P.N. REVIEW, Nov. – Dec. 2000
by Paul Quinn
”Bernstein's Republics: The Horizon of Language”
A periodic and agonistic encounter with Plato has marked the career of the philosophy-trained poet, Charles Bernstein. His pivotal collection, The Sophist (1987), rubs Socrates the wrong way, positing sophistry as a valid counter-hegemonic force. In Plato's Republic poetry was to be stigmatized, censored, or banished; in Bernstein's 'republics' poetic thinking is critical in providing a model of autonomous, creative society. Like the sophist who, to Socrates's chagrin, dangerously elides the categories of 'sophist, statesman, philosopher', Bernstein has subsumed poetics and politics throughout his work. He prefaces an important early essay, 'The Dollar Value of Poetry' with an epigraph from Simone Weil's Oppression and Liberty: 'thought ... in so far as it is ceaselessly creating a scale of values "that is not of this world" ... is the enemy of forces which control society'.
Bernstein seizes on this statement as an 'appeal to another world ... whose horizon is not totally a product of the coercive delimiting of the full range of language (the limits of language the limits of experience) by the predominating social forces'. Even at this early stage of Bernstein's writing career, we are presented with a crucial cluster of philosophical concepts and images that will figure throughout his work: the utopic glimpse of other worlds, the citation of Wittgenstein (a handy cognitive map reference, indeed, through the range of Bernstein's writing), and the constant testing of, and casting at, the horizon - a ubiquitous trope in later poems, where it signifies variously a limit or a challenge, an unreachable barrier or a socially constructed geodesic dome, ripe for shattering. The publication by Sun and Moon Press of Republics of Reality: 1975-1995 enables us to consider such continuities in Bernstein's work over a twenty year period, even while experiencing the diversity of forms and methods that has expressed, compressed, or repressed them.
The stakes in Bernstein's poetics are certainly high: poems are republics founded in the reading process and enacted in the open agora constituted by a certain kind of writerly text; poems help propose other ways of relating, other forms of (self) government. His writing constantly configures and reconfigures the limiting agencies of borders, horizons, rules. In spite, or possibly because of, this considerable ambition, Bernstein has often been portrayed as a linguistic terrorist, or at best, a purveyor of gobbledegook; he has been positioned as American poetry's agent provocateur, its Jewish comedian, its Puck. For some, Bernstein and his comrades associated with the poetics journal, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, represent an exhilarating fusion of critical theory and avant-garde poetics; a poetry as politicized and socially deconstructive as it is linguistically adventurous and exploratory. Other less enamoured American contemporaries have viewed this development angrily or askance, usually from within the safe-house of a university writing program, perceiving it as a jargon-laden, Theory-driven, and soul-denying anathema. Typically, Bernstein's own belated entrance into the academy - as David Gray Professor of Poetics and Letters at SUNY-Buffalo - has been a transforming one; drawing on the pioneering work of his distinguished predecessor and colleague still, Robert Creeley, Bernstein has striven to make this institution a poet's bolt-hole like no other: a place where practitioners teach poetics not poetry, the art rather than the craft.
Bernstein's CV can be read almost as an exemplification of Derridean theory, to the extent that a deconstructive logic follows him (or always-already precedes him) wherever he goes: L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E , which he co-edited with Bruce Andrews, with its Frankfurt-schooled, short-sharp theory-bites, changed the conventions of what a poetry journal should be, its impact lingering long after its short shelf life (19781982); the independent publishing ethos of Language poets, though in itself hardly a novelty in the poetry world, helped create an impressively resilient and vigorously alternative network of publication and distribution; the SUNY-Buffalo Poetics Program is, as aforesaid, a rare place where poets are expected to engage with the epistemological and theoretical implications of writing, rather than, as in the American campus norm, serve time as colourful cap-and-belled stock-characters in the University's rich tapestry. Traditionally, poets in residence are not expected to worry their little heads with such matters, are expected to leave all that to the heavyweights in the English faculty. Bernstein describes a fellow poet of some standing talking about poets as the 'guests of the university', or, shifting subservient analogies, as 'going into mines, bringing out the ore that the critics then take away'. Bernstein does not subscribe to this division of labour.
