Postmodern Promos

Susan M. Schultz

Bernstein, Charles. A Poetics. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1992.
Perloff, Marjorie. Radical Artifice: Writing Poetry in the Age of Media. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1991.

  1. Archibald MacLeish declared, "a poem should not mean but be," but of course he didn't mean it. MacLeish's poems meant perhaps too much, and sang too little, to submit to his definition. Marianne Moore wrote of a poet's ability to create imaginary gardens with real toads in them, and so to create being out of meaning. More than any of the other moderns, Hart Crane self-consciously created poetry as MEDIUM and wanted language to spring us to somewhere beyond language. This unmediated medium remained, however problematically, "natural"; the poem was an organism that grew on its own; it was the poet's truly born child.

  2. Crane incorporated advertising language into his myth in "The River" section of The Bridge as if pre-packaged language could also be used as a springboard to a non-linguistic realm. But what happens when the order of transmission is reversed, when advertising copy coopts poetry, when the medium becomes the media, when the only poetry that most people encounter comes in the guise of slogans like "I wanna be like Mike" (which refers us to a basketball player and culture hero whose very style is "poetic")? In this contemporary example, of course, advertising language is so strong that it has the ability to change the names by which we know our heroes--no one though of Michael Jordan as "Mike" until Gatorade (not, unfortunately, the company with the sight-rhyme, "Nike") needed to transform the hero to make him rhyme, make him even more friendly (is it possible?) to consumer culture.

  3. Marjorie Perloff's provocative claim in Radical Artifice is that advertising language is that of Modernist poetry; advertising's tenets were not laid down so much by Madison Avenue as by Ezra Pound. "Exact treatment of the thing, accuracy of presentation, precise definition--these Poundian principles have now been transferred to the realm of copywriting" (94), she argues (and I wonder it we might not find more irony still in the word itself, "copy write"; "copy right"; "copyright"). Perloff, ever an exact and able close-reader, takes the following billboard message in hand to show that, "as the 'look' of the standard poem begins to be replicated on the billboard or the greeting card, an interesting exchange begins to occur" (100):

                   O. R. LUMPKIN. BODY-
                      BUILDERS.    FENDERS               
                   WRECKS OUR SPECIAL-
                      TY.    WE TAKE THE DENT
                      OUT OF ACCIDENT.
    "Surely," she enjoins, pointing to the lineation of this "free verse" bit of advertising, with its clever wordplay and enjambment, "the next time we have an accident, this memorable punning will stick in our minds and draw us to O. R. Lumpkin rather than some other body shop" (100). This "standard poem" might well be printed in The New Yorker or Poetry or American Poetry Review (the latter with a photo of Mr. Lumpkin himself, no doubt). The punning begins, of course, with Mr. Lumpkin, who takes our lumps and makes them right again.

  4. Advertising's power, of course, lies in its simulation of authenticity; the potential consumer may know that the American Express card ads that show the familial love between father and daughter are "artificial," and still wipe tears from her eyes. Hence Dan Quayle's insistence that television should show us a more authentic version of ourselves. And so authenticity becomes a form of nostalgia. Crucial to this sense of authenticity, Perloff would claim, is its presentation--as in the Lumpkin ad--through the medium of free verse, which we think of as "natural" and unmediated through the artifice of traditional forms. "Free verse = freedom; open form = open mind, open heart: for almost half a century," writes Perloff, "these equations have been accepted as axiomatic, the corollary of what has come to be called, with respect to poetic language, the 'natural look.'" I suspect that she means us to hear the conflation of poetic language with hairstyle, and the attendant confusion between image and "self," whatever that is; Perloff's persistent attacks on the univocal lyric over the past ten years or so are based on a profound distrust of the "self" created through it. She writes: "Most contemporary writing that currently passes by the name of 'poetry' belongs in this category which [Jed] Rasula wittily calls PSI, for 'Poetry Systems Incorporated, a subsidiary to data management systems.' The business of this particular corporation is to produce the specialty item known as 'the self,' and it is readily available in popular magazines and at chain bookstores" (19). Need one add that there is a magazine of that name: Self?

  5. While Modernists worked from a dualist model that set in tension "the image and the real," and believed that one was related to the other, Postmodernists, according to Perloff, see that relationship replaced by one "between the word and the image" or between "the simulacrum and its other" (92). In this new poetry, the image itself is deconstructed, because after all, who can trust advertising to tell us the truth about ourselves, whoever those selves are? If advertising has become our mirror, then the poet's goal is to distort that mirror in such a way that we see the inherent distortion in images--reflection must give way to refraction, deflection.

