The Jivin' Ladybug
“The Noise That Stays News”:
Charles Bernstein, Attack of the Difficult Poems
(Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2011).
Review by Jared Demick
Charles Bernstein’s latest book of essays, Attack of the Difficult Poems, is a hootenanny of a smorgasbord, approaching poetics from many directions. These directions include, among others, teaching poetry outside the confining parameters of the creative writing workshop or the memorize-the-Canon survey class, investigations into the ghosts of sound/voice still Caspering around written poems, the avant-garde and popular culture’s connections in second wave modernism, the legacy of Jewish culture in poetry; alternative forms of translation, and a mock recantorium of his poetics. What bonds these diverse concerns is the contention that difficult poems are the only poems worth fighting for/about.
Bernstein’s prose has an unpretentious wisdom that offers ironic jokes and provocative questions rather than fist-shakingly-sure answers. He’s less, “THOU SHALT DO THIS!!” and more, “Hey, this is going on, why don’t we talk about it?” At its best, his prose has a searching playfulness in which each sentence reinvents or undercuts the previous one. A great example is the start of his talk “Poetry and/or the Sacred”: “Every time I hear the word ‘sacred’ I reach for my checkbook. Every time I reach for my checkbook I get a warm glow that haunts me with the flow of international capital. In God we trust—all others need a major credit card. I’ll give you credit for that—just don’t bank on it. Is nothing sacred anymore? Of course nothing is sacred: some things never change. But I’d put it this way: at least nothing is sacred.
That’s a start. Either nothing is sacred or everything is. If the sacred is the hot air inflating a poem, it doesn’t mean that poem won’t fly, though just as likely it may snore. Now is the allusion there to a blimp or a Blimpie’s. No more priests—in every sigh of every woman, child, and man. Not something to rise up but something in which to descend, a gravity Simone Weil talks about that is a condition for grace” (171). Here’s Bernstein-to-the-Max: ironically and campily tossing out puns on clichéd expressions, a clown twisting empty phrases into shapes that suddenly articulate significant insights. This is what makes him such a compelling essayist: he not only questions social and aesthetic phenomena, but also the ways in which he voices those questions. Bernstein constantly emphasizes, what he termed in “Comedy and the Poetics of Political Form” (an essay from an earlier collection), communicative action over communication behavior. As a result, when reading these essays, my eyes never told my brain, “We’ve seen all this stuff before!”
For Bernstein, poetry and poetics are collective endeavors requiring constant conversation for sustenance. This is most potently expressed in his hyperawareness of the tangled connections between historical and contemporary poets. In “A Blow is like an Instrument: The Poetic Imaginary and Curricular Practices,” he declares, “[a]rtworks are not just monuments of the past but investments in the present, investments we squander with our penurious insistence on taking such works as cultural capital rather than capital expenditure” (8). Whether he’s addressing homophonic translation practices, literary hoaxes, or the implications of the Greek alphabet’s creation, poetry’s past becomes fertile ground for invention (as opposed to innovation’s “Go, go, go!” amnesia), the only anodyne in a contemporary culture that has come to accept instant obsolescence as it’s defining condition.
The other way to relieve this condition is to concentrate on how we say things. In “The Art and Practice of the Ordinary,” Bernstein states: “normalcy of language (that is to say, standardization) is not a natural fact of human beings but a highly controlled social institution to which people are forced to conform. If you wish to unlearn normalcy, you will seek a level of inarticulateness which is very ordinary. Inarticulateness, stuttering, oddness are parts of the most ordinary experience, and in poetic language they may refuse coherence” (179). According to him, poems aren’t difficult because they love to superiorly lord over the reader. They’re difficult because they include aspects of everyday life that rarely reach the page. Shack up with a difficult poem, Bernstein says: the relationship will be intense, but lovely. For my part, I suggest shacking up with this book of brain-pilates essays.