Words Fail Him: The Poetry of Charles Bernstein

by Jason Guriel

Charles Bernstein. All the Whiskey in Heaven: Selected Poems. Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2010. 300 pp. $26.00.

In senior year of high school, my friend Tom discovered the works of Marilyn Manson and took up the vestments: hair dye, torn nylons, Doc Martens. He insisted I borrow his Heart of Darkness, his Darkness at Noon. (He preferred his fiction dimly lit.) We convened in Ms. B—’s creative writing class and toyed with the idea of putting together our own literary magazine, which we planned to stack in place of the school newspaper: a blow struck against hegemony.

One day, Ms. B— assigned the class a poem to write. I still have Tom’s by heart, but only because the frigid response it received from our teacher, when she made her way around to him, freeze-dried it for posterity. (Critics often embalm the art they mean to bury.) This is the poem Tom read aloud:


Tom meant to startle Ms. B—, but she just frowned and said, “This is too easy.” She had a point: Tom had dashed off the poem in seconds. He might have defended himself by pointing out that it had taken Marcel Duchamp even less time to sign the name R. Mutt to a urinal. But unlike Duchamp, Tom had the example of Duchamp to go on. And unlike Duchamp’s first (and more reactionary) audiences, Ms. B— seemed to have no quarrel with the rebel who ropes off any old thing (a urinal, four minutes and thirty-three seconds of room tone), declares it art, and dares you to say otherwise. She hadn’t failed to regard Tom’s poem as a poem; it had merely failed to startle her.

If he’d been familiar with the movement, my friend could have labelled his effort “Language poetry.” Language poetry, which took shape in the 1970s, is poetry that calls attention to itself as language. In fact, it’s sometimes spelled “L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry,” an act of masochism before the era of copying and pasting. Still, if you had to type them out, the equal signs, like speed bumps, would have slowed you down and maybe even gotten you thinking about the materiality of words, letters.

Note that those equal signs aren’t plus signs: Language poets aim to thwart our yen for language to add up to some larger point, to provide closure, takeaway. (These dubious satisfactions, they point out, can already be had in the offerings of what Charles Bernstein calls “Official Verse Culture.”) Some Language poets, like Ron Silliman and Lyn Hejinian, work the prose poem. Here’s an excerpt from Hejinian’s book-length My Life (1987):

Are we likely to find ourselves later pondering such suchness amid all the bourgeois memorabilia. Wherever I might find them, however unsuitable, I made them useful by a simple shift. The obvious analogy is with music. Did you mean gutter or guitar. Like cabbage or collage. The book was a sort of protection because it had a better plot. If any can be spared from the garden.

The title of the poem toys with us: If this is memoir, it’s memoir by way of paper shredder. Its basic unit is the fragment, or what Silliman calls the “new sentence.” And the fragments are intended to be “nonabsorbable”—Bernstein’s coinage for disruptive writing that “prevents an initial / ‘illusionistic’ reading.”

Language poets also lineate their fragments, crafting such quatrains as these, from Bob Perelman’s “Chronic Meaning” (1993):

The impossibility of the simplest.
So shut the fucking thing.
Now I’ve gone and put.
But that makes the world.

The point I am trying.
Like a cartoon worm on.
A physical mouth without speech.
If taken to an extreme.

The phone is for someone.
The next second it seemed.
But did that really mean.
Yet Los Angeles is full.

Who is the speaker? What point is he or she trying to make? It’s hard to say, though that may be the point of a poem in which a mouth is “without speech” and a phone call has no obvious recipient: It’s hard to say what one means, especially when one speaks in sentences that stop short, five words in. Anyway, in both Hejinian and Perelman, the result is the same: The reader can’t relax into reverie, so frequent and jarring are the jolts.

