I would like to make the following general claims about the poetry of Charles Bernstein, the 2015 Janus Pannonius Grand Prize for Poetry Laureate.
Bernstein’s is a poetry of attention, a poetry attentive to language, a language poetry. His is innovative-experimental poetry, which at the same time takes on some radical poetic and philosophical traditions. Moreover, Bernstein likes to cross boundaries, inviting his readers especially in his philosophical poems to participate in the creative process he calls “wreading.” Using quotations, near-quotations, textual residues, resonances, and ekphrases, he zigzags between his own texts and those of others; such plurality of linguistic registers brings about a characteristic polyphony and heteroglossia especially in his playful and humorous poems. A poet attentive to the processes of consciousness, he captures special states of mind with precision especially in his recent lyrical-elegiac pieces.
Poetry of attention, poetry attentive to language, language poetry
Bernstein’s conception of language, the language of poetry in particular, can be traced back to at least Emily Dickinson in American poetry. In this conception, language knows more than its speaker, and if the speaker wants to know that “more,” he or she will have to interrogate language itself. For language, as Bernstein contends, has its own memory, which allows the speaker to explore its possibilities (Attack 102).
So language is not the medium of poetry but its focus, object, and even content. Or, as Robert Creeley puts it in his Preface to the Hungarian translation of Charles Olson’s poetry, it is the “way of thinking the world” (10). Language never shows the world without itself being shown in the process. That is why when the poet speaks about the world, he always speaks about language as well.
What we have here, then, is the renewal of the particular American tradition of the poetics of attention, where the object of attention is language. Bernstein has been writing, for the past forty plus years, in the intellectual field of force marked by philosophers and poets with radical thoughts about language, as well as their inheritors, the language poets. During this time he published over forty volumes of poems and essays.
Bernstein started writing in the 1970s, as a member—and soon leading figure—of the group called the language poets, the most prominent of the postmodern-experimental movements at the time. They took their name from the journal L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E (1980–1984), the primary medium where they articulated their radical views. Over the years the language poets published over two hundred volumes of poems and essays, which then occasioned hundreds of critical studies.
In direct lineage with the aesthetics of the radical avant-garde movements of the 20th century—of Gertrude Stein, Jack Spicer, the Black Mountain poets, and the Objectivists—the poetic theory propounded by the language poets, and most prominently by Bernstein, holds that language is not a transparent (and unperceivable) medium of self-expression and communication. For one, because there is no prior self or poetic theme or topic to be expressed. Nor is there anyone at the other end of the line: the receiver is “off the hook” (“The Lives of the Toll Takers;” All the Whiskey 150).
Language is the source of all experience, while “experience is a dimension built into language” (Content’s Dream 35). One cannot engage with the world without engaging with language itself. But in order to engage with language, the poet must find ways of foregrounding the materiality of language, and thereby demonstrate its non-transparency. So that attention may fall on language itself, and not be distracted by the illusion of the possibility of seeing through it, of seeing the world lying beyond. “[T]he movement,” he writes, is toward opacity/denseness—visibility of language through the making translucent of the medium” (Content’s Dream 70).
So the job of the language poet is to make language visible and audible. To bring about a consciousness of language in readers, to help them notice language whose transparency was so naturally assumed. To foreground it as material, something to be perceived by the senses: visible, audible, tangible, with words that can be smelt and tasted even, as Whitman suggested in An American Primer. The poet will do this by “the sounding of language from the inside,” as Marjorie Perloff puts it (The Dance of the Intellect 221), feeling out the lumps as in wood, places where the material thickens. It is these lumps that make it nontransparent, visible. Bernstein calls these visibility spots “typographicities” and “syntaxophonies” (Content’s Dream 73), of which there are many, one just needs to notice them, sound them or feel them out. The poet who made a living by writing and editing medical texts applies the medical term dysraphysm, meaning the “dysfunctional fusion of embryonic parts,” to such spots of visibility in general, spots of “mis-seaming” of components in the texture of language (“Dysraphysm,” 39; All the Whiskey 119).
Everything that is unusual or irregular counts as dysraphism, making language visible, and depriving it of its medial transparency. “Interruption and inscrutability enthrall me,” Bernstein writes in his preface to his Hungarian collection (“To the Reader” 9). In line with the thinking of the Russian Formalists, Bernstein understands such irregularities as defamiliarizations and estrangements: they defamiliarize what is familiar and denaturalize what is natural, making even the mother tongue strange. As if Proust’s famous aphorism had been put into practice, which claims that the language of all beautiful books sounds necessarily “strange” (“les beaux livres sont écrits dans une sorte de langue étrangère” ). In consequence, whatever was invisible and unperceivable now comes to the foreground. This is why Bernstein is so earger to create puns and construct other anomalies of language; that is why he does not correct his typos (or probably even makes them consciously)—so that all the nodes, lumps, and gnarls that are normally smoothed out from the texture of language would show—and help reveal meanings that otherwise would not surface. For no matter how little sense non sequiturs or puns or homonyms make, they still make some sense. As he writes in “The Lives of the Toll Takers,”
There is no plain sense of the word,
nothing is straightforward
description a lie behind a lie:
but truths can still be told.
