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I want a poem as real as an Orange Julius — Charles Bernstein

The following essay is excerpted and slightly adapted from The Fortunes of Poetry in an Age of Unmaking (Wiseblood Books, 2015).

The Death of Chatterton

Henry Wallis, “The Death of Chatterton” (1856)

Most poets in our day have abandoned meter and rhyme, but hold onto the appearance of it, by persisting in breaking up their sentences—sometimes grammatical, more often not—into lines. They hold on to lineation for dear life, actually. Without line breaks they would be without resource to show that what they write is to be a poem. They engage in a superficial masquerade in their use of the poetic line in order to ensure that, within the pages of a literary journal, their poems will not be mistaken for the book reviews. A fractured lineation goes hand in hand with the fracturing of grammar, so that, on the off chance some curmudgeon such as myself does not believe random or superfluous lineation suffices to constitute a poem, he will be forced to acknowledge, “Well, the language is intense, broken, and incoherent, as I am told poetry must be, so I have no choice but to call this a poem.”

Defenders of this kind of writing would, of course, make a more positive case. It progresses, innovates, experimentally tests, and, above all, transgresses the limits or horizons of poetry. It stretches and tugs at the poetic essence in order to arrive at an ever deeper understanding of its nature. The future always looks strange to the past, and this is the future. In truth, they have so long ago left behind poetry, left the real thing to the past, that they are but grasping at the shadow of a shadow. It allows them to claim to be artisans of a craft, when they are but half-unwitting salesmen of snake oil. While I think most of this is insincere posturing produced in part, as I have argued elsewhere, by a peculiarly impecunious parody of capitalism, it has also led to a fascinating phenomenon: the idea of a “pure poetry” persists and yet thinks itself, refines itself, out of existence—sometimes inadvertently, but, as we shall see here, sometimes methodically.

fortunes of poetryWhat I mean by “pure poetry” is the modern notion of the work of art as a kind of absolute that stands apart from the turning world in its expressivity or autonomy. Much modern poetry depends on some such untenable concept of the poetic as an indefinable flight of, perhaps, the imagination, but more likely, of the text across the page. Contemporary poets need to keep before us the idea of poetry, that shadow’s shadow, because, without it, they would not be engaged in fine art, but simply in setting text. Sometimes, however, the “transgressive” setting of text seeks not only to hold onto the pretenses of poetry, but to turn against that pretension as well. It draws on the cultural prestige of poetry even as it calls out the whole thing as a crock—itself included. Such is the supposedly radical intent of the work of the so-called Language poets (or, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, as they put it, but having acknowledged the typography I do not intend to repeat it). In this essay, I want to consider the way in which such poets embrace poetry’s historic reception as divinely inspired, prophetic, and transformative. This inquiry fits into my larger argument, in The Fortunes of Poetry in an Age of Unmaking, about the ways in which modern and contemporary poetry have consistently undermined the art by mistaking one dimension of it for the whole—often to hilarious, sometimes to plain depressing, results.

Language poets do this in a curious way. They seek to dissolve the pretenses of poetry as a fine art; they do not ask our deference to their work just because it looks like poetry on the page. Rather, they reimagine in entirely political terms poetry’s supposed extraordinary kind of power, the vates authority of the ancient Roman poet, for instance, or the curse-effecting magic of the Irish file, which seems to stand outside the regimes of power as normally understood in our world. This political poetics of revolt or resistance can only be realized, however, if it is first turned against traditional claims for poetry as something distinctive, as an art form, as something at once a part of our culture and yet something heightened, set apart from and above it. For, poetry is language and language belongs to the Man. Poetry becomes, in these writers’ hands, an act of transgression—first of all against itself—in order to attain a shocking wakefulness and provocative power that stands in contrast to the ideologies of a society in which, they admit, it is nonetheless embedded.

