Charles Bernstein: "Of Time and the Line"

Charles Bernstein, one of the founders of the school of innovative Language poetry, admits that he was enormously impressed and influenced by Velimir Khlebnikov, Mayakovsky, Kruchyonykh, other Russian Futurists and Avant-Garde artists, especially by Malevich, Rodchenko, Kandinsky, Tatlin, Popova, and Natalia Goncharova.

Charles Bernstein is far from being self-righteous and self-centered seeking true values and truth in a “mobbed light” of the so-called political reality and everyday life. Hence language poetry is seeking the truth, in Khlebnikov’s sense, by seeking the roots of words, restoring the meaning by shifting or even distorting it, since Khlebnikov’s ZAUM’ [Beyond sense or understanding, usually translated as trans-sense] is by no means senselessness but finding sense beyond a common sense or an official doctrine, very much in the manner of George Orwell, who revealed the false nature of “newspeak” since language itself exposes the lies of “fraternity, equality, freedom” (the vocabulary of any dictatorship, whether Hitler’s, Stalin’s or Mao’s) or, for that matter, half-truths of the contemporary American life. On a habitual level of everyday business life, Bernstein’s witticism mocks, as he put it in “Beyond the Valley of the Sophist,” “the vanity of conceits”: “He understated the price of the property to be sure he got less than it was worth. This was the only way he knew for the exchange to have value” (“Sign Under Test”); in other words, devaluation of real values is their only way of value exchange. The poet exposes those “free gifts” (here language itself exposes the lies if we would care to follow it), which are traps. Hence the Russian saying, “Free cheese can be found only in a mousetrap.” Robert Creeley wrote,

Bernstein’s is the most provocatively intelligent reaction to the general drift of mainstream poetry, and he is an indefatigable writer of essays and poems wherein the determinations of genre are largely superseded. In short, he has not only given brilliant instance of the confusions of contemporary social and political premises but has done so in remarkable constructs of their characteristic modes of statement, which are not simply parodic but rather reclamations, recyclings, of otherwise degraded material.[1]

Charles Bernstein’s main weapon is language — sharp as a sword and piercing as a spear. Yet, he seems to both rely on his weapon and distrust it, trying to reach beyond it: “If language could talk we would refuse to understand it.” (“Sign Under Test.”) To paraphrase his own introduction to the book With Strings (Chicago U P, 2001) or, as Bernstein entitled it, “In place of a preface a preface,” he seems to be out of touch with reality, not out of touch but out of reach, not out of reach but out of pitch, not out of pitch of reality but in touch with irreality, not in touch but reaching, not reaching but teaching, not teaching but preaching, not preaching irreality but piercing reality, not piercing reality but bridging reality and irreality, reality and appearance, sense and perception, impossible possibilities and inexplicable causes, inexplicable causes and unavoidable effects, unavoidable effects and unnecessary necessity, unnecessary necessity and inevitable chances, heaven and hell.

How would a translator approach this intricate texture: should he relay or replay it, replay or reply, replay or replace, replace or lace, lace or unbind, unbind or bind bound to interpret, or misinterpret the essence bound to interpret the husk, of which art is made, as Bernstein once claimed himself? It is not easy to translate even Bernstein’s prose: a language poet, he plays with language in prose as well. One has to invent a new language, not just to coin neologisms, to twist and deform it to evoke a sense of Bernstein’s approach, not to mention lengthy comments in which one has to quote original citations whether from English or American poets, starting with William Cowper and Percy Bysshe Shelley to Bernstein’s favorite comedians, like Burl Ives or Henny Youngman, often deformed as well. Literal translation never attempts to achieve this task and, consequently, limits the scope and the aims of translation. Any literal translation is at best designed as a reference for those who do not know the language of the original. Yet, since languages develop and change (Benjamin speaks of "the flux of meaning," Steiner compares language to the Heraclitean flux), literal translations can be and, in fact, are of limited time and value. Imitations, adaptations or free translations, which are of no time as poetry itself, on the other hand, do not attempt to render the original poem as translation per se into another language. To name the phenomena of the world is to reveal them. Revelation is re-evaluation: re-veiling and unveiling something so palpable and fragile that when "rendered in a disdainful prose," to quote Pushkin, it evaporates.