(All the Whiskey 172)
Bernstein’s poetry is not self-expression, nor is it the communication of some content or message pre-existing the poem. He only speaks about the communicative and expressive function of poetry ironically, for example, in “Thank You for Saying Thank You.” A communicative or expressive poem is not “difficult,” it claims, but “totally accessible,” conveying only “the intended meaning.” “It / says just what / it says.” Of course, it doesn’t say much either. No wonder, since it is often the difficulty that will provoke and even bring the reader closer, as he puts it. And “working out the difficulties with the poem is the best thing for a long-term aesthetic experience” (Attack 5).
The prose writer, he claims, does not experience such problems, since there the writer will “start with the world” and will find the words to match the world. But the poet must work in the other direction: first find the words, then the world within.
That is, in prose you start with the world
and find the words to match; in poetry you start
with the words and find the world in them.
(“Dysraphysm”; All the Whiskey 119)
In language poetry, then, poetic “content” arises from language itself. As words appear one after the other, so do they realize ideas. In such a way that language is no more a tool of expression but its substance. This is what he writes about language as the world and knowledge based on linguistic conventions:
"The distortion is to imagine that knowledge has an “object” outside of the “language games” of which it is a part—that words refer to “transcendental signifieds,” to use an expression from another tradition, rather than being part of a language which itself produces meaning in terms of its grammar, its conventions, its “agreement in judgement.” Learning a language is not learning the names of things outside language, as if it were simply a matching up signifiers with signifieds, as if signifieds already existed and we were just learning new names for them (which seems to be Augustine’s picture in the opening quote of Investigations). Rather, we are initiated by language into a socious, which is for us the world. So that the foundations of knowledge are not so much based on a preexisting empirical world as on shared conventions and mutual attunement" (Content’s Dream 171–172).
For Bernstein innovation is an “aesthetic necessity”; “the human need to create anew is no less strong than our need for lamentation” (Attack 34–35). In line with the long tradition of innovation going back to at least Poe in American poetry, who in his essay “The Philosophy of Composition” demanded that originality “be elaborately sought,” Bernstein claims that innovation is what constitutes tradition, while also the only valid response to it: “Tradition is the record of innovation. Innovation is a response to tradition” (Attack 228).
In his innovative language poetry, Bernstein allows language itself to take control over the creative process and develops radical poetic techniques in order to foreground the materiality of language. Among these techniques we find the creation of new words, agrammatical structures, ellipses and visible traces of ellipses, the dismemberment of words into sounds and letters, sound mutations, syntactic doubling, and what he calls “imploded sentences.”
He creates new words but these words are such that could exist in English (see Marjorie Perloff, The Dance, 216–217). Bernstein is fascinated by rare words, whose meaning has to be searched for even by the native speaker in a dictionary. And likes to use words in their fifth or sixth meanings.
Bernstein violates the rules of semantics and syntax as well, creating words and syntactic structures that do not exist in “proper” English. In his nonsense poems he obeys the rules of syntax but not of semantics, putting together words that refuse to follow the combinational rules of semantics. The nonsense structures of “Broken English” are not to be “understood,” if by understanding we mean paraphrasability; although these lines are written in perfect structures syntactically they still make no sense semantically. The words insist in their wordness; the sentences must be taken in their factuality and actuality.
Brushing up fate pixel by pixel, burnighing
dusk: the sum of entropy and elevation.
“The Italian Border of the Alps” is another nonsense poem, where not only is the semantics broken but the series follows no logical order; this nonsense semantics, related (or unrelated) in non sequitur structures, account for the unheimlich reading experience of such poems. But whether these are nonsense poems or non sequitur poems or both, meaning is never referential: it does not point outside of the poem. For as he writes in “Palukaville,”
"It’s not the supposed referent that has the truth. Words themselves. The particulars of the language […] require the attention of that which is neither incidentally nor accidentally related to the world" (All the Whiskey 31).
Elliptic condensation will often create syntactic doubling, where one syntactic unit can go either way, round off the preceeding structure or begin the subsequent one. Moreover, by typographically marking deletions, as he does in “Standing Target,” for example, he makes clear that empty spaces are not really empty but contain traces of words fallen through the tracks of language.
to , sees
in : they
are , her
(All the Whiskey 64)
In other cases ellipsis comes about by the breaking of words into their constituents, suggesting that the smallest semantic unit is not the word but the sound and the letter. This is why he applies line breaks within words; this is why his words break into syllables and letters; this is why he creates new semantic units out of the random combinations and permutations of letters, as in “Azoot d’Puund,” “List Off,” and “Dea%r Fr~ie%d,” for example.
He chooses his words as much for their meanings as for their sound or look on the page, violating thereby both the selectional and combinational rules of sentence construction. What he does is combine elements inadequately selected from the pool of selectable words. Altering the sound structure of words, he creates new phonetic mutations. For such the various forms of phonetic foregrounding serve euphony; as he puts it in a tongue-in-cheek passage in “The Lives of Toll Takers, these are the “services” poets provide for the reader.
Poets deserve compensation
for such sevices.
services as alliteration,
exogamic structure, and
(All the Whiskey 172)
Moreover, all these radical departures from the norms of language contribute to what he calls imploded sentences, sentences that are fragmentary, broken, associative, acrobatic, cumulative, incomplete, and without closure, as well as rough, knotty, lumpy, and gnarled. They are very much alive too, the word sentence being a near homonym of the word sentience, he claims. The sentence does not follow the subject+predicate+object (noun phrase+verb phrase+noun phrase) structure of English grammar, for the rules of syntax would rather hinder the development of thought.