But what’s so bad about kicking back with a poem that conjures the illusion of a speaker serving up a clear message in a linear way? (What’s so bad about a good read?) And why do these curious folk, the Language poets, want to take the reader by the lapels and jostle her so? I have a hunch the French are to blame. In 1968, Roland Barthes declared the author dead. I think he got the Language poets to thinking. Like those characters on The Twilight Zone who emerge from a coma only to find themselves in a comatose world (a suburb, say), the Language poets seem to believe they are awake to the fact that the rest of the populace is asleep. They want the reader to wake up already and see that words aren’t windows to the author’s soul. Poems are socially constructed. They are the expressions of a society, its ideologies. You don’t curl up with Robert Lowell; you curl up with humanism.

Maybe by writing in a fragmentary way, then, Language poets are trying to break the illusion that poems are people talking. They are trying to land one on the chin of humanism and, while they’re at it, the kisser of capitalism. After all, if the reader can’t figure out what the author is saying, then she can’t affirm the author’s existence as an individual property owner (the property being the poem’s meaning). Once roused, the reader can take back the language from the clutches of the patriarchy or Corporate America or what have you. As Bernstein puts it in an early essay, “Writing and Method,”

The text calls upon the reader to be actively involved in the process of constituting its meaning . . . The text formally involves the process of response/interpretation and in so doing makes the reader aware of herself or himself as producer as well as consumer of meaning. It calls the reader to action, questioning, self-examination.

Instead of feeling like a frustrated consumer, the reader can endeavor to make her own meaning out of the fragments. In fact, she can explain to her sleepier peers why Language poems need to be so fragmentary; she can become a graduate student.

Surely, though, there are readers who share the Language poets’ philosophical assumptions but don’t want to read writing shot through with disruptions. And surely there are those who aren’t much startled by the disruptions, having encountered them before. They might not be able to distinguish a Language poem from, say, the automatic writing of the Surrealists. But they know a poem that jerks a thumb at itself when they see one.

Indeed, these readers might point out that the work of different avant-garde poets from different periods can sound very similar. Consider the following passage from Bernstein’s 1994 book Dark City:

Where are those fades (arcades, shades)
when you need them? Who
was that text I saw you with
last night? Is there life after
grammar (glamour)? The Czech
is in the jail (the wreck is
in the wail, the deck is in the
sail, the Burma-Shave’s shining over the
starry blue skies, Waukegan, New Jersey,
1941) . . .

Doesn’t it sound an awful lot like this, from 1964, by Jackson Mac Low?

This makes meat before heat,
putting in languages other than English.

This gets leather by language
while discussing something brown.

Finally being a fly
& forcing someone to see something,
this ends by going over things.

Or this, from 1914, by Gertrude Stein?

Out of kindness comes redness and out of rudeness comes rapid same question, out of an eye comes research, out of selection comes painful cattle. So then the order is that a white way of being round is something suggesting a pin and is it disappointing, it is not, it is so rudimentary to be analysed and see a fine substance strangely, it is so earnest to have a green point not to red but to point again.

The Language poet’s Seuss-like doctoring, his gumming up of grammar, his juxtaposition of words that are a typesetter’s slip away from one another: These are reliable licks in a repertoire, the ones you play if you want to count yourself part of Official Avant-Garde Culture.

All the Whiskey in Heaven, Bernstein’s selected poems, gathers work that goes back to 1975. There are short lyrics, prose poems, a riddle, a ballad, found poems, excerpts of longer things. Few of the pieces in the book lend themselves to paraphrase. The typical Bernstein poem is not the transcript of a coherent voice with something on its mind; it’s a collage of fragments of voices, advertising-speak, detritus. To the extent that it has one, the subject matter is usually the opacity of words.

Still, something like a recurring point of view often surfaces through the flotsam. A Bernstein poem tends to be wary of walls and boundaries. It doesn’t much care for institutions that, in a bygone era, normalized behavior, like mental health facilities or summer camps. (It has not aged as well as its targets.) It looks askance at the corporate world and the myth of the self-determining individual. (It finds the individual a rather more socially determined creature.) But it’s not without a sense of humor. A Bernstein poem is a pig for puns, punch lines, and one-liners. It’s a ham with a left-wing axe to grind.

