Javant Biarujia


CHARLES BERNSTEIN: Creating a ive disturbance

[this essay originally appeared in
Boxkite #3 (Australia, 2004)]


My aim is not to explain the poems but to make them more opaque.



Most of the propositions and questions to be found

in philosophical works are not false but nonsensical.



Poem. Hoe them




I Semantic: Matter to the Chaos

Once upon a time the world was round and you could go on it around and around. The world is all that is the case. The wor(l)d view. “This world is not Conclusion,” Bernstein quotes Dickinson (MW 172), it is “the pained senselessness of the world” (MW 265): ‘‘Poetry is like a swoon, but with this difference: / it brings you to your senses’’ (I/I 57). The world was somewhere and everywhere — they were a totality of facts, not of men, women and children. That is the way it was. The world (everybody) is determined to tell everybody all about it, and they wanted to tell all about themselves: Just the facts, Ma’am. “Judge / less [sic] you not / be judged / & the world slip / by unknown / you to it / it to you” (Soph 105). And then by their being was the rose. Eros was her name and she would have been Eros if her name had not been Eros. (“But a rose by any other name would no longer rhyme with doze or shows or clothes, unless the other name was pose or glows. A rose by any other name wouldn’t be the same — wouldn’t arouse the same associations, its sound iconicity might be close but no pajamas. Sound enacts meaning as much as designates something meant” [MW 294]). For the name — all the same — of facts determines what is “Official Verse Culture” (MW 249), and also whatever is not the orthodoxy. The facts in logical space are all this time the world just continuing to be round. The world divides into words (apocryphal Lost Worlds lost for words): “Poetry is always technical, an order of words, at least in the first instance” (MW 228). Each time was very exciting or not very exciting while everything else remained the same (the world was round). “If we think of words as sound-entities (as poets may tend to), then we think of words as symbolizing rather than meaning” (MW 261; vid. V Symbolic).

Bernstein states that he likes to “think the reverse [emphasis added]” (MW 3). In “Solidarity Is the Name We Give to What We Cannot Hold”, he concludes that despite being one hundred and thirty-three kinds of poet he is “none of these things, / nothing but the blank wall of my aversions [emphasis added]” (MW 35). He writes: ‘‘My point of departure is poetry that is aversive to conventions of literary or expository or spoken language [emphasis added]” (MW 12). Yet he defiantly challenges the reader, “[W]ho are you calling a verse? [emphasis added]” (MW 3). Liberally sprinkled throughout Bernstein’s poetry and “poessays” are words logogriphically embedded with the object of his craft, the archaicising term “verse” (“what poets do is turn” [MW 258]): “vice versa” (MW xi), “art versus culture” (MW 144); “avert” (MW 69), “aver” (MW 110); the “reverse” (MW 3), “adversity” (MW 4), “versions” (MW 15), “verbs” (DC 53), “uni-/verse” (MW 74), ‘‘eversions’’ (I/I 91), “conVERSation (MW 249); “aversive” (MW 12), “diverse” (MW 12), “universal” (MW 13), “averse” (MW 65), “overt” (MW 143). Bernstein’s fetishism of “verse” is found encrypted in other, sociologically significant, words: “advertisement[s]” (MW 184), the stop versus spirant “cyberspace” (MW 73), palindromic “service” (MW 75); the interchangeability of “verb”, “verse” and verus (“true”) in “reverberation” (MW 90).


If one thinks of the literal root of the word verse, ‘a line, furrow, turning — vertere, to turn. . .’, he will come to a sense of ‘free verse’ as that instance of writing in poetry which ‘turns’ upon an occasion intimate with, in fact, the issue of, its own nature rather than to an abstract decision of ‘form’ taken from a prior instance.

— Robert Creeley, A Sense of Measure, p. 48


It is not difficult to see that quite often Bernstein’s line of poetic argument is influenced — if not led — by phonemic fetishes (Bernstein’s “father pushed a / line of ladies’ dresses” [RT 42]), in which ideas are generated by playing with combinations of letters or sounds (e.g., Blaser as “blazing” [MW 169], “emblazonment” [MW 170], etc.). Bernstein apotheosises names, nouns: common nouns, uncommon nouns; proper names, improper names. “Don’t Be So Sure”, Saussure (“(Don’t Be Saussure)” [MW 5]). He leaves no Stein unturned (“not a matter of Proper Names but of Works, and perhaps not even a matter of works but of how readers read them” [MW 107]). [Act becomes the primary issue of ‘verb’ or verbum, a word. ‘In the beginning was the Word’ — and the word was the reality of the imagination. — Robert Creeley, A Sense of Measure (60–61)] When he uses two signs with one and the same homoousian meaning, he expresses this by putting the sign “[&]” between them; however, when he uses two signs with homoiousian meaning (mostly, however, with phonetic characteristics in common), he employs a variety of techniques, including parentheses, square bracketing, braces, solidi, commas, spaces (conventional unbreathed spaces between words, or longer spaces, like exhalations) and lines — or line-breaks (enjambement), between them:

picture / [fixture] (DC 10)

not structurally challenged, structurally challenging (MW 11)

verging verse (MW 12)

a[r]mour.)          {ardour} (DC 14)

demanding / (de-/meaning) (DC 63)

mark (mar) (MW 101)


Sometimes, Bernstein uses the same system of signs to reveal opposition, paradox or irony (including enantiomorphic paronomasia [see fourth & fifth examples below]):


capitulation / capitalism (MW 6)

agreement / egregious (DC 51)

not size but desire. / & despair (DC 80–81)

the weight / of tradition or / a tradition of weights (DC 71)

“Debris of Shock / Shock of Debris” (DC 103)

the yammering gap between speech and writing (the stammering gaps among speeches and writings) (MW 125)



Heirs of “Buffalo”1


“Rothenberg” from an Anthology to “Bernstein” spoke

And breathed command: “Take thou this ‘Zukofsky’,

And ‘Thelonious Monk’ wherewith the living ‘Stein’ ”;

And “Bernstein” hearkened unto “Wittgenstein”.


“Schwitters” shook the Anthology from “Jack Benny” to “Ashbery”,

(“Laura) Riding” the swart tempestuous “Wyndham”;

And “Bernstein”, like a man possess’d (bless’d),

Stood up “Khlebnikov”, “Berrigan”, “Cage”.


And “Bernstein” struck the living daylights,

And “Mac Low”! the living “Stein” (Livingstone, I presume?)

From which henceforth the thing to do is think of names.

Names will do.


(Jonathan) Swift at the stroke of “Reznikoff”

The viscid “Coleridge” “Mina Loy” and “Joyce”

Down the “process, syntax, program”  of “Barthes” and “Foucault”

To “Oceania” (“Australia”) and “Africa”,


To the “Americas” and to “Kickapoo”,

To “Anglophonic Canada” and the “Caribbean”

Love poems, intromissions, transformations

Describe those bombs of mass hysteria.


To old “Ezra Pound”, it’s time to Recanto. I don’t think so,

To “Scalapino” to skin a cat and “Hejinian’s” rill;

Troubling the “William Carlos Williams” of the Times

Mounting the “frame” of the “Nude Formalist”.


And higher still the “ink” flows

And “averts” “Byron’s” language gains,

Wherein, by Mars’ This is war. guarding “close(d), listening”

There sit “Mother Theresa” and “Mrs. Thatcher”.


For there “Allen Ginsberg” “Andy / Warhol” flock in

And they innocently strip,

And purge »yamajudougi cu yas J’accuse DaDa«

Up to “small b buddhism” or the hip.


And such as “Tommy Eliot of St. Louis” the skill to “Burroughs”

Attain at “Whitman” the fa[r]ther sure

“phallocentrism” in every limb,

And “Oscar Wilde” more and more.


“Charles Bernstein” is his name

“Interrogation Rooms” is his game

“Refamiliarization” is his fame

“Standing Up and Ripping Through” is the same.


So there now.



Burn, maybe Berne, Stein.


Bernstein’s aetiological “no rhyme or reason” (MW 27) cadence is disarming: A stich in time staves rhyme. It is a matter of noetic versus poetic “[v]alues like butter on the table melting / before the memory of the butter on the table” (MW 3).