Deserted all sudden a all
Or goves of notion, seriously
Foil sightings, polite society
Verge at just about characterized
Largely a base, cups and
And gets to business, hands
Like “hi”, gnash, aluminum foil
Plummeting emphatically near earshot
Scopes bleak incontestably at point
Of incompetence […]
(All the Whiskey 55)
It is not accidental that these sentences disregard the rules of English syntax, or that their irregularities explode in the middle of the text, drawing the reader’s attention to them—and the non-transparency of this medium. For by placing one’s thinking into a given form, a paradigm pre-existing the sentence just being born, the actuality of the meanings would suffer. Imploded sentences are not characterized by the “syntactic ideality” of proper sentence grammar but by the “surface disruption of syntactic ideality”:
"In imploded-sentence poetry, meaning flows durationally—horizontally—by means of the linear continuousness of the sweeping, syncopated rhythms. While in the complete/closed sentence, attention is deflected to an abstracted, or accompanying, “meaning” that is being “conveyed”, in the imploded sentence, the reader stays plugged in to the wave-like pulse of the writing. In other words, you keep moving through the writing without having to come up for ideational air: the ideas are all inside the process" (Artifice of Absorption).
And as he suggests in “The Klupzy Girl,” sentences written in imploded sentences deprive the readers of the complacent comfort of the familiar and will act as a cold shower in bringing them to their senses.
Poetry is like a swoon, with this difference:
it brings you to your senses.
(All the Whiskey 84)
And as language does not obey preconceived rules, so does the poem not obey preexisting form. These pieces are not written in closed form, complete with closure, but in often agrammatical fragments, unfinished sentences, in lines running across the page. Rhymes are extremely scarce, virtually absent from Bernstein’s poems, as are parallelisms of sound or thought; even metaphors occur very rarely. Bernstein is quite explicit in refusing poetic devices. In the last lines of “Endless Destination,” for example he revises Gertrude Stein’s famous aphorism into a new tautology, claiming that the two elements of the simile are like one another, while the tenor of the metaphor is its vehicle.
Love is like love, a baby
like a baby, meaning like
memory, light like light.
A journey’s a detour
and a pocket a charm
in which deceit are borne.
A cloud is a cloud and
a story like a story,
song is a song, fury
(All the Whiskey 210)
Not following any abstract metrical scheme, the Bernstein poem is not regular metrically either. For free verse, as he puts it in “How Empty Is My Bread Pudding,” “is not a type of poetry but an imperative to liberate verse from constraints no longer applicable for a new time and new circumstance” (Recalculating 82). And to write traditional metrical verse in the 21st century, he goes on, alluding to Robert Frost’s witticism, “is like having sex through a net” (84).
Revising intellectual traditions
Bernstein’s poetry exhibits the influence of several intellectual traditions, among them, most prominently that of poets and philosophers with radical conceptions of language, Gertrude Stein and Ludwig Wittgenstein, as well as Charles Olson and Alfred North Whitehead.
Bernstein is a good student of Stein, a fact that should come as no surprise, since he wrote his undergraduate thesis in philosophy at Harvard University on The Making of Americans, approaching it through Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. The first lesson he learnt from Stein concerns the materiality of language, or what he calls “the stuffness of language, its verbality,” which becomes visible or palpable only “when language is listened to, or read, without the filter of its information function” (Attack 105). As such, the linguistic signs have physical extensions; being alive, they move, slip, jump, and, as he writes in “The Kiwi Bird in the Kiwi Tree,” the downpouring words “fecund with tropicality” drench the poet.
I want no paradise only to be
drenched in the downpour of words, fecund
(All the Whiskey 144)
This is why the “Pronoun slips on banana” (“Sunsickness;” Dark City 33), why Bernstein is so fond of puns relying on sound correspondances, and why he welcomes homophonic translations where the translator, “letting the sound lead” (Attack 200), translates only sound. And it is the manifestation of this “stuffness” of language when words are misspelt, when the typist allows the fingers to slide on the keyboard and resists neat typography in every way. That is, all “typographicities” and “syntaxophonies” which reveal meaning by eliminating the informational function of language and achieve an “alienation effect” (Content’s Dream 73).
Bernstein developed his aesthetics of language writing by using Wittgenstein’s language philosophy as a foundation. In addition to the Wittgensteinian principles I cited earlier—language as the vehicle of thinking and language as nontransparent substance—Bernstein appropriated the philosopher’s refusal of private language and private mental processes, as well as the idea of the speaker locked inside language.
Although Bernstein talks about poetry as “a private act in a public space” (Content’s Dream 77), he too claims with the Viennese-Cambridge philosopher that “private experience is really not that each person possesses his own exemplar” (Philosophical Investigations §272), but results from the private creative activity of one person searching for an order that “comes from one’s ‘private’ listening, hearing” (Content’s Dream 77), and an “exploration and revelation of that which is private” (78). So the act is private because it stems from one person’s creativity. But the place in which it is born is public, both in virtue of the shared language and the printed page. And since language is the vehicle of thought, not only language cannot be private but neither can thought. Nor is it an “instrument” of “self-expression,” Bernstein claims; one’s private writing is the “investigation or revelation of meanings” and the “exploration of the human common ground” (81). “For what is hidden,” he argues citing Wittgenstein, “is of no interest” (Philosophical Investigations §126).
Moreover, accepting Wittgenstein’s well known axiom, “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world” (Tractatus 5.6), Bernstein goes even further. When the child acquires language, he acquires concepts, or Wittgensteinian “limits” within which to see the world.
"Our learning language is learning the terms by which a world gets seen. Language is the means of our socialization, our means of initiation into our (a) culture. I do not suggest that there is nothing beyond, or outside of, human language, but that there is meaning only in terms of language, that the givenness of language is the givenness of the world" (Content’s Dream 62).
So the relation of language to the world does not consist in language “accompanying” thought, but in language being thought and thinking itself. It is language that contains the world, not vice versa. “Truthfulness, love of language: attending to its telling” (“Palukaville”; All the Whiskey 31). “When I think in language, there aren’t ‘meanings’ going through my mind in addition to the verbal expressions: the language is itself the vehicle of thought,” he again quotes Wittgenstein (Philosophical Investigations §329; Content’s Dream 62). So language is really the space or territory within which the world exists. And meanings enter the world exclusively through language.
“My aim in poetry is to show the fly it’s in a bottle,” Bernstein writes in his preface to the Hungarian collection of his poetry (“To the Reader” 9), echoing Wittgenstein’s famous remark, “What is your aim in philosophy? To show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle” (Philosophical Investigations §309). As opposed to philosophers, poets know there’s no way out of the bottle.
Several elements of Charles Olson’s poetics can be identified in Bernstein’s writings. Like Olson, Bernstein too proclaims the particularity of the poetic text, the aim of the poem being the presentation of the individual, concrete, and physical, as well as the breaking through limits. For as Robert Creeley cites Olson, “limits are what any of us are inside of” (“Preface” 12). “Read globally, write locally,” Bernstein revises the well-known dictum (Attack 77). According to Olson’s axiom, the poet’s experience must be transmitted, or projected, in its instancy onto the page, before the mind rearranges it into a meaningful (rational, sensible, proper) structure, thereby halting the thinking process and transforming process into transparently meaningful structures. This is “local writing.” For the poet writing locally it is important to be aware of the configuration he is writing from, and then “sound through” these limits, “out into the open world” (12). Olson taught a whole generation to be aware of the locality—the “limits”—, but then go on thinking globally: to “alter the habits that otherwise framed the familiar issues,” Creeley continues in his Preface to the Hungarian edition of Olson’s poems.
"[…] particularly to push back of such givens or, rather, so take them in mind and cast them that all realigned and found again the source of its own occasion" (12).
This is exactly what Bernstein does, what Creeley emphasizes in Olson’s thinking (“to let out thought, to throw it” ): he “lets out” thought, throws it, and lets “the mind go forth to the reaches of its own ability to recognize and respond” (13).
Bernstein, a mind going forth indeed, practices what Olson termed “kinetic writing,” whereby he preserves the spontaneity and individuality as well as speed of the thinking process. Because the poet cannot allow his poems to slow down, the swiftly racing text will sometimes include agrammatical sentences, “improper” linguistic structures. But this agrammaticalness—for his thoughts appear instantly on the page, before the rational mind would revise them conceptually—is the price he pays for making his poetry the imprint of attention and the most intensive form of participating in the world. This poetry resembles improvisation and stream of consciousness, but is unlike either; we seem rather to overhear the thoughts of a person thinking aloud or talking to himself, thoughts in their rawness, roughness, and crudity. Much like Olson demands famously in his “Projective Verse” essay:
"ONE PERCEPTION MUST IMMEDIATELY AND DIRECTLY LEAD TO A FURTHER PERCEPTION. It means exactly what it says, is a matter of, at all points, […] get on with it, keep moving, keep in, speed, the nerves, their speed, the perceptions, theirs, the acts, the split second acts, the whole business, keep it moving as fast as you can, citizen" (17).
This poetry is the most intensive form of not only attention but also feedback, since it makes the knowing of the world possible without separating the observer either from the process of observation or the processes of language transporting his thoughts. In fact, such poetry allows the poet and the reader to participate in the same processes.
Bernstein follows the Olsonian tradition in practising field composition as well. Lineation following the movement of thought and lines visually interpreting the thinking process bring about the force field of the poem, one that is contiguous with the creative as much as with the reading process. In such writing, the energies of the poem will be preserved, for, as Olson claims, “A poem is energy transferred from where the poet got it (he will have some several causations), by way of the poem itself to, all the way over to, the reader […] the poem itself must, at all points, be a high energy construct and, at all points, an energy-discharge” (16). Indeed, the poem does not duplicate the world, is not its representation, nor is it self-expression; rather, it is a form of the world, its field, space, vehicle—much like language is. In field composition, the poet allows “content” to take care of form. For, as the second axiom of “Projective Verse” claims, “Form is never more than an extension of content” (16). Form will show itself in the process of the poem. And the poet, obedient to experience and form, will transfer the energy that demanded a poem without loss.