For example, here are the opening lines of the very first poem in All the Whiskey in Heaven, “Asylum,” from Bernstein’s 1975 bookAsylums:

rooms, suites of rooms, buildings, plants

in line. Their encompassing or total character

intercourse with the outside and to departure

such as locked doors, high walls, barbed

wire, cliffs, water, forests, moors

conflicts, discreditings, failures

of assimilation. If cultural change

the outside. Thus, if the inmates stay

victory . . .

The poem’s a cut-up of Erving Goffman’s Asylums, a 1961 study that argues the psychiatric hospital produces the patient. The first line of Bernstein’s poem comes from the first page of Goffman’s book, the second, from the second. But the pattern doesn’t last. It’s as if Bernstein took a pair of scissors to the book, made a heap of the scraps, and left us with the task of making the meaning.

What might this task entail? The poem begins by listing spaces and structures that are “in line.” (It’s as if the poem, having been granted a visitor’s pass, is roaming the grounds of some asylum, logging the stuff that’s under control.) But “rooms, suites of rooms, buildings, plants” aren’t just “in line,” they’re also words in a line—a line of poetry! So Bernstein borrows some images from Goffman, of bounded spaces. But he also cracks wise with a pun, reminding those of us bookworms who might otherwise relax into the reverie of reading that the images, far from being firm representations of the things of the world, are made of words, words, words. Bernstein goes on to call up more of Goffman’s images, these of containment: “locked doors, high walls.” But he leaves his sentences in tatters, ironically enough.

In other words, it’s hard to get a grip on “Asylum,” which is always unravelling, like some restless, self-reflexive weave of loose ends. (Bernstein could be likened to Penelope, if only Homer’s cooped-up prisoner of patriarchy had undone her needlework every few seconds, as opposed to every evening, and thrust it in her suitors’ faces: “See? The macramé is the message!”) “Asylum” certainly doesn’t have a coherent speaker; Goffman’s voice has been shredded. In fact, the poem doesn’t even acknowledge its source. You have to know your sociology, or at least have the presence of mind to run “Bernstein” and “Asylum” through your search engine, to come up with Goffman’s name.

And yet there are plenty of words and phrases in “Asylum” that have the buzz of academic thought about them—“failures of assimilation,” “cultural change,” “outside,” “power,” “boundary.” So although the poem is a pile-up of sentence fragments, the fragments do suggest a meaning: People are separated from the “outside” world by a “boundary” and turned into “inmates” when institutions with “power” force them to “assimilate” to norms and rules of decorum. Perhaps, then, that’s why the poem is so fragmented: It’s fomenting an uprising against the institution of grammar!

But we’ve only just gotten started. In another poem, the collage-like “Standing Target,” from Bernstein’s 1980 book Controlling Interests, the reader would seem to have even more work to do. (Are Bernstein’s poems public works projects, meant to provide able-bodied readers with bricks and mortar?) There are passages of punning, self-reflexive lyricism to reckon with:

How sad lines are, crisscrossing
out the hopes of an undifferentiated
experience, the cold sweeps
past, eyes tear, the night begins

There’s corporatese:

As President and Chief Executive Officer
of Sea World, Inc., David DeMotte is
responsible for managing all aspects
of the Company’s operations at Sea
World parks in San Diego, Aurora,
Ohio, Orlando, Florida, and the Florida
Keys. A native Californian, DeMotte,
and his wife Charlotte, enjoy hunting,
fishing, and tennis in their spare time.

There’s advertising-speak that interrupts the poem like a commercial break: “Note the exclusive right-side-up feature.” There’s a camp counsellor’s assessment of a “pretty frisky little boy,” who might be a young Charles Bernstein:

Charlie has grown to enjoy our organized games
His interest carries throughout the
period, as a rule. He pulls his share in
team set ups and cheers loudly for
his team.

And, toward the end, there’s an explosion of words, as if the poem’s gone haywire:


of            of


to                              , sees


glass must . . .

