Charles Bernstein Controlling Interests (New York: Roof Books, 1980)
In the past few years, Charles Bernstein has gained national reputation for his involvement with what he and others have described and defined as “Language” poetry. But that reputation has accrued more as a result of his theories than of his poetic output (amazingly, nine books to date); and, invariably, his critics and admirers write more on his poetic practices than on specific poems. Much of this focus has been inculcated by Bernstein himself; like Ezra Pound earlier in this century, Bernstein (as well as other “Language” poets) has felt the need to write about writing almost as actively as to write poetry. Indeed, for this author, as for many contemporary writers, there has been a purposeful equivocation of the linguistic activity of creating a poetics by which to live and that of creating an artifact. That Bernstein’s particular poetics, moreover, has been perceived as a kind of “warrior” movement—that it has enraged as many readers as it has engaged–has helped to divert attention from the his poems to his allegiances.
Dread, scuzzy. Perhaps Polish (polish). I
feel rearranged, mandate a macaroon. Cuba,
Taiwan. Indubitable dauntress fraudulent as ever
attempting a view: binary, bisected, by the seaside,
beside myself. ... (“The Next Available Place, p. 32)––
Bernstein evinces his commitment to a poetry of thinking in process and demonstrates the “controlling interests” of a literary mode that permits the “leaps, jumps, fissures, repetitions, bridges, schisms, colloquialisms, trains of associations, and memory” that are integral to the music and rhythm of contemplation “as it is being lived in a body” (see Bernstein’s essay, “Thought’s Measure,” collected in Content’s Dream). In these poems, there is an enigmatic, charm-like effect, an almost cabalistic quality which is alien and even frightening to a society that still believes that reading a poem is related to an explication de texte.
Casts across otherwise unavailable fields.
Makes plain. Ruffled. Is trying to
alleviate his false: invalidate. Yet all is
“to live out”, by shut belief, the
various, simply succeeds which. Roofs that
retain irksomeness. Points at
slopes. Buzz over misuses of reflection
(tendon). Gets sweeps, entails complete
sympathy, mists. I realize slowly,
which blurting reminds, or how you, intricate
in its. .... (p. 21)
Who or what is “casting” in the first line of this passage? Of what “fields” is the poet speaking, and why are they “otherwise unavailable?” Who or what “Makes plain” in the second line, and what is being “made plain” or “explained?” Who or what is “ruffled,” and does the word here mean “irritated,” “undulated,” or “gathered along one edge?” Who is trying to “alleviate his false,” and where is the object? What is “false?” These and dozens of such questions understandably may discourage the uninitiated reader. Yet he who would turn away would miss the point and experience of reading this remarkable work. The meaning does not lie in answers, but in the very questions which the poem generates. The “indeterminacy” of this sort of poetry, as Marjorie Perloff argued in her Poetics of Indeterminacy (1981), permits us to receive its images as “living phenomena,” as words that exist in a fluid and plastic relationship.
....Electricity hyperventilates even the
most tired veins. Books strew the streets.
Bicycles are stored beneath every other staircase.
The Metropolitan Opera fills up every night as the
great masses of the people thrill to Pavarotti,
Scotto, Plishka, & Caballe. The halls of the
museums are clogged with commerce. Metroliners
speed us here & there with a graciousness
only imagined in earlier times. Tempers are
not lost since the bosses no longer order about
their workers. Guacamole has replaced turkey as
the national dish of most favor. .....(“Matters of Policy,” p. 4)
In such a post-Mauberlian world, guacamole may have cast out turkey (as “croissants” have replaced “absinthe” [p. 1], but, along with the poet, what we “most care about / is another sip of....Pepsi-Cola” (p. 1). For, the benefits of change have engendered not only extreme eclecticisms, but an insatiable desire for change itself, as if it, too, were a consumer product; “Even nostalgia has been used up” (p. 4). Our perspective has shifted from despair for what we have lost to impatience for what the future is about to bring. The “wasteland” has metamorphosed into “a broad plain in a universe of / anterooms” (p. 1), into one boundless waiting place.
the sofa, Alexandria, Trujillo. You looked
into my eyes & I felt the deep exotic textures
of your otherworldliness. A tangle of thorns bearing
trees, extensive areas in Asia, Australia, South
America. Rye, oats, &c. The tall grass
Prairie of the pampas of Madagascar, Paraguay
& the Green Chaco. ..... (“Matters of Policy,” pp. 5-6)
While Ashbery fantasizes paradisiacal scenes that reaffirm the imagination, Bernstein hallucinates in a series of associations that disintegrate into a mere listing (“Lobsters, oysters, / clams, crabs, tuna fisheries, shrimps,” p. 6), and immediately relapses into the surrounding technological structures:
(1) The use
of easy & fair surfaces along the general paths
followed by the after flow. (2) At & near
the surface of the wave profile. (3) Proof
of good design. (4) Submerged
bulbs. .... (p. 6)
Similarly, both Ashbery and Bernstein look for a resolution between the languages of the visionary and the technocrat in the vernacular of the tour guide, who, if unable to express the full meaning of such voyages, at least can summarize events. And for Ashbery, in fact, this is the best we can hope for, a kind of poetic jargon, half-way between the dreamer and the society in which he lives:
How limited, but how complete withal, has been our
experience of Guadalajara!
And as a last breeze freshens the top of the weathered
old tower, I turn my gaze
Back to the instruction manual which has made me
dream of Guadalajara.
(“The Instruction Manual,” Some Trees. p. 18)
For Bernstein, however, twenty-five years later, there is an inherent ridiculousness in such a compromise, and the poet and reader are mildly mocked for believing in such simplistic solutions:
At last, the
cabin cruise is over & the captain gently
chides farewell to us with a luminous laugh.
(“Matters of Policy,” p. 8)
For, while Ashbery’s vision derives from a basic juxtaposition of antithetical positions, for an aesthetic of collage with roots in the Hegelian dialectic, Bernstein’s poetics, with its traces of American Romanticism, functions in terms of the simultaneity of object and experience. Any “answers” that “Matters of Policy” proffers to the questions it has raised result from the synchronism of reality–which I have expressed in my own poetry as the “seams in seems”–rather than from accommodation. Everywhere in Bernstein’s poetry there is an immediate, nonsymbolic simultaneousness of meaning. Language for Bernstein is both creator and agent of ideation, and it is in the words as objects, accordingly, that the potential solutions of our culture’s dilemmas lie. Although along with the poet we may fear that our society is more interested in buying and selling art than in creating or experiencing it (“our museums are clogged with commerce”), there is a possibility that the museums can become places of social intercourse (another meaning of “commerce”). The cause of the constantly changing colors of the sky of which the poet writes is probably pollution, but the shifts of the hour and the season can also produce dazzling changes of color. Although “hyperventilation” usually results in a “black out,” an intake of extra oxygen can be temporarily invigorating, and, as applied to medical technology such as breathing apparatuses, it can save lives.
Reprinted from Paper Air, III, no. 1 (1982).