-fashioned textual one.

     Certainly, these poems represent a great many of the “Language” strategies. Passages from “The Next Available Place” and “Standing Target” can almost be read as paradigms for the extensive use of alliteration, onomatopoeia, aural and visual punning, syntatic fragmentariness, enjambment, and outright glossolalia that characterize much of “Language” writing. In such passages–

                              Dread, scuzzy. Perhaps Polish (polish). I

                              feel rearranged, mandate a macaroon. Cuba,

                              Taiwan. Indubitable dauntress fraudulent as ever

                              attempting a view: binary, bissected, by the seaside,

                              beside myself. ...               (“The Next Available Place, p. 32)––

Bernstein evinces his commitment to a poetry of thinking in process and demonstraes the “controlling interests” of a literary mode that permits the “leaps, jumps, fissures, repetitions, bridges, schisms, colloquialisms, trains of associations, and memory” that are integral to the music and rhythm of contemplation “as it is being lived in a body” (see Bernstein’s essay, “Thought’s Measure,” collected in Content’s Dream). In these poems, there is an enigmatic, charm-like effect, an almost cabalistic quality which is alien and even frightening to a society that still believes that reading a poem is related to an explication de texte.

     What Bernstein’s poetry demands of us is that we be intuitive as we are analytic, that we use the right side of our craniums as much as the left. Reading a poem, Bernstein’s writing implies, is an act that permits the reader to bring the unrational into touch with reason, that allows the reader to hear the unspoken self in the voice of its hegemonical sister. Meaning, accordingly, is not a closed system; the author does not declare ideas cloaked in poetic language, but rather, through his language explores a range of ideas and experience.

     The first few lines of “Sentences My Father Used,” for example, seeingly abandon the reader to a landscape of uninterpretable fragments:

                              Casts across otherwise unavailable fields.

                              Makes plain. Ruffled. Is trying to

                              alleviate his false: invalidate. Yet all is

                              “to live out”, by shut belief, the

                              various, simply succeeds which. Roofs that

                              retain irksomeness. Points ata

                              slopes. Buzz over misues of reflection

                              (tendon). Gets sweeps, entails complete

                              sympathy, mists. I realize slowly,

                              which blurting reminds, or how you, intricate

                              in its.  .... (p. 21)

Who or what is “casting” in the first line of this passage? Of what “fields” is the poet speaking, and why are they “otherwise unavailable?” Who or what “Makes plain” in the second line, and what is being “made plain” or “explained?” Who or what is “ruffled,” and does the word here mean “irritated,” “undualated,” or “gathered along one edge?” Who is trying to “alleviate his false,” and where is the object? What is “false?” These and dozens of such questions understandably lmay discourage the uninitiated reader. Yes he who would turn away would miss the point and experience of reading this remarkable work. For, the meaning does not lie in answers, but in the very questions which the poem generates. The “indeterminancy” of this sort of poetry, as Marjorie Perloof argued in her Poetics of Indeterminancy (1981), permits us to receive its images as “living phenomena,” as words that exist in a fluid and plastic relationship.

      It doesn’t really matter that we cannot determine immediately who or what “casts across” the “fields,” for the action occurs even without its subject, an action that not only “reveals” or “manifests” itself (“makes plain”), but also “begets” (another meaning of “makes”) a “plain,” a flat or level field. Similarly, it isn’t important to know who or what is “ruffled,” for the word alone serves to signify simultaneously a “vexation” or “irritation” (perhaps because the fields are “otherwise unavailalbe?”), a sudden “undulation” (of the flat “plain?”), and a “gathering [of people] along one edge” (of the now available “fields?”) The floowing phrase introduces a male subject through the pronoun, and the reader cannot help but connect him with the previous actions and with the title of the poem. But even this new information is framed in aposiopesis, is cut off in mid-sentence, so that the reader must continue the process of relating word to word, line to line in order to discern the object of the father’s “false” (“faults?”). Like a detective, the reader must (re)construct the details, must (re)build the poem to its meaning. As the author implies in the first lines, one comes to “realize” the poem “slowly,” “through surprising details that hide more than announce” (p. 21).

     In saying this, Bernstein is not arguing for obscuratism, but for a poetry in which the reader must use all of his or her faculties, in which he must “listen” for meaning as well as look for it. The reader of this poem cannot read merely at the level of the denotation or connotation of the words, but must experience their rhythms, sounds, and patterns the way one might read a score for orchestra. As any musician knows, a successful interpretation of a symphony depends not only upon reading notes, but upon playing with the nuances of phrase, rhythm, volume, pitch, and timbre; similarly, Bernstein requires that the performer of his poem attend to all the nuances of language.

     That is not to suggest that in a poem such as “Sentences My Father Used,” style outweighs content. The attentive reader soon discovers that the poems does have denotative/connotative meanings. As we (re)construct the poem, we encounter the poet’s father, a man who has gone through life in “shut belief,” with “a sense of purpose divorced from meaning.” Having put “everything....into the business,” he is isloated from family, friends, and life itself. The concerns of the poem–“Could life have been different?” “Is there hope for change, a possibility to ‘recover what was in your pocket, the watch your / parent gave you if you would only milnd / the hour’” (p. 27)–are issues that might have been raised by any Modernist poem.

