My Way: Speeches and Poems
University of Chicago, $46 (cloth), $18 (paper)
My Way is the third collection of essays by Charles Bernstein, a poet-critic whose work has straddled, and at times deliberately and polemically blurred, the distinctions between criticism and autobiography, between public politics and personal anecdote, between what passes for sense in the academy and the more cleansing non-sense that only poetry can create. It is clear from the exuberant and intellectual hyperactivity of My Way that the end is not near, that its author does not face the final curtain. The range of topics addressed here is heroic, and an implicit rebuke to the professional narrowness and caution that characterize work in literary studies, whatever the current clichés about canon-busting, border-blurring, and other allegedly subversive activities that promise social change but deliver only tenure. Here by contrast there is some startling and genuinely new thinking on identity politics, the aesthetic, cultural studies, poetry as performance art, and what Bernstein terms "close listenings"–a characteristic twist on an academic trope, close reading–of such poets as Charles Reznikoff, Laura Riding, Susan Howe, Ezra Pound, Allen Ginsberg, and Gertrude Stein. Nevertheless Bernstein, who has published twenty books of his own poetry, is now in his middle years, and a new strain of reflection does push the writing in certain directions, making it his most multi-faceted and perhaps his most engaging work to date. The sub-text of the book is really "how I got from There to Here," where Here is the poisoned chalice of a successful university career, and There the Pyrrhic victories of a warrior poetry.
In the beginning there was language–or, more precisely,L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E. The first issue of this bimonthly journal, edited by Charles Bernstein and Bruce Andrews, appeared in 1978. In terms of production and layout it was never a thing of beauty, but the squat format and low-grade paper exuded a profoundly unofficial quality that held its own perverse allure. The notorious equals signs of the title echoed some of the typographical experiments of the Modernist era–the same device is used throughout the first version of Wyndham Lewis’s novel Tarr, for example–andL=A=N=G=U=A=G=E was keen more generally to bring back Modernist provocation to an American poetry scene whose arteries had begun to harden against the inventive and the iconoclastic. At this time, it should be remembered, the work of Robert Lowell still maintained a position of lofty ascendancy, and erstwhile leaders of poetic rebellion, such as the Beats’ Allen Ginsberg, were now receiving awards and dressing in suit and tie. The new prominence forged by women’s poetry and by African-American, Hispanic, and other alternative traditions in poetry of the United States–referred to in My Way as "less a melting pot than a simultaneity of inconsolable co-existences"–was only beginning to be thinkable. And so the journal, which matched Bernstein’s personality in its mercurial and combative style, stirred things up.
Admittedly that seemed to be all that was happening, at times. Reviews might only last for a single paragraph. One piece began "Reversing your hands if you’re." And many of the contributions shared the utopian giddiness of a piece by Ted Greenwald, who argued that "Poetry is about a time that hasn’t occurred yet." This drive to overturn consensus not merely by argument but through dadaist jokes was exemplified by Bernstein’s own contributions, some of which would be gathered in Content’s Dream, his first book of essays, and in The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book, which, appearing only six years after the first issue, confirmed its importance as the most influential formation in American poetry since Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry 1945—60 introduced readers to poetry of the Black Mountain, Beat, and New York Schools a generation before.
Bernstein was also one of the contributors most openly determined to bring politics back onto the poetic agenda, and this time from a point on the political spectrum at the opposite end to that of the generation of Pound and Eliot, whose intrepidity at the level of collage and textual rupture sat uneasily with an authoritarian, and in Pound’s case explicitly Fascist, politics. Bernstein has always written with particular brilliance about the politics of poetic form, and with an authority that comes not only from writing poetry as well as criticism, but from an admirable willingness to stick his head over the parapet that is not common or indeed welcome in today’s academy. This goes back at least as far as his participation in anti-war protests in 1968 in Chicago, where like many he was duly gassed for his pains. My Way contains a mordant but shocking account of a more solitary and subtle encounter with the right, when Bernstein was frozen out of a 1990s conference on Ezra Pound for daring to impugn the master’s politics, a solecism compounded by his being the only Jewish speaker. It is characteristic of his essentially adversarial intelligence that the political charge and subtlety of Bernstein’s writing should increase in direct ratio to the erasure of left-wing politics from the US civic and cultural map. I don’t buy the argument–common even among those who were fans of Language-the-journal–that the left-wing politics were basically just a way to get noticed. If nothing else, this movement did mark the first group resurgence of a left-wing program in American letters since the 1930s. As a matter of historical record, the work of the Language group also constituted the first evidence of the impact of literary theory on the practice of poetry in America. The consequences in poetic terms were not unequivocally positive. It may be that the richness of American poetry post-Carlos Williams offers a sufficiently invigorating marinade, without the addition of such psychotropic additives as Deleuze and Guattari.