Could we begin here:

Perhaps Charles Bernstein is a language poet in Pound’s sense: “Language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree.” In other words, his poetry is meaningful sound or reverberating sound-meaning. In Russian, I coined a compound word “Zvukosmysl” [literally, sound-sense] to be applied both to Khlebnikov and O. Mandelstam. Further, I would even suggest that at least in one respect Khlebnikov’s Zaum’ is akin to Eliot’s “Shanti, Shanti, Shanti” in the end of The Waste Land: that not only the world itself but poetry as such is beyond understanding and resists interpretation. For, as Mandelstam wrote, very much like Eliot in “The Three Voices,” that the voice of music in poetry is incomprehensible without meaning, but if poetry is reduced only to meaning, “the sheets on the bed have never been rumpled, there poetry, so to speak, has never spent the night” (“Conversation About Dante”[2]).

Bernstein is transforming language into perceptible possibilities or rather impossibilities of perception: this is marriage of sound and sense. He explores the limits of impossibility to find out what is possible. He does not only push the language to its limit thus extending the boundaries of it, but he also pushes the reality itself to its limits since his keen eye perceives irreality and absurdity of many things in our life, and he pushes reality to the utmost — to absurdity. His verse is full of irony, and some even call him a satirist. True, his poems are hilarious, and people are laughing heartily while listening to his subtle play with sound and meaning. However, afterwards — at least some of them — become strangely sad contemplating what they were laughing at, and it appears that often they were laughing at themselves and their lives. I would even suggest that Bernstein, as was said about the great Russian writer Nikolai Gogol, “laughs through the tears unseen to the world.” Perhaps that quality of Bernstein’s poetry was keenly noticed by Marjorie Perloff, one of the most distinguished scholars and critics writing now on modern and postmodern poetry and poetics:

Charles Bernstein is one of the finest poets writing today, and certainly one of the greatest satirists. His poetry presents a profound and highly individual critique of contemporary half-truths, speech forms, and modes of expression, and does it so graphically and with such great good humor that the reader is left breathless — laughing and crying at the same time as the shocks of recognition register.[3]

Besides, criticism, irony and satire, another distinctive feature can be drawn both from Bernstein’s poetry and from the readers’ response to it: sense of time and space. It is palpable in many poems but is perhaps most striking in the poem “Of Time and the Line,” in which the poet merges time, space (almost in a Bakhtinian sense) and poetry (line). Bernstein’s play with polysemy of the word “line” reveals his attitude to the past, both recent (“My father pushed a/ line of ladies dresses — not down the street /in a pushcart but upstairs in a fact’ry /office”) and historic going as far back as to Adam naming things (“Adam didn’t so much name as delineate”), and present stretched to the future in the form of a poetic line uniting time with space. For space is also revealed in a variety of “lines”: “Chairman Mao put forward / Maosist lines,” “long lines in Russia,” soup-lines in the USA. Hence the line connects time-space with the language. Unlike Kafka, Bergson or Proust, who were uncomfortable in space and found shelter in time, as Stephen Kern once stated,[4] Bernstein seems to be comfortably uncomfortable or uncomfortably comfortable both in space and time since his antagonism never acquires the form of agonism. Hence his advice to “Self-Help,” which is in essence, above and beyond irony (“Miss the train? — Great chance to explore the station!”), self-irony (“Bald? — Finally, you can touch the sky with the top of your head”), mocking (“FBI checking your library check-outs. — I also recommend books on Amazon”) and satirical undertones (“President’s lies kill GIs. — He’s so decisive about his core values”), a very existential poem. So is “Sign under Test” in which his major themes — poetry (”Poetry is patterned thought in search of unpatterned mind”), language (“If language could talk we would refuse to understand it”), ironical and satirical juxtaposition of unreal reality with virtual irreality (“It's not the absence in the presence but the presence in the absence”) are again re-united to question the essence of being: “If progress is a process, what is the purpose of purpose or the allure of allure?”

“Mesmerized by these blank spots,” Bernstein states, “they have become the sign posts of my consciousness.” The poet is unsatisfied with what he does, he is neither self-righteous nor self-conceited: “Till you get to the backside of where you began. Neither round robin nor oblong sparrow.” Yet, for Bernstein there always seems to be a positive outcome from negative knowledge: “What you don't know is a far cry from what you do.”

Trying “to re-imagine the possibilities of sentience through the material sentience of language,” Bernstein, nevertheless, is re-discovering existentialism to preserve human dignity and integrity: “The Greeks had an idea of nostos, which is not quite what we call nostalgia. Nostos suggests the political and ethical responsibility of the human being, in orienting herself or himself. You can't go home again but you can stay tuned to your senses of responsibility.” Therefore, I would assert that Bernstein is uniting time, space and line to make “language charged with meaning to the utmost degree.”

