Sunday, February 18
The Philadelphia Inquirer
His most emphatic, rewarding poems yet
The Penn professor and poetry critic is still exploring various modes of the satirical, political and philosophical.
University of Chicago Press,
review by Thomas Devaney
Charles Bernstein is a controversial poetry critic, vanguard poet, and a leading member of a group of writers widely called "language poets." Since 2003, he has also been the Donald T. Regan Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania.
Over the last three decades, Bernstein's passionate critical essays, manifestos and lectures on contemporary poetry have amounted to a direct critique of what he calls "official verse culture."
Among other things, Bernstein holds poetry to be "an intervention within the culture against static forms of knowledge, against schooled conceptions and traditional formulation."
Oddly, Girly Man, which is Bernstein's 30th collection of poetry, is his least formally unorthodox and least elusive book to date. It is also his most emphatic and rewarding poetry collection so far.
Bernstein continues to explore modes of the satirical, political and philosophical. He also skillfully continues to employ aphorisms ("Poetry is patterned thought in search of unpatterned mind") and pitch-perfect one-liners ("Simply stated, there's nothing to state"), both employing and lancing cultural cliches.
Still, in light of his long-standing antiformalist stance, Girly Man offers a spirited change of direction. Bernstein, it appears, is indeed charting new ground by remapping older poetic ground.
In a great chain of poetic being, Girly Man features doggerel, haiku, list poems, lyric poems, sonnets, satires and translations. In addition, Bernstein also offers a tale, a meditative poem, a confessional poem, a nursery rhyme, a dream poem, a serial poem, a collaboration poem and a ballad.
So what do you do when the most adamant antiformalist poet in America writes a book using the tried-and-true forms? Get the book; proceed with caution; and read a master poet practicing his cunning art in top form.
Let's look at the poems more closely:
Girly Man includes several well-made sonnets with pop-tune lyrics for titles: "In a Restless World Like This Is" and "Ghost of a Chance." The poem "Don't Get Me Wrong" is bluesy and songlike:
Don't get me wrong
The collection includes a walking poem titled "Report From Liberty Street"; a letter poem titled "Letter From New York"; and a now-classic "I do this I do that" New York School poem about 9/11 called "It's 8:23 in New York." The last poem is stylized, but also seems sincerely elegiac, reflecting the speaker's reactions to the horrific events in New York, where Bernstein lives.
Similarly, the confessional poem "There's Beauty in the Sound of the Rushing Brook as It Forks & Bends in the Moonlight" is earnest about its irony, and vice versa. He writes:
I've had trouble with
In "Further Color Notes," the speaker instructs (with some borrowed language from his wife, the painter Susan Bee): "Pg. 8, lighter and brighter overall." The poem seems to be a series of design instructions for a book we don't have in front of us. And since we don't have the book, we are free to imagine on several levels at once, with moments of surprise such as the line "Pg. 20, red should be more orange."
Bernstein shows a keen ear for sentences in the American grain: "I'll give you ten minutes and if you don't come out I'll give you ten more minutes."
His serial poem is aptly named "In Parts," and there is "Death Fugue (Echo)," after Paul Celan's significant and daring poem.
"Sign Under Test" can be classed both in the category of "postmodern poem" and "meditative poem":
Responding to Wordsworth's comment that poetry is "emotion recollected in tranquillity," Bernstein writes: "I come again, taste to taste." The poem also echoes a favorite Wordsworth metaphor - "drinking in" - and is another example of just how layered many of these poems can be.
There is a poem that appears to be Objectivist ("The Bricklayer's Arms") and "Choo Choo Ch'Boogie," a projective verse poem (which uses the page to score the poem chugging across its great wide-open plains). There's a poem of philosophic investigation ("Language, Truth, Logic") and humorous satires such as "Thank You for Saying Thank You."
The title poem, "The Ballad of the Girly Man," is both a political poem and a ballad. The poem directly responds to Arnold Schwarzenegger's cheap-shot characterization, in 2004, of opponents of President Bush's policies as "girly men." Bernstein writes: "So be a girly man/ & sing this gurly song/ Sissies & proud/ That we would never lie our way to war." Another stanza reads:
Thugs from hell have taken freedom's store
I felt a charged excitement when I first heard Bernstein read the poem in 2004, but now on the page, true as it is, it has less of an impact for me. Ballads have deep roots in the oral tradition, and true to form, the poem may work best on the stage than on the page.
Overall, Bernstein's direct engagement of traditional poetic forms in Girly Man is a major achievement. Yet a key dilemma remains: If sincerity can be an affect, something artful and made, where does that leave sincerity? How much is appearance of sincerity in many of the poems here also a commentary on sincerity, too? Questions open for fruitful thought. Anyone interested in contemporary poetry should seek out the collection, if only to read one of our most provocative poet-critics writing his most engaging poems to date.
Thomas Devaney (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Penn Senior Writing Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania. His forthcoming book of poetry is "A Series of Small Boxes."