     But it is here that Bernstein’s reader is rewarded. In the hands of a lesser poet, such questions would be answered with an image, symbol, or statement of reconciliation (or perhaps nonreconciliation) introduced into the poem by the author, or, at most, generated by a series of authorial devices which inherently would exclude the reader from involement. I Bernstein’s poem, however, the answers derive directly from the language and the reader’s commitment to it. For the sensitive performer of the poem, I suggest, the “field” of the poem’s beginning is gradually perceived to be not merely a field to the edge of which the poet’s father has come to alleviate his “false” or “faults,” to be not only a “canvas of truped up excuses” for the father’s evasion of “the chain of connections,” but also to be a field through which the reader must journey, a terrain o fpain and missed opportunities through which the reader must search with the poet (and through the poet, with his father) to bring meaning back into touch with purpose. If the reader is successful in the linguisitc (re)construction, he eventually comes to view the “field” or “plain” of the poem from a new perspective, by the end of the poem, things are, indeed, “made plain,” as from the windows of a “plane” the reader glimpses the “gleaming lights” which “waken the passengers to the possibilities of the terrain” (p. 26), lights which enlighten us to new ways of seeing and signify the potentiality of reuniting that individual vision with society. Depending as they do on each of our interpretations, upon the consciousness which each reader brings to the poem, these new ways of seeing, these “possibilities” are “dreadfully private”; not everything can be spoken. But, if wwe have floowed the flux and reflux of the language, with the poet we share a breakthrough at poem’s end, as the pain and isolation which the poem has recounted is transformed into the “pane” of the “pleane” window, which “gives way, transparent, / to a possibility of rectitude” (p. 27).

     It is this “possibility of rectitude,” the potential for righting or correcting the individual’s and society’s refusals to participate in the act of making meaning which Bernstein offers in nearly all the poems of this collection. The first poem of the book, in fact, focuses on that very problem. In “Matters of Policy,” the reader is asked to participate with the poet in an exploration of the failures and successes of contemporary American culture, a culture that has assimilated and now presumes the great technological advancements of this century, a society that, through “electricity” and “Speed,” has seemingly been given more time for amusement and, thus, has achieved a greater worldliness than any society in history. As the poet somewhat cynically observes:

                                    ....Electricity hyperventilates even the

                                    most tired veins. Books strewn the streets.

                                    Bicycles are stored beneath every other staircase.

                                    The Metropolitan Opera fills up every night as the

                                    great masses of the people thrill to Pavarotti,

                                    Scotto, Plishka, & Caballe. The halls of the

                                    museums are clogged with commerce. Metroliners

                                    speed us here & there with a graciousness

                                    only imagined in earlier times. Tempers are

                                    not lost since the bosses no longer order about

                                    their workers. Guacamole has replaced turkey as

                                    the national dish of most favor.  .....(“Matters of Policy,” p. 4)


In such a post-Mauberlian world, guacamole may have cast out turkey (as “croissants” have replaced “absinthe” [p. 1], but, along with the poet, what we most care about / is another sip of....Pepsi-Cola” (p. 1). For, the benefits of change have engendered not only extreme eclecticims, but an unsatiable desire for change itself, as if it, too, were a consumer product; “Even nostaligia has been used up” (p. 4). Our perspective has shifted from despair for what we have lost to impatience for what the future is about to bring. The “wasteland” has metamorphosed into “a broad plain in a universe of / anterooms” (p. 1), into one boundless waiting place.

     But what is most disturbing, Bernstein hings, is not that we wait, but how we wait. There is a “spirit / of the place–a certain je ne sais quoi that / lurks, like the miles of subway tunnels, electrical / conduits, & sewage ducts, far below the surface” (p. 3); there is a passive acceptance of the future thatis of far greater import than the customs and values we have surrendered. As we (like our reporters) “sit around talking over Pelican Punch tea about the underlying issues” (p. 5), there is a danger that we will fail to note our own demise, there is a possibility that we may become the “matters of policy” – the subjects of a course of action. Will we be determined by or will we determine our future technology? The poet fears that, although there’s now “plenty of time,” there are few ilndividuals “with enough integrity or intensity to / fill it with the measure we’ve / begun to crave” (p. 7).