Multiple choice. Read carefully the following passage:


The precepts implied by this poetic surface realized, reified, invites us to imagine  “dissident” and “dissonant” in “different,” while choosing their characteristically visceral process of relieving difference/dissidence/dissonance; that is, we don’t maximize the trinomial reception (and however many others there may be) but let them orbit around each other (like Stein’s “they lived happily ever after and the world just went on being round”); we nominalize the phonetization of inventions available to us evidencing the anima mundi unfold into discrete solipsistic (solecistic) and intellectual affiliations.


Which of the following writers wrote the above passage?


A Charles Bernstein

B Robert Creeley

C Charles Olson

D Maria Damon



II Cultural: Bistoury is Hunk

What a sorry state of affairs! Was Charlie asleep when everything began to derealise its sense of textuality? Charlie did turn in his sleep (“what poets do is turn” [MW 258]; vid. I Semantic) and murmured round (drowned). A statement of illicit affaires (“dominant culture” [MW 4]) is not love or a rose (eros). If the birds and bees (M. de Charlus’s bumblebee) can fly in states of arousal, then poetry can exist entirely on its own. Alphabets and names are the name of the games in the United States of Poetry (the name–game nexus: “having spelled these names, move on / to toys” [RT 11). Having ensorcelled these names! In America, everything is occidental but nothing is accidental: If a thing can have a name, that possibility must be written into Ford’s dictum (Dichtkunst).

It would seem to be a sort of “ethnic ethos” (MW 234), if it turned out that language, identity and marginality were one’s default: “[A]ny echo of Yiddish was long gone” (MW 230); ‘‘loss, Yiddish, loose’’ (I/I 15). Bernstein’s father “probably spoke Yiddish as a kid, but there was no hint of that in our household” (MW 231). Bernstein does “not say there is nothing outside the text but that there is text outside the nothing” (MW 8). Outside the being and nothingness. (Nothing in the European provinces’ [Princeton] love of the past can match America’s Japan-poor sartor. While “Nude Formalism [MW 10] ack-ack acknowledges that poetry possesses no knowledge, it insists that writing “acknowledge its own materiality” [MW 28]). No nudes is good news (news/nudes; “Nude Formalism [MW 10]). Just as one is quite unable to imagine being arrested for proposing (propositioning), so too there is no rhyparography that one can imagine excluded from the defence of colluding with others.

Jacques was a French typewriter, Ludwig was a Viennese typewriter and Mr Bernstein was an American typewriter. If one can imagine “prosdodic, thematic and discusrive / enactcemnts” (MW 1) as irruptive components in the “politics of poetry” (MW 4), then the possibility of such modes of writing as a means of discovering meaning rather than having it defined must be admitted. “It’s not collage” (MW 7), asserts Bernstein, it is “torquing or twisting or permuting or turning or curving of angles or points of view” (MW 7), where the “parts are greater than the sum of the whole” (MW 9). To throw something together in Yiddish (Yinglish) is tzigeshtikevet (tsi-gè-shtîk-ê-vét). Like a meal. Like an outfit. Like a composition.




Every original language near to its source is in itself the chaos of a cyclic poem: the copiousness of lexicography and the distinctions of grammar are the works of a later age, and are merely the catalogue and the form of the creations of poetry.

— Percy Bysshe Shelley, A Defence of Poetry (71)


Acceptilation is intelligent insofar as experimentation can occur in all possible poetries (“I demand a lot from the materials” [MW 25]), but this form of intelligence is a form of theological D-follows-G paradigm within the parameters of Cyrillic, a form of intelligentsia. (It is impossible for words to collide in too different accidence: by themselves, or in flexions.)

If one objects to familial transparency, it is still possible for metonymy in orthodox Judaism and “Non-Jewish” Judaism alike. (Kabbalism is like finding April the fourth on the upper and upper; and on finding it, it is likely to be very well arranged.) A galling Bernstein gathers no Muse. Haikuisation of the garment industry cannot be resisted with ideologies later.

If Kafka was to blow up an object, though he need not have blown up other properties, he must have known he would be committed to trial.

If Kafka grew up here, in San Francisco, then all the same would he have had dreams of dying in revolution or struggle in altered states of awareness?

The thing is, why did Bernstein not mention Jewishness in his college “piece” on Stein and Wittgenstein? Watch this space (species)! This space can be imagined empty, but it cannot be imagined empty with something in it.

Identity must be situated in inner (Zen) and outer space. (Identity is a launching-pad for the ego.) A seam (seemliness) of Jewish tradition, though it need not be sewn, must be known: it is, so to speak, July the fourth as everybody as a sample as a sample of everybody. Fabric swatches (“The Years As Swatches” [Soph 31–33) must come in many colorways, not just the dark imploding star of Kafka, and so (sew) on.

Families contain the possibility of all situations. “Suffer not the / professor of culture nor the minister / of taste” (DC 145) in this tailor-made family! (Granted “The clothier makes the person” [Soph 168], Joey Adams also noted how clothes ‘‘ ‘fake’ the man’’.) Bernstein does not write at a desk, preferring lounging on a couch, resting his “yellow legal pad” (MW 47) on his sartorius (the thigh muscle that crosses the leg, as when a tailor sits.) References to “tailor” (tail) are atavistic: Bernstein is the son of a tailor, just as James Murray, the founding Editor of the Oxford Dictionary, was the son of a tailor. The possibility of being “self-made”, beginning with the “trim” of others’ affairs is the basis (launching-pad) of projection (“The tailor tells / of other tolls, the seam that binds, the trim / the waste” [RT 11). He moved through the world from textiles to text.


Nobody is so rude

Not to remember Gertrude.

But on the island of Bali

They do workshops on Charlie.



III Proairetic: The Pentium is the Vestige

A poet is a writer with special needs. In the commercialisation of culture, poetry is an economy of loss. (“As James Sherry noted years ago in L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E: a piece of paper with nothing on it has a definite economic value. If you print a poem on it, this value is lost” [MW 150]). But poetry is also the ultimate in small business (MW 234). Wallace Stevens wrote somewhere that poetry needed three (non-commercial) essentials: (1) it must be abstract; (2) it must change; and (3) it must give pleasure. (Number 3 is arguably commercial.)


I don’t know much about art, but

I know what I don’t like (RT 21).


The idea that complex or unfamiliar ideas, indeed that compound-complex sentences, are “élitist” must be countered as demagogic populism and quasi-totalitarianism. It is not that writers and artists and intellectuals, any more than listeners or readers, are ignorant; but the constraints enforced in public spaces produce, protect, and defend ignorance. With the instigation of media consultants and large foundations, the noncommercial sector has too often copied the worst features of the commercial sector (though usually stripped of the dynamism of the market that makes commercial culture so vibrant). It is commendable for noncommercial venues to try to get the largest possible audience for the programming they produce. However, it is destructive to determine your programming primarily on the audience it is able to get (MW 16).


The men on the hill, they say, “learn the rules, then break them.”

I like to “think the reverse” wherever possible and even if not:

break ’em enough times you won’t have to learn ’em, or the rules will have changed, or you will change them, . . . (MW 3)


. . . or you will change.


The commodity of objects (“all this poetics stuff is just an attempt to attract readers, making the work just one more commodity being peddled” [MW 5]) in a commercialisation (“isn’t advertising and the commercialization of culture a bad thing, interrupts the future public intellectual, isn’t that what poetry should be trying to resist; and isn’t the sort of poetry you promote just a capitulation to the alienated, fragmented discourse of postmodern capitalism?” [MW 6]) corresponds to the “mediocracy” (MW 14–15) of “A Defence of Poetry” as a defence of typing. The road, however, from typing to typography is long and ideological. The visual arrangement of lines on the page is a minefield of prosody, scansion, metre, speech-scoring, page design and graphics — and some of the best — and most radical — examples of this are to be found in advertisements in glossy magazines, where graphic designers eschew printers’ good taste for statements! on the product in question (questionable product).

In this day and age, “Poetry is no match for advertising and the mass culture industry if reaching the broadest public is what you have in mind (irrespective of the message)” (MW 13). In a name is the representative of a poet: “I am a product of the U.S. and an example of it” (MW 14). Bernstein uses confessional–anticonfessional poems, such as “Solidarity Is the Name We Give to What We Cannot Hold” (“I am a capitalist poet in Leningrad” [MW 33] — no doubt a nod to Leningrad2 by Michael Davidson, Lyn Hejinian, Ron Silliman and Barrett Watten) in order to “dismember (disremember)” (DC 109) identity, according to an Ashberian sensibility if not technique. Lines (online stanzas) are their representatives. One can only speak about them becoming rather than being. The “politics of poetry” (MW 4) puts words into the bouts rimés of babes. When a catallactic cause célèbre signifies production lines, then words “often fail us” (MW 17), their indeterminateness nonchalantly living extraordinary lives in “hyst’ry” or “myst’ry” (RT 12).