What to make of a President of Sea World who “enjoy[s] hunting, / fishing”? A camp counsellor who refers to one of his charges as a “pretty frisky little boy”? Reader, that’s up to you. But it would seem that Bernstein finds people with power inherently creepy. They manage “operations” and organize the world into “games” and “team[s].” More generally, they draw “sad lines” in “undifferentiated experience,” which is to say they presume to make sense of chaos. They are also, these creeps, associated with the most criminally banal examples of language in Bernstein’s poem. If only little Charlie were left to his own devices and allowed to play freely in the muck of pure language—instead of being harangued into taking part in “organized games” where he has to side with a “team”—he might avoid a career in advertising or, worse, turning out like DeMotte. He might become a Language poet, given to explosive outbursts.

In Terry Gilliam’s movie Brazil, Sam Lowry, a Chaplinesque everyman in a fedora, lashes out at his world, a kind of Art Deco dystopia that’s mired in bureaucracy. One day at work, in his cell of an office, he puts a kink in the pneumatic tubes that serve as the building’s communication system. The tubes bulge as messages begin to build up. Eventually, a gasket blows and a blizzard of paperwork swirls down from the ceiling. His co-workers stagger about, stunned. I think that Bernstein’s goal—especially in early poems like “Asylum” and “Standing Target,” but also in later ones like “The Klupzy Girl” and “Palukaville”—is basically Lowry’s: to blow up the language (of mainstream institutions, in particular) and jolt us drones into some more critical mode of thinking. “[O]bviously / it’s startling to see contexts changed on you,” explains one Bernstein poem. “This is the way to start a sentence about startling a sentence,” boasts another.

Bernstein seems to be trying to blow up the language of poetry, too—or, at least, blow smoke in its face. He’s certainly not after original metaphors that evoke the world in memorable ways. Every so often, though, he writes what he seems to think is a conventional poem, if only for laughs. Here’s “The Measure,” a poem from the early 1980s:

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.

Piling on the metaphors, the speaker describes “a great pain” as something regal, “unconscious dilemmas” as some kind of “hopeless magic,” and “regret” as a foggy “avenue.” His language is as vaporous as that of a nineteenth-century Symbolist. It parodies the sort of poetry in which a gasbag works out his feelings, in which the word “lest” is used sincerely.

Here’s another parody, “Castor Oil,” from Bernstein’s recent collection Girly Man:

I went looking for my soul
In the song of a minor bird
But I could not find it there
Only the shadow of my thinking

The slow sea slaps slow water
On the ever farther shore
And myself pulled under
In the uneven humming
Of the still wavering warps

Tuneless, I wander, sundered
In lent blends of remote display
Until the bottom bottoms
In song-drenched light, cradled fold . . .

The speaker seems to be the Romantic type; he’s got his ear out for some sign of himself in Nature. But it turns out there isn’t a “soul” to be found in birdsong,“Only the shadow of my thinking.” And the speaker’s quatrains, over-the-top alliteration (“slow sea slaps slow,” “wavering warps”), and hackneyed poeticisms (“I wander, sundered,” “song-drenched light”) are meant to be taken in jest—the poem’s laxative title tells us so.

Here’s an observation: Whenever Bernstein appears readable, whenever he resorts to traditional devices like alliteration and rhyme, he’s likely having us on. For instance, “Verdi and Postmodernism” begins by trying to get at the beauty of some stately, swan-like beloved. But the title might as well be “Verdi vs. Postmodernism” or “Verdi 0, Postmodernism 1”; by the fourth line of the poem, a glut of half-rhymes and alliteration has scotched the attempt to describe the beloved, converting a delicate (if conventional) lyric into nursery rhyme:

She walks in beauty like the swans
that on a summer day do swarm
& crawls as deftly as a spoon
& spills & sprawls & booms.

