Unrepresentative Verse

Charles Bernstein (1997)

The organizers of this panel have asked us to consider two famous passages, one from Auden and the other from Adorno, that speak of the political fate of poetry. Rogélio Lopez Cuenca contexutalizes the first in one of his marvelous detoured signs: "DU CALME: Poetry Makes Nothing Happen." Relax and so we shall -- But let me take this in a different direction before coming back to Adorno.

A hundred years ago Oscar Wilde - a writer perhaps even more celebrated in Victorian England than Allen Ginsberg in postwar America - was hounded to death while at the very height of his fame and at the top of his magnificent form. Allen Ginsberg, and to be sure many others, courageously refused to be bashed down by the perverts who would end a person's life and career because of their sexual orientation or lifestyle. He was part of a massive cultural movement to make what happened to Wilde if not unthinkable at least unacceptable in the U. S. of A. He did this not by presenting "positive" images of being gay or smoking pot but by presenting by turns joyous and defiant images of these things and a number of others. Wilde ends his days in jail and then disgrace. Ginsberg is celebrated - on the occasion of his death two weeks ago - even in the pages that reviled him - the Times, the New Yorker, &c - I say this not because it is not well known to the people at this conference but because it suggests an idea of the poet that Ginsberg so magnificently embodied - it is that idea of the public poet that this panel has been asked to address.

Allen Ginsberg is one of the few poets of the postwar period to cross over both into popular and mass culture & this is primarily because he remained (among other things) a poet of and for adolescent identification, right up to the end of his life. By adolescence I mean the defiance of authority and a sexual omnivorousness, combined with a bad boy image in which the poet wears his, in this case considerable, learning as lightly as possible. It was Ginsberg's genius to synthesize political and social dissent into something intensely appealing to adolescents Š of all ages. But if Ginsberg had astounding success at attracting media attention, this was not because he took stands in an effort to gain public exposure; his success in this realm is largely dependent on the authenticity of his way of life as much as his positions, a mode of authenticity that he takes, above all, from Whitman. Yet the twentieth century poet he ends up most resembling is not Bill Williams of Patterson but Tommy Eliot of St. Louis. Resembles, but only in the sense of a reverse or polorized image: for Eliot became the poet as symbol of the closed, the repressed, the xenophobic, the authoritative; in short, of high culture in the worst sense; while Ginsberg became the symbol of the open, the uncloseted, the anti-authoritarian; indeed, of low culture in the best sense. Ginsberg's moves from ethnically particularized Jewishness (Al from Jersey) to small b buddhism (bubba to Baba) is correlative to Eliot's move from Christian-American to High Church Anglican - in both cases an assumption of a new religion as vehicle for universal identification that gets you high or anyway higher. Ginsberg, after all, is an anarchist in politics, a libertine in lifestyle, a buddhist in religion - the virtual inverse of Eliot's monarchist in politics, uptight in lifestyle, Anglican in religion. Yet if Ginsberg's adolescent sublime provided a role for the poet that was hugely desirable in mass and popular culture, this was often at visible, if not actual, expense of his poetry, consummately sophisticated political acumen, and ethical grounding, none of which, on their own, could have gained him access to the public space he occupied for near to 40 years. Indeed his poetry was obscured by his public stature while that stature provided an important, and relatively rare, platform for an admirable form of liberationist politics. The dynamic is not unrelated to the case of Eliot, for insofar as he became as symbol of poetry as the antithesis of adolescence, the greatest achievements of his own poems were also obscured; indeed, this is the central obscurity of Eliot's poetry, not the textual difficulty that has been fodder for popular accounts for so many years. (And after all "Prufrock" is also a great work of the adolescent sublime.)

As a result of all this, Ginsberg's legacy for poetry, just as Eliot's, is not an entirely happy one, which I say without intending any negative judgment on each of their often astoundingly great poems. Much of the poetry that shares a social and formal affinity with Ginsberg has assiduously avoided just the forms of grand address and narrow historical self-identification that projected his poetry so decisively into a public space achieved by few of his contemporaries or heirs. For it has seemed a greater urgency for poetry to find means of articulation in which the poetic project itself - the details of particular sounds in particular orders - is not subsumed by a cultural project that is in many ways antipathetic to poetry; that is, if poetry is understood not as an idea but a practice, and not a matter of comrades-through-time or cultural positions, but of words and syntax. The cultural project of this poetry of radically small scale is - and this is surely Adorno's point - to refuse such absorption by mass culture, so as to keep the attentional focus on the possibilities of language, on what language has to tell. Not only to sing of felicities and dance with facility but trip and fall the better to make music of our flailing and of our incapacities. And, yes, of course, that is also what Ginsberg, in Howl, in Kaddish, and indeed also Eliot, in The Waste Land, in Prufrock may be said to be doing. So today I call them back from the nether world of cultural representatives to the practice, their practice, still largely obscured, of the writing and performance of poems in a word that, as Jack Spicer put it, "no one / listens to poetry" but which, from time to time, may heed the voice of the poet.

As I said at the outset, the organizers of this panel have asked us to consider not only the quotation from Auden ("Poetry makes nothing happen") but also one from Theador Adorno, which they have slightly elided.

In his 1949 essay "Cultural Criticism and Society", Adorno wrote, "Cultural criticism finds itself faced with the final stage of the dialectic of culture and barbarism. To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. And this corrodes even the knowledge of why it has become impossible to write poetry today. Absolute reification, which presupposed intellectual progress as one of its elements, is now preparing to absorb the mind entirely." [ - Theodor W. Adorno, Prisms, tr. Samuel and Shierry Weber (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1981), p. 34.]

But it might be even more telling to say that, after Auchwitz, it is not only the individual voice of lyric poetry but also the ventriloquised voice of public discourse (in poetry and the massed media) that flirts with barbarism by reifying individuality and publicity, as if they were the same thing, in the quenchless desire for absorption by the Culture-at-Large.

Yet poetry, representative of the problem, may also provide unrepresentated alternatives. As Little Orphan Anagram says, "Poetry fakes nothing actually." But this is a poetry that we must continually reinvent and which must reinvent us.

Copyright © 1997 by Charles Bernstein, all rights reserved. Any commercial use or republication requires the written permission of the author. Collected as part of My Way; Speeches and Poems.




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