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There’s No Argufying Over These Companions to Charles Bernstein
Joshua Weiner, at the Los Angeles Review of Books, has just published an essay on Charles Bernstein’s Attack of the Difficult Poems, noting that its title, but acourse, is “[poking] 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.” Weiner then provides some examples (Kenneth Goldsmith, Ron Silliman, Stein, H.D.), noting that much of the book is dedicated to this reader, or professor, who “has the most to lose by seeming uninformed and inadequate to the task of responding intelligently to difficult poems.” More:
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…
Later, Weiner addresses deeper issues of this kind of plurality:
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.
You can read the full essay here for all the valences we’ve had to jump over. And in other Bernstein news, did you know that Salt is publishing a guide to his work? Here’s a bit more about The Salt Companion to Charles Bernstein:
Scholars explore major themes in his work, and poets present pieces inspired by his poetry. The book is intended for both scholars looking for informed critical insight into Bernstein’s work as well as for students to examine his work.
The scholarship covers many of his major pieces and genres, like sound, stage, and poetry. The authors write about his main themes and influences and give insight into some of the major poetry ideas currently being debated in the U.S., such as the nature and future of experimental poetry, the influences on contemporary poetry, the politics of poetry, and wide variety of techniques currently being used.
The book’s contents list contributions from editor William Allegrezza, Caroline Bergvall, Madeline Gins, Tim Peterson, Allen Fisher, Erica Hunt, Thomas Fink, Ron Silliman, and more.