The historical avant-garde—Dada and surrealism being the chief instances—sought to reconnect art with life by collapsing the former into the latter. They were as disenchanted as I with the hollowed-out and rarified modern conception of poetry, which they saw as so many shades of social pretense, and so they shed as many unkind lights upon it as they could until it took on all the whiteness of pure experience. One was not supposed to admire Duchamp’s signed urinal; one was supposed to laugh at it, and the concept of the signature, the author, behind it. The creative process, deflated thus, would no longer be a thing apart, to revere and admire as the stuff of high culture; it would rejoin us in the flux of everyday life, just as everyday life would be submerged, as they thought it should be, in the flux of dreams. Only there do we feel free. The historical avant-garde was not an advanced movement of artists, but the end of art. Rather happily, art and beauty are such certain truths of our experience that the avant-garde could not dissolve our ideas of them. It did, however, cooperate with the rise of mass culture to persuade our desire for these things to look elsewhere or to remain altogether unsatisfied.

While in most contemporary poetry, for all its incompetence, one can detect skin and hair off the corpse of the historical avant-garde slapped onto the skeleton of poetry as a nice little art form that seeks to “express” “intense” “emotion.” But the Language poets wanted to revive the avant-garde’s spleen, its potential to annihilate art as a means of exposing the way incoherent ideologies rule social life with often undetected power. By intuition or book-learning, they tried to deploy some aspects of Foucauldian ideology critique and Derridian deconstruction to the writing of poetry, and in doing so, sought above all to reveal that art and even language itself is caught up in the vile corruptions of the western capitalist machine. Their poetry protests against that machine, but also theorizes its own participation in it. Elsewhere, I have discussed the Language poet Lynn Hejinian; let me now cite a poem, chosen almost at random, by Charles Bernstein, which exemplifies this “procedure”:

I died in chance abandon, made the clearing

tough to take, or went to meet a bleat of

feigning belly crates, to fly by number to

render coil. By bait the trough of

toil, or tender mute the silent, shrill

the shorn, and bear a coal to castle’s

glare. Less ‘parent than ‘prehended

shakes time to bugger oil (the bellicosity out

(of). Sponge season, or fretful tongs with


Charles Bernstein

Charles Bernstein

Right. I detect an echo of “Prufrock” in that “claws,” and everyone will sense the aphorism, “bringing coals to Newcastle” behind “a coal to castle’s.” One hears something like a principle of order emerging in the repetition of plosives (p-), s’s, b’s, and the rhymes on “-oil.” This writing wants to make us expectant of poetry, to be sure. But its ambition is to defeat those expectations. To toy with us a moment, as if to convince us to enter into a sophisticated act of exegesis, but then to frustrate that act, to stay ahead of meaning, to escape interpretation, to evade the rage for absorption. It is to be a poem that resists becoming POETRY, or worse, LITERATURE, and so it momentarily stands apart from the white noise produced by the gears of that teratological machine, democractic capitalism. But just for a moment. The white noise is already mingled with his music, Bernstein knows.

The violent assault on art for the sake of life of the early avant-garde becomes, here, the Vaudevillian plea for freedom by someone so knowing that he certainly knows there is no such thing as freedom. There is only absorption by mass society and the passing resistance to it; a resistance made possible only by incoherence, an insistence that reality as such is floating, indeterminate, and grounded not, as we thought, in the generous light of the Good, but in the manipulative machinations, the sophistry, of the powerful. It is a poetry of political outrage that shows as much contempt for the licensed poetry of our day as it does for the entire world system and linguistic ideology that keeps the human mind in a condition of insoluble slavery.

How could it be solved? The poem’s clearest protest here is that language itself is complicit in ideology. It is ideology. To make sense, to appeal to logic, reason, proposition, or language, is to reinforce a Leviathan so grand it does not merely blot out the sky but holds the word “sky” in its claws. In brief, the Language poets tell us that the poetic is a mask, a deception, concealing poetry’s effective identity with other kinds of discourse; a poem, a love letter, and a bank statement are all one. They assume that a poem no less than a stock certificate convicts one of complicity in the capitalist system, in the commercialization of the aesthetic as well as the unconscious. Art is indistinguishable from a television commercial or a commercially sold AK-47, and since the poets lack influence with Madison Avenue or Vladimir Putin, they assert their own power by standing apart in the bare light of confusion.