Know your audience — it’s a tough call for arts organisations, dealing as they do in intangible cultural products and facing ever-increasing competition from a bewildering range of entertainment options. . . . While some arts organisations fear that an emphasis on audience research can inhibit artistic experimentation, that fear is essentially unfounded. With a sound knowledge of both existing and potential audiences, and the factors that encourage and inhibit their participation in the arts, organisations can consolidate and expand existing audiences.

Artforce (newsletter of the Australia Council,

the Australian Government’s arts funding and advisory body),

# 101 Summer 98/99


Felonious Spunk and the Spielerei from Zarathustra3


A subjective thought: “I’m more looking for questions

With several objects”, that he upturned a sentence.

Did he not steal the pears (parse) with circumstantial

Evidence hiding behind the french despatches to perception?


His objects were RAMBAM & portulano,

And insubordination’s music — la vie est vaine.

He tried to derail trains of thought that, finally,

He found a resistance to the “high”.


Diction, the dictionary warned, turned to a subject

Matter or material girl (mater). Was it not coming’s shape?

To attain scepticism of fixed values, he must be rococo

In terms of self-conscious fantasies of the verb cruise.


Tom Cruising, he wound a consonant rhetoric

Around his phallocentric “ordering”, to fit into a familiar mould:

Paratactic, parapsychotherapy @ $100 an hour,

The idea of “sperm meets cervix” ignoring the point in question.


The desire to dwell inside the pleats and folds of language

Like vaginoplasty is to destabilise quaquaversally.

An invented structure is here to stay —

He realised that nocturnal emission was logorrhoea, for example.


[T]he soul and the world are one in a third hidden thing in imagination . . . It is the work of creation . . . It is Poetry, the Making. It is also the opus alchymicum or Hermetic and Rosicrucian alchemy.

— Robert Duncan, “Two chapters from H.D.”, in TriQuarterly # 12, 1968


George Steiner wrote that “the modulation of English into an ‘Esperanto’ of world-commerce, technology, and tourism, is having debilitating effects on English proper. To use current jargon [ca 1975], ubiquity is causing a negative feedback”. Bernstein plays a lot with the language as she is spoke by people in commerce (“we still face a severe memory shortage and rather than resolve the problem we’re buying our way out of it” [DC 88]). The stuff of poetry for Bernstein is “psychobabble” (RT 55), linguistry, telechatter, blurborrhoea: “Poetry: the show- / me business” (DC 17). Steiner takes a different (dim) view; he writes of language as moralists do of men as leaky vessels, indiscriminately spilling their seed: “If dissemination weakened the native genius of the language, the price would be a tragic one. English literature, the penetrating yet delicate imprint of a uniquely coherent, articulate historical experience on the vocabulary and syntax of English speech, the supple vitality of English in regard to its unbroken past — these are one of the excellences of our condition. It would be ironic if the answer to Babel were pidgin and not Pentecost.”4

Bernsteiner opacity (Undursichtigkeit) transcends Steinerian clarity (Klarheit):


Success demands getting more from available space, taking efficiency to extremes, paying less for improved performance. Moreover, 2440 sacrifices none of 2430A’s performance.

Intuitive user interfaces provide only part of the road map out of the dark ages.

We’ve made debugging easier with differential nonlinearity, monolithic time-delay generators, and remote-error sensing terminals (RESTS). Yet, we still face a severe memory shortage and rather than resolve the problem we’re buying our way out of it. We need a tariff on chap foreign-made memory so we can regroup our own. The current controversy, however, stems from the attempts of several vendors to control the marketplace by promoting standards that especially benefit their computing architecture (DC 88–89).


The thing is not to produce “art”, but to be completely artless. . . . The form of painting means nothing — how a colour is put, finely, cleanly, dirtily, does not matter — the thing to look for is the spirit that is beyond the way a thing is painted. Terms like “abstract”, “surrealist”, “realist’’ are essentially ridiculous, and are only used for and by a lay public.

— John Olsen, Drawn from Life (26)


Alberto Giacometti, quoted in Drawn from Life by John Olsen (p. 76), wrote: “I never think of success or failure; the more of a failure a work is the more chance there’s a little something of worth in it. . . . So the word failure is meaningless. The same thing with choice: I never select paintings for an exhibition. I show what I have. It’s pointless to give the impression that you’re further advanced that you really are.” Bernstein believes that “artists and intellectuals have a commitment to try to make their work and the work they support available in public spaces, not in the watered down forms that only capitulate to the mediocracy, but in forms that challenge, confront, exhilarate, provoke, disturb, question, flail, and even fail” (emphasis added, MW 16).


— From Howl to HAL and back again: inattentive readers (writers) get their .com.euppance.



IV Hermeneutic: Mona Bona Jackson

The Logical Language Group has been conducting a linguistic experiment based on an article published in Scientific American in 1960, on Dr James Cooke Brown’s artificial language project, Loglan (i.e., logical language). The language is based on “universal logic”, claiming to be at once “culturally neutral” for human speech and ideally “processable” for computers and artificial intelligence. Following a famous schism in the ranks of these linguistic experimenters, a dialect of the original language, Lojban (hard g corrupted to spirant j), was developed.

Language, if not groups, fragments easily into dialects and Bernsteinian “ideolects”. A follower of Ido, an offshoot of Esperanto (the Esperanto desinence -ido designates “offspring”), once lamented to George Bernard Shaw, who was himself hard at “phoneticising” English for its own good (Professor Henry Higgins was based on the pioneering phoneticist Henry Sweet), that “Idist” or “Idoïst” did not flow off the tongue like ‘‘Esperantist”. “How about ‘Idiot’?” Shaw wryly proposed.

One of the aims of Lojban’s language-builders was to eradicate ambiguity from language; as such, their ideal is consonant with Laura (Riding) and Schuyler Jackson’s motto, “one meaning, one word” in their own obsessive project to reform English. Rational Meaning was their avatar.


L’art pour l’art certainly is anathema to the total state; the functional subservient type of art, on the other hand, is furthered and subsidized. . . . “Degenerate art” (entartet Kunst, as it was called in the Third Reich and as it is still called, in various equivalents, by our various authoritarians) is a different matter. Books like Ulysses or Lolita are, as I found out during a trip abroad last summer, not available in any East German bookstore; not because they’re considered dirty, but because they don’t contribute anything “useful” to the state.

— Felix Pollak, “Pornography: a trip around the halfworld”, in TriQuarterly # 12, 1968


Reformation — and re-formation — of language is nothing new. Andrew Large explains: “Since the early seventeenth century, several hundred artificial [constructed] language schemes have been constructed in the hope that a universal medium for international communication can be adopted. . . . In the Judaic tradition, the Book of Genesis looks back to a golden past when ‘the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech’.”5 All communication is “ded/uction” (DC 10 — the first syllable, separated from the rest of the word by a line-break, is homophonic for “dead”; communication is a “dead duck”), though not necessarily in any haptic sense. Bernstein appropriates speech and speeches away from the politicians, ideologues and reformers (“the stammering gaps among speeches and writings” [MW 125]): it was the ideologues who persisted beyond mere curiosity that, oh dear, remember how queer; an apparently visual materiality constructed by the reader, or the questioning of a homely fact; it need not be its cubo-serial one. “You see, I’m still holding out for a poetry in which meaning is discovered rather than defined,” explains Bernstein (MW 29–30), “where poetry is on trial, but where the trial is sufficient to itself, producing innovation and investigation not verdicts or conclusions.” Dickinsonian poetics, which Bernstein returns to again and again, dictates that empiricism be inconclusive (“This world is not Conclusion” — Emily Dickinson, quoted MW 172 & 208 [with a small c]). “My aim,” he continues later (MW 219), is “not to explain the poems but to make them more opaque”, for “I’ve never been one for intellectualizing” (RT 29).