Insofar as Language poetry can say anything, this seems to say that we do women a disservice when we try to represent them or compare them to swans. (It wasn’t just Zeus who defiled Leda; Yeats, by writing his poem, got in on the action too.) Better to revel in wordplay—“spills & sprawls & booms”—than rape a natural wonder with precise description. And better to revel ironically. If you must use a hoary old device like rhyme or alliteration, make sure you overuse it. If you must write about beauty, work in some ampersands. “Verdi and Postmodernism” ends with impotent griping: The speaker—who is presumably meant to be identified, at least in part, with the composer—wishes he could “overturn a state, destroy a kite.” But he also remarks, paradoxically, that he has “no wishes.” Words fail him—he’s been transplanted to the postmodern world, the operatic fool!

I have a feeling I ought to find these poems funnier than I do. The very title of All the Whiskey in Heaven suggests the book’s a barrel of celestial laughs, and in his back-cover blurb Paul Auster exclaims about the poems, “good Lord, can they ever make you laugh.” But Bernstein’s sense of humor often amounts to little more than relentless sarcasm. I had occasion to recall my high school friend’s salvo—“This / is / a / poem”—when I read these, the opening lines of Bernstein’s “Thank You for Saying Thank You” (2001):

This is a totally
accessible poem.
There is nothing
in this poem
that is in any
way difficult
to understand.
All the words
are simple &
to the point.
There are no new
concepts, no
theories, no
ideas to confuse
you. This poem
has no intellectual
pretensions. It is
purely emotional.
It fully expresses
the feelings of the
author: my feelings,
the person speaking
to you now.
It is all about
Heart to heart.
This poem appreciates
& values you as
a reader . . .

I get that the Language poet has to be seen as above “accessibility.” But does he have to be so passive-aggressive about it? In its extreme coolness, “Thank You for Saying Thank You” seems a little too hot. It reads like the venting of someone who was jilted by a New Yorkerpoet.

Unlike, say, Tom Disch, who had the nerve to write his mock-elegy “At the Grave of Amy Clampitt” while Clampitt was still alive, Bernstein tends to be remote and vague in his anti-poems. He has been called “the undisputed master of atmospheric doggerel,” but it’s no great act of iconoclasm to snicker at some neo-Romantic who goes looking for his soul in “the song of a minor bird” or who objectifies women. I mean, who doesn’t hate that guy?

Here’s another observation: The more fragmentary Bernstein’s poetry, the less explosive. The startling moments, such as they are, tend to occur in the staid stretches on which Bernstein has visited but the slightest, most tailored acts of violence. For example, in a prose poem called “Foreign Body Sensation,” the speaker carries on coherently for nearly two pages in the course of listing his accomplishments. (We could be reading one of his cover letters.) But the accomplishments start to make for an insoluble mix. Is this in fact a single speaker, or several? Is this a monologue of many? Near the end, the speaker notes:

For a while, I served in the Peace Corps in Guatemala as a nurse working with cancer patients. After two years in Met State, I became increasingly eager to work with severely disturbed children. I am beginning to dabble in writing screenplays, humor, and poetry. What time is left I devote to coursework at the Divinity School, where I am studying for the priesthood. It seems I have done other things also, but maybe not. I guess I. In the future, I look forward to the private practice of pathology. Just when that will occur is uncertain. I am now administering substances to others to alter or obliterate their consciousness.

How could it be that the speaker is a nurse, a child-care worker, a writer, and an aspiring priest? Unaware of how strange he sounds, the speaker keeps going: “It seems I have done other things also, but maybe not.” But then he seizes up, as if someone’s cut the power: “I guess I.” (You can almost picture his head lolling forward.) Is this the robotic voice of capitalist ambition breaking down before our eyes? Whatever it is, it rights itself and soldiers on. The speaker expresses an interest in diagnosing disease (“the private practice of pathology”) and doping people up (“administering substances to others to alter or obliterate their consciousness”). Are we back in the asylum?