We know that perception is never independent from the cultural and social paradigms; in fact, it is these paradigms that determine what we see. Perception itself is cognition dependent. We only see what we already know and understand (“Man erblickt nur, was man schon weiß und versteht”), Goethe told his friend Friedrich von Müller. In other words, it is language and its cognitive structures that determine our vision. This is Alfred North Whitehead’s starting point: what we see comes from our minds rather than from the things themselves.
"These sensations are projected by the mind so as to clothe appropriate bodies in external nature. Thus the bodies are perceived as with qualities which in reality do not belong to them, qualities which in fact are purely the offspring of the mind. Thus nature gets credit which should in truth be reserved for ourselves: the rose for its scent; the nightingale for his song; and the sun for his radiance" (Science 55).
The poet seems trapped into writing about what he sees: what he actually already knows and understands. There is, however, a way out of this trap: if the poet does not write about what he knows but about what he does not know. This is the claim Bernstein formulates in his preface to the Hungarian reader,
"I don’t know what I am saying until I say it, and I don’t know how to say it until I do. A poem for me is finding a way after losing my way, where myopia is a manifestation of grace" (“To the Reader” 9).
For, as Whitehead claims, knowledge cannot be produced by forcing the phenomena of the material world into inherited conceptual categories, but only if we try to perceive the world by mere attention, which presents the things around us outside of conceptual categories, or before they fall into these conceptual paradigms.
Whitehead calls this “uncognitive apprehension” prehension (Science 67), the “perceptive mode” characterized by “presentational immediacy”; “in this ‘mode’ the contemporary world is consciously prehended as a continuum of extensive relations” (Process 61). For Whitehead, the “perceptive constitution” of prehension is a “creative action,” in which “the universe [is] always becoming one in a particular unity of self-experience” (56-57). As a “contemporary nexus of actual entities” (63), it is a form of direct engagement with the world allowing the person to participate in the processes of the world at the uncognitive stage.
Bernstein refuses the poetry that connects to the final stages of the continuum between the “perceptive mode” and “conscious intellectuality,” or “intellectual self-analysis” (57), corresponding to the process whereby one notices objects, comprehends them, and places them in the cultural system of comprehension and interpretation. But poets who consider themselves the inheritors of radical modernism and early postmodernism insist that their task is to go before this conscious intellectuality and totalizing interpretation, and register the processes of perceiving and experiencing without the restructuring of cognitive intellectualization. Bernstein’s often agrammatical sentences, non-linear and non-narrative poetry is the experiment to make visible such Whiteheadian prehensive and uncognitive dimensions, where objects perceived do not depend on familiar cognitive and conceptual paradigms.
Bernstein’s poetry abounds in boundary crossings of all kinds: between genres, discourses, registers, and styles alike. In the works of the poet who likes to incorporate “foreign” material—literary “ready mades” and “déjà dit” texts, as Perloff calls them (“Pleasures”)—in the texture of his poetry, differences between poetry and prose disappear, as do differences between poetic and ordinary language.
Bernstein insists on crossing the boundary between writer and reader as well. Establishing a new relationship with his readers, he invites you to participate in the creative process (see, for example, “The Lives of the Toll Takers;” All the Whiskey 150-179). The poet counts on the active cooperation and creative involvement of the reader in the process which he calls creative wreading (Attack 43 ff.). He demands, that is, that the reader carry on writing, whereby the process from reading to writing will remain unbroken. Unifinished sentences, words broken into constituent parts, linguistic fragments, ellipses, and erasures, as well as grammatical violations together constitute the ideal terrain for the coopration of writer and reader. In each case, the reader is offered the chance to finish or complete linguistic units, reinstate erased parts, or determine ambiguities—to give particular directions to structures that are indeterminate, ambiguous, or multiple, deriving from the dysraphic structures as well as the built-in polisemanticism of language. But even the different interpretations of the allusions and foreign texts Bernstein uses requires, as well as entails, creative co-writing, since each reader will notice different allusions, and notice each differently.
The distinction between philosophy and poetry is also blurred in some of his writings. For example, Artifice of Absorption is a transgressive text in terms of its genre, and could be called an essay broken into verse lines and a philosophical poem equally. 19th century detective stories will absorb the reader very differently from 20th century “antiabsorbtive” texts, Gertrude Stein or language writing, he claims. The latter will be confrontational rather than absorptive, always confronting the reader with its “impermeable material.” Such “antiabsorptive or impermeable textuality,” he goes on, “can make a poem hard to absorb, not only by calling attention to the sound qualities of its lexicon but also by preventing any immediate processing of the individual word’s meaning.”
Several poems address theoretical issues (for example, reference, the unity of the lyric self, the materiality of language, the tactile qualities of words) and cite or allude to a variety of theorists (Freud, Wittgenstein, Cavell, Lacan, Lakoff, Beauvoir). Theory and poetic practice become one in Bernstein’s writings. He famously claims—signifying upon Aristotle and Creeley alike—that “Theory is never more than the extension of practice” (Content’s Dream 397). Several of his poems, “Palukaville” among them, seem to have been inspired by critical prose, while at the same time breath new life into the discourse of literary theory.