He has also eagerly subverted the conventional contexts and genres of literary production. The prose collections Content's Dream (1986), A Poetics (1987), and My Way (1999) similarly attempt to subvert the genre they engage with - in this case the critical essay. Though often brilliant pieces of expository writing, live with critical energy, they cannot resist formal excursions into verse (the most thoroughgoing insight into his methodology that Bernstein has produced, 'Artifice of Absorption', is a verse-essay), self-consuming artifice, or jokes. The seductive efficacy of the latter should not be underestimated, for even many of his detractors would admit that Bernstein's essays are full of wit and brio. Indeed, they are almost counter-productively so, to the extent that the comparative accessibility of his essay collections (the two most recent published by large university presses) means that the poetry itself is in danger of being overlooked or overshadowed.
Republics of Reality: 1975-1995 is the best opportunity yet to gauge the poet's designedly disruptive contribution to poetic practice in the period preceding, including, and following L=A=N=G=U=A=G= E magazine and its attention-garnering flurry of manifestos. The dust has now settled somewhat, and many of the poets associated with Language have been assimilated or forgotten, excoriated or championed by the adherents of 'official verse culture'. This latter phrase is one of Bernstein's most controversial and wilfully wave-making formulations, first brandished in the early essay 'The Academy in Peril: William Carlos Williams Meets the MLA'; an essay which is the literary critical equivalent of the last stand of Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch there is a gatling-gun inclusivity in its targetting, you may have doubts about its unrelenting clamour, but you can't deny the bravery, the anti-pragmatic disdain for diplomatic escape routes. Here then, is a chance to consider twenty years of poetry by Language's most visible and vocal spokesman.
It is undoubtedly the case that much of the actual poetry produced by those who have been associated with Language has been obscured by the discourse swirling around it: both the discourse generated to support it (the poetics, the polemics) and the discourse directed against it. A representative example of the latter was the ruffled response of Glyn Maxwell in the TLS in 1993, when he bemoaned the stubborn determination of Language poets to publish 'long after the magazine that gave them their name has disappeared along with the likelihood of anyone else taking an interest'. If this is the case then these decapitated chickens have shown remarkable stamina, clocking up countless laps even after Maxwell's lament. David Bromwich, too lofty to stoop to exasperation, offered the Olympus-eye-view instead, 'They do not appear, as yet, to write good poems'. Things have been more rancorous in the United States, where at the very least the Language poets were seen as puncturing the idea that everyone in the poetry world was part of the same happy cheese and wine party, all equal in the eyes of the grant committee, and at the most were seen as Trotskyite entryists despoiling poetry's hitherto disinterested glades. Things have now moved on somewhat; Bernstein and other Language poets have been embraced by university presses, are widely taught, and are beginning to make inroads into the crucial anthologies. If anything the charge has shifted to accusations of selling out - 'The Long March to Tenure' in the caustic phrase of movement pioneer Ron Silliman.
Republics of Reality thus appears at a transitional moment in the reception of this particular avant garde. It brings together eight earlier collections and chapbooks now out of print or hard to find. A ninth segment, 'Residual Rubbernecking', collects recent short poems. It is important to remember that Republics of Reality is not a Collected Poems as such; many of the most significant Bernstein volumes of this period - Controlling Interests (1980), Islets/Irritations (1983), The Sophist, and Dark City (1994), for example - are not included in whole or part, because of their easier availability. Nevertheless, the continuities and innovations of perspective and practice evident in those more well-known books are also readily traceable here within the covers of one volume.
The very first poem included, 'Sentences', from Parsing (1976), plays punningly on its title to imply the ways the Self is clenched by cliché, trapped in the prison-house of the proverbial. It is possible over the course of Bernstein's work, even as it is excerpted in Republics of Reality, to discern negative and positive poles to the poetry (though one should bear in mind the claim of one of Bernstein's inspirations, Theodor Adorno, that 'consumate negativity, once squarely faced, delineates the mirror-image of its opposite'). Thus, many of the early poems in particular describe a world in which we are the oppressed subjects of ideology (such poems thematize oligarchies with fake-democratic Smiley masks rather than republics), and explore the procedures by which language is used coercively, the ways it shapes and socializes. Against this, is the poetry's saving emphasis on the materiality of language (the 'actual word stuff' to borrow a phrase of another of Bernstein's crucial models, Louis Zukofsky), which helps divert the hierarchical relays enshrined in what the poet calls 'The conduit theory of communication' - whereby Power perpetuates itself with transparent ease. Ranged against this are syntactical and linguistic experiments designed to elude official templates.