If only the speaker could hear himself, he’d realize that he’s not an individual but a whole culture speaking: a culture of gormless go-getters. And Bernstein, for his part, is less an author in the traditional sense (an individual dragging the depths of his soul for le mot juste) than what Barthes calls a “scriptor,” a socially situated someone who knots together prefabricated strands of language, cadged from the culture. In other words, Bernstein enjoys a certain distance from the language he arranges; because it’s not his—because the idea of an author who owns his words is worm food—he can take an ironic, even superior attitude towards its sources: for example, those bourgeois types who are always expressing an earnest desire “to dabble in writing screenplays, humor, and poetry.” Don’t humanists say the darndest things? the poem asks, out of the corner of its mouth.

But if the Bernstein of “Foreign Body Sensation” is a scriptor, at least he’s one with a sense of restraint, even craft. Like the director of a slasher flick, he withholds the hatchet for a goodly time before lopping a sentence short (“I guess I”), which snaps us to attention. He provides enough tension to make the cut count, enough coherence to keep the chaos crisp. Not so in “Dysraphism,” a six-page poem so thoroughly chopped up that the reader has no chance to relax into reverie, a state the Language poet disdains but into which we must first lapse in order to be startled:

Pump ass! A wash
of worry (the worldhood of
the whirl). Or: “Nice being here with anybody.” Slips
find the most indefatigable invaginations, surreptitious
Surfeit, sure fight.
detergent whines, flimflam psychosis. Let’s:
partition the petulance, roast
the arrears, succour the sacred. “If you don’t keep up
with culture, culture will keep up
with you.” Sacral dosing, somewhat
hosting. Thread
threads the threads, like
thrush . . .

Even when faced with the not unfunny and perfectly comprehensible “Solidarity Is the Name We Give to What We Cannot Hold” (from the 1999 collection My Way: Speeches and Poems), the reader may reasonably wonder why she should persist with it, for if she reads enough of the opening—

I am a nude formalist poet, a sprung
syntax poet, a multitrack poet, a
wondering poet, a social expressionist
poet, a Baroque poet, a constructivist poet,
an ideolectical poet. I am a New York poet in
California, a San Francisco poet on
the Lower East Side, an Objectivist poet
in Royaumont, a surrealist poet in Jersey,
a Dada poet in Harvard Square,
a zaum poet in Brooklyn, a merz poet
in Iowa, a cubo-futurist poet in Central Park

—she may sense that she can safely skim (if not skip) the next two pages of what seems to be another curriculum vitae, and settle finally on the end:

& I am none of these things,
nothing but the blank wall of my aversions
writ large in disappearing ink—

She may even sense that she can skip that pedestrian epiphany (poets like Bernstein are tough to pin down) and dwell on the em-dash alone—a tongue stuck out, or party favor unfurled, in the face of closure. (Really, the em-dash is all the poem Bernstein’s point needs.) The responsible reader, of course, should try not to skim. But even the most diligent will do so when she’s not being provided for, when the maze of the poem isn’t dispensing enough pellets.

“Let’s Just Say,” a listless list from the 2003 chapbook of the same name, also encourages skimming. So little is at stake that one can slide down the poem the way one might a ladder, the lines blurring by like rungs. Here are some of them, should you care to concentrate:

Let’s just say that sleep is the darker side of dreams
Let’s just say that sometimes a rose is just a read flower
Let’s just say that every step forward is also a step nowhere
Let’s just say that the thirst for knowledge can only be quenched
if one learns how to remain hungry
Let’s just say that green is always a reflection of the idea of green
Let’s just say that I encounter myself not in the mirror but in the manure.

The first line has a lovely logic. (It’s the pellet of the poem.) But the second insists on reminding us, in the manner of so much of Bernstein’s poetry, that the word “read” is only a letter away from “red,” that its meaning is a social matter, that we “read” the “rose” into the “flower.” (In other words, the second line makes some of us groan.) The third line is a koan that clears the mind. The fourth should be declaimed into a hands-free microphone headset in a hotel conference room. The fifth? More koan. The sixth suggests that none of this should be taken too seriously; the speaker has shit on his face. But if we’re feeling a little lost, the anaphora in “Let’s Just Say” reassures us that all lines are created equal—save for the last one, of course, which is more equal than the rest by virtue of its lashing up of loose ends: “Let’s just say that the lie of the mind is the light of perception.”

