A Hazard of New Fortunes: On Bernstein’s “Attack of the Difficult Poems”

By Joshua WeinerSeptember 19, 2012

Attack of the Difficult Poems: Essays and Inventions by Charles Bernstein

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 cultural work, which he views as also always already political. For that reason, I consider the book under review, comprised of occasional pieces, as the latest installment of a single work of “argufying.”

The book opens with “The Difficult Poem,” a parody of the “How To” manual that has devolved from Pound’s ABC of Reading to the kind of self-help primer penned to popular acclaim by Edward Hirsch, Mary Oliver, and David Orr. In the deadpan bland voice of a kind of “Dr. Poetry,” Bernstein explains that we need not feel embarrassed or panicky when faced with a difficult poem to read, for “all of us from time to time encounter a difficult poem. Sometimes it is a poem of a friend or family member and sometimes it is a poem we have written ourselves [. . .] Many readers when they first encounter a difficult poem say to themselves, ‘Why me?’” If you’ve ever picked up The Cantos with any apprehension, Bernstein’s joke about feeling personally picked on by a difficult poem is funny. (“There are the Alps,” writes Bunting, in homage, “what is there to say about them? / They don’t make sense.”)

Bernstein recognizes the affect that difficulty first releases — anxiety, reluctance, the deep breath as one gathers resolve to do something difficult, such as read a poem known for its difficulty. His performance includes several masks, switching the impression to a generic Dr. Phil (“Difficult poems are not like this because of something you as readers have done to them. It’s not your fault”) or the ladies glossy advice column (“Once you have gotten beyond the blame game — blaming yourself as a reader for the difficulty or blaming the poem — you can start to focus on the relationship”). The piece is more than a send-up. What’s being entertained here are at least two things, for the joke is neither facetious nor smug: the tonal caricature conveys straight forward reminders useful to any reader of poetry, but especially those readers who eschew difficulty because they don’t feel up to it: relax, get busy — after all, difficulty in poetry is “normal,” “innate;” and “smoothing over difficulties is not the solution!”

One could hardly argue; after all, Bernstein sounds as if he’s asking for a retooled negative capability, of attending to but not straining after an understanding, allowing oneself to reside in the presence of something that’s mysterious, unknown, even if it’s critical of another poetry’s “mystification.” But “the tendency to idealize the accessible poem,” which still circulates in the economy of reviews, prizes, jobs, and chancellorships, warrants the counter-claim that difficult poems have attributes that spur us to consider: what is language; what is poetry; how does it work; and what is its value? (In the context of teaching, which is the inspired concern of the first part of this collection, we have to remember that what an undergraduate with no conscious experience of poetry finds difficult could be any piece of writing. And often what a teacher finds himself doing with a poem in the classroom is to suggest its difficulty right where a student reads simplicity. Those for whom poetry and difficulty are synonyms, however, generally aren’t stopping in; it all remains an irrelevant mystery, warranting a detour one bypasses on the way to Econ 101.)

As the “Dr. Poetry” persona soon after drops, we find Bernstein earnestly promoting the value of poetry and the humanities as an open-ended inquiry that’s precious for creating experiences liberated from the logic of capital. Of course, the logic of capital has also inspired inventors to create new stuff that we want, use, and come to need. But when it comes to the invention of significant new poetry, such has not been the case. And universities still create a space within the structure of capital to make inquiries free from capital interests. The university’s investment in research & development has its corresponding interest in advancing thinking about the arts (it doesn’t always, but it should); its old role as a conservator of culture broadened through the last half of the last century to include investment in cultural innovation. “At its most effective,” writes Bernstein, “the university is not oriented toward marketplace discipline and employment training, but rather toward maximizing the capacity for reflection and creativity.” At Penn, where Bernstein teaches, and where the tuition price tag now starts at $43,000, that notion might be for some a tough argument to buy into still. At a public land-grant university, such as Penn State, just down the proverbial street, that notion no longer even appears on the auction block: they’ve axed their poetry program. Yet poetry workshops at many if not most colleges remain popular, and often oversubscribed — not because they’re easy A’s, but because the workshop is often the last opportunity for college students to do creative work free from the justifications of immediate employment. They clutch at the chance. For Bernstein, it’s coin of the realm.