In “Riding’s Reason” (MW 255–267), Bernstein charts Laura (Riding) Jackson’s repudiation (renunciation) of poetry as artificial (constructed) reality: preoccupations with purer language, a purer model of reality, bedevilled her. (Bernstein states his own position in “Outrigger” [Soph 27]: “I’ve had my problems / with poetry before, but / I’ve never had to turn my back on it.”) “In Rational Meaning, the Jacksons argue that our natural disposition to words, our innate trust in them, has been unlearned. Rules of an imposed and denatured ‘logic’ of use ride roughshod [Laura Riding roughshod] over the ‘natural custom of the language’ ’’ (MW 262) Yet, the Lojban experiment is anathematical to the Jacksons’ argument for language as a truth or telling: “Rational Meaning is at its best when decrying structuralist and positivist taxonomies that picture language as a nonhuman system”, that is, “culturally neutral”, grammatically unambiguous, phonetic (an “unambiguous resolution of sounds into words”), “simple”, “natural”, “easy-to-learn” logical language.6


One article somewhat more tendentious than the others [in Journal of Planned Languages] caught my eye: Rick Morneau’s “On the unsuitability of ‘logical languages’  for use as interlinguas in machine translation.” Morneau writes: “In my opinion, Lojban is much less tractable than it _should_ be . . . [as] a serious candidate . . . Also . . . Lojban has features that actually make it _unsuitable_ for use as an MT IL.”

Since Morneau’s arguments were taken from this forum, I expect that you’ll all be familiar with them. I’m neither prepared nor qualified to say whether or not they’re correct. But, _assuming_ (for the sake of argument) that they are, the question arises: why, then, have the designers of Loglan and Lojban put so much effort into making the language _parseable_ [sic] (i.e. computer-tractable) rather than _merely_ speakable?

— Don Harlow,


Reality is compared with English. A step can be true or false in virtue of being an effort. The wish to go walking must not be granted when there is a repetition independent of the stroll (rôle); otherwise, the first time they converse they know that true and false are relations of hers from Galicia (Austro-Poland), with equal status between a mixture of this and a mixture of that. Lexicon was law (lex): “the Law’d” (Soph 40 — law as a divine instrument).

In that case, one could say that their work aims to impregnate “the truth of language” (MW 260), as “gest” is short for “gestation” signified in making that mistake in (re)construction.

Can we not make a mistake in constructing in constructing words in constructing words and “lexemes”, in making a mistake a mistake in constructing words and “lexemes”, in making a mistake in constructing morphemes, in making a mistake in constructing phonemes, in making a mistake in constructing? — So long as it is known that they are meant to be constructed.


Hey Fred, “How d’ya get to Carnegie Hall?” (MW 7) (carnal whore/carnival horse).

— “Theory” (active).


Man possesses the ability to construct languages capable of expressing every sense, without having any idea how each word has meaning or what its meaning is — just as people speak without knowing how the individual sounds are produced.

Everyday language is a part of the human organism and is no less complicated than it.

It is not humanly possible to gather immediately from it what the logic of language is.

Language disguises thought. So much so, that from the outward form of the clothing it is impossible to infer the form of the thought beneath it, because the outward form of the clothing is not designed to reveal the form of the body, but for entirely different purposes.

— Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (4.002)


In the epigraph to “Riding’s Reason” is the Jacksons’ homoousian–homoiousian semantics, complete with theological He, made clear: “That He another day woke to find himself speaking a strange language, in which everything was known and clear — as if all difficulties of the intelligence were difficulties of language alone: in this language He had but to speak to discover, as, for instance, the word for horse here not only stood for horse but also made plain the quality of horseliness, what it was.” (“Behind this metaphor / lies Descartes, pulled by a train of horses” [RT 77].) The key concept of Rational Meaning, writes Bernstein, “and also the most elusive, is that words have intrinsic meaning” (MW 260):


The authors decisively reject a saussurean notion of the meaning of words as relative or differential. As early as 1928, in the dream story in Anarchism Is Not Enough quoted in the epigraph on “horseliness” above, Riding was flipping Ferdinand de Saussure’s 1916 Cours de linguistique générale on its head. For Saussure is commonly understood to argue that “the relationship between signifier and signified is ‘unmotivated’ or arbitrary; that is, it is based purely on social rather than on natural necessity: there is nothing about a horse which demands that it be called ‘horse’, since the French call the same thing un cheval” (MW 260).


Bob LeChevalier (also known as “lojbab”) is Lojbab’s knight in “pleonastic a[r]mour” (DC 14) of logical human language. He is le cheval (particular) but also un cheval (general). He is the general.

An analogy to illustrate the concept of Riding–Lojban logic: imagine a mane and a tail (meaning and a tale [annotated]); you can metonymicise a horse-shoe trouvaille (Saussure trouve-t-il chaussure à son pied?). To the fact that a horse is a horse a horse of course corresponds to the horse of course unless the horse is the Trojan horse or Pacolet’s horse or Alexander’s horse, the famous Bucephalus (alexandrine boustrophedon). (I’m getting hoarse!) “I could eat a truck” (Soph 42), writes Bernstein in quotation marks, with “truck” substituted for “horse’’. In “Hitch World” (DC 52), “foot” is likewise substituted for “horse”: “Perplexing percolation (Horse / In Mouth)”. Later, in “Pafnucio Santo and the American Friend” (Soph 81- 83), the poet asks, “Do I / beat a dead horse?”. Equine preoccupation: “A man comes into my / truck and criticizes my horse” (Soph 102). Just as the horse transformed the Indians of the Great Plains into a highly mobile and, with the gun, sophisticated warrior society, the very same quadruped looks certain to transform poetics and philosophy at least for the next course. Red Cloud, “you got / a funny way / of taking the / tail by the / horse” (Soph 109).


Some original poetry has already been written in Lojban. Lojban’s powerful metaphor structure allows you to build concepts into words easily, even ‘on the fly’. A Lojban speaker doesn’t need a dictionary to use and understand millions of words that can potentially exist in the language. The absence of cultural constraints makes consideration of new ideas and relationships easier than in natural languages, spurring creativity. Lojban enhances the communication of abstract concepts by identifying their nature explicitly. Lojban is thus a very powerful language, not only for poetry, but for discussing such abstract fields as philosophy, physics, metaphysics, and religion.

Lojban has an unambiguous grammar and its sounds and spelling are unambiguous. Lojban is not entirely unambiguous; human beings occasionally desire to be ambiguous in their expressions. In Lojban, this ambiguity is limited to semantics, metaphor, and intentional omission. Semantic ambiguity is derived from the fact that each individual (and culture) associates words as symbols for a family of concepts, sometimes diverging into unrelated fields. In addition, each individual’s personal experiences provide emotional connotations to words that cannot be removed. Lojban attempts to minimize the transference of these associations as people learn the language.

Lojban’s powerful metaphor and word-building features make it easy to make fine distinctions between concepts without requiring individual words to assume multiple meanings. Lojban metaphors (called tanru) are themselves ambiguous; they specify a relationship between concepts, but not what the relationship is. The relationship can be made explicit using unambiguous logical constructs if necessary, or can be left vague as the speaker (usually) desires. Similarly, portions of the logical structure of a Lojban expression can be omitted, greatly simplifying the expression while causing an ambiguity. This ambiguity is readily identified by a reader or listener. Thus all ambiguity in Lojban is constrained and recognizable and can be clarified as necessary by further interaction. Lojban unleashes the full potential of poetic expression to communicate both concrete and abstract ideas.

— From “What is Lojban? (la lojban mo)”


And it was Horace who wrote, post equitem sedet atra cura, behind the horseman sits black care. . . .

Laura parenthetical Riding Jackson is not one of your common garden-variety chatterers. (The name “Riding” is a normalisation of Reichenthal, not Reiter.) Riding aims at the natural scarification of experience. Riding is not “horsy” (nor even “horsely”) but an activity (Active is the name of a horse). A partisan approach consists of a parti-colored partie carrée:


A poem should make its own experience, Uncle Hodgepodge used to say. I tend to dislike readings where the poet defines every detail and reference of the work so that by the time you get to the poem it’s been reduced to an illustration of anecdotes and explanations that preceded it. I figure if a reader or listener can’t make out a particular reference or train of thought, that’s okay — it’s very much the way I experience things in everyday life (MW 9).



Active is the name of a horse.

Everybody has forgotten what horses are.

What horses are.

What are horses.