I’m guessing that Bernstein would like the reader “to be actively involved in the process of constituting [the] meaning” of poems like “Solidarity Is the Name We Give to What We Cannot Hold” and “Let’s Just Say.” But how much work is there for the reader? Isn’t the reader only free to create—which is to say repeat to teacher—the pre-approved meanings that the poem funnels her toward? What advance has Bernstein made over, say, Kenneth Koch’s “Alive for an Instant”? Written all the way back in 1975, the poem runs, in part:

I have a man in my hands I have a woman in my shoes
I have a landmark decision in my reason
I have a death rattle in my nose I have summer in my brain water
I have dreams in my toes
This is the matter with me and the hammer of my
mother and father
Who created me with everything
But I lack calm I lack rose
Though I do not lack extreme delicacy of rose petal
Who is it that I wish to astonish?

Here are some more questions. How does a Language poet know when her poem is finished, or at least ready for the typesetter? (It strikes me that a non-linear and non-representational poetry of fragments that resist closure could go on forever.) Does a Language poem end where it does because its author got winded and, well, a poem has to end somewhere? What does her revision process look like? Why is it “Surfeit, sure fight,” and not “Sure fight, surfeit”? Why couldn’t the lines in “Solidarity Is the Name We Give to What We Cannot Hold” and “Let’s Just Say” be shuffled into a different order and still enable the reader to come up with the same point about the wobbliness of words? And if the lines can be shuffled into a different order, why should the reader read the poems at all? And why does the Language poet keep writing them, once she’s got a few under her belt? How many Language poems does it take to unscrew the signified from the signifier? Does the Language poet feel a duty to keep producing product? Is it that, in a fallen world, where meaning is endlessly deferred, someone has to be brave and selfless enough to keep on rearranging the language the rest of us take for granted, thereby creating the startling poems that reflect our postmodern reality? Is rearranging language really enough to startle the kinds of readers who would be inclined to wrestle with a Language poem? Haven’t these readers already read the Koch poem? How many more like it do they need? To repurpose that last line of Koch’s, who is it that Language poets wish to astonish?

In an early essay, Bernstein writes:

By rotating sentences within a paragraph (a process analogous to jump cutting in film) according to principles generated by and unfolding in the work (rather than in accordance with representational construction patterns) a perceptual vividness is intensified for each sentence since the abruptness of the cuts induces a greater desire to savor the tangibility of each sentence before it is lost to the next, determinately other, sentence.

But isn’t that a tall order? Language poetry would seem to depend on the existence of readers who are initiated enough to be game for these rotations but, paradoxically, innocent enough to find the rotations vivid. I don’t doubt that there are readers who believe that they find lines like “Pump ass! A wash / of worry (the worldhood of / the whirl)” terribly disruptive to their person. But my inner lab technician worries about the placebo effect. It may be that those readers who have boned up and know what Language poetry is supposed to do to them have deceived themselves into giving it the benefit of the doubt.

Or it may be that Bernstein is not unlike the late director Sam Peckinpah, who thought that if he presented violence in slow motion, with lots of abrupt cuts, he would disturb the moviegoer, make her more critical. The well-meaning Peckinpah didn’t count on the possibility that in slowing down violence—in showing a shot-up body’s slow tumble off the roof of a saloon—he was also aestheticizing it, and anaesthetizing the viewer. In much the same way that moviegoers have gotten used to the sight of a body riddled with bullets, readers have adjusted to poetry shot through with disruptions; indeed, they fairly expect them.