Now Language-the-journal has gone, so perhaps has Language-the-movement. At the Assembling Alternatives conference of poets and academics in New Hampshire in 1997, Bernstein seemed less a chef d’ école than senior visiting speaker in a formation whose parameters had shifted. To the extent that there still was a movement or at least a collective aspect to the varied presentations, this was largely a women writers’ group. The stylistic consensus among the male poets lay toward satire, which oddly emphasizes the extent to which the Language group grew partly out of the New York School of John Ashbery, and more particularly, Frank O’Hara. Despite or at least alongside his bourgeois career as curator at New York’s Museum of Modem Art, O’Hara (1926-66) held political views which were about as far to the left as was possible in that world at that time. Bernstein is his heir, not so much poetically (though Manhattan chauvinism, memorable one-liners, and surreal power-surges occur in both), as in the ceaseless juggling of contradictory roles. Both writers keep in play a range of voices–of poetry, of criticism, of the margins, of the institution–that will never coexist happily, but whose edgy and inconsolable adjacency gives their work its grit. Bernstein’s role as David Gray Professor at SUNY—Buffalo puts him somewhat in the position of O’Hara at the Museum, a caring maverick whose time is given to others. Having seen the results at first hand, I can testify, as would many, to Bernstein’s brilliance as a teacher. He does not impose his tastes or style on his students, and neither does his influence on them cease when he is not present. The Poetics Program attracts brilliant young student-critics, and is a triumph against the grain, as all Bernstein’s activities run against the grain.
My Way is subtitled Speeches and Poems, but none of the contents resembles anything conventional from either of those rhetorical genres. Many of the pieces, which range from one to 24 pages in length, enjoyed a prior existence in another context, as a conference paper, review, poem, or, in the case of the best piece in the book, an interview. Bernstein’s decision not to alter the contents in the cause of an integrated whole means that the rhythm and focus of the book are constantly changing; or, that they are never established, in a criticism that works like improvised jazz. Sometimes the initial angle of approach seems absurdist, though everything that follows has a remorseless logic. Thus, an essay analyzing the statistical recurrence of water images in poems published by The New Yorkerbetween January 30 and May 15, 1989, begins comically but ends by making a serious point about what both its manufacturers and its purchasers believe the mainstream American poem should contain. Other pieces take the opposite tack by beginning with the sobriety of the lecture hall format but then taking flight on the wings of Bernstein’s one-liners. Stand-up comedy is one of his greatest gifts to the university, in as much as William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell could be read as the best kind of stand-up comedy. "I don’t know much about sex but I know what I like." "Verse is born free but is everywhere in chains." "The shortest distance between two points is a digression." "Language is our profanest act." Often, as here, what he terms his Borscht Belt routine restates the verities of the canon through travesty that actually disguises homage, as in "Poetry is tranquillity recollected in emotion," and an entire essay reversing the terms of Charles Olson’s Projective Verse manifesto.
In a sense, My Way crystallizes around an elegiac and injured idealism regarding art, culture, and the university, whose background is given forceful expression in "An Autobiographical Interview." The wit is intended to torment the university into acknowledging what should have been, and the remarks about the kinds of philistine and snobbish exclusion that a supposedly elite institution like Harvard can countenance is particularly telling. Conducted with Loss Pequeño Glazier via e-mail in the summer of 1995, the interview is perhaps the most powerful piece in the book, because it restates the missing element of the personal to criticism. The most effective piece of polemic, however, is an essay called "Frame Lock," which advocates an abandonment of conventional academic style. As Bernstein sees it,"frame lock" ("a kind of logorrheic lock jaw") and "its cousin tone jam" are responsible for the marked and growing discrepancy in academic writing and teaching practice between supposedly advanced theory and the institutionally encoded prescriptions and proscriptions on how that theory should be disseminated if it is to be judged acceptable. Bernstein is particularly adept at using the essay form to momentarily step outside in order to show what is hypocritical in, and what is missing from, conventional practices. These prose pieces challenge assumptions more effectively than the pyrotechnics of poems with opening lines like "There is not a man alive who does not / admire soup"–valid as that particular observation might be. In his own words an intellectual without portfolio, Charles Bernstein thrives on paradox. He is committed both to social change and to art for art’s sake; he is in the best sense a comic writer, but he laughs like Byron–so that he may not weep. He assesses himself succinctly in "The Revenge of the Poet-Critic": "I am a product of the U.S. and an example of it; this is a source of considerable discomfort to me but this discomfort is perhaps the basis of my work. For my themes, to call them that, have pretty consistently been awkwardness, loss, and misrecognition."