Horses are animals were animals with a mane and a tail ears hoofs a head and teeth and shoes if they are put upon them.

If they are put upon them and then the horses lose them and if any one finds them and keeps them, he has lots of good luck. But now everybody has forgotten what horses are and what horse-shoes are and what horse-shoe nails are everybody has forgotten what horses are, but anyway one day, Active is the name of a horse, a nice horse.

— Gertrude Stein, Alphabets and Birthdays, p. 3


Substitution is the name of the game. Playing every bit as much the fool as, for example, George Maciunas, leader of Fluxus, the most radical and experimental art movement of the 1960s. The aim is to turn the world on its head (“Not that I mean to startle just / unsettle” [DC 51]). Inversion is a blunt instrument. Perversion, that is, along the lines of Huysman’s anti-hero, in À Rebours, Des Esseintes’ sense of aesthetic, is the modus operandi (“Fool’s / gold / is the only kind of gold I / ever cared about” [DC 108]). Bernstein adheres to my motto: Through levity to levitation. His Muse is Amuse. (Start laughing; this is serious! ‘‘Still, one test of an art’s vitality is that it manages to unsettle, . . . and I for one am happy to embrace the description of my work as ungainly solipsistic incoherence that has no meaning. No meaning at all’’ [MW 250]). Bernstein bands together the ludic, comic and parodic in his work.


Alborak (Mohammed’s winged horse of ascension), Bayard (Rinaldo’s bay steed), Black Bess (Dick Turpin’s fleet mare), Black Saladin (Warwick’s horse), Bucephalus (Alexander the Great’s war horse), Copenhagen (Wellington’s charger at Waterloo), Grani (Sigurd’s magic steed), Houyhnhnm (ruling horse in Gulliver’s Travels), Incitatus (the steed of Caligula, the Roman Emperor), Marengo (Napoleon’s white horse), Pegasus (winged horse of Greek fable), Roan Barbary (favorite horse of Richard II), Rosinante (Don Quixote’s bony steed), Sleipnir (Odin’s eight-legged steed), Vegliantino or Veillantif (Orlando’s steed), White Surrey (favorite horse of Richard III).

— Roget’s Thesaurus, 413.21


[W]hat a peerless beast a horse was, the only serviceable courtier without flattery, the beast of most beauty, faithfulness, courage, and such more, that if I had not been a piece of a logician before I came to him, I think he would have persuaded me to have wished myself a horse.

— Sir Philip Sidney, An Apology for Poetry, Otherwise known as The Defence of Poesy (1–2)


Nowhere is Bernstein’s art of word substitution more transparent than in “Outrigger” (Soph 27–30): “Thanks for your batter — I depreciate getting / your detractions and found none of what / you said to bake sense.” Paronomasia, bordering on witzelsucht (a mental condition marked by the making of poor jokes and puns and the telling of pointless stories at which the speaker is intensely amused; a condition characteristic of frontal lobe lesions) is an important Bernsteinian activity; throughout Bernstein’s poetry are to be found witzig, witty, artful, questionable and downright execrable puns. Consider this selection from Dark City: “victimless rime” (9); “no crime like presentiment” (12); “Funny, you don’t look / gluish” (17 — the torquing of an old gag; i.e., a joke designed to silence forcibly); “Are you cl / os / e / to your m / other?” (17–18 — a play on mother as Other); “there’s a / succor dead every twenty seconds” (18); “Clear as f / udge” (26 — the reader anticipates “fuck”, although a reading of Bernstein would show that he is never rude); “The scholar-trancemaker hangs / from the end of a trope” (34); “Young man / with horn” (44 — the oldest joke in the book); “Put lack in your pipe and stroke it” (57); “take that smirk off your grimace” (64); “If / the clue slips tear it” (65); “get off my bunt” (106 — a conflation of “back” and “butt”); “Better / a barber than a splendor / be” (108); “alarmed to the teeth” (121); “My friend Polly Vocal” (122 — an allusion to Eugene Jolas’s “Polyvocables”, in which Jolas amalgamated into his poetry words from each of the three languages he spoke like a native); “Are the rich getting richer or are you just / glad to see me?” (123); “Faith under leisure” (136); “ ‘Don’t Tampa / with me or I’ll lacerate that / evisceration off your face so fast / you’ll think my caddle prod was a lollipop [“liripoop”?]’ ” (141); “The Czech / is in the jail” (142); “The Plight of the Bumblebee” (146 — Susan Bee?); etc.

Aesthetes must show their jocks. They are ready (readerly) to show how things come out in the wash. In order to do that, they must (mis)appropriate noise (any classic text) completely. Appropriation has a lineage with unrepresentative homosexual orienteering that can be traced from writerly Walt Whitman (any interactive text) to Gertrude Stein, Allen Ginsberg and John Ashbery (“who are you calling a verse?” [MW 3]), who has had the urge to don a Prufrock more than once.


. . . (“Hermes Hermeneutic, the swashbuckled kid from Ala-

cazam, swim/swam/swum past fireflies and mint juleps, pusses in the

alleys and lizigator monsters”).


There is indeed a way to test whether meaning has hermeneutic rapture (rupture). Reading (Riding) insists on those raptures being grounded in human intelligence (“Emergence of mush: the hermeneutic ovoid crashes in / on the Pesto Principle” [Soph 170]); as the assignment of rapture represents the primacy of inscription (Bernstein’s “insistence on the primacy / of the / poem as written” [MW 18]), performance on the page (i.e., rapture) is maximised, and almost every possible rap (rapture) has meaning. However, it would be wrong to conclude that the “Rembrandt of rap” was queer. Poems do not have to come out of the motet (“What interests me in a phrase or line is not always self-evident” [MW 25]). A rap (dysraphic) performance prevents “rereading” (MW 19), whether it be sound[ed] or unsound[ed] poetry (“sounded poetry & unsounded poetry” [MW 22]).


[Play] is an activity which proceeds within certain limits of time and space, in a visible order, according to rules freely accepted, and outside the sphere of necessity or material utility. The play-mood is one of rapture and enthusiasm, and is sacred or festive in accordance with the occasion. A feeling of exaltation and tension accompanies the action, mirth and relaxation follow.

Now it can hardly be denied that these qualities are also proper to poetic creation. In fact, the definition we have just given of play might serve as a definition of poetry. The rhythmical or symmetrical arrangement of language, the hitting of the mark by rhyme or assonance, the deliberate disguising of the sense, the artificial and artful construction of the phrases — all might be so many utterances of the play-spirit. To call poetry, as Paul Valéry has done, a playing with words and language is no metaphor: it is the precise and literal truth.

— J. Huizinga, Homo Ludens (154–155)


The first three letters of “reb / bec / cah” (i.e., Rebekah; Dis) are the same as the Taneraic word for insanity:


Dear James,7


Dentú lunata uzi! (Happy New Year! — you guessed it, in Taneraic.) My apologies for not writing sooner. My poor excuse is that I’ve been doing editing work at a law firm in the city till almost midnight for the past one-and-a-half months, including between Christmas and New Year, which leaves me so exhausted the next day that I have not enough time to get through my real work.

Thank you so much for your surprise and generous gift package of books. Ian and I are most touched by your generosity. You are surrounded by such richness of spirit that it overflows. So many discoveries — and so little time to digest everything. I look forward to some free time to read undisturbed (alas, it won’t be Christmas reading, as you intended).

Waldrop’s Language of America reminded me, just by skimming through, of amateur linguist Benjamin Whorf, who studied Indian languages (language constructors make a big deal over him).

I opened Friedman’s Cameo at random and read “Water”, which delighted me. I can imagine it was a real dream: often my dreams solve a problem for me (“It just might work. . . .”), only to find in the morning that the solution was “only water. Or pee”.

It turns out I already had some Hocquard in my Random House Book of Twentieth Century French Poetry, six from the end (followed by Jean Daive, Claude Royet-Journoud, Alain Veinstein, Alain Delahaye and Philippe Denis — all unknown to me as yet); our own library, à la Duncan’s observation in “Notebook 42”, having years ago outgrown us, is always turning up surprises for us.