  6. So we abandon the Imagist image and return to language, but language understood in a new way, not as mediator but as medium (in the material, not the psychic, sense). Where the modern imagist free verse poet would write the Lumpkin ad as it appears above (and as the ads flash by in Crane's "the River"), the postmodernist poet would begin not from the image of a wreck, and the message that the wreck would be fixed, but from the words used to convey that message--whose real import is mercantile. For the language of advertising, above all, sells. The postmodernist poet might play on the name O. R. Lumpkin, its relation to lumps and kin and lumpenproletariat, and in so doing, unmessage the message by making the medium the subject. It bears quoting the three ways in which Perloff sees Postmodern poets deconstructing the image:

    (1) the image, in all its concretion and specificity, continues to be foregrounded, but it is now presented as inherently deceptive, as that which must be bracketed, parodied, and submitted to scrutiny. . . .

    (2) the Image as referring to something in external reality is replaced by the word as Image, but concern with morphology and the visualization of the word's constituent parts: this is the mode of Concrete Poetry[.]

    (3) Image as the dominant gives way to syntax: in Poundian terms, the turn is from phanopoeia to logopoiea. "Making strange" now occurs at the level of phrasal and sentence structure rather than at the level of the image cluster so that poetic language cannot be absorbed into the discourse of the media. . . .


  7. The real strength of Perloff's book is in the narrative it elaborates as a way to understand the NEED for Language poetry in a now unfolding literary history. Thus, "[i]f American poets today are unlikely to write passionate love poems or odes to skylarks or to the Pacific Ocean, it is not because people don't fall in love or go birdwatching or because the view of the Pacific from, say, Big Sur doesn't continue to be breathtaking, but because the electronic network that governs communication provides us with the sense that others--too many others--are feeling the same way" (202-3). In other words, poems about great vistas can already be found--either in the Norton Anthology (see Keats) or, in their fallen form, in a Hallmark shop. This passage, which expresses Perloff's yearning for a unique and unsullied perspective on (past) nature, sounds to my ear transcendentalist in its idealistic paranoia, its yearning for, yes, authenticity. Perloff's defense, like Whitman's, would be to celebrate self-contradiction, knowing that nothing else is possible. Like her allies the Language poets, Perloff would claim with Gertrude Stein that repetition is actually insistence, and that to sound the transcendentalist note in the 1990s is to say something new. Yet it's hard for her to do this without somehow worshipping the unsullied and autochthonous "self" that she so easily dismisses in rear-guard free verse poetry.

  8. Charles Bernstein and Ron Silliman and other of the Language group of poet-critics agree with Perloff on this-- as on most--points; our particular way of seeing such a vista has been pre-determined, so the argument goes, precisely by the Norton (at best) and by Hallmark (at worst) or by the more likely (con)fusion of the two. This way of seeing insures that we do conform with others, also programmed to buy Hallmark cards and do other good deeds for capitalism; the only way to be a good Emersonian these days is to de-form the language, which is also to reform it. As Bernstein says it (he, too, sounding a lot like someone who has found the original Waldo amid a crowd of faces): "Poetry is aversion of conformity in the pursuit of new forms, or can be" (1); and "I care most about poetry that disrupts business as usual, including literary business: I care most for poetry as dissent, including formal dissent; poetry that makes sounds possible to be heard that are not otherwise articulated" (2). These claims are not, in and of themselves, radical. The Language poets' means of acting on these claims ARE more radical, but their attempt to create once against a language that has not been coopted by the media, an un-transparency that is transparent, puts them squarely in the line of American idealists that includes Emerson and Gertrude Stein. Their quest for originality, a writing free of all quotation, is at once as admirable and quixotic as was Emerson's.

  9. Bernstein is perhaps the most intelligent and most consistently interesting of contemporary thinkers on poetry and poetics; he is also the most self-contradictory. His work bears the kind of confused (nay, panicked) attention that Emerson's does; like Perloff, his argument against the Romantic and Modernist image owes perhaps too much to the first American Romantic. He is at once aesthete (he adores Swinburne and Wilde) and proto-Marxist; purveyor of claritas and obscuritas; deconstructionist and fetishist of the word; preacher and skeptic; fiction-writer and disseminator of truths--the train could go on, derailing itself as it goes. This is, of course, part of Bernstein's world view; his is a vision that tries to leave the binary behind (by containing multitudes), and engage in the polymorphous multiplicity of things. Yet I wonder if many of these contradictions are not, in fact, incompatible; Bernstein's Swinburnian poems seem somehow at odds with the needs of a leftist politics, for example. Yet Bernstein's prose is, for the most part, clear; he would pass a university course in argumentative writing. It is far clearer than his poetry, and serves (ironically) to advertise the poetry by explaining its purpose, if not its content. In fact, the content of the poems seems to me to be the elaboration of the prose, as if poetry were a "proof text," rather than the proper subject of our so-called science.

  10. Bernstein's claims for poetry are in many ways even stronger than Perloff's, although he begins from the same starting blocks with (an all-too-easy?) attack on advertising culture, arguing that poets should display

    a willingness to engage in guerrilla warfare with the official images of the world that are being shoved down our throats like so many tablespoons of Pepto Bismol, short respite from the gas and the diarrhea that are the surest signs that harsh and uncontainable reality hasn't vanished but has only been removed from public discussion.


    Bernstein replaces Perloff's creators of false "selves" with the purveyors of what he calls "official verse culture." That these are the purveyors of a political, as well as a poetic, message Bernstein makes clear in his argument that the notion that "we can 'all' speak to one another in the universal voice of history" is a "disease." His heroes, then, are poets who work "in opposition to the dominant strains of American culture" (6).

  11. These dominant strains, for Bernstein as for Perloff, are evidenced in the strains of the American lyre. But where Perloff's poetic heroes are those who replace "form" with "artifice"--who replace sonnets with numerically generated bits of language that have the virtues of formalism without any of the taint (and what a taint there is!), Bernstein erases the differences between all forms of writing:

    if there's a temptation to read the long essay-in-verse ("Artifice of Absorption"), which follows these opening notes, as prose, I hope there will be an equally strong temptation to read the succeeding prose as if it were poetry.


    Whether prose or poetry, his writing is meant to be taken as fiction; in a Steinian way he writes, "when Content's Dream was published I wanted that to be classified as 'essays/fiction.' People sometimes ask me if I'm interested in writing a novel. I say, well, I did, that's it" (151).

  12. While Bernstein persuades me that the categories by which we write and read literature no longer do us much good, it seem to me that he himself holds to these categories, and needs to hold to them to make his argument fly. I find "Artifice of Absorption" the most compelling piece in A Poetics--Bernstein's verse "Essay on Poetry," as it were. For here is an essay-poem that contains the virtues of the essay form (it is readable, cogent) and of the poem (it relies on enjambment for its rhythm and drama-- the same kinds of enjambments, I might add, that make poets such as Amy Clampitt such easy targets for critics such as Perloff). Bernstein begins from the question that springs "naturally" from his work as a poet-critic (or poet-poet or critic-critic); in so doing, he refines Perloff's discussion of "artifice":

    A poetic reading can be given to any piece of writing; a "poem" may be understood as writing specifically designed to absorb, or inflate with, proactive--rather than reactive--styles of reading. "Artifice" is a measure of a poem's intractability to being read as the sum of its devices & subject matters.


    For Bernstein, artifice is not so much a new kind of form, as it is for Perloff, as a way of writing that foregrounds technical devices over and above "content" and "meaning." To paraphrase Bernstein's discussion of "voice" in the Language Book, "content" is but one possibility for poetry. But "content" and "meaning" are not the ends of poetry, just more means; they are not the same thing, either, for "content never equals meaning" (10). Artifice is, according to Bernstein's jargon, non-absorptive; one cannot "get lost" in a Language poem the way one can get lost in a Harlequin romance--but the reader is also not in danger of losing her soul to the particular demands made on it by the Harlequin (which are fundamentally conservative, despite--or because of--the soft porn). And, as Bernstein sees it,

    much contemporary American
    poetry is based on simplistic
    notions of absorption through unity, such
    as those sometimes put forward by Ginsberg
    (who as his work shows
    knows better, but who has made an ideological
    commitment to such simplicity)."


  13. Bernstein places himself characteristically at both ends of his artificial dualism:

    In my poems, I
    frequently use opaque & nonabsorbable
    elements, digressions &
    interruptions, as part of a technological
    arsenal to create a more powerful
    absorption than possible with traditional,
    & blander, absorptive techniques.


    He acknowledges that "[t]his is a / precarious road" that makes the reader more conscious of technique than of experience, but I wonder if Bernstein believes in the currency of terms like "experience." After reading Bernstein's work over an extended period, the world of language becomes THE world, always threatening/promising to dissolve into a chaos of no-definition. Finally, though, Bernstein proposes a kind of reading that is rather pragmatically critical, even as it is creative. As Perloff points out toward the beginning of Radical Artifice (and this is one of its least interesting moments), "Not only does the boundary between 'verse' and 'prose' break down but also the boundary between 'creator' and 'critic'" (17).

  14. Like Stein's language, Bernstein's is always "foreign"--alien, confusing, and above all, never sacred. Bernstein's most recent book of poems, Rough Trades, must be read in this way, as a celebration and cerebration of language in and for itself, and as an exercise in non-absorptiveness that is meant to refashion prevailing world political views. In the contradiction between these two purposes lies an abyss; Bernstein seems at times too much like a New Critic who attempts to change the world by ignoring it. But Bernstein, however much he seems to be the Pope (Alexander, that is) of the postmodern, means to undress us of our layers of expression in order that our means of expression can clothe us in new (and utopian) possibilities. He and Perloff, in their complementary assaults on the common-places of the American language at this fin-de-siecle, provoke us to look past the image by way of the (small-w) word, and to re-invest our words with whatever ideals we have left. The poetry that they advertise is not written in a "common" language, but in one that we cannot yet think in, non-absorptive to the point of being non-sensical. It may get us to another world. But then again, that's a soap opera.

    Copyright © 1992 Susan M. Schultz