“My commitment,” avows Bernstein, “is to public education: the education of the public at large and an education about the public, how it is constituted.” It’d be less difficult to criticize this intention and the feeling behind it were Bernstein not so determined to fuse a set of noble ideals (education of the public) to thinking about the contingencies of its social construction (what’s a public, how is it constituted?) It is precisely this kind of flexibility and double-hinged intelligence, keen on paradox and chiasmic thinking, that makes Bernstein’s book so useful: as a practical guide through the perilous logic of short-term gain that now plagues the university, to classroom pedagogies (what he calls creative “wreading”), to further statements in the ongoing manifesto that is Bernstein’s declaration of poetic “practice,” and that clearly informs his teaching: “poetry as process”; scholarship as “explanation by association”; “poetics as “philosophy of composition”; the notion that “poetry begins in the present moment and moves backward and forward from there”; that “literary works do not exist only or even primarily, on the page”; that “poetics is an ethical engagement with the shifting conditions of everyday life”; and that poetics is social, an “action to be read in relation to its social motivation, not its intention.” He reminds us that the value of teaching poetics is modeling responsiveness over analysis. And responsibility, Robert Duncan reminds us, begins with response: the dynamic between writing and reading, poem and audience, poetry and other real actions in the world.

When it comes to thinking about poems, however, I still favor analysis, the deep dive into the mechanics of language and form, and as important to teach as poetics, granting that the former is impossible without the latter. But Bernstein isn’t really interested in reading poems here — that is, the relationship between words, phrases, sentences, images, rhetoric, sounds, rhythms, etc., in any particular poem — as much as he’s interested in reading poetry situations. As intellectual performance, it shows off brilliance without depth. This incisiveness across the surface of technique, the implications of poetry’s semantics as form, is on best display in the book’s second section, “The Art of Immemorability,” which seeks a kind of theoretical middle way between the liberty from poetry’s traditional orality and it’s concomitant practicality afforded by alphabetic composition (you’re free to write a kind of poetry that isn’t, by necessity, memorable) and the new modes of making sound texts with audio technology. “With the advent of the photo/phono electronic, postliterate age, the emerging function for poetry is neither the storage of collective memory nor the projection of individual voice, but rather an exploration of the medium through which the storage and expressive functions of language work [. . .] Poetry’s singular burden in a digital age is to sound the means of transmission: call it poetry’s textual function, making audible/visible the ethos enacted in and by the fabric of writing.” This is a bracing salvo, as Bernstein devotes himself to thinking about the most important question facing poetry: what does poetry do, what can it do, today, that is special to it as a medium. It’s an essential question, and searching out a plausible answer requires engagement not only with poetry but also with the full range of our communications technology — its past, present, and the forecasts for its future. To consider the range of answers is the responsibility of the poet; that Bernstein sees poetry’s present burden as singular is one side of only one debate: whether poetry’s most pressing function is now a “textual function” more than a social one (the need for a poetry that aids memory) or an imaginative one (the need for a poetry that represents an emotional or psychological state of flux and being). “A textual poetry,” he explains, “does not create language that is committable to memory but rather a memory of the alphabetic that is committable to language.” Regardless of the kind of poetry you like to read or write, if you care about the fate of poetry in a digital age then you have to think about this: what constitutes a text, let alone a poem, or a public.  

Bernstein’s essays on the subject of what he calls “poetry’s coming digital presence,” a presence that makes more intense poetry’s variety of sound texts, is one aid to thinking that we can use right now (interested readers should go to PennSound, the website and archive of sound texts that Bernstein helped to launch). Just as he argues persuasively that new technologies don’t replace old ones as much as old technologies continue to exist alongside new ones, so too do we come to understand through these pointed and thoughtful considerations of poetry and technology how contemporary writing is caught in a kind of concatenation of ongoing translation between technologies.

Translation implies conversion from one set of terms to another. This is a process that is continuous within one’s own language and its many layers as well as between different languages. The process is less atomic than contextual: not a matter of identifying individual words or even individual meanings but of a matter of attuning oneself to systems of meanings, clusters of signs, context of utterance: to scale and shape as much as format and configuration; to sounds and sights as much as lexicon.

For Bernstein, translation is something like the constant condition of language itself. One could even say, following Bernstein, that in trying to write a poem, any poem, one is trying to translate an unwritten work into the original. But what will be the medium?

