WITHIN THE CAMERA FRAME we see a block of text the size of the Empire State Building smashing its way through lower Manhattan. A writhing tangle of poetic lines reaches out and grabs a pedestrian reader, lances a billboard, and masticates a movie theater playing MI3: Ghost Protocol. A member of the graduate faculty averse to dealing with texts she can’t explicate, contextualize, psychoanalyze, or deconstruct runs into the frame, turns to the camera, and gives a piercing scream. It’s the Attack of the Difficult Poems!
That’s fantasy footage inspired by Charles Bernstein’s new collection of essays, talks, interviews, and miscellaneous performances, the title of which pokes fun at the inadequacy many of us feel when faced with a literary work that seems to announce, and even gloat in, its resistance to being read. Ron Silliman’s The Alphabet comes immediately to mind; add Kenneth Goldsmith’s The Weather, Frank Stanford’s The Battlefield in which the Moon Says I Love You, H.D.’s Trilogy, Stein’s Tender Buttons, and Zukofsky’s translations of Catullus. Such a horror flick could play as the nightmare of even the most professional reader, the professor, who has the most to lose by seeming uninformed and inadequate to the task of responding intelligently to difficult poems — for Bernstein, they range historically in these essays from poems of second wave modernists of ordinary language (Reznikoff, Oppen, Cole Porter) to contemporaries (Hejinian, Coolidge, Christian Bök) that remain undomesticated by generations of exegesis in the training cage of the classroom.
But the virtual classroom, or lecture hall, is where we find Bernstein in the first part of his book, devoted to “Professing Poetics.” It’s a welcome educational mission — inclusive, challenging, sensible, ethical, accessible (that most terribly fraught word in poetryland), and defined by a lively style that manages to fuse academic discourse with a more conversational, energetic, and even impassioned one. Bernstein has been one of the foundational figures to associate around the theory and practice of “Language Poetry;” and although he was not always a professor in the university, “professing poetics” is his main mode of address in this book. Attack of the Difficult Poems, like his earlier manifestoes, aims to clear the ground for a new way of thinking about poetry’s inextricable entanglement with ideology. Other sections of the book — devoted respectively to the tensions between the written and oral textuality of poetry, the idea of translation as radical transformation, the ethical difficulty of reading poetic hoax, the relation between poetry and the visual arts, to name just a few — also serve as occasions for Bernstein to profess (even the hilarious “Recantorium,” that serves as conclusion, is a kind of Groucho Marxian mea culpa that flips the idea that one can ever stand to the side of market forces).
The British critic William Empson coined the term “argufying” — a form of argument as defiance — to convey the energy and commitment of his engagement in poetry and its relation to the world; and the term perfectly captures Bernstein’s ongoing, on-growing “argufying,” not just within the internecine battles of the poetry world, but within the larger frame of cul...read more