We say, “What is that?” not out of wonder but out of the absence of wonder. Not because we are drawn by desire to understand what we do not yet understand, but because we have no desire to know, and so are taken aback that someone should have made such a thing in the first place. Not “What is that?” But, “What is that?” Not, “Tell us what this means,” but “Why would anyone want to know what that means?” It does therefore accomplish what it sets out to accomplish, if not for the purpose it intended.

poetic-penSuch a poetry acknowledges it cannot escape absorption, but it must resist as long as possible, and perhaps even destroy the organism of which it is a part. One begins to sense the pathos of any poetic ambition when confronted with one so outrageous as this. The a priori assumptions necessary for such a poetic to operate are as follows:

a) language is not a tool of the reason adequate for the gradual discovery of truth;

b) this is so, because language along with everything else is part of the structures of power that inform—that are the form of—society;

c) truth itself is but the form of power;

d) therefore human beings can neither express their thoughts in order to seek and ascertain the truth, nor can they stand in any relation to truth, because truth itself is just an immanent construct shaped by power;

e) human beings can know nothing, because truth as an object of knowledge does not exist;

f) but they do allow themselves to be embedded in and shaped by ideology (“truth” shaped by power);

g) and they can momentarily resist that shaping, though that rebellion can issue only in a shock and stillness before the sky clouds over once more.

000-00-AcademyNorthGate2wcgoldsunThis is the clear-eyed commonsense my colleagues invoke, when they claim to be post-humanists. To be “human” is just a social construct—a convention, not because it is a truth that has come to be held in common through experience, but a convention in the sense of something that is held, quite arbitrarily, through the invisible but tyrannical grip of ideology’s artifice. But, wait. The bread and butter of poets like Bernstein lies in the academy; no one would read them, were it not for the “post-humanist” professors. And here, I detect not the inescapable and nihilistic contradictions gleefully played with in Language poetry, but a more everyday, humdrum sort of contradiction, called hypocrisy.

The existence of universities can only be justified, can only be a good thing, in a humanistic society. The only genuinely humanistic societies have been those that shaped, and were shaped by, the broad tradition of Christian Platonism. In this tradition, the fundamental principle of reality is the Good whom we have come to know as God, preceding all things, producing all things, and directing all things to return to itself. Reality as a whole is formed as the good-world-order, the intelligible beauty showing forth from that cosmic circle of procession and return. Though human society consists of many and mighty struggles for power, power is relative and finite. Those who take it for the highest reality are either deceived or perverse. Through the cultivation of the intellect, the human mind can free itself from such chains, can transcend that finitude and contemplate the Good, that world-wielding Beauty of the Infinite. This is what it means to be human: to have a vocation to the knowledge of the beautiful. The university is one of the three institutions of culture help us to live it out, to become ever more fully human. The nature of the university is to humanize.

Without these propositions in place, the university cannot really be a university. It might be a habituation factory for the insignificant bodies of men who live out their days as “productive” functionaries in the social hive. The university might be a ladder of advancement to help the wealthy realize their dreams of self-fashioning and possessive individualism, and to allow a few token creatures from the underclass to share in that dream to boot. It might even be just a half-star resort for late adolescents. But in these cases, the university would be an evil thing in a worthless civilization. It would not, really, be itself. It cannot be, unless there is a Good, and unless it treats as a solemn duty the initiation of its students into the contemplation of that Good and a life of action lived in its light.

So, here lies the hypocrisy. Bernstein’s project is inherently anti-Christian, anti-rational, and anti-humanist. It seems wise to the university as a factory for a technocratic regime, and yet it requires it as a place of contemplation. Language poetry would seem to depend upon the Christian Platonist understanding of the person and of reality to make sense—according to its own terms. To read and scrutinize a poem is, after all, a speculative act: it presumes that the mind at leisure can rise up to a truth beyond itself and that this is in itself a good thing. Thus, Bernstein writes his poem, and a squad of scholars engage in theoria about it. Are they not, in principle, taking joy in this contemplation? Is the freedom such poems promise only available in the Good’s generosity of being? Do they not sense this despite themselves?