This is proved not only by his latest book Recalculating (2013), but by his poems dating back at least to Some of These Dayze, dedicated to 9/11/2001. In this book the profound and shocking merging of time and space reveals a tragic reality which seems unreal. Bernstein quotes his fellow poet Mei-Mei Bessenbrugge: “Oh, you can imagine it all right from the movies. You can’t just conceive it.” Bernstein chroncles the tragedy as an eye witness: “It’s 8:23 in New York.” Later he will show the degree of the devastation:

I took a walk on Liberty Street today. Only it was not the same place as I had known before.

They thought they were going to heaven.

Large crowds surge inside the police barricades, stretching to get a glimpse of the colossal wreck. All that remains of the towers is two lattice facades standing upright amidst the rubble.

These vast and hollow trunks of steel are mocked by the impervious stare of the neighboring buildings that loom, intact, over the vacant center. (“Report from Liberty Street”)

The refrain “They thought they were going to heaven” also connects time present with historic past of the Holocaust:

Because the park is closed, it's impossible to get to the Museum of Jewish Heritage: A Living Memorial to the Holocaust.

They thought they were going to heaven.

As Bernstein himself put it in “A Poetics”, “… Seeing these differences is the source of our social power to intervene, to agitate, to provoke, to rethink, to take sides — using all of the formal and cultural rhetoric at our command.” To deconstruct destruction is to achieve catharsis. Hence the answer to the famous question of Adorno: “How to write after the Holocaust? Recalculating (2013) addresses this problem both on personal, physical and metaphysical level:

Postmodernism: modernism with a deep sense of guilt.

Language is an albatross, a sullen cross, a site of loss.

I think of Emma climbing the icy rocks of our imagined world and taking a fatal misstep, one that in the past she could have easily managed, then tumbling, tumbling; in my mind she is yet still in free fall, but I know all too well she hit the ground hard.

The hardest thing is not to look back, the endless if onlys, the uninvited what could have beens. I live not with foreknowledge but consequences; wishing I had foreknowledge, suffering the consequences of not. (“Recalculating”)

Perhaps poetry and language cannot save us from Hell and damnation; neither can they help us go to Heaven. However, they can help us overcome a tremendous void caused by great tragedy.

Recently we recollected those tragic events in a conversation about the consequences of 9/11, the responsibility of a person, politics of poetry and poetics of politics.

Ian Probstein: Besides a great shock and a great tragedy, 9/11 was kind of awakening: people for a time became more human more considerate to each other. What can you say today about that?

Charles Bernstein: I'd say people were shaken up, disoriented, vulnerable. It created an opening that was immediately exploited by the right. The focus on "the axis of evil" without was used to stoke the "axis of evil" within. I suppose that's very human, but not in the good sense.

I.P. Are Americans wiser and more human now than 14 years ago?

C.B: More human is not necessarily a good thing: the followers of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao were plenty human. Wisdom is cheap in the New World.

I.P. There were a number of plot theories including the one proposed by the famous linguist Noam Chomsky. Do you believe there is half-truth in them?

C.B. None of those alleged plots was as bad as what happened on the public record: the lying about WMDs, the torture, the disregard for the consequence of invading Iraq and how that stoked Al Queda and now the Islamic State.

I.P. It is believed that the worst U.S. president ever was George W. Bush, yet the question is: why was he elected and re-elected?

C.B. George II was elected by Qaeda, that is, their actions aided Bush, and this was, I imagine, part of the plan, to “heighten the contradictions,” as the ultra-Leftists used to say. (Ultra-Leftists are to the left what red flags are to bulls, or lobotomies to poets.) But wait … George II wasn't elected. It was a coup d’état lead by Anthony Scalia.

[Author’s note: the 2000 U.S. presidential election was decided by the Supreme Court in a decision support from Scalia and his conservative fellow justices. Many felt the case was decided more on the outcome, to deny the presidency to Al Gore, who won the poplar vote, than on the legal argument.]

I.P. Was George W. Bush just the manager, or rather, spokesperson of the wealthy? Maybe it would have been better if he just painted pets and politicians? What was Cheney’s role?