'Sentences', however, like a number of the more melancholy early satiric poems, is ultimately less concerned to suggest escape routes than to transcribe the trap: the lifesentences to which many are condemned and contorted, the ready-to-wear phrases to which we cut our cloth in turn. The poem's sentences seem to mix standard middle class ennui, with non-standard underclass alienation ('they want you to clean / They dont have no feeling / They want to know - what should I call you? '). One of Bernstein's achievements in poems like this is, by a process of accumulation, selection, careful collage, paradoxically to suggest a subject, or a number of subjects, coming to awareness of their own subjection, yet unable to express this in anything other than the language that enchains them: 'I had to become what everyone wanted me to be.'
This latter phrase links a number of key poems produced throughout Bernstein's career which incorporate (and parody) the official languages of selfhood's construction. In his insider's literary history of the Language poets, The Marginalization of Poetry, Bob Perelman suggests that for a number of these poets 'breaking the automatism of the poetic - I - and its naturalized voice', was the first heave. In Bernstein, the 'I' gets fractured into school-reports, psychiatric case-histories, peer-reviews. To some extent the emphasis on coercion of such poems returns us to the etymological roots of the word 'character', a word used both for a letter and for a personality, which is derived from a Greek word for a branding iron, which in turn is related to a word for a pointed stake. Perhaps the most notorious of these social characterizations can be seen in 'Standing Target', from Controlling Interests , which includes in its found materials actual reports from Bernstein's childhood Summer Camp: 'Charlie/is not strong in manual dexterity. (This/may be part of a mixed dominance/situation Mrs. B. And I discussed in/relation to tying shoes.).' But there are plenty of comparable moments in Republics of Reality , not least in the prose poem 'Palukaville', where a cacophony of voices, some of which may belong to Charles Bernstein are heard, but all of which share the bad faith inherent in the daily masquerade:
My elementary school teachers thought I was vague, unsocial, & lacked the ability to coordinate the small muscles in my hands. The way it feels. The mistake is to think you can put on the mask at work and then take it off when you get home. I enjoy it. If I acted like a manager to please my managers it would be irrelevant what I thought 'privately'. The one-two punch: behaviorism and meritocracy. I couldn't spell at school and still can't
The parataxical method of procedure, the deployment of the individual sentence rather than the line as the principal unit of the poem, the way the sentences sometimes tenuously sometimes tantalizingly connect, or at other times are free-standing, forcing the reader to make their own connections, makes this seem an instance of 'The New Sentence' as influentially defined by Bernstein's friend and sometime collaborator Ron Silliman. Certainly this dystopian strain in Bernstein's work tends to produce poems like this, which depict our ideological positioning in the world, and the part that received, normative and official languages play in the process. In A Poetics Bernstein further describes such strategies as constituting another delimited horizon, attacking 'the policing, the colonizing, the standardizing, and those structures, styles, tropes, methods of transition that connote or mime or project (rather than confront or expose or redress) these approaches to the world'. The early work represented in Republics of Reality is, then, very much from a period when much Language poetry was as preoccupied with describing Althusserian interpellation as prescribing utopian alternatives. Nevertheless, even at this early phase, there are still glimmers of resistance (the title of a transitional collection, included in Republics of Reality), of the urge to 'confront or expose or redress', and of a non-alienated awareness. There is a focus on the material act of writing, for example, on the actual physical body that writes and is more than a mere receptacle for top-down propaganda. Thus, in the most Sillimanesque sentence of all, 'An erotic pleasure pressing against the pen with my thumb, sore under the nail from a splinter.'
Furthermore, there is a sense of other ways of being, other ways of using words: 'I'm trapped by the job only insofar as I transpose my language to fit it.' To use language in ways that do not succumb to the traps and snares of command or convention, to the job-description or the inherited form, is central to the politics and poetry of much Language writing. The William Carlos Williams whom Bernstein has tried to wrest back from the clutches of official verse culture avows in his The Embodiment of Knowledge that 'it is to divorce words from the enslavement of the prevalent clichés that all the violent torsions (Stein, Joyce) have occured ' In Language poetry such torsions are on behalf of, and in collaboration with, readers - those fellow fugitives from the chain-gang; the goal is a collective activity more thoroughgoing and even more integral, more explicit and dynamic, than the necessary reciprocation poets always seek.
Crucially, the poems attempt to produce 'exemplary' (Bernstein, at his most didactic and palpably designing in 'The Dollar Value of Poetry', uses this word when calling for poems that are 'an instance broken off from and hence not in the service of this cultural-social-force called capitalism - a chip of uninfected substance') perceptual republics where the reconstituted 'reality' is created by the community of readers, and realised in readings not bound by habituated thought or forms. The sheer otherness of the other worlds such poetry inspires us to imagine is brought home most vividly in their syntactical transgression, and in a clamorous oddity particularly evident in many of Bernstein's utopian later poems, which seem to hover at the horizon between sound and sense, a bee-loud glade of sonic excess, and where his indebtedness to Hopkins, Swinburne and Bunting is as evident as the more obvious antecedents of the Objectivists and the New York School. When I recently interviewed Bernstein, he attributed his love of reading poets like Hopkins and Swinburne (poets who possess and require what he terms a 'double hearing') to the way in which in their poems the sound, the heavily accented patternings of vowels and consonants, the thickened dictions, often overpowers or delays sense, in the same way a Turner seascape is washed in waves of paint that threaten to drown the figuration in the almost-abstract.
To achieve his own comparable effects, Bernstein has moved increasingly from the concrete blocks of collaged discourse prevalent in the early poems to short, overdetermined lyrics that clang with exaggerated assonance and half-rhyme. The most pronounced of these are poems in a self-invented mode he has dubbed, 'The Nude Formalism', a carnivalesque parody of the sonorous austerities of The New Formalism. 'Pinky Swear' is a typical sonnet of this type :
Such mortal slurp to strain this sprawl went droopy
Gadzooks it seems would bend these slopes in girth
None trailing failed to hear the ship looks loopey
Who's seen it nailed uptight right at its berth...
And so the poem proceeds on its awkward way; many of the other poems represented here possess 'the beauty in a lack of grace' that Bernstein has described elsewhere, apparently seeking a poetry that can dance with two left feet. Not for nothing is he a poet who can wax lyrical about the kinetic clumsiness of Jerry Lewis, or cite Antonio Carlos Jobim's 'Desafinado' as a clarion call: 'You insist my music goes against the rules / But rules were never meant for lovesick fools / I wrote this little song for you but you don't care / Its a crooked song oh but all my love is there.' The 'slightly out of tune' tonality is sounded throughout these later poems. But for all the distracting noisiness, sense is not jettisoned, instead it is intimately bound up with what is striving to be said in this strange off-key music, the improvised anthems of these new republics. And buried it may be, but imagery is discernable too - there is a Turneresque drowning boat at the heart of 'Pinky Swear'.
The title is also significant, a throwaway promise to a child (and thus of the utmost importance) sanctified by conjoined pinky fingers: 'do you pinky swear that you will do it'? Bernstein has retreated (or advanced?) deeper into the nursery as his career has developed; riddles, nursery rhymes, nonsense verse have all been eagerly embraced. If the early poems saw the child as the sitting target for socialization, the latter see the child as the site of resistance, a potential space where words can be played with like sand in sand-pits, a stage when the world is still malleable. Children, or the childlike, are the potential citizens of Bernstein's republics. Which is not to say that Bernstein has turned away from complexity or disjunction; on the contrary the nursery rhymes and nonsense verse are seen as a kind of ur- inherited form, which the poet adapts and deforms by overloading the poem with a vast array of technical languages, philosophical propositions, literary references till it, as in the poem 'Shell', 'scrapes/buckles, walls' or in 'Verdi and Postmodernism', it 'spills & sprawls & booms'.
This utopian straining in Bernstein then, necessitates strange and fascinating forms. His longer collages have become ever more elaborate in their variety of found materials; the comedy has become more integral than ever - both directly, in vaudevillean jokes and puns, and indirectly, in a comedy of different scales and registers mixed and matched. The Sophist (probably still the best indicator of his range) begins with 'The Simply', which, for the critic Jerome McGann is a model poem, where the subject is 'the enactment rather than the representation of meaning'. Which is to say it is another 'exemplary' space where the reader is made constantly aware of the methodologies and mindsets from which meaning is made. Hence the bizarre parade of incorporated discourses - philosophical meditations, poetics, archaic dictions, etymological sleights, and pop cultural references. By contrast, the last poem in that volume, 'The Harbour of Illusion', is a much more constrained and restrained piece, which reads like the husk of a lyric poem, within which ruined space the beautiful, the elegaic, the sonorous - all the sighing ghosts of traditional lyricism - pass through fleetingly. Through, in the poem's own figuration, a 'thoroughfare / of noon's atoll'.
This lyricism becomes increasingly evident in Republics of Reality, and it is not always the parodic, off-key version of lyricism either. Short lyrics like 'Buffalo Nights' and 'Mall at Night' effortlessly achieve the kind of non sequitur beauty beloved of Ashbery, but do so in a clotted, compacted manner all their own. Often there is a conscious sense of rug-pulling, such as in 'Hard Copy', where a lyric register is carefully wrought:
To be tutored by the rain & still care for darkness -
not restraint, exactly, where the fall of the window
Prefigures an older tale of teeming advertence -
The lock on the meadow or frame around the bee.
The sonnet proceeds on its stately way until gleefully announcing a Miltonic pratfall: 'Stand / on guard, let others take the fall - she also serves / who wades.' Ever the vaudevillean, Bernstein cannot resist providing even his most lush constructions with their own banana skins.
This particular sense of 'exploded lyric', in Bernstein's phrase, is none the less a revision of traditional poetic values of a kind that Language poets would have been less likely to admit to in the first flush of iconoclasm. Increasingly too, there is a sense of heightened language which ( to borrow a perceptive image of the poet and critic Geoffrey O'Brien) seems 'to hover near meaning in a state of frustrated desire'. The principle effect then, is of a clamorous sound-world which operates aslant meaning, on the brink of semantics, never quite connecting. This, however, is an intensification rather than a revolution in Bernstein's work. Indeed, the roots of this particular trope can be traced back to comparatively early poems like the aforementioned 'Palukaville', whose title alludes to the living hell invoked in On the Waterfront, the one to which losers like Terry Malloy are given one-way tickets. Even in the barren terrain of this generally bleak prose poem, Bernstein stakes out a pioneering republic of reality where ' ... love of language - the hum - the human - excludes its reduction to a scientifically managed system of reference in which all is expediency and truth is nowhere'. Elsewhere, in 'The Taste Is What Counts', Bernstein is again restlessly prowling the perimeters of his material, language: 'The boundaries perceivable in a form attended on both sides by a border within which limitlessness lives, hung as press of confusion. I in boundary, the very hum of it'. Compare this, from the book length poem, The Occurrence of Tune: 'desire projected & recast, to unmake the borders of logic'. In many such poems from different periods a thematic and tropical obsession recurs: language as desire humming at the borders of meaning. At their most utopian these poems extend Wittgenstein by seeking limitlessness in language, they seem intent on proving that the horizon is merely a trompe l'oeil stage set à la Peter Weir's The Truman Show.
To return briefly to 'The Dollar Value of Poetry', Bernstein claims in that essay that the value released in the reading of a poem that is not 'commoditized', is not 'dollar value' (transferable, instrumental) but, instead, 'that nongeneralized residue that is specific to each particular experience'. The very singularity of the reading experience that such poems offer, therefore, provides resistance to 'any form of normative standardization in the ordering of words in a unit or the sequencing of these units, since determining the exact nature of these is what makes for the singularity of the text'. Bernstein's epigrammatic coup-de-grace is to declare that 'Caesar himself is the patron of our grammar books'. Against this roman road of authoritarian thought, Wittgenstein is once again invoked as an ally, one who worried that 'the world can easily be reduced to only the straight rows of the avenues of the industrial district, with no place for the crooked winding streets of the old city.' But even this old city can help us conjecture a new republic : 'To imagine a language is to imagine a form of life' - think of that first imagine as the active word here. This substantial collection may help change the view of many who see only aimless iconoclasm and irresponsible deconstruction in the legacy of Language poetry; for here, Bernstein implies, are building blocks for a new republic, just an horizon away.