Bernstein appears in American Book Review Reading Series
April 28, 2016 at 10:57 a.m.
Updated April 28, 2016 at 10:57 a.m.
Who is Charles Bernstein? He is the difficult author of difficult poems, one of which begins, “This is a totally accessible poem.” He pens poems that cut under our preconceptions, i.e. that poems be emotional or in stanzas and rhymes or puzzles to be worked out. Yet he has written poems that are emotional, that present stanzas and rhymes, and that are puzzles, not always to be worked out. He has written works that engage our sense of living and living with loss, such as “Let’s Just Say” that ends:
Let’s just say that little is gained when nothing is lost
Let’s just say that the lie of the mind is the light of perception
Bernstein is an enigma, as some poetry muggles might claim. Yet he is one of the most clear, generous and imaginative people I know. He has complicated, in groundbreaking poems, the meaning of “I” and “you,” but “I” would rather spend time with the “I” of Bernstein than just about anyone.
In the mid-20th century, great poets wandered the land, and some of their names were Barbara Guest, Charles Olson, Lorine Niedecker and Robert Creeley. Few people were paying attention, thinking that poetry was supposed to be in forms or present an emotional problem to be confronted and either overcome in a personal apotheosis or simply waded through on the way to more problems and possibly a midlife suicide. Confessional poetry stood with what has been called the poetry of complacency.
Bernstein and a few others said, “No. This just won’t work and is not really Poetry anyway. Or maybe we don’t need Poetry with a capital P. No, we need poetry that makes us use our entire brains, wakes us up and helps us find a way in the world that isn’t what we have already come to know and to suspect.” They pointed the way, and helped us find, through the muddle of mid-20th century poetry, models of great value like the aforementioned four and Louis Zukofsky, Hannah Weiner, Jackson Mac Low and others who were there all along, expanding our notions of how language and life might dance together.
In the brazenly titled “L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E,” co-edited by Bernstein, in the late 1970s and 1980s, a new poetics emerged. It was not exactly welcomed. I lost friends because of my engagement with poets who appeared there. But as Gertrude Stein suggested, things that are new are considered ugly only until they are considered beautiful. The poetry and views of Bernstein are beautiful, and they have changed our literature in ways that have opened beautiful vistas.
In poems like “Dysraphism,” Bernstein challenged expected ways in which lines and parts of poems fit together. The title means “mis-seaming” or not meeting at the seams, yet also comes from the same root as “rhapsody.”
of the spoils: gargoyles. Or is a pretend wish
that hits the springs to sing with sanguine
The sound of poetry is there, amid surprises that work in uncanny ways. Poems defamiliarize our experience, and Bernstein’s early poems took us to some other place. Rather than giving us Robert Frost’s “momentary stay against confusion,” they left us in our minds, thinking human beings. We didn’t really want to be anesthetized, did we?
On the way to the present, Bernstein has become one of our great poets and great states people for poetry. He has published many books: poetry, essays, an opera libretto and collaborative artists’ books. He has edited journals, anthologies and book series. He has received many fellowships and has won the 2015 Munster Prize, and the 2015 Janus Pannonius Grand Prize for Poetry. He lives in Brooklyn and holds the Regan Chair in English at the University of Pennsylvania.
All the while, he has been an active partner with the gifted visual artist Susan Bee and part of an energetic and imaginative family life. He is, as I have known him for some 35 years, one of the great people in this world of literature, love, friends and life.
Bernstein appears in the American Book Review Reading Series at noon Thursday, April 28, in the Alcorn Auditorium of the University of Houston-Victoria University West building, 3007 N. Ben Wilson St. A new chapbook of his poetry, published in Victoria by Chax Press, will be available at the event.
Charles Alexander is the UHV poet and designer in residence, and director of the Master of Fine Arts in creative writing program. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.