C.B. For “manager” read “instrument” for “instrument” read “living embodiment” for “living embodiment” read “spirit” for “spirit” read “running dog” for “running dog” read … well you get the idea. I think George II’s values organically mesh with the interest of some segments of the wealthy, let’s say the Saudis, let’s say the Koch Brothers [Charles and David Koch], let’s say “You give me shell-shock” [Sheldon] Adeleson; but the “wealthy” have competing interests, ones they are willing to sacrifice a lot of other people’s sons to pursue. (And while the wealthy have a lot of money they are often culturally anorexic.) I am not in a position to say who is the spokesperson of whom, or what of what or which of which … I think ideas speak through these people and George II was notable in being a fine medium for these ideas. Mr. and Mrs. Cheney and remind me of Lord and Lady Macbeth. I keep in mind that Lynne Cheney presided over the National Endowment for the Humanities, which is a bit like have Dracula running the blood bank.

I.P. On the other hand, many people now claim that President Obama destroyed America introducing elements of socialism and his foreign policy failed incredibly.

C.B. Not enough socialism! If by socialism you mean a more appropriate distribution of wealth and a government that offers crucial public services. It’s worth noting here, with you, that what is meant by “left” in Brooklyn is not the same thing as in Budapest or St. Petersburg, and it’s not the same “right” in the U.S.A. and in the former Soviet bloc. Moreover, the right in Eastern Europe may be the most viscerally against Putin’s right (formally left: left/right right/left, sound off!, 1, 2, 3,4). It can make a directional dyslexic like me go into spin cycle. At one level, this seems obvious, but I feel the different orientations are pervasively repressed. That is, we feel the specter of totalitarianism is coming from different directions; the unconscious paranoias are different.

––Yes Obama seems to be failing to get us into more large-scale wars, including one with Iran. But the war industry is doing fine anyway. He never promised us a rose garden.

I.P. Many people think that the deal with Iran will eventually endanger, if not destroy, Israel.

C.B. Many people think that the deal with Iran will eventually protect, if not save, Israel. Many people think that the policies of Netanyahu and the ultra-orthodox have already endangered Israel, possibly irreparably. Brooklyn and Chicago can be as much a home for Jews as Tel Aviv and more of a home than in the occupied territories.

I.P. To the question about a link between the so-called social reality and poetry. People talk a lot about social poetry these days. You are a proponent of trans-sense postmodernist poetry and at the same time — the author of Some of These Daze, "On Election Day," "Strike" and the like. How much of sense and of so to speak, social reality there should be in poetry?

C.B. The kind of poetry I want intensifies sense in its futile effort to negate social reality.

I.P. Do you believe that language itself reveals lies of those who use it, as was in George Orwell’s 1984? Essentially, politicians were using the same vocabulary. Hitler, for instance, constantly struggled for peace (so does Putin).

C.B. “Language itself” reveals nothing; it responds to the demands of its users. Here’s the problem: the language of truth, of authenticity, is as liable to be commandeered by dark matter as much as the propagandistic manipulations and deceptions of Bush or Putin.

I.P. Should poetry be absurd to reflect the absurdity of the so-called reality?

C.B. Reality is absurd, often in a cruel or monstrous way. The kind of poetry I want negates the binary opposition of irony and sincerity.

I.P. How much of this absurd and this negation of “the binary of irony and sincerity” is revealed in such poems as, for instance, “Time Served,” “Dea%r Fr~ien%d,” or “Song Dynasty”?

C.B. As much as possible and, if I can be permitted this conceit, a little more than possible.

I.P. Re: “Reality is absurd, often in a cruel or monstrous way. The kind of poetry I want negates the binary of irony and sincerity”: I noticed that translation or rather imitation of poems from Catullus to Osip Mandelstam to Khlebnikov to Apollinaire and Paul Celan started to occupy more and more room in your books. What goals do you pursue? Once you wrote: “The translation of poetry is never more than an extension of the practice of poetry” (“How Empty Is My Bread Pudding”). On the other hand, there is an apocrypha attributed to Robert Frost: “Poetry is what is lost in translation.” What is your philosophy of translation?

C.B. I disagree with Robert Frost’s often quoted remark that poetry “is lost … in translation.” For me, poetry is always a kind of translation, transformation, transposition, and metamorphosis. There is nothing “outside” translation: no original poem or idea, nor one perfect translation. It’s a matter of choosing among versions. Translation is a form of reading or interpreting or thinking with the poem. In that sense, there can be no experiencing the poem, even in your own language, without translating. Without translation the poem remains just a text, a document, a series of inert words.

Poetry is what is found in translation.

I.P. Can there be bad language poetry?