Well, perhaps. Let’s consider the only alternative. “Bernstein” exists as a kind of social-function rather than as a poet-philosopher or object of philosophical study. “Bernstein” does “work,” he produces material that seems to resist or revolt against the regime of capital and power, in order to be productive. His specific productivity is the provision of fodder for that down-at-the-heel marketplace of the production of scholarship. The production of scholarship exists for the appearance of expertise. Expertise exists for the sake of official credentials. The credentials of an English professor exist to show that everything can be measured and certified, and so to justify the credentials of the professors of business and engineering. And those professors exist to show that human life may be without actual purpose, but that is no excuse not to spend the entirety of one’s own life working for the making of advanced technologies or the selling of them, the consuming of new stuff and the extension of the lifespan. In a world where no one believes in an actual “better,” “longer” and “more” rush in to take its place. People read Bernstein not to contemplate him at leisure, but to perform the remunerative work of interpretation that will earn them, at the least, a little social capital for being clever, or, at most, an endowed chair at one of the campuses of the State University of New York. “Bernstein” knows what he is about—I just do not think he or those who abet him know the truth. But if this is so, there can be no momentary “shock” of confusion produced by a Language poem—not even a momentary one—because it is already absorbed in the machine it pretends to loathe. Indeed, it is made by the machine.

Writing_With_Gold_by_NotQuiteCrazyWhat a testimony to the state of society that, only in the academy, where faith and reason ought to be cultivated by the human person for the contemplation of the Good, have Bernstein and his ilk received a serious hearing. This tells us that those academics who support and promote his work by writing books on Language poetry for the sake of tenure are in fact engaged in an enterprise (academic writing) whose proper presuppositions (such as the rational communication of truth) they do not accept, but rather dismiss as one more formal manifestation of ideological power. Those academics therefore support ideas hostile to the foundations of the university. Though they would be the first to protest the reduction of the university to an instrument of corporate and technocratic power, they are one of the most definite signs that this has already been accomplished.

Our age has quite a stable to clean. All signs point to its just continuing to dig down in the muck.

One would not need to call for a purging of books by the likes of Bernstein, of course. There can be little consequence to the ideas that subtend his work or to the publication of the work itself, except in the academy. It is very unlikely that any wide mass of people could understand his work, and it is even more unlikely that they would be convinced by it of the untruth of reality and the ideological machinations of power. Mass media and the Supreme Court suffice for that.

Language poetry provides us one of several limit cases in the attempt to sustain the life of useless poetry in a utilitarian age. In its ineffectual and purblind strategies of outrage, it shines a light on the shadow of “pure poetry” by purposefully “transgressing” the horizons of the aesthetic. It therefore achieves something—albeit something opaque and unhappy. It reveals that modern thinking about art, along modern ontological lines, has ended in the evangelical proclamation of the existence of Poetry even as the thing itself comes to appear an ever more weightless gossamer of pretension and self-deception.

vaudevilleFor some writers, poetry seems to retain its identity only in the performance of external, typographic tricks, for others poetry is what it is because of certain conventions of feeling, voice, and mood derived from the modern lyric mode. But, for Language poetry, a poem is that which seems to interrupt the discourse of capitalism for a moment before lapsing back into it. It tries to remind us there is a power outside the power of this world—but the reminder lacks conviction and tells us so, because its chief technique is the production of nonsense. Next time you visit Vaudeville, and wonder what is going on just beyond that poetic city’s limits, now you know: an outraged tent city whose occupants have mouths full of phonemes, brains full of literary theory, hearts full of revolutionary bluster, and eyes that betray a crude cunning which tells us the whole thing is a joke at which absolutely no one has ever laughed.

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