Charles Bernstein’s selected poems shows lyric expression amongst experimentation
The most pleasurable aspect of reading a poet’s selected works is witnessing the evolution of his or her style over the years, a pleasure that is amply delivered in Charles Bernstein’s selected poems, All the Whiskey in Heaven, especially because Bernstein’s poetic evolution has gone against the tide of American poetics, even as his work has become steadily more comprehensible.
Bernstein first came to prominence as a poet and theorist in the late 1970s, when, along with Bruce Andrews, he edited the journal L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, a sounding board and focal point for a group of writers who came to be known as “language poets.” The work of these poets, and Bernstein’s early work, is dominated by an agenda that puts the materiality of language in the foreground, eschewing subjective expression, narrative and sense in the traditional meaning of the word.
For language poets, writing poetry that was concerned essentially with language had pronounced political repercussions. In a society where language, these poets argued, is continually hijacked by political and commercial culture for less than virtuous ends (here echoing ideas George Orwell put forth in his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language”), it is up to poets to reclaim language by drawing attention to its surface, its materiality rather than its sense.
Yet even in Bernstein’s early poetry, there are moments of profound logic, and a playfulness that goes beyond wordplay and includes the actual form of the poems, such as “Asylum,” a seemingly random assemblage of lines and phrases that, despite its at first nonsensical appearance, contains a clear form, which circles back on itself as Bernstein manipulates pacing through the use of bundles of language, so to speak, or condensed paragraphs within the stream of loose words and phrases.
Bernstein would continue to develop his formal playfulness and his ability to secret sense within apparent linguistic spontaneity throughout the following decades. In this, Bernstein differs from Andrews, who, even in his most recent work, seems to rely on words more as objects than vehicles of sense and context.
Reading Bernstein’s early work, such as the title poem from Islets/Irritations (1983), is more like trying to follow a treasure map than reading a poem. In this particular piece, each line contains a number of phrases separated by large gaps of caesura, giving each phrase a feeling of discreteness. At times there is a logical sense to be found by reading through the phrases, but often the reader is left baffled as she is washed over by the sound rather than the sense of the words: “lackadaisical compliance … pumped of substantiation/ sense your-raise the exchange… moonstruck destitution,” Bernstein writes.
But what is most remarkable about Bernstein’s work in this vein is that it is acutely readable. So tight is the poet’s grasp on the language that even when a poem fails to appeal to logic, the sound and heft of each word and phrase is a delight. Comparing “Islets/Irritations” to the last poem in All the Whiskey in Heaven, one that gives the selection its name, one can clearly see the span of Bernstein’s evolution. The poem begins:
Not for all the whiskey in
Not for all the flies in
Not for all the tears in the
Not for a million trips to
Continuing in this vein for two more stanzas, the poem reveals its independent clause in the final quatrain:
No, never, I’ll never stop
Not till my heart beats its
And even then in my words
and my songs
I will love you all over
What is the critical reader to make of this bombastic melodrama, which seems such a far cry from the arid experimentation upon which Bernstein built his reputation? And what of the political concerns of language poetry? Are they cast by the wayside by a poet such as Bernstein who moves toward comprehensibility?
Not exactly. Bernstein’s “Report from Liberty Street,” published in Some of These Daze (2005), is a completely comprehensible poem and one of the most touching and intelligent responses to 9/11 from any American poet. Perhaps, then, this emotional subjectivity is not as foreign to Bernstein’s work as has been supposed.
Throughout All the Whiskey in Heaven, one finds personal, if often theoretical, ideas about life and writing, as if even in Bernstein’s most experimental work he cannot leave sense behind entirely, a concept that echoes Marjorie Perloff’s recent reading of conceptual poet Kenneth Goldsmith’s supposedly completely “uncreative” book Traffic.
While much of Bernstein’s work is almost completely abstract, and none so much as “Lift Off” from Poetic Justice (1979), which is a transcription of the correction tape of a typewriter, very little of it is as abstract as it first appears. Some early works, such as “Palukaville,” are redolent of a deep admiration for Samuel Beckett and specifically his book Stories and Texts for Nothing, while other poems contain clear evidence of Bernstein’s approach to poetry, which, he writes in “The Klupzy Girl,” “is like a swoon, with this difference:/ it brings you to your senses.”
Bernstein has long been a defender of poetry and an advocate of writing against what he calls “official verse culture,” which, he says, promotes its own stylistic stereotypes through grants, university appointments and publications while claiming to have no stereotypes. It is interesting that he has become something of a gatekeeper himself, the bright face of the American poetic avant-garde. Indeed, one of the most surprising things about All the Whiskey in Heaven is that it was published by such a major press.
It would seem that perhaps Bernstein is more at risk than ever of being subsumed by what he has so long railed against. But perhaps this general labor against what we are told is American poetry is more important than the linguistic mission of language poetry.
For nearly 40 years, Bernstein has been relentless in his pursuit of the word and relentless in his pushing of the boundaries of what is acceptable and possible in American poetry. All the Whiskey in Heaven stands as a record of that pursuit and also a record of how far the envelope has been pushed; the avant-garde, in some sense, has become the mainstream. But to consider Bernstein merely an experimental poet is to ignore the touching lyricism and poetic insight that has been a thread in his work from the very beginning. He is one of America’s most intriguing poets, whose ongoing linguistic and literary project is more affective thanks to his willingness to write poems, not only manifestos.