The appropriation of earlier texts constitutes a distinctive form of transgression in Bernstein’s poetry, as he zigzags between his own lines and those of others. As he writes in the preface to the Hungarian volume,
"My register goes from rapture to rupture, often in the same breath; from despair to hysteria to preternatural calm, from anxiety to dissociation, from agitation to evanescence" (“To the Reader” 9).
Discourses in the individual poems are overwhelmingly plural, ranging from the serious to the playful, from the tragic to the sarcastic. The distinctiveness of the applied registers usually comes from the foreign texts that get incorporated by quotation, citation, allusion, or evocation. In these “recyclings,” as Creeley called Bernstein’s appropriations (“On Bernstein”), readers may identify not just quotations but textual residues, resonances, and ekphrases, in which the broundaries between the poet’s own text (the one being written right there) and the texts appropriated from others (those that have already been written) become blurred.
This self-reflexivity and intertextuality is perhaps his most general method; indeed, we can hardly find a single poem where no other text, fragment, or bon mot, whether from literary texts, business leaflets, advertizing materials, is being referred to, cited, or echoed. Bernstein is an extremely learned poet, who has in his head, simultaneously, everything he read before, and is at any moment capable of citing the appropriate lines from Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, Charles Olson, or mobilize a movie title, a proverb, a saying, or a bon mot. Such polyphony of discourses will bring about a new kind of dysraphism where foreign texts create nodes, lumps, and gnarls in the texture of the poem. This dysraphic intertextuality will serve as an additional method for making poetic language dense, opaque, and ultimately visible (as well as tangible).
By admitting foreign materials into the language of the poem, and containing simultaneously the language objects he“found” in the world outside, as a screen through which to read, he postmodernizes the modernist objet trouvé. Dysraphic intertextuality will multiply the pleasures of the texts too, Perloff’s “pleasures of the déjà dit,” of which both writer and reader partake. As if the poet was transplanting a limb amputated from another body, Perloff amplifies, “a transplant whose status as ‘amputated limb’ reminds the reader that, in Blanchot’s words, resaying is always ‘saying for the first time’” (“Pleasures” 277). The poet will enter a larger yet more congested public space, allowing him to speak ekphrastically, though what has already been said.
We can find examples for all kinds of allusions in Bernstein’s poetry. The volume All the Whiskey in Heaven, for example, abounds in references to the Black Mountain poets (Olson, Duncan, Creeley), Thomas Cole, Simone de Beauvoir, Janis Joplin, Ezra Pound, the Apostle Paul, Villon, Shakespeare, Socrates, Marx, Machiavelli, Bing Crosby, and Robert Frost. Among such ekphrastic writing, when other texts are evoked through which the poems proceed, we have, in the volume Recalculating, texts written in the style of Thomas Campion, Leevi Lehto, Sylvia Plath, Douglas Messerli, Wallace Stevens, Whitman and Wordsworth, mixed with translations, or transplantations, of Fernando Pessoa, Osip Mandelstam, Régis Bonvicino, Velimir Khlebnikov, Victor Hugo, Baudelaire, and Apollinaire.
Such multiple and multivocal intertextuality seems only to underline the programmatic anti-referentiality of postmodern poetry, since references do not point to the world outside but to other texts. In other words, texts are referential to other texts, and as such, poems remain within the boundaries of language. Perloff calls this writing incorporating literary context “literary lyric,” for not only is the content of such poems literary but the context too (Unoriginal Genius, 86).
Moreover, this discursive polyphony will serve as the source of Bernstein’s distinctive humor. Perhaps his humor is most strident when clichés and other bits from popular culture merge with the poetic and the serious. Any reader would complete the phrase blue suede with shoes; but in “The Kluptzy Girl,” Elvis is forgotten, and blue suede will refer to pestilence (All the Whiskey 88). In “Dysraphism,” the sentence “Reality is always greener” evokes the neighbor’s garden (All the Whiskey 118); while we hear the nursery rhyme “There was an old lady who lived in a shoe” beneath the lines “There was an old lady who lived in a / zoo” and its further distorition, “There was an old lady / who lives in a stew …” (“The Lives of the Toll Takers;” All the Whiskey, 153-154, 158).
Given the fact that the nodes and lumps in language come about from the meeting of texts, polyphonic intertextuality is a well-functioning form of dysraphysm, which is why Bernstein is so fond of ironically-humorously overwriting aphorisms, axioms, sayings, proverbs, and slogans. For example, Bernstein alters the words of Jesus, “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:24) into
Harder for a rich man to read a poem than
for a hippopotamus to sing bel canto.
("Reveal Codes,” All the Whiskey 193)
And changing the familiar teaching of the Apostle Paul on all being one body in Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12) into “We may be all one body but we’re sure as hell not one mind” (“The Lives of the Toll Takers”; All the Whiskey 177). Or gives the peculiar contextualization of the postmodernist doctrine as “The Jew is a textual construction” (“Racalculating”; Recalculating, 177).
