My Way, Speeches and Poems
My Way, Speeches and Poems. By Charles Bernstein. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press. 1999. xii, 321 pp. Cloth, $44.00; paper, $18.00.
With this new collection, Charles Bernstein asserts himself as one of the boldest poet-critics of his generation. A fearless opponent of “Official Verse Culture,” Bernstein laments the “lobotomization” and “suburbanization” of an American poetry that ignores the highs and lows of culture, where the most innovative art resides (37, 39–40). What we need, he argues, is a more “pro-vocative” poetry (106), a “PSL” (or “poetry as a second language,” 50) that resists the easy epiphanies nurtured in creative writing workshops and disseminated by the Norton Anthology, the New Yorker, and PBS.
Bernstein leads his attack on two fronts. As a poststructural theorist he wants to “interrogate how language constitutes, rather than simply reflects, social meaning and values” (4). As a L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poet he tries to hide behind a veil of words, much like Hawthorne’s minister, to show that “whatever communication we can manage must be in terms of our opacities and particularities, or resistances and impermeabilities—call it our mutual translucency to each other” (32). Poetry thus becomes an “ideolectical mode,” a process of thought, an investigation of how the figurative world is produced rather than discovered.
A gifted punster and mimic, Bernstein rekindles the subversive quality that literary manifestos tend to lose after awhile. Accordingly, Robert Creeley’s old rallying cry for the New American Poetry—“Form is never more than an extension of content”—is updated to read, “Theory is never more than an extension of practice” (ix), “Form is never more than an extension of sound and syntax” (26), and, best of all, “Form is never more than an extension of malcontent” (111). Similar witticisms arise elsewhere. How does one get to Carnegie Hall? For Bernstein, the answer to the well-worn joke is not “practice” but “theory” (7). To those in the academy who would label him antiprofessional, [End Page 663] he rejoins, “[Y]ou can’t go wrong if your attitude is bad from the start” (48). Facing an imagined audience of middlebrow hecklers, he promises to make their barrage of insults part of a stage act in his “own private Borscht-Belt” (106). A poem entitled “Don’t Be So Sure (Don’t Be Saussure)” is an ambiguous warning to all who would take him at his word.
In the midst of this shtick, Bernstein gives some serious consideration to alternative branches of modernist poetry. “Poetics of the Americas” contains as nuanced an appraisal of postcolonial verse as one will find anywhere. More successful still is “Reznikoff’s Nearness,” a lengthy prose meditation whose title suggests not only the Objectivist poet’s “adjacency” to his urban material (205–6) but his kinship with those who seek to “move beyond a tortured and reductive conception of [Jewish] identity” (233). In these and other essays Bernstein reminds us that America is not so much a place as it is “an attitude toward language” (225), an “image-nation” we construct in our imagination (136).
An heir apparent to Stevens’s “Connoisseur of Chaos,” Bernstein has emerged as postmodern poetry’s sous-chef of insouciance. My Life is another of his rich concoctions, fortified with intellect and seasoned with laughter.
Timothy Gray, College of Staten Island, CUNY