Prose from Poetry Magazine

Manifest Aversions, Conceptual Conundrums, & Implausibly Deniable Links

Third in a series of eight manifestos.
“I love originality so much I keep copying it.”

I love originality so much I keep copying it.

Immature poets borrow. Mature poets invest.

POETRY WANTS TO BE FREE. (Or, if not, available for long-term loan.)

I’m the derivative product of an originality that spawns me as it spurns me.

The work of art “itself” does not exist, only incommensurable social contexts through which it emerges and into which it vanishes.

The author dies. The author’s work is born.

Poetry is a secret society hiding in plain sight, open to ear and mind’s eye.

The shock of the new for some, the invigorating tonic of the contemporary for others.

A work of art is the overlay of a set of incommensurable possibilities, linked together around an original vanishing point.


(The absence of conception had itself to be conceived.)



(Poetry abhors a narrative.)

“I did not paint it to be understood, but I wished to show what such a scene was like.”—J.M.W. Turner (1842)

L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E P=O=E=T=R=Y: a loose affliation of unlike individuals.

Which reminds me of the story of the man who reports a wife-beating to a neighbor. “Then stop beating her,” the neighbor replies. “But it’s not my wife!” replies the good Samaritan, becoming agitated. “That’s even worse!” says his neighbor.

No parodist goes unpunished because in these times the parodist is pilloried for the views he or she parodies. In a world of moral discourse absent ethical engagement, only the self-righteous go unrebuked.

I was born yesterday . . . and’ll die tomorrow.

This is so & so is this
But neither is important.
That is theirs
& near’s not here
But neither is important.
Never twill, never twine
Nor peep nor bleat nor pipe.
Neither’s important.


I am not the man I was much less the one I will be nor imagine myself as, just the person I almost am.

A bird calls but I hear only its song.

My skin is burning but inside I am as cold as the North Pole.
My shivering is metaphysical, a kind of involuntary davening.

Religion is giving religion a bad name.

Nor am I an atheist. I believe in the fallible gods of thought and in my resistance to these gods. I have faith in my aversion of faith.

Take care not to define yourself against others’ belief systems. Their God does not define the domain of my profane, their Devil does not wash away my sins.

The water colors in watercolors.

I’m an observant Jew. I look closely at the things around me, as if they were foreign.

Sandy as a sugar donut, salty as a red rose . . .

You’re either awake or asleep or will be.

I am not a secular man, but in moments of crisis I turn to agnosticism for the comfort it gives in freeing me from superstition. Once, when gravely ill and sure I would die at any minute, I embraced agnosticism, and, with Nietzsche in hand, swore I would remain an agnostic even if I recovered. But once I did recover, I lapsed again into religious belief, feeling the danger was over and it was safe to return to my old ways. Still, the fear of dying under the veil of dogma still grips my soul late in the night and I yearn for the courage to embrace reality without prophylactics.

My mind is a labyrinth with well-lit exit signs; as much as I try, I can’t ignore them. When I take leave of my mind I put myself in the care of my brain. In this way, I become again the animal to which my mind is blind.

There’s no depth to the depth.

In the world of the imagination, impossible just means the next opportunity to get real.

The ceremony of sorrow is performed with a measured, defiant acknowledgement that makes words charms, talismans of the fallen world. Poetry is a holding space, a folded grace, in which objects held most dear disappear, returning as radiant moments of memory’s forgiving home. [for Akilah Oliver]

Turner’s sheerness.

Existence needs essence the way a walking tour needs local color.

But a hole in an argument is not the same as a point of light.

Rather than an expression of love, justice is a protection against our inability to love.

We are most familiar with our estrangement; it is our home ground.

The absence of an accent is also an accent.

Yet the Dark, untouched by light, injures it all the same.
Originally Published: January 30th, 2009

Poet, essayist, theorist, and scholar Charles Bernstein was born in New York City in 1950. He is a foundational member and leading practitioner of Language poetry.  Bernstein was educated at the Bronx High School of Science and at Harvard University, where he studied philosophy with Stanley Cavell and wrote his...

Appeared in Poetry Magazine This Appears In
  1. February 2, 2009
     Pris Campbell

    I love it! Very clever post.

  2. February 2, 2009
     Edward Nudelman

    interesting meandering thoughts that somehow are pulled together under the wide-spectrum (if not penumbra) of poetry

  3. February 3, 2009
     Russell Ragsdale

    This is a happy path to wander upon, now overjoyed with our insight, next laughing at our naïveté.

  4. February 4, 2009
     Akilah Oliver

    Thank you Charles. Poetry like the body

    extends the limit of its frame. I was just

    reading over old emails between myself

    and kari edwards. she says at one point

    as we discuss the intentionality of entering

    into an aporia, "human life is a bleep in

    the evolutionary conundrum that we as

    humans have applied meaning to and in

    doing so, for the most part, do things that

    are based on contemporary belief

    systems that we attempt to maintain as a

    sense of permanence or purpose.".

    Perhaps so, but I miss the humans.

  5. February 6, 2009
     Really Now

    I mean, c'mon, what is so clever about this? This is just classic Bernstein schtick, and it's getting tiresome. As he himself might have said 30 years ago, make way for the new! He's been co-opted by Official Verse Culture. Or, more accurately, he has co-opted it.

  6. February 6, 2009

    Anonymous words are words which do not have balls.

  7. February 6, 2009
     Kevin Doran

    Oops, that was me. Haha!

  8. February 6, 2009
     Kevin Doran

    Never mind me. I have no idea what I'm talking about.

  9. February 9, 2009
     Sean Smith


    Remind me when you remember to tell

    me not to follow you anymore because

    we lost the map by the tree... you know

    the green one by the grassy area under

    the blue sky surrounded by dandelions

    billowing seedlings into the wind whilst a

    cloud moved by, darkened everything

    for a moment and I set it down to pull

    my phone out of my pocket to chase the

    bees away so we could sit and eat a

    sandwich. Needless to say, the map

    blew away when I was apply my single

    packet of yellow mustard onto the gas

    station prepackaged turkey sandwich

    that for some reason costs three dollars

    now when I remember they used to be a

    quarter. Phone calls used to be a

    quarter. You know what else was a

    quarter? Gas. Those were the days.

    Have you seen my phone?

  10. February 11, 2009

    Contemplating his mortality,

    Richard Rorty turned to poetry,

    His pragmatism undefiled,

    And somewhere Matthew Arnold smiled.

  11. February 12, 2009
     M. G. Stephens

    Reading Charles Bernstein, one comes away thinking that the death of the aphorist is premature. The death of aphorisms may be pre-eminent or, maybe I mean, previous. In any case, Charles Bernstein knows that to make it new, one must make it old first, then fling it far into the future, where it sits waiting for us to arrive, almost like a small dog, its tongue hanging out from being out of breath. Yes, it is still about breathing, isn't it? I think that Nietzsche would find this all very amusing. I am not sure how Charlie Chaplin would feel, though.

  12. February 14, 2009
     Charlie Chapstein

    I'm just B=O=R=E=D by it all, really.

  13. February 21, 2009
     Christian Allen

    Great write..

    reminds me of Aquinas...

  14. May 10, 2009

    I am guessing the article's conceptual unit, both its building block(s) and plan, turns on the juxtaposition. Okay. it puts me in mind of a favoirite Robert Graves poem, "In Broken Images," and written before any of us were born. The author may wish to chase down the poem.