The linguistic-cultural humor so pervasively present in Bernstein’s poetry is most obvious in his aphorism poems. “War Stories,” for example is written almost completely in such distorted-overwritten aphorisms—even if the intertextuality is not the source of humor but of tragedy (All the Whiskey 283-290). We seem to laugh when reading “Foreign Body Sensation” because every sentence is a cliché, foreign linguistic body incorporated into the poem, borrowed from talk shows, blogs, where media heroes publicly admit some very private secret and give a latter-day conversion narrative of how their lives have changed (All the Whiskey 139-140). The multiple aphorisms of the prose poem “How Empty Is My Bread Pudding” evoke a whole culture, confronting the reader with the lies behind the clichés generally taken for granted (Recalculating 81-91). Here “Poetry is too important to be left to its own devices” applies Clémenceau’s famous sentence (“War is too important to be left to the generals”) to poetry (82); behind “Sometimes a cigar is just a symbol” (84) there resonates not only Freud’s well-known maxim (“Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar”) but also see Magritte’s pipe or non-pipe (“Ceci n’est pas une pipe”); the line “Two prosodies diverged in a striated field” (86) evokes Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”; with “Make love not unilateralism” (90) we associate the sixties slogan, “Make love not war”; hearing “No man is a peninsula entire unto itself” (91) we immediately hear John Donne’s familiar line, “No man is an island, entire of itself;” while “The pen is tinier than the sword” (91) clearly cites to the proverb, “The pen is mightier than the sword” (Recalculating 81-91). Such citations, near-citations, allusions, and textual residues seem to amplify the undecidability of the text, adding new quotation marks to the already questioned—because overwritten and appropriated—lines, sentences, clichés, and axioms.
Poetry attentive to consciousness, poetry of grief
New voices appeared in Bernstein’s poetry in the past decade or two, the voices of the lyricist who is attentive to internal processes and registers intensive moments with precision, objectivity, as if from a distance. Without allowing the traditional “lyric self” take over, he concentrates on the state of mind itself, not the person or “patient” living through them, which is another Dickinsonian legacy in his poetry: for much like the 19th century anatomist of pain and archeologist of the deepest layers of consciousness, Bernstein also distances his suffering self from joy and pain, tracing instead their sources, objects, and processes, focusing on the sequences of cognition and the intensity of the experience. “[H]ope is a thing / feathered with loss,” he writes in “Poems for Rehab” (Recalculating 139), evoking Dickinson’s well-known definition poem. And much like the Amherst predecessor, he too is fascinated by how processes lead to states of mind, and, vice versa, what internal processes these states of mind bring about.
“The Measure” is one of the earlier lyric pieces that evoke Dickinson, where the self is walking through the levels of consciousness of a “great pain,” mapping up its borders, and exploring its afterness. This self is determined all through to “stay at attention” and be “on guard,” lest the unconscious pull him down into a blurred world of regret.
The privacy of a great pain enthrones
itself on my borders and commands me
to stay at attention. Be on guard
lest the hopeless magic of unconscious
dilemmas grab hold of you in the
foggiest avenue of regret.
(All the Whiskey 90)
So the most acute danger of a “great pain” does not lie in the suffering it causes but in the possible consequence of losing one’s attention, the “guard:” the threat posed by the unconscious grabbing the self into its foggy avenues.
A particular state of mind is the topic of “Castor Oil,” which describes the speaker’s sense of losing the loved one with distancing accuracy. Step by step, the initial soul searching grows into the searching of the loved one, while the poet, not finding his soul in the song of the bird, tuneless and wandering, becomes slowly aware of his cognitive and artistic limitations. The greater powers of the world, the waters of the sea and the folds of the universe, take over, pulling him under the waves and losing him in the Leibitzian folds and pleats of matter. The images of earlier human encounters recede, appearing as “remote displays” only, borrowed but not owned, drift away in the fading light as even the “bottom bottoms,” and the loss is total.
Tuneless, I wander, sundered
In lent blends of remote display
Until the bottom bottoms
In song-drenched light, cradled fold
(All the Whiskey 277)
This poem is devoid not just of self pity (that is not unusual in Bernstein’s poetry), but of any reference to the speaker’s possible agency. Nor is there any reference, for that matter, for his being a patient, let alone victim. The poem uses the first person but only to give form to the account of the events and processes—as if from the perspective of a by-stander. For it is these events and processes that are important, not how the experiencing self feels. While verbs are scarce and active verbs are even scarcer in this linguistically muted text, terseness weighs down the sentences, and structural ambiguities control the pace. All these linguistic devices create a sense of self-restraint, even humility. For the aim is to understand what is happening to the speaker, independent of how the person might suffer.
In addition to insisting on recording internal events objectively, Bernstein is keen on registering the linguistic processes attached to the psychological ones. For one, the context of all experiences is language. In “After Campion,” for example, a poem which chronicles the happy moments of a one-time family car trip, every family member appears audibly: Susan speaks, Emma and Felix sing (she complains as well, twice). That is, the events are all auditive, and this family music (harmony even)—coupled with the bells ringing outside—together impart and stabilize a feeling that is pleasure.
Music strays, will’s composed
Pleasure strikes when feeling stays
(All the Whiskey 238)
The abstract concepts of pleasure and feeling are described in concrete auditory terms. Already the form is musical, evoking the classic ballad form with the beats of strong-stress meter and the rhymes so rare in his poetry. It is the musical form of the ballad that conveys the auditive memories made up of the family interactions embedded into the auditive discourses of talk and song. This multiple auditive experience will then give out the linguistic content which serves to distinguish between the abstract concepts of feeling and pleasure.