Schwerner and I share certain words, such as “trouvaille”, which was also enjoyed by the Surrealists (Breton talks about this in L’Amour Fou). His experiments with translation are similar to mine, especially my “calques”. His “psychospatial” poetry resembles Olson’s “projective” experiments taken up and expanded by Bernstein’s generation — what I call “generative” poetry. Schwerner’s “Scholar/Translator” comment on “Pinitou”, “deeply moving” if an “early reality of self” (but not so if simply the name of an “unknown deity or peer”), had added meaning for me, for pini tou in Taneraic means “solitary person”: a synonym for piniaris, hermit or recluse. (Near homonym piní tou is a less meaningful but metaphoric “grey person”.)

Schwerner and I were in the same pages of Tyuonyi in 1991, to which Bernstein was a Contributing Editor, and I meant to look up his Tablets then.

DuPlessis and I also appeared together in Tyuonyi almost a decade ago. Her idea of “segmentivity” is very interesting. It seems to me the work of linguists has had a profound impact on the way poets theorise over poetry. Mallarmé’s use of space in Coup de Dés and Baudelaire’s Petits Poèmes en Prose certainly prefigured much of twentieth-century poetry. (I quite often abandon prosody for the blocked page of prose poetry myself.) The “science” of linguistics may not have the last word on the development of poetry, however, for the intuitive and often wrong-headed work of philologists comes closer to the methodology of alchemy, a (meta)physical form of poetry (hence, the “alchoem” unit of “logalchemy”). DuPlessis’s discussion of shadow also conjured up the wayang for me, and already I can see I’ll be investigating this in Indonesia. I was surprised she omitted to mention “segue” and its proximity to “segmentivity”. Her remarks on Spicer and a gay/poetic seriality took me by surprise, too — I don’t place Spicer in the new poetics camp, if you’ll pardon the pun, even though I have his Collected Books, which contains Blaser’s essay “The Practice of Outside”. Trouble is, I confuse him with Jonathan Williams, which betrays a feebleness on my part. (It was Williams who “always thought / coq au vin / was / love in a lorry”. You have to laugh!) I have Williams’s in memoriam poem to Spicer, in which he phallically hopes “Death / has a big one / for Jack”. Rather, I automatically think of Frank O’Hara when mention is made of queer seriality. I can see I have a lot of catching up to do.

Edward Schelb fascinated me, too. He’d be interested in The Necronomicon, which is no doubt a hoax — with an introduction by Colin Wilson — supposedly written by an insane Arab philosopher. As with Schwerner, I found Schelb and I have been travelling along parallel lines. I drew upon the Hypnerotomachia in my Dessaix essay in Imago, for instance — nothing is too obscure for the obscurious! He’s doubtless aware of Derrida’s examination of the Pharmakon, too, with the now famous observation that “Gift” in German is “poison”. (An interesting parallel is “sem[e]iotics”, the theory of sign-systems in language on the one hand and the study of symptoms in medicine on the other. In Indonesian, there are two categories of poison: racun, which is administered orally into the body accidentally or on purpose, and bisa, which is injected hypodermically, such as snake venom.)

Norma Cole’s “mechanical orca” in “Theoretra” gave immediate rise to Lorca in my mind, “a ‘natural’ who felt out-of-place in the mechanized modern world” — according to Martin Seymour-Smith.

I’m reading Taggart now, and totally concur with him on the rôle of play, something too often missing from generative and language poetry. Wyndham Lewis wrote that, “first and last, about the arts (whether those of the eye, ear, lungs, hand or foot), is that they are a pure game — a game in its different forms. . .”8





V Symbolic: Gesture (Jester)

“I’m attracted to the idea of lines being a primarily visual feature of the poem—it’s a modest way of designing (or rearranging) how the page looks” (MW 27). Suppose that prosody contains visual features. As poets never told any gossip, mimeograph (mimetic) publications were important syntactic and paratactic ways of mediating the message.

This is a description of style. Style is rendered visible by manifest (in)sight. Have changes. Do so. Be perfectly allowed (aloud). Do not interpret pallid oaths (palinodes). Have scissored syntax or “syntactic scissoring” (MW 27). Be uninspired and be satisfied with (judging by) appearances. You may say you make live appearances. You may even be demented. You may hope to have plenty of interruptions. Given your interest in “interruption (more than fragmentation” (MW 27), it comes as no surprise that “it’s not collage” (MW 7). You may think your first idea (the previous one) was better: “I loved the strains of Puritan sermon that run through this passage [‘Amblyopia’], lifted verbatim from the back of a credit card bill, and set in lines. One of the many ‘fine print’ language types that are constantly at the periphery of consciousness, but which we rarely focus on. I only focussed on it myself because I was reading it aloud as part of a proofreading job. Is this the poetry of everyday life, a discrete particular? — well, only in my twisted (twisting) sense of these things” (MW 26).


On balance, I am reminded of a remark made by Wittgenstein to his sister, Hermine: “You remind me of somebody who is looking out through a closed window and cannot explain to himself the strange movements of a passerby. He cannot tell what sort of storm is raging out there or that this person might only be managing with difficulty to stay on his feet.” When the reader is sealed off from the world of the poem, it may well seem strange and demanding; it is only when you get a sense for this world, and not just the words, that the poem can begin to make sense (MW 27).


The Wholly Triniscope:   Stein

                             Bern   Stein

                        Wittgen   Stein


       Parataxis:   Yuh ghazal is bein’ connaircted. Höld der loin, pleeze.

      Synchysis:   Charlie . . . Wha’? . . . It’s a bad line. Charlie, is dat you?


Binary word arrangements, often generated out of banal rhyme, figure largely in Bernstein’s opus (as it did in Stein’s). In Disfrutes, binarism “basically plays on slight shifts in sound patterns and miniature word arrangements (MW 28)”:


            ray / waif

            swift / swept

            mars bars

            sand / sane

            and / an

            she / shells / smells (trinary)

            crass / ass


Disfrutes is equally paronomastic: “poke a / dotted” (immigrant polkadots); “roll a / dexterous” (the businesman’s Rolodex); “suc / cumb” (orgasm through fellatio); “clap clap / apt / ly / plause” (plauditory gonorrhoea); “joule boxes” (genitalia); “daedle” (logodaedaly); “reb / bec / cah cah” (Rebekah/caca — a scatalogically — and eschatologically — ambivalent reference to the mother of Israel, following directly on from the sodomitic “up the / all / ass”).9

Bernstein’s writings, both poetry and prose, abounds in sound-shift binarisms: “audible (auditable)” (MW 6); “capitulation / capitalism” (MW 6 — a common theme for Bernstein, who sees capitulation in capitalism); “picture / [fixture]” (DC 10); “not structurally challenged, structurally challenging” (MW 11);° “verging verse” (MW 12); “hyst’ry / myst’ry” (RT 12); “a[r]mour.)          {ardour}” (DC 14); ‘‘Comraderie / rivalry’’ (I/I 25); “ambience / (ambivalence)” (RT 25); “calm (calamity)” (DC 32 — an example of paradox); “doorjamb (floor plan)” (Soph 29); “language / luggage” (DC 33 — many of the features of English grammar are sometimes described by linguists as “excess baggage”, or “luggage”); ‘‘mimes (minds)” (DC 38 — the question of free will); “Surfeit, sure fight” (Soph 47); “Prose, / pose” (Soph 49); “expectations / exceptions” (DC 49); “agreement / egregious” (DC 51); “forest ranger, inflatable stranger” (DC 52 — sexual fetishisation); “never knew what west is / best is” (DC 52; solidus in original); “floor plan / poor slant” (DC 53 — cf., Soph 29 above); “summary / mummery” (DC 53); “grumble / fumble” (DC 54); ‘‘Paisley wallpaper / cerebral palsy’’ (I/I 59); “bird / blurred” (DC 62); “mutters (mothers)” (DC 62);* “demanding / (de-/meaning)” (DC 63); “mutters / stutters” (MW 68); “the weight / of tradition or / a tradition of weights” (DC 71);° fingered / figures (DC 71); “not size but desire. / & despair” (DC 80–81 — post-coital sadness); “pratfalls (fat falls)” (MW 84); “toaster (holster)” (MW 84); ‘‘knife (slice, life, / pipe)” (MW 84); “Cadillac. // Pontification” (i.e., Pontiac, Soph 86); “voices (violas)” (Soph 91); “miming (mining)” (MW 100); “Structure of truth / Truth of structure” (MW 100);° “sarcasm / sadistic” (DC 101); “mark (mar)” (MW 101); “stake (state)” (MW 101) “ ‘Debris of Shock / Shock of Debris’ ” (DC 103; solidus in original);° “hiss / ‘history’ ” (MW 103); “long concealed (longed to conceal)” (MW 103); “salvages / or / savages” (MW 103); “opposition / composition” (MW 104); “portrayed (weighlayed)” [sic] (Soph 104); “Heeding without ceding” (DC 108); “dismember (disremember)” (DC 109 — an Ashberian binarism); “miasma (charisma)” (Soph 110); “hairdos hors d’oeuvres” (Soph 113 — hors d’oeuvres are also known as “horses’ doovers”); “sovereigns / sojourners” (MW 114); “To capitalize Despair / to / capitalize on despair” (DC 120); “dew / due” (DC 121 — quasihomophones of “Jew”); “fizz (fix)” (DC 123); “the yammering gap between speech and writing (the stammering gaps among speeches and writings)” (MW 125); “shimmer (chimera)” (Soph 126 — rhymed on faulty pronunciation of “chim[a]era”); “Lost leader (tossed reader)” (DC 135);** “promon-/tory (promise)” (MW 138); “illumination (illusion)” (MW 138); ‘‘scores / and scares” (DC 139); “Where are those fades (arcades, shades) / when you need them” (DC 142); “grammar (glamour)” (DC 142);† “general call to bedlam, or did / she say, be calm?” (DC 143); “views of Jews” (MW 158); “U.S. or U.S.S.R.” (MW 162); “ ‘shattered’ / charted” (MW 169); “figments and fragments” (MW 170); “finding as founding means finding as foundering” (MW 214); “founding / fondling” (MW 221); “world/word” (MW 226).