     Indirectly, these are issues raised by John Ashbery’s early poem, “The Instruction Manual,” a work which, at moments, Bernstein’s poem seems to parody in its search for answers. Both poets seek to revitalize the technological society in which they find themselves through the creative act of thinking/making a new world out of language, and in pursuit jof that, both interweave the technical language of the word-day world with more lyrical evocations of exotic landscapes. But Ashbery’s dream-tour of Guadalajara, “City of rose-colored flowers,” reappears in Bernstein’s poem as a farcical journey to a

                                                               ....relaxing change

                                 the sofa, Alexandria, Trujillo. You looked

                                 into my eyes & I felt the deep exotic textures

                                 of your otherworldliness. A tangle of thorns bearing

                                 trees, extensive areas in Asia, Australia, South

                                 America. Rye, oats, &c. The tall grass

                                 Prairie of the pampas of Madagascar, Paraguay

                                 & the Green Chaco. ..... (“Matters of Policy,” pp. 5-6)

While Ashbery fantasizes parasiacal scenes that reaffirm the imagination, Bernstein hallucinates in a series of associations that disintegrate into a mer listing (“Lobsters, oysters, / clams, crabs, tuna fisheries, shrimps,” p. 6), and immediately relapse into the surrounding technological structures:

                                                             (1)The use

                                    of easy & fair surfaces along the general paths

                                    followed by the ater flow. (2) At & near

                                    the surface of the wave profile. (3) Proof

                                    of good design. (4) Submerged

                                    bulbs. ....   (p. 6)

Similarly, Both Ashbery and Bernstein look for a resolution between the languages of the visionary and the technocrat in the venacular of the tourguide, who, if unable to express the full meaning of such voyages, at least can summarize events. And for Ashbery, in fact, this is the best we can hope for, a kind of poetic jargon, half-way between the dreamer and the society in which he lives:

                                      How limited, but how complete withal, has been our

                                               experience of Guadalajara!


                                      And as a last breeze freshens the top of the weathered

                                                old tower, I turn my gaze

                                      Back to the instruction manual which has made me

                                                dream of Guadalajara.              

                                                     (“The Instruction Manual,” Some Trees. p. 18)

For Bernstein, however, twenty five years later, there is an inherent ridiculousness in such a compromise, and th epoet and reader are mildly mocked for believing in such simplistic solutions:

                                                                     At last, the

                                        cabin cruise is over & the captain gently

                                        chides farewell to us with a luminous laugh.

                                                                                (“Matters of Policy,” p. 8)

For, while Ashbery’s vision derives from a basic juxtapositioning of antithetical positions, for an aesthetic of collage with roots in the Hegelian dialectic, Bernstein’s oetics, with its traces of American Romanticism, functions in terms of the simultaneity of object and experience. Any “answers” that “Matters of Policy” proffers to the questions it has raised result from the synchronism of reality–which I have expressed in my own poetry as the “seams in seems”–rather than from accomodation. Everywhere in Bernstein’s poetry there is an immediate, nonsymbolic simultaneousness of meaning. Language for Bernstein is both creator and agent of ideation, and it is in the words as objects, accordinly, that the potetial solutions of our culture’s dilemmas lie. Although, along with the poet we may fear that our society is more interested in buying and selling art than in creating or experiencing it (“our museums are clogged with commerce”), there is a possibility that the museums can become places of social intercourse (another meaning of “commerce”). The cause of the constantly changing colors of the sky of which the poet writes is probably pollution, but the shifts of the hour and the season can also produce dazzilng changes of color. Although “hyperventilation” usually results in a “black out,” an intake of extra oxygen can be temporarily invigorating, and, as applied to medical technology such as breathing apparatuses, it can save lives.

     It is our capacity to understand this simultaneity of things in and through language that will determine whether, as individuals or a society, we can “fill” our cravings. We must understand that the “measure” with which we fulfill our desires is not simply a “capacity,” but also is both “a course of action” (a “matter of policy”) and a “standard” by which our future can be constructed. Like the poet, who, upon completing the voyage, takes out his “harmonica” and “bang[s] out some scales,” we must create our own “measure,” we must devise our own means of survival through the language, music, rhythm, and beat of life. If we can accomplish such measures, like the bongo player in the candy store with whom the poem closes, our meaning will penetrate the silent inaction of the world around us.

      In nearly all of the poems of Controlling Interests. Bernstein reveals his desire for an fascination with the concomittance of the individual and the world, of all language and experience. But simultaneity, as I suggested earlier, functions in his work not merely in terms of meaning, but in terms of nearly all the senses, in terms of the actual texture and sounds of the words and sentences he uses. It is this texture, this entagled density and richness of syntax, which is the meat of his poetry, but which, in its very inpenetrability, is lost in any standardized reading. Yet, it is this maze of seemingly superfluous matter that is the most important aspect of his work; for it is in his “forensic bouts with the subterrean,” as he puts it in the last poem of the book, that he “hears the way the world hears,” permitting him to allow readers with radically different experiences and sensibilities to draw simultaneously upon the poem for their range of private associations and understandings. It is this attempt to “portray a / version of that timeless time, ...that our nostalgia clings to an our reason discounts” (“Island Life,” p. 77), I argue, that is Bernstein’s most original contribution. For this reason I have described my couple of readings as contextual, readings with the text, as opposed to readings of the text. No one reading of a Bernstein poem could ever be complete, and that is the wonder of each. My readings, thus, must not be seen as “fixes” on these poems, but should be understood as one reader’s attempts to bring his unspoken feelings about Bernstein’s writing into touch with a more analytic critic. It is this kind of synchronism, this act of making the mind whole, which Bernstein ultimately asks of his readers and fellow poets in his poetry and criticism both.

Philadelphia, 1982