They expect self-reflexivity, too. By the mid-1980s, when Bernstein was writing essays like “Artifice of Absorption,” the mainstream media was already busily co-opting postmodern strategies of self-reflexivity, the better to captivate its audiences. David Foster Wallace wrote about the phenomenon in 1993, fingering such culprits as “the ironic ’80s’ true Angel of Death Mr. D. Letterman” and TV commercials that called attention to their conventions. By the late 1990s, “going meta” was no longer a weapon exclusive to the quiver of Official Avant-Garde Culture; it had fallen into the hands of the teenager who means to be a nuisance to his creative writing teacher.

Of course, if you want to count yourself a part of Official Verse Culture, you could do worse than place your book with Farrar, Straus and Giroux, as Berstein did with All the Whiskey in Heaven. Back in the day, Bernstein was the co-editor of a bimonthly little magazine called L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, which ran for thirteen saddle-stapled issues from 1978 to 1981, and appears to have been banged out on a typewriter. (Inspecting an online reproduction of an issue, you can almost picture one of its editors typing manically, the other pacing the room, free-associating.) These days, however, Bernstein does business with FSG, which publishes the editor of Poetry and the poetry editor of The New Yorker. Has he sold out? Is selling out even possible? Pierre Bourdieu says that “the artist cannot triumph on the symbolic terrain except by losing on the economic terrain (at least in the short run), and vice versa (at least in the long run).” In other words, there are no sell-outs, just sell-by dates. By appearing to repudiate the mainstream, Bernstein banked plenty of capital—the symbolic kind. The Language poet who did without, but has come to be consecrated, can now cash in, trading the coinage of cool he earned by appearing to resist the commercial world for such goods as late-career hardbacks with FSG. (So-called “avant-garde” poetry is never an innocent dalliance, free of the marketplace. It’s a bet against the present, a bet on future appreciation.)

Bourdieu also says that “works and artists which have ‘left their mark’ are destined to fall into the past, to become classic or outdated, to see themselves thrown outside history or to ‘pass into history,’ into the eternal present of consecrated culture, where trends and schools which were totally incompatible ‘in their lifetime’ may now peacefully coexist, because they have been canonized, academicized and neutralized.” Is it possible that Bernstein has been “canonized, academicized and neutralized?” He has come to hold a chair at a university. He has had a cameo in a commercial (opposite Jon Lovitz), even in a big Hollywood movie (Finding Forrester). His work has appeared in PoetryHarper’sThe NationThe Best American Poetry, and The Norton Anthology of Poetry. Language poets, we might conclude, lead an ascetic existence early in their life cycle, but later grow fat and happy. More power to them, I say! Still, I wonder what Bernstein’s younger self would make of all that power?

There’s a university library in Toronto that boasts an art installation: a glassed-in bank of dead light bulbs on a wall next to an escalator. If, while riding the escalator, you happen to make some noise—for example, if you ask someone “What’s the deal with the bulbs?”—the bulbs will flicker to life briefly. (There are microphones among them, and they’re triggered by sound.) The installation is apparently meant to remind us that we always play a role in establishing the meaning of a work of art, even if that role involves little more than asking a question in earshot of it.

The thing about those bulbs, though: They haven’t worked in the fourteen or so years I’ve been going to the library. They’re now a dusty curiosity, about which first-time visitors will ask exactly once, if at all. What the bulbs used to be able to make you feel like you could do—“Let there be light!”—is but folk rumor.

To me, the poems in All the Whiskey in Heaven are like the bulbs: inert period pieces that once made a show of inviting the reader to participate (as though up until then she’d been a thoughtless bystander). If anything, by aiming to startle an innocent out of her reverie, they condescend to her; they assume that she, like patrons of escalators the world over, is living too straight and narrow a life. But why condescend when you can manage a sentence as clear and genuinely startling as “The alphabet is frozen sound”? That metaphor—“content with the old-fashioned way to be new,” as Frost once put it—can be found in Bernstein’s recent essay collection, Attack of the Difficult Poems. I would trade his entire selected poems for it.


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Publisher & Editor: Herbert LEIBOWITZ
Co-Editor: Ben DOWNING
Associate Editors:
Assistant Editors:
Design and Art Direction: Alyssa VARNER
Printer: Cadmus Press

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