C.B. You could just as well ask can there be good language poetry? Or I could say it’s the bad that is really the good: but I am so very tired of that kind of remark. Most poetry of every kind isn’t all that good, after all; but maybe that is not the point. A “bad” poem can sometimes do the work of poetry as well as, maybe better than, a “good” poem: cheap liquor may pack more punch than an aged bottle of wine. Still, I’d rather drink the good stuff. (This is what the ultra-leftists will crucify me for.)

I.P. Is the politics implied or stated explicitly? You have written of “the politics of poetic form.”

C.B. So much depends upon what you mean by politics. What is stated implicitly in a poem is never what the poem is saying; what is implied is nest of hornets (or bluebirds). As Blanche says in A Streetcar Named Desire, “I have always relied on the kindness of strangers.” The politics of the poem is just such a stranger. The trick is not to scare it away.

I.P. What about poetry as a moral force?

C.B. I left my moral compass at the office. In other words: the politics of a poem is not in its moral posture but its moral imposture, or, as Jerome McGann wrote, “Truth in the Body of Falsehood.”

[1] American Poetry Review 14, no. 6 (February/March 1993).

[2] Mandelstam, Osip. The Complete Critical Prose and Letters. Trans. J. G. Harris and Constance Link. Ed. Jane Gary Harris. Ann Arbor, MI: Ardis, 1979, 397.

[3] Bernstein, Charles. With Strings. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2001. Back cover.

[4] Cf. Kern, Stephen. The Culture of Time and Space. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983, 50-51.


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Poetry after Language

The diverse practices associated with the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E school of poetry marked a shift—or a return to avant-garde practices and leftist politics—in American poetry in the 1970s. 


This colloquy pairs with a 2015 seminar at the American Comparative Literature Association conference examining the continuing international significance of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E school in the wake of renewed politically engaged practices after the international years of protest (and protest culture) of 2011-13. At a moment that artistic movements across the world are taking up avant-garde stances, strategies, and practices once more, what are the legacies of earlier recoveries of the avant-garde? What role does poetry specifically have to play in contemporary avant-garde aesthetic practices, and how might it interact with contemporary art, theater, documentary film, theoretical prose—not to mention the numerous hybrid genres, remediations, and possibilities for dissemination online?

Taking its name from L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, the journal edited by Charles Bernstein and Bruce Andrews in the late 1960s and 1970s, language poetry edged toward the position, in Lyn Hejinian's words, that "language is nothing but meanings, and meanings are nothing but a flow of contexts. Such contexts rarely coalesce into images, rarely come to terms. They are transitions, transmutations, the endless radiating of denotation into relation."[1] Rejecting traditional conceits of voice, ego, authenticity, and expression, language poets instead labored to expose the device, to dispel the illusion, and to illustrate through poetic means the same attacks on the author and humanist subjectivity as were being launched on the pages of poststructuralist theory. For poetry as for critical theory, the stakes were political and high.

Language poetry also proved highly contagious. Hejinian's exchanges and mutual inspiration with Arkady Dragomoshchenko and the poets of the then-Leningrad underground helped to revive and revitalize an alternative Russian-language poetic tradition, with local roots reaching back to the revolutionary poets of the Soviet 1920s. From Dragomoshchenko on, Russian poets explored practices ranging from what I term "poetics of refusal," when the critique of literary institutions makes further publication impossible and transubstantiates poetry into activism, to exquisitely difficult and philosophical poetry inspired by a transnational canon of leftist artists and philosophers. In St. Petersburg today, the spaces of publication and performance are being re-imagined, as is the avant-garde journal as a venue, art object, collective cause, and social network: today's avant-garde journal has an active presence both off- and online. While poets test the limits of digital dissemination, they also embody their poetics in performances that insist on the physical presence of the poet, at times in potentially dangerous or illegal circumstances.

What are the other channels, networks, and systems by which L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry has gained a global reach? How has contemporary avant-garde poetic practice incorporated, extended, or critiqued the relation between poetic language and political formation?  We return to the "language of inquiry" in Anglophone, Russophone, South American, Francophone, and diverse global poetries—to raise questions of transcultural, translingual, and transmedia poetic movements. Further topics for study include: vernacular poetries and the avant-garde; poetry and translation; the place of poetry in a literary world-system; the international flourishing of hybrid forms of poetry, including lyric essays and disruptive performances; political readings of poetic meter and trope; international poetry journals and publishing; institutions of contemporary global poetry. 

[1] Lyn Hejinian, The Language of Inquiry (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2000), 1.

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