The elegies written over the past several years stand out among the lyrical pieces in bearing the marks, both thematic and technical, of Emily Dickinson, the greatest American lyricist of death. Her poetry of grief may be considered a version of her poetry of attention, with the poet attentive to internal processes accompanying loss and grief, and the recognition that it is impossible to come to terms with the death of the loved one.
We find many such poems of loss and grief in Bernstein’s last volume of poetry, Recalculating (2013), each tracing the changes in the state of mind of the grieving person. The poet is struggling with his memories, while watching, as if from a distance, the duel fought between remembering and forgetting. “Cajole me into oblivion if not / obliviousness,” he orders, “Send me away, I’ve never been there” (“If You Say Something, See Something” 156). Recalculating does not seem to be an option: the past cannot and should not be obliterated by a new GPS instruction. He suffers from every new impetus coming from the physical world in “Today Is the Last Day of Your Life ’Til Now” (158), and every day seems to add to his solitude and spiritual blindness, his time to be served (“Time Served” 159). The mourner speaks in broken sentences, in Bernstein’s imploded sentences, since the complete grammatical sentence cannot give form to the harsh shreds of emotions. This is why, for example, “Charon’s Boat” (155) abounds in non sequiturs, linguistic self-relexions, unfinished sentences; this is why he follows the call of sound as opposed to semantics in “Synchronicity All Over Again” (160).
The finality of death is the theme of “Today Is the Last Day of Your Life ’Til Now” (158), whose title turns around the cliché, “today is the first day of the rest of your life,” proceeding to quote the title of Sydney Pollack’s film, and evoke lines from T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, and Robert Duncan. As if we were hearing a contrapuntal canon: Bernstein ties into the parts sung by predecessors and contemporaries. This multivocal performance seems to serve a double function: on the one hand, by subduing the lyrical-elegiac voice, it deprives the suffering “lyrical ego”of the individuality and specificity of grief, while on the other, by adding his own experience to the many similar experiences, he enriches the literature of grief, amplifying the harmonized voices of the choir.
The poem “Recalculating” brings together two discourses while engaging in grief work: the discourse of Bernstein’s aphorism poetry and bits from Dickinson’s poems of loss and grief. Introspection, or the inspection of consciousness, is carried out with sober rationalism. It is the rational conclusion drawn by the mind of cool reason that will come to understand the preservation of the past complete with memories.
I think of Emma climbing the icy rocks of our imagined world and taking a fatal misstep, one that in the past she could have easily managed, then tumbling, tumbling; in my mind she is yet still in free fall, but I know all too well she hit the ground hard.
The hardest thing is not to look back, the endless if onlys, the uninvited what could have beens. I live not with foreknowledge but consequences; wishing I had foreknowledge, suffering the consequences of not.
… how poems becomes sites for mourning—not in fixed ritual repetitions (prescribed liturgy) but as mobile and specific areas for reflection and projection, holding areas, havens. Not words received for comfort. but works actively discovered in the course of searching.
So much of what we can’t imagine we are forced to experience. And even then we can’t imagine it.
It seems that the contents of knowledge and those of the imagination are different, and the mourner’s job is to bring them in harmony, to come to the imaginative realization of what is known. All the while, locked into the dark Dickinsonian chambers of pain, he battles the infinite internal darkness.
Each day I know less than the day before. People say that you learn something from such experiences; but I don’t want that knowledge and for me there are no fruits to these experiences, only ashes. I can’t and don’t want to “heal”; perhaps, though, go on in the full force of my disabilities, coexisting with a brokenness that cannot be accommodated, in the dark.
As in Dickinson, so in Bernstein too we have the person trying to “grope a little” (F428) as he is feeling his way in the larger darkness inside. As in Dickinson, so in Bernstein too we have this groper learning to see, either because the “Darkness alters” or “something in the sight” does.
I’ve grown so accustomed to the dark that I can hardly imagine anything more than shadows..
It’s always darkest at night. A darkness day can’t touch.
(Recalculating 177, 178)
The Dickinson lines are clearly present here: the reader will remember “We grow accustomed to the Dark – / When Light is put away –” (F428) and “The first section of Darkness is the densest, Dear – After that Light trembles in” (L874) with the suggestion that in order to accept death one must first accept darkness, and in order to know death one must know darkness as well.
But knowing can only stem from not knowing, or the acceptance of not knowing. Much like his 19th century predecessor, Bernstein also insists that the only way to dispel metaphysical darkness is by coveting a familiarity with darkness: the griever must learn to feel comfortable in darkness, and ultimately accept the impossibility clear sight. The groper will step on the noncognitive path that takes not knowing for granted, a not knowing that can only be captured in a particular language suited for prehension: language of linguistic darkness, dense with dysraphysms and imploded sentences, and broken English in general. But unlike Dickinson, Bernstein does not believe that only the “first section of Darkness” is dense, or that after that “Light trembles in.” For him darkness will never be touched by day. The grieving person’s only hope is to attain some form of comfort in the darkness of the unknown. Although he did not ask for the knowledge gained from such spiritual darknesses, he adapts to the dark, and uses his language—pregnant with dysraphisms, imploded sentences, revised aphorisms, and other linguistic forms of prehensive experience—to reach out into the unknown, the great unknown of the physical and metaphysical alike.
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