Two brief statements on the politics of form

The first of the following two commentaries was published in The Possum Pouch in March, 2003. It provoked a number of defensive reactions, in different places, from poets associated with Language writing. The follow-up commentary was posted at Circulars and distributed in other venues, and it, in turn, generated some angry responses, most notably from Barrett Watten. The issues remain open, of course.

Kent Johnson


Bernstein's "Enough!"

In his statement for the "Enough!" reading* held on March 9 at The Bowery Club, in celebration of O Books's anthology of the same title, Charles Bernstein proclaims the following:

"As poets, we need to pursue our own forms of ethical and aesthetic response rather than engage in the sort of pronouncement by fiat and moral presumption of President Bush and his partisans."

At first blush, any poet alarmed by the imperial policies of the new national security state could hardly disagree: Of course poets should honestly follow the paths of their own forms of ethical and aesthetic response Poets of all different stripes are doing so, in response to the coming war, in inspiringly multifarious ways And truly, yes, it is harmful to dismiss discourses other than your own through presumptuous decree

But it soon becomes clear that the real, unnamed target of Bernstein's cry of "Enough!" is not the moral arrogance of the Bush administration, but the "righteous monologue" and "digestible messages," as he puts it, of the thousands of poems appearing at Sam Hamill's amazingly popular Poets Against the War site. And when one realizes this and pauses to reflect on Bernstein's brief manifesto, one wants to ask: Has there ever been, in the young history of 21st century American poetry, a moral decree more astonishingly blind to the ironies of its own arrogance? The moral righteousness is so obvious, in fact, that one wonders if Bernstein is not perhaps pulling a trademark funny one on his audience.

Alas, he's quite serious. Quoting Bush that America's purpose is to achieve "results," Bernstein retorts that such authoritative decree "alone provides sufficient evidence to oppose his policies. What our America stands on, its foundation, is a commitment to process over results, to finding by doing, to thinking by responding. Solutions made outside of an open-ended process compound whatever problems we face."

Yes, indeed. But there's no room for "an open-ended process," it appears, when it comes to discovering the different kinds of poetry that might be fit and effective for the times-- fit and effective for those different reading communities of citizens that make up our nation, not all of whom share Bernstein's aesthetic tastes: For Bernstein, in fact, any poetic discourse against the impending war, if it is to be of value ­or, even, if it is not to be complicit with the powers that be-- must eschew the "language of social and linguistic norms" and demonstrate, instead, measures of "ambiguity," "complexity," and "skepticism" capable of exploring the ways such norms "are used to discipline and contain dissent"-as if these last three qualities were the exclusive domain of a particular literary current.

Those who have been following the discussion in "innovative" poetic circles about poetry's role in the current period should be able to see that Bernstein intends his statement, in part, as a response to Eliot Weinberger's talk of a few weeks back at the Poetry Project. In characteristically clear and pointed address, Weinberger reminded his listeners, not all of whom were happy to hear it, that nearly all great and lasting anti-war poetry (that of the Vietnam war, for recent and stirring example) is overtly political and written in language that approximates the "norm" (again, Bernstein's accusatory term)-a poetry, that is, that lends itself to ways of reading that are closer to the "norm" than those demanded by a poetics of abstract surface and self-reflexive speculation.

That this is so is quite simply a matter of history, and it's clear that this touches a nerve for Bernstein, since it runs directly counter to the claims of radical relevance that Language poetry has made for itself since Robert Grenier wrote
"I HATE SPEECH". Indeed, the relative silence from old-guard Language poets in the present crisis (the younger "post-avants" they have often scolded for not being "political" enough are the ones now engaged in forging a poetics of activism) begins to suggest that their "ambiguous," "complex," "skeptical" and, increasingly, academically-contextualized poetics really has little to currently offer beyond prescriptive pronouncements like Bernstein's-- pronouncements that fundamentally conflate ethics and aesthetics, and which, in so doing, preempt any idea of democratic dialogue and political unity within the multifarious poetic community. Thus does Bernstein, in his statement, show himself to be exclusivist and fundamentalist in his poetics, and --in his superior ideological dispensations-an ironic after-echo of the intolerant rulers he would oppose.

Times of quickening crisis famously clarify things previously obscured by cultural inertia. In this particular time, an "avant-garde" circle, long insistent of the vanguard nature of its theory and practice, is being shown to be more or less pulling up the cultural rear. And its members' patronizing snipes against poets speaking out with courage and force are starting to sound like sour-grape complaints about being left behind.

To them, a simple suggestion: Enough.

Kent Johnson

* Bernstein's March 10 post, titled "Enough!" can be found in the Poetics List archives, at

On March 30, Nick Piombino posted the following on his blog, Fait Accompli:

"David Hess and Jim Behrle have weighed in on Barrett Watten's call for a critique and analysis of the reasons the present administration have given us for going to war (see -Circulars-). All have ignored the quiet voice of Masha Zavialova whose recent statements on the list were the most cogent because she lived through all this in the Soviet Union. Masha feels there is real work to do for poets in "taking the shit" off what our leaders have to say. But this will take even more time, as poets have immediately clashed as to how to go about working together. One group wants to deconstruct what has been said in order to become more constructive, the other group wants us to say or do something more constructive right away. Are these positions very far apart?"

Nick's plaintive question, "Are these positions very far apart?" seems a strange one to ask.

He has been reading the poetry news, and he certainly must know that at the heart of this growing discussion is the notion, clearly conveyed in recent statements by proponents of the "deconstructive" approach (most prominently Silliman, Bernstein, & Watten), that a certain "advanced" poetic practice --one which self-consciously takes the ideological status of language as thematic sine qua non-- is of greater social, historical, and political value than the more formally conventional kinds of responses that have flourished in the U.S. poetry world (notably via PAW) in response to the imperialist war.

The statements, in fact (see Bernstein's "Enough" and entries at Silliman's Blog on the "poetry of quietude"), have been stunningly haughty, quite open in suggesting that anti-war poets who write in "mainstream" modes--who use, in Bernstein's disdainful terms, "righteous monologue" and "digestible messages"-- inevitably play into the hands of those forces that would "discipline and contain dissent."

This elitist posture, as I pointed out in earlier response, is frankly embarrassing. Moreover, and more consequentially, it stimulates sectarian division just when the building of dialogic strategies and ethics in the cultural community is an urgent matter; