Showing posts with label Charles Bernstein. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Charles Bernstein. Show all posts

Monday, July 16, 2012

Charles Bernstein
reading December 1977
on Public Access Poetry

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Charles Bernstein
live from Wall Street

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Install the Flash plugin to watch this video.

Youngmin Kim & Charles Bernstein
reading & talking at
Dongguk University
, Seoul, Oct. 19, 2010

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Saturday, December 30, 2006

photo by Jill Kramer

A Theory's Evolution

The Theory of Flawed Design is not a scientifically proven
Alternative to evolution. It is based on the everyday life
Experience that natural selection could not have produced
Such a catastrophic outcome. Optimists and the religiously
Inclined will naturally prefer evolution as an explanation,
Since ascribing Design to the state of humanity is almost
Unbearable. For the rest of us, we must continue to insist
That the theory of Flawed Design be taught cheek and jowl,
Neck and neck, mano a mano, with Mr. Darwin's
Speculations. The Theory postulates a creator who is Mentally
Impaired, either through some genetic defect or because of
Substance abuse, and is predisposed to behave in a sociopathic
Manner; although some Benign Flawed Design theorists, as
They call themselves, posit the radical alternative that the
Creator was distracted or inattentive and the flaws are not the
Result of Malevolent Will but incompetence or incapacity.

The above poem by Charles Bernstein ran on the op-ed page of yesterday’s Philadelphia Inquirer.


© 2006 by Charles Bernstein

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

On Wednesday of last week, there was a book party & reading for Charles Bernstein’s latest collection, Girly Man, at Kelly Writer’s House. It was instructive to get to hear Bernstein & Barrett Watten in something akin to a back-to-back format to get a sense of just how very wide the range of poetries can be that are known historically as language writing, for while their deepest long-term goals are quite similar, their strategies as poets could not be further apart. Nor are these the only two poles of difference one might find among the langpos – take Clark Coolidge, especially the early work, & Rae Armantrout as two others & maybe you will start to get a sense of just how radically wide – or perhaps widely radical – langpo truly is. Maybe add another axis with Hannah Weiner & Tina Darragh as its “logical” pair of opposites. You could take any five of these examples & then pose the question about the sixth, Why is he/she a language poet? and it would almost feel like a plausible question.

Of all the language poets, Watten is perhaps the closest to the tradition of the troubadours, and especially of the concept of trobar clus, a literature that pulls out all the stops & tries to be all that language might be, that makes conscious demands on readers & expects them to actually want these demands, & to understand the pleasure that comes in reading a dense (if not “difficult”) text. The experience at the end of one of Watten’s works, especially those that go more than a single page, is not dissimilar from the feeling one has at the end of a good workout in the weight training facility, or perhaps great sex – one feels the muscles used, there is a “burn” that lingers, an exhilaration integral to the event. The ambivalence and irony that circulate about the title of Watten’s masterpiece, Progress, operate on so many different levels, for example, that one never fully exhausts them: it is true & not true at a dizzying rate.

This approach places Watten into a literary tradition that has clear antecedents in the work & life of Louis Zukofsky, with some aspects of Ezra Pound, with the Williams of Spring & All, and beyond them with the critical writing – and the role of critical writing – of Coleridge. If Watten is a troubadour, he is most definitely an Enlightenment one. He comes closer to Habermas’ model of returning to modernism – Watten’s preferred term is constructivism – and this time getting it right than any other poet I have ever met. As a result, Watten is the ideal test case for an argument – my argument, anyway – that langpo ultimately is not post-modern, but rather an argument with modernism & postmodernism alike.

If Watten’s approach to the reader is in your face, Bernstein comes from virtually every other direction. He is the most Brechtian poet America has yet produced, concerned not with demonstrating everything language can be (indeed, there is a deliberate slightness to his writing), but rather unveiling all the social processes through which we process – and by inference misprocess, dysprocess, malprocess – all the language we consume. I sometimes imagine Watten’s poems as being not unlike the monolith in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. They’re inescapable & force readers to confront the Other. Bernstein’s poems, in contrast, are more like the deadpan (but deadly) computer HAL in that same flick: I’m sorry, Dave. I cannot do that.

I think it’s easy – and this is the primary risk in Bernstein’s work – to mistake him for, or take him merely as, a “funny poet,” the hip version of Billy Collins. It’s possible to read Girly Man just this way, consuming it straight through because it goes down as easily as a comic novel. In fact, a good reading of this book would prove to be almost the antithesis of that. Take a look, for example, at this close reading I did more than three years ago of “Thank You for Saying Thank You,” one of the key poems collected in this edition. It is, of course, completely possible to read that poem straight through, to sense the ironies, and to move on. But to actually read the poem takes an effort of a whole other order. And the poem doesn’t necessarily let you know that.

I vacillate as to whether Watten or Bernstein has the much more reader friendly model for poetry. In one sense, you can get there, wherever there might be, either way. But it is possible – I know because I’ve heard people make the argument – to say that Watten writes only for those willing to make the effort to get deeply into his poems & that to others his work can seem intimidating. However, Bernstein writes in a way that allows some – how many is anybody’s guess – to think they’re reading him when they’re not getting it at all. That is exactly the point being made in “Thank You for Saying Thank You,” but how many will really follow through, acting on the implications of that text? Watten comes as close as is humanly possible to ensuring that nobody who attempts to read his poetry seriously is going to misread it. Bernstein flirts with that result all the time.

One consequence of this is that I know readers who love one of these poets & despise – basically just don’t get – the other. My argument would be that you need to understand, to really “grok” in Robert Heinlein’s sense of that term, the logic within each path. Both, I would argue, are absolutely necessary.

Sunday, December 22, 2002

Gary Sullivan ended his dissertation on humor & context the other day with what I would characterize as an imponderable: “How is Celan’s work read by those who don’t know who he was, his history?” Now Annie Finch sends an email to ratchet the issue of irony up one more notch:

Dear Ron,

the whole [Jennifer] Moxley discussion has been fascinating. if this inspires thought for your blog, I'd be interested to read your response. I think the poems I was recalling are in With Strings or if not, another recent book. I guess part of the question raised is, how much does the context of the writer's other work affect the irony that individual poems can retain?

"Charles Bernstein has written some poems that I would not be surprised to see in a book by X.J. Kennedy. Ron, can you imagine a time in which the context separating those two is lost, or is that taking the idea too far?"

Two more thoughts/questions:

Do you think poems that go too much the other way, that don't have enough irony, are just as vulnerable to being lost after their originary time is over as poems that depend too much on transitory irony?

Then there is the phenomenon of poems that are written with irony and STILL survive after the irony is long gone in most reader's minds. Examples: Frost's The Road Not Taken and Blake's Songs of Innocence. Where do these fit in?


I would suspect that one of the Bernstein poem’s Annie might be remembering is “The Boy Soprano”:

Daddy loves me this I know
Cause my granddad told me so
Though he beats me blue and black
That’s because I’m full of crap

My mommy she is ultra cool
Taught me the Bible’s golden rule
Don’t talk back, do what you’re told
Abject compliance is as good as gold

The teachers teach the grandest things
Tell how poetry’s words on wings
But wings are for Heaven, not for earth
Want my advice: hijack the hearse

Compare this with Kennedy’s “A Brat’s Reward”:

At the market Philbert Spicer
Peered into the bacon slicer –
Whiz! the wicked slicer sped
Back and forth across his head
Quickly shaving – What a shock! –
Fifty chips off Phil’s old block,
Stopping just above the eyebrows.
Phil’s not one of them thar highbrows.

Kennedy, poetry editor of the Paris Review in the 1960s betwixt Donald Hall & Tom Clark, is a long-time practitioner of light verse as well as poetry for children – the smoothness of his metrics here is an index of just how good at this he is. Considering that we’re discussing mutilation in the market place, it’s remarkable just how free “Reward” is of even the slightest hint of social comment. The only moment it shows up is at the very end – that distancing effect of slang in “them thar highbrows.”

Even if we were unaware of the Anna Bartlett Warner hymn – hard to envision in a world in which Google shows over 40,000 pages devoted to it & its variants* – on which Bernstein’s poem is based, there’s a depth of sarcasm in the writing that is impossible to erase over time. Even presuming we don’t recognize the allusion – a presumption basic to satire – this displacement of “Daddy’s” love to granddad’s word for verification & the references to family violence in the first stanza make it unmistakable. As does the use of the term “abject” in the second stanza. As does the “advice” of the final line. Even prosodically, the degree to which Bernstein pushes away from the seven-syllable line of the original twists the poem away from the harmonic closure of the 19th century lyrics toward a result whose dissonance – the degree to which it sounds “off” or “wrong” – underscores the connotative domain.

What we have are two poetries that have certain surface similarities, one of which is adamantly social & will remain so, even if many topical elements are drained away, the other of which is only incidentally (& possibly unknowingly) social. So while in theory the possibility of two poetries merging in such a way as to dissolve their original differences exists, in practice I think this is apt to happen only with much more parallel kinds of writing, the way the elliptical side of the mainstream (say, Jorie Graham’s work) shades over into aspects of post-avant writing (someone like Ann Lauterbach sits almost perfectly in the middle here, as do Forrest Gander & C. D. Wright). But not in work that is truly diverse, regardless of surface features.

Is it possible for poems to not have enough irony? My sense is no, in that I suspect that writing can incorporate an almost total spectrum of metalinguistic distancing effects, from no irony whatsoever (Denise Levertov) all the way to total irony (Joe Brainard). It is, however, possible for poems to use irony ineffectively, as Walter Conrad Arensberg does in “To Hasekawa.” That’s a different issue.

But as time passes, contexts fade. There are poems in which irony disappears only to reveal other strengths of the poem – that’s pretty much the situation with Blake. But other elements shift around as well. Just as Bernstein’s poem will continue to reveal a social structure regardless of whether we recognize Warner’s hymn, so too will the dark world envisioned by Paul Celan remain, whether or not the reader relates it to the holocaust:
the sleeplessy wandered-through breadland
casts up the life mountain.

From its crumb
you knead anew our names
which I, an eye
to yours on each finger,
probe for
a place, through which I
can wake myself toward you,
the bright
hungercandle in mouth.

Hungercandle (“Hungerkerze”) is not a term that is mistakable, any more than “mouth” can ever be softened without a pronoun. The bleakness of the situation could be Kampuchea, Babi Yar or the Balkans. What is not relieved, however, is the underlying sense of deprivation. Only in a world in which hunger & genocide were both abolished & forgotten could these lines appear to lose their sense of deprivation. Which I fear means that we are a long, long way from being able to test the ability of Celan’s work to operate without context.

Of the writers mentioned here, Jennifer Moxley is perhaps closest to Celan in her overall vision of humanity. Like him, she is on the low end of the irony spectrum. Neither has any interest in letting the reader escape the enveloping circumstance of the poem – like Celan, her poems may long for relief, but they seldom if ever offer any. That her works employ a neutral language, rather than, say, the high-torque neologisms of a Celan, is part of the analysis. Like Annie Finch, I’m fascinated by the reactions to her work. They underscore my own sense of its importance.

* Including a few that touch on its use by the Ku Klux Klan.