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A Poetics.

Charles Bernstein straightforwardly, and without apology, represents a difficult area of United States cultural production -- experimental poetry. Though he is introduced at lectures and in jacket blurbs as the author of nineteen (or more) books of poetry, you will not find many of these titles in the Library of Congress catalogue (trust me, I've looked). Paradoxically, it is as a writer of polemical criticism that this cofounder of the journal L = A = N = G = U = A = G = E has come to some prominence. Since he has been teaching in the Poetics Program of the State University of New York at Buffalo for only the past couple of years, the essays collected in this volume do not outwardly bear the traces of academic criticism. The question of whether this stance will change, or whether he will begin to address pedagogical issues more directly, will have to await his future production.

Bernstein's title, A Poetics, is probably meant to contrast with Aristotle's The Poetics, in which case there may be a hint of diffidence. If so, this is the only shy thing about the volume. Bernstein likes to make statements and claims, even if they don't hold or he changes his mind down the line. In what I take as an important, and serious, claim, he says: "I'm advocating a poetics that is not adjudicating, not authoritative for all other poetry, not legislating rules for composition. But rather a poetics that is both tropical and socially invested: in short, poetic rather than normative" (158). This non-normative ethics of poetic production rhymes with Emerson's notion of self-reliance explicitly, as when Bernstein says, "Poetry is aversion to conformity in the pursuit of new forms, or can be" (1). But his nonconformist stance is not, for that, an individualist position, but specifically an aversive position with respect to what he views as the cultural hegemony, or what he often calls "official verse culture" (93 n. 3, for example). Bernstein's polemical writing is refreshing, for the most part, because he makes his critique of this official culture not through the standard means of attacking what he doesn't like, but through mounting an eclectic argument for his practice and that of others associated with the "language" movement, as well as experimental writings by those he identifies as precursors.

One of Bernstein's basic premises is that modernism as a poetic movement has been misunderstood or coopted by conservative critics who expand modernism to include all literary production from the early part of the twentieth century and privilege writers who are, both socially and in terms of technique, demonstrably anti-modernist. The experimental practices that continue what Bernstein views as radical modernism are therefore to be seen as a continuation of that modernism rather than participating in postmodernism, a term which in his view lacks the relevance for poetry it might have for other arts. Linking his analysis to Marjorie Perloff's, he says, "'The futurist moment' in literature . . . set in motion a set of radical modernist concerns that are still relevant to current poetic and political practice, just as they are still unacceptable to the official cultural apparatus" (93). This distinction usefully allows Bernstein to concentrate his attentions on the radical poetic innovations of what Perloff has designated the "other" tradition, as represented by writers like Williams, Stein, Pound, and Zukofsky.

To me, the most convincing essay on a single writer is the one on Pound, "Pounding Fascism." Bernstein deftly outlines the parameters of Pound's fascist economics and anti-Semitism in contrast to the radical poetics that underlie The Cantos, arguing that the methods of composition Pound utilized undercut his totalitarian rhetorizing. This argument is not the same as separating out Pound the man from Pound the poet, but one attentive to the poetic text's "contradictions, surpluses, and negations" (126). Pound's failure to control the meanings of his text, from this point of view, both deflates his more grandiose stated project to save some kind of cultural unity and shows the continuing challenge of his multi-layered poetics. As Bernstein argues, "the coherence of the 'hyperspace' of Pound's modernist collage is not a predetermined Truth of a pancultural elitism but a product of a compositionally decentered multiculturalism" (122-23). In other words, the textual practice that Pound developed in The Cantos to bring together the various strands of culture that he saw as inherently unified actually works to demonstrate exactly the opposite, non-totalizing effect.

The title of the essay on Gertrude Stein, "Professing Stein / Stein Professing," would seem to allude to difficulties associated with Stein's work within the set of academic practices, difficulties I have both experienced and written about. But the occasion to address these issues slides by in this essay, which moves into other areas without quite achieving insight into them either. The basic premise is one Bernstein derives from Stein's statements on the artist's contemporaneity -- as opposed to the artist's supposed role as part of an avant garde. Stein's continued unresolved place within academic discourses points strongly to her continuing contemporaneity for us, allowing Bernstein to say, "Stein's writing is not postmodernism before its time but radical modernism in its time" (143). Stein's version of radical modernism creates a textual space where, Bernstein would argue, the most interesting poetic experiments are still taking place. Bernstein's argument stalls, for me, when he turns to an examination of other scholarship on issues of Stein's representation of race in Three Lives and the interaction of race and language. He oddly does not address Richard Wright's account of reading "Melanctha" aloud to groups of working-class black men, but shifts to a comparison of Stein with Langston Hughes, a conclusion that does not really conclude anything.

Bernstein's argument concerning multiculturalism and aesthetic values moves most directly into issues concerning university teaching. The essay in which he addresses these issues, "State of the Art," leads off the volume, though it would seem to be the most recent piece, and the only one not in what otherwise appears to be chronological order. Bernstein clearly favors the social program underlying the multicultural movement. He says, for example, "What can be decried as parochial patterns of reading is in fact an essential strategy for survival, to have a deep immersion in a contemporaneity and history that are difficult to locate and need to be championed" (5). What he calls attention to is whether those advocating the move toward diversity and multiculturalism are sufficiently aware of the effects of homogenizing aesthetic standards. The way in which specific works by women and minorities are selected and used to supplement the existing "great works" curriculum, he argues, and I agree, is insufficiently examined. Bernstein argues, "This process, more often than not, presupposes a common standard of aesthetic judgment or implicitly aims to erect a new common standard. In this context, diversity can be a way of restoring a highly idealized conception of a unified American culture that effectively quiets dissent" (4-5). Just as he champions experimental modes that break with previous literary practice, he urges attention to works and experiences by those truly disadvantaged or ignored by dominant culture, especially when those works resist rather than encourage assimilation to accepted aesthetic standards.

This commitment to a poetic program as well as to a social agenda is a distinctive mark of Bernstein's overall stance. The problem for me is that he usually leaves the link between the two unstated, or else declares it in the form of a bare assertion. He will say, for example: "Poetics is the continuation of poetry by other means. Just as poetry is the continuation of politics by other means" (160). The first part of this analogy has my enthusiastic assent; the second part has me asking how one could establish such a connection. Does agreement with the first part of the statement require unquestioned adherence to the second? In Bernstein's analysis of the poetry by contemporary poets working in experimental modes he often operates as though both parts of the analogy are a necessary prerequisite. In his essay on these poets, "The Second War and Postmodern Memory," he says: "Poetry after the war has its psychic imperatives: to dismantle the grammar of control and the syntax of command. This is one way to understand the political content of its form" (202). This analysis, based on the Marxian model that cultural productions are always a reflection of historical conditions, works well enough to account for the "language" writers (along with Charles Olson, apparently another strong precursor) he is discussing here. Totally left out of the account is why the same set of historical circumstances did not leave this same imprint on the works of the language poets' contemporaries like Robert Pinsky or Edward Hirsch. Although Bernstein's understanding of the artistic practice is extremely advanced, his interpretive model too often remains stuck in the late modern Marxist mode -- begun by Lukacs and Goldmann, and continued in their different ways by Fredric Jameson and Jerome McGann. If the radical poetics of the "language" writers and others working in experimental modes are to achieve a theoretical positioning commensurate with their textual invention, the interpretive model will have to move beyond these rather fixed positions. But in its way, this problem once again serves to demonstrate Bernstein's working premise that we are all working simply to catch up to where the poets (always) already are.
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Author:Baker, Peter
Publication:College Literature
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1993
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