This problem of translation is not a special problem, but an ordinary one; and “what’s ordinary,” writes Bernstein, “ is an enacted process, not the product [. . .] What I am trying to do in my own writing is to produce an experience of language as a social material, making, in the process, material facts about language and rhythms within language that each of us knows as well as our own breath or the thud of our heart or the viscosity of our saliva.” If you’ve been at all attentive to Language poetics over the past 20 years, that last clause might surprise you, since the project of Language poetry has often appeared to be a highly intellectualized conceptual byproduct of the academy, and thereby a very odd duck by comparison with other avant-gardes that regarded the university as anathema. But what Bernstein aims to emphasize is that the old stylistic conventions, by serving up the sound of an emotional eloquence or a seamless vision, were far from natural. Bernstein seeks a new “level of inarticulateness which is ordinary.” The level he constructs might be new, but the desire for it is not. As Frost indicated about the level of idiom in “The Death of the Hired Man,” he wanted to drop the language lower than Wordsworth. Such a juxtaposition — Wordsworth, Frost, Bernstein — suggests how a radical artifice serves what amounts to a new kind of realism: if you listen to what language really sounds like, you realize how impossible it is to marshal it for the construction of a seamless representation of the “real” — what’s real is the gap and static, a poetry of the phatic, the way codes create fields of misapprehension that they also attempt to traverse. In this way, the ordinary can be quite difficult, especially given the presumptions about lyric’s transparency that many readers bring to poetry. How a poet exploits the inarticulateness of language to make a poem is never not an issue of style, and so also a product of its time and the conventions a la mode.

Bernstein’s marshalling the physical human body for his notion of linguistic process might come as a surprise, in that he promotes the inarticulate as a new quality of naturalness; whereas the idea of “the natural” in poetry, according to him, has always been sign of “Official Verse Culture’s” unexamined presumption about a certain generic default style. Here Bernstein joins the idea of what’s natural and ordinary in language to the idea of poetry as artifice. And it’s a good example of how he tries to reconcile certain distinct differences, or bring into closer proximity what often appears to be opposed. What happens, for example, when performance of stuttering enters the textual field of a poem? The natural, too, is a performance (as any actor will tell you); but performance is also a primal fact of natural behavior. Poetry, however, is special because it is liberated from biology as much as it originates from it; poetry has the freedom to be gratuitous, which is the source of its power and desirability.

The issue is what you claim for it, as a sign of the poetic. If this seems obvious, we may have Bernstein to thank for pointing out the blinders. “There is no singular original but an array of realizations,” Bernstein writes about competing editions of respective literary texts; “the relations between versions is not a moral one of right or wrong but an ethical one of reciprocity.” If you’ve ever puzzled over the different versions of a poem by Robert Lowell or Marianne Moore or W.H. Auden, this notion has far reaching implications for reading textual plurality within the frame of a single work; but the implications reach even further. The assertion about versions of a single poem could go as well for the singularity of poetry itself, its special attributes as a medium, which we have come to define by virtue of its plurality. The relations between poetries, to refashion Bernstein’s notion, is not, it seems to me, a moral one of right and wrong, but an ethical one of reciprocity.

As a liberal minded writer who thinks of himself as open to new influences, arguments, and considerations, I want to believe that Bernstein sees it that way too. But why does he invent a straw man “Gen. X” poet named Gallansky, who says (in the script Bernstein has invented for him), “I reject the ideologized poetry wars of the seventies and eighties. I don’t have to choose.” Bernstein says in a fascinating chapter on literary forgery that Gallansky is a fraud; that, in other words, maintaining a position in which one refuses to make ideological claims is a kind of mystification. But what does “choose” mean here? As poetry editor of Tikkun magazine, I’ve chosen to publish a poem by Bernstein; but I’ve also chosen to publish poems by Philip Levine, C.K. Williams, Gail Mazur, and Brenda Hillman. I may carry only one valid political party card in my wallet, but with my library card I can take out any book I choose. (When asked what book he would choose to have with him were he stranded on a deserted island, G.K. Chesterton famously answered, “Thomas’ Guide to Practical Shipbuilding.”) Does choose mean to read, to consciously adopt or adapt, to absorb those works that resist absorption? Do I choose Ezra Pound? Choose him for what? “What side are you on?” goes the lyric to the old Pete Seeger protest song. I’m on the side of the poet, against those who would ignore her, forget her, or pass judgment on her life rather than spend time with her poems. Doesn’t the aesthetic afford greater, richer possibilities for connection, intersection, and commonality than we find in the real world, with its realpolitik? Bernstein’s Gallansky, according to the script, doesn’t feel he needs to choose between Robert Pinsky, Jorie Graham, and Timothy Steele, because he’s flattened them out into simplistic types of poets, all of whom cost the same on the poetry market — by which I mean none is more demanding nor more difficult nor in any way better than another. “I can like x and y,” says the fictive Gallansky, in the fake AWP interview, “from the elegant elegaics of Pinsky to the radical disjuncture of Graham to the exhilarating new formalism of Timothy Steele. I am particularly engaged with recuperating white male identity as both gentle and engaging.” Well, that is funny, especially the way Gallansky deploys the vogue term “recuperation” for the retro-avant paradox of the gentle white man. But I could, without much effort, marshal the evidence to demonstrate, rather, Pinsky’s disjunctures, Graham’s elegaics, and Bernstein’s exhilarating new formalism (check out the title poem, in rhyming quatrains, in All the Whiskey in Heaven). The fraud, implies Bernstein, is in the notion that techniques can be separated from values or interests; one cannot, the argument goes, pick up a bag of frozen fragmentation in aisle six, a jar of juxtaposition in aisle ten, and some open referents as a loss-leader sale item. But in the market of techniques, of course one can do precisely that; (chances are it’ll come off as cheap goods). The logic leads one to the lip of a great drop: if verse technique from meters and quatrains to collage and material appropriation is tied to particular interests, the codes of which convey particular values; and if sifting off the techniques from the values is a kind of deracination to be deplored; then one is positing a kind of authentic poem vs. an inauthentic one. And isn’t authenticity, according to the logic of radical artifice, a kind of mystification that is better undone, ruptured, destabilized, interrogated, etc.? Wasn’t the idea that a progressive way of writing is necessarily attached to a progressive brand of politics given the most hilarious and horrifying lie in Roberto Bolaño’s Nazi Literature in the Americas? Is it not in that wickedly satiric work (and the subsequent Distant Star) that the most advanced avant-garde writer is also a serial killer? Bolano’s sendup, hilarious and grim by turns, is extreme in what it implies about poetry and ideology; the extremity is accessible however — it just requires taking steps in a certain direction. And it’s precisely in the work of art that we can explore, for the sake of life outside that work, the most extreme and troubling implications of our presumptions about the aesthetic.