°   Examples of enantiomorphic paronomasia.

*   “Mutter” is a play on the German word for mother; the “dew/due” contrasting pair in Dark City (q.v.) is a near-rhyme for “Jew’’. Consider also the use of “joule”, homophone of “jewel”.

** Compare Roland Barthes’s discussion of the lisible/scriptible (“readerly/writerly”) contrasting pair in S/Z.

†   “Glamour” is a paronym of “gramary(e)”, having derived from “grammar” in the Middle Ages, according to Nigel Lewis, in The Book of Babel: Words and the way we see things (London, Viking, 1994; p. 216): “The possession of learning, or grammar, was thought to be magical and mysterious. ‘Glamour’ in its modern sense was popularized by Sir Walter Scott.’’


he s an autoamerican

he s on autopilot

he s no autoerotic —

he s autotelic

he s autophasic


Sexuality is framed in innocuous paronomasia: “What was your first textual experience?” (MW 178) No puns of the order, however, of Niki de St Phallopian-Tuberose, say. Eros eroded ([scl]eroticised). No rose (eros) binarisms or anagrams need apply. Bernstein is not erotic in any conventional sense. His psychosexuality is expressed in “The Only Utopia Is in a Now”: “The brain is as sensual as the genitals, except that with our genital focus we often can’t feel this. The mind is a purely sexual entity, and play with language . . . is love play” (Soph 36). Aphaeretic (Ou)lipo, yes; lipograms, maybe. But no liposuctions nor collagen (collage), no cosm(et)ic surgery, to enhance sexual appeal. Only very rarely does the reader come across such low-life lines as “I / meet a surrogate for you in a bar, give him / room in the passenger seat and desultory / conversation, a smoke, kisses, blowjob, / encouragement, $5, concerned disturbed / uptight look” (RT 33). The last four words betray the anxiety with which the work is imbued. He eschews the erotic for sexual politics (“Poetry and [Male?] Sex” [MW 273–278, etc.). Bernstein candidly tells the reader that he is a “parent poet, a white poet, a man poet, an urban poet”, all anaphrodisiac (“Can’t / get a hard-on / with the light / on” [RT 54]). In other words, he is ineluctably a poet from the dominant group in American — and Western — society. Not even his Judaic heritage acts as a delimitator (“In many ways my father seemed foreign to me, which is not to say unfamiliar [emphasis added]” [MW 230]), although Stein’s and Wittgenstein’s Judaism became a “crucial, if implicit, reference point for me” (MW 233). Bernstein confesses, “We’re all middle class now” and that he does not “find the project of using the dominant culture to change it more quickly, to quote one of [Jenny] Holzer’s bronze-plaque texts, anything other than giving up” (MW 40 & 184).

Bernstein is unconventional yet essentially conservative, being a poet. He is a “discombobulating poet”, but he is not a crackpot revolutionary poet along the lines of “Unabomber poet”; he is not a sectarian “Branch Davidian poet”; he is not a terrorist “Black Panther poet”, “Weathermen poet”, “Symbionic Liberation Army poet”, “Red Brigade poet”, “Mujaheddin poet”, “IRA poet” or “White Wolves poet”. He is too sophisticated (sophistic) and a much stronger and more influential poet for it. However, that does not prevent him from declaring: “Terrorism / in the defense of free enterprise is no vice” (RT 29), although he immediately concedes that “violence / in the pursuit of justice is no virgin” (ibid.). For every kind of poet he is — or is not, as his disclaimer at the end of the poem makes clear — there is another kind of poet he is not — or is — now that there is “nothing but the blank wall of my aversions” (MW 35). Quite clearly, he is not an activist, a “cause (casuist) poet”, even though he has a social conscience and leans to the left (“Death / to all tyrants / who feast / on the misery / of the people!” [RT 104]). Bernstein politicises the apolitical and apoliticises the political. He devalues the political by, for example, asking the question immediately following the death-to-all-tyrants lines, quoted above, with, “Illusion or / myth?” (ibid.). Or suggesting that many of the students’ anti-war protests in the late 1960s and early 1970s were “motivated by a desire to avoid examinations” (MW 168), while not negating the actions of the Ohio National Guardsmen, who opened fire on anti-Vietnam War protesters at Kent State University, a month to the day after his twentieth birthday, killing four and wounding nine others. He ironically (radically) revalues it: “Such a motivation, it seems to me, is of the highest order since to demonstrate is human but to avoid examination divine.” (ibid.) Bernstein, ever multilayered, ever the homo ludens, plays with the predicative to avoid examination [is] divine. Examination by whom? For what? “Divine” is at once campy and interventionist (divine intervention). Nevertheless, Bernstein is unafraid of the prosaic political statement in his poetry, as found in Islets/Irritations, for example: ‘‘ ‘Genocide.’ Graphic film footage depicts Hitler’s persecution and extermination of the Jewish population in Germany and in the occupied countries’’ (27).

Bernstein is an “ ‘experimental’ poet” but not an “LSD poet” nor an “opium-eater poet” nor even a “lotus-eater poet”. He is a poet with no vices (if we overlook a few lapses in diction, such as ‘‘trompes d’oeil’’ for the invariable trompe-l’oeil [I/I 92]; “complimented by” [MW 138] for complemented by; “irregardless” [MW 155] for regardless; “pouring over” [MW 222] for poring over; and “whose” for who’s [MW 268] — the last of which may have been deliberate), whose admission of “abysmal” spelling [MW 235] and discussion on “bad” grammar [MW 118 & 263] bear out his belief in their transformative powers. He is a poet bound by invisible constraints. He, like Creeley, is not a poet with a point to make. (“The point I wish to make is that I am writing. Writing is my primary articulation.”10) He is a “bald poet” but not a “narcissistic poet”; he is a “polydiscourse poet” — and a “perverse poet” — but not a “polymorphously perverse poet”; he is an “indecorous poet” but not a “pornographic poet”; he is a “man poet” but not a “patriarchal poet”. [I am not a poet, but a poem. A poem that is being written, even if it looks like a subject. — Jacques Lacan, quoted in Narcissus Transformed: The Textual Subject in Psychoanalysis and Literature by Gray Kochhar-Lindgren (39)] Nothing taboo or savage or wild or shameful (i.e., believably shameful — the reader does not really believe him when he says he is a “degenerate”). Until, perhaps, the lines, “I am a Jewish poet hiding in the shadow / of my great-grandfather and great-grandmother [emphasis added]”, does the reader suspect authentic autobiography. (Bernstein faintly [vainly] protests that “The things I / write are / not about me” [DC 15], before explaining, “though they / become me”. Becoming is more valid than being for many artists; Bernstein as Obstructionist says as much to the reader: “better / to / become than / (gestalt f[r]iction) / {traction?} / {flirtation?} / to / be” [DC 16]; “A poem should not / be but become” [RT 29].)


Certain parataxes seem privileged in that they lead toward an erotics of the intersection of texts. Those erotic intersections, we might say, are the loci of successful cruisings: they call the previously anonymous reader and they map out a road to utopia. Refusing a ‘‘heterosexual’’ binarism of active and passive, or its epitome in the opposition of virile and non-virile that shows the heterosexual doxology to be a phallocentric ideology, Barthes develops a nonoppositional tropics of desire, whereby the positing of neutrality leads to a utopia and a ‘‘happy sexuality.’’

— Lawrence R. Schehr, The Shock of Men: Homosexual Hermeneutics in French Writing (116)


Bernstein goes so far as to call himself a “queer poet”, in deference (defence), no doubt, to the rise of queer studies in academia, and to the rise of homophobia (“Unrepresentative Verse”, MW 270–272). But he is not a “homosexual poet”, a “bisexual poet”, an “ambisexual poet” or even an “asexual poet”. There are no Cooperian “dream police” in his poetry (no hustlers, no lust, no “bed post-drugged-sex”, no orgasms). He is not a “transgender poet”, a “gender dysphoria poet”, a “gender bender poet”, a “dragqueen poet”; he is not RuPaul — but he enjoys gender games (“I married / Jim. While I was sure of Joan’s / love, I still / worried that she might be tempted / by other men” [DC 89]; “ ‘Men like to be bossed,’ says Dr. / Cleo Dausson, University of Kentucky / psychologist and authority on / masculinity” [DC 98]). Speaking of which, he is not a “black poet”, a “juju poet” or even a “jazz poet’’. He is not a “radical lesbian poet”, a “fist-fucking (erotically brachiopractic) leatherqueen poet” nor an “S&M poet” (not even an “S/Z poet”).

Although some of Bernstein’s self-portraits as poet are quite legitimate, many more are arcane (“antiabsorptive poet in the morning”), artificial (“roller-coaster poet”), parodic (“I am a modernist poet to postmodernists and a postmodernist poet / to modernists”), sententious (“I am a language / poet wherever people try to limit the modes of / expression or nonexpression”) and inconsequential (“sleepy poet”). He can be self-deprecating: “I am a fraudulent poet, . . . a degenerate / poet, an incompetent poet, . . . a crude poet, / an incoherent poet, a flat-footed poet, a disruptive poet, / . . . an ungainly poet, / . . . an infantile poet, / . . . an egghead poet, a perverse poet, a clumsy poet, / a cacophonous poet, . . .” However, nowhere in “Solidarity” does Bernstein describe himself as a “feminist poet”. This comes as a surprise, given his nod to the political correctness of gender-neutral or feminine-affirmative language (“What I would like is for the reader seeking critical prose to find herself humming the tunes of a poem [emphasis added]”, MW xii), that his “feminine side” or even feminist sympathies are unacknowledged and omitted in this poem — and largely, in his work. He confesses to being a ‘‘silly poet”, a “sissy poet” (perhaps another autobiographical detail — Bernstein states that he is searching “for truth but finding only / memory” [DC 51]); he is even an “emotional poet” — limitrophe, in all their prejudicial characteristics, to women, but he is not a “hysterical poet” (he is not a poet with a womb). Perhaps the reader is to infer from the title of the poem that he can hold woman, or women.

Bernstein, with all his tropes (trophies), is subversive.

Bernstein is a subversive poet.

Bernstein is a poet.

He is the poet.

Poem. Hoe them, toe them.

On his birthday (‘‘April 4, [19]50’’ [MW 229]: 4+4+5+0 = 13 = 4).

Four — fore — for . . . the Poet.









The above poessay is an attuitive rewriting or intertextualisation, in part (particular), of Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921/1961) by Ludwig Wittgenstein, and The World Is Round (1939) and Alphabets and Birthdays (1957) by Gertrude Stein, with ‘‘interpolations’’ by the author: “[T]he idea of a connection between Stein and Wittgenstein was completely far-fetched, the first of my crackpot theories that end up, over time, not seeming nearly so cracked” (MW 242). Long quotations from works of Charles Bernstein are indented; shorter quotations are set off with quotation marks within the main body of the text. Abbreviations used:


Dis = Disfrutes by Charles Bernstein (Needham Massachusetts, Potes & Poets Press, 1981; unpaginated)

DC = Dark City by Charles Bernstein (Los Angeles, Sun & Moon Press, 1994)

I/I = Islets/Irritations by Charles Bernstein (New York, Roof Books, 1983/92)

MW = My Way: Speeches and Poems by Charles Bernstein (Chicago & London, The University of Chicago Press, 1999)

RT = Rough Trades by Charles Bernstein (Los Angeles, Sun & Moon Press, 1991)

Soph = The Sophist by Charles Bernstein (Los Angeles, Sun & Moon Press, 1987)


1    ‘‘Heirs of ‘Buffalo’ ’’ was calqued on ‘‘Airs of Palestine, No. 2’’ by T. S. Eliot, in Inventions of the March Hare: Poems 1909 – 1917 (Edited by Christopher Ricks: New York/San Diego/London, Harcourt Brace & Company, 1996), p. 84. The last stanza is a conflation of Stein and Bernstein.[back]

2    Michael Davidson, Lyn Hejinian, Ron Silliman and Barrett Watten, Leningrad: American writers in the Soviet Union (San Francisco, Mercury House, 1991). The authors wrote that they “have sought to ground the literary movement known as ‘language poetry’ in a sense of community”, yet made no mention at all of Charles Bernstein (or Bruce Andrews, for that matter), coeditor of the seminal language poetry magazine, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, which ran from 1978 to 1981. Bernstein himself said in an interview with Hannah Möckel-Rieke (MW 63) that, “ ‘Language poetry’ is a term I prefer not to use, although I recognize how pervasive it has become both as a generic term and as an historically specific designation. . . . I suppose my resistance to ‘Language’ Poetry as a group or school is related to not wanting to inscribe anyone’s partialities, working biases, into inappropriate domains; not to transform pragmatic and provisional choices into the realm of ‘essentializing’ descriptions.” [back]

3    ‘‘Felonious Spunk and the Spielerei from Zarathustra’’ was calqued on ‘‘Subject: Object: Sentence’’ by Stephen Spender, Selected Poems (London, Faber and Faber, 1965), p. 77. The title is an ‘‘echo’’ of [The Rise and Fall of] Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars by David Bowie: ‘‘My favorite image of readerly seriality is David Bowie . . . watching a bank of TVs all of which were rotating their channels.’’ (MW 209) [back]

4    George Steiner, After Babel: Aspects of language and translation (London, etc., Oxford University Press, 1975), p. 470 [back]

5    Andrew Large, The Artificial Language Movement (Oxford/New York, Basil Blackwell, 1985), pp. vii, 3 [back]

6    The Logical Language Group, Inc., introductory pamphlet: “What is Lojban? (la lojban mo)” [no date] [back]

7    Javant Biarujia to James Taylor (cf., “tailleur, taler, tailor” in Taylor’s “Mythopoeia”, Smoke Proofs); letter dated January 5, 1998 (Labassa, Melbourne) [back]

8    Wyndham Lewis, On Art: Collected Writings 1913 – 1956 (London, Thames and Hudson, 1969), p. 272 [back]

9    Walter Beltz, God and the Gods: Myths of the Bible (London, etc., Penguin, 1983), pp. 84ff. Abraham asked his oldest servant to find a wife for his son Isaac. The servant laid his hand on Abraham’s sexual organ (homoerotic imagery) as he promised to carry out his master’s command. Rebekah was chosen, whom Isaac married when he was forty. Rebekah bore Isaac two sons, Esau and Jacob. Rebekah conspired with Jacob to deceive Esau of his primogeniture; “for a dish of lentils he tricked Esau out of his birthright’’. (Cf., “ ‘moon’ and ‘stars’ and lentil” in Dis.) Two hostile nations were born: Jacob-Israel and Esau-Edom. Genesis 32:24b–32 describes a man who wrestled all night with Jacob (homoerotic imagery) before revealing himself as “God and man” and dubbing him Israel, father of the Twelve Tribes. [back]

10   Robert Creeley, A Sense of Measure (London, Calder and Boyars, 1972), p. 99 [back]