If poetries are always already ideological, it doesn’t follow that the ideologies of any body of writing, or any way of writing, is fixed. Language poetry was not the first work to suggest as much, as any reader of Poetics Journal would discover: Language poets were following some rich leads. But no writing is ideological before the fact of its being read. And there is no human writing, writing as such, that goes unread (it may be read, for example, only by its author). Ideology is therefore contingent upon interpretation, and thus is itself an open sign. Or does history bind us tighter than that? Is how we read ideology time-bound and culture-bound as how we read the history of styles? If Bernstein would ask us to suspend our impulse to choose between different versions of any given poem — versions which can be read as quite different ideologically (e.g. Auden’s versions of “September 1939”) — could he not entertain the possibility of doing the same between different poetries? Can there be no reciprocity between poets who think differently about language and form and the role they play in the continually unfolding situation for poetry? I think there has to be. Because every essay in his book suggests as much, I think that Bernstein has to think so too. But I can’t be sure.  

And I can’t let go of certain ideas about poetry as a special medium that originates as much from a sacred function as a social one, even as I know that the sacred has a social function. But that I even know as much I owe in part to Charles Bernstein. If some poems are more difficult than others, some avowals about poets are easier. And it’s not difficult to acknowledge a growing body of work by Bernstein that is helping us think our way into the new poetics of our present. When Auden defined poetry as memorable speech, one had to wonder if the definition was too inclusive to be of much use. (“In Praise of Limestone” could be one — who can recite that?) In Attack of the Difficult Poems Bernstein is helping us to see that, all along, it was too limiting, but never more so than right now.


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LARB Contributor

Joshua Weiner is the author of three books of poetry: The World's Room (2001), From the Book of Giants (2006), and The Figure of a Man Being Swallowed by a Fish (2013). He is also the editor of At the Barriers: On the Poetry of Thom Gunn (all from Chicago). He has been on the editorial staff of Tikkun magazine, where he serves as poetry editor, since the late 1980’s.  The recipient of the Witter Bynner Fellowship at the Library of Congress, a Whiting Writers’ Award, and the Rome Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, he held the 2013 Amy Lowell Poetry Traveling Scholarship, and he is currently a Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellow. His poems and essays have appeared in Best American Poetry, The New York Review of Books, The Nation, The American Scholar, Harvard Review, Poetry, AGNI, The New Republic, Brick, and elsewhere. His work Berlin Notebook, based on experiences in Berlin during October 2015, a time when the influx of refugees in Germany and the rest of Europe was peaking, was published by LARB. He is professor of English at the University of Maryland, and lives with his family in Washington DC.  www.joshuaweiner.com

The Berlin Notebook can be purchased for your e-reader from Amazon, iTunes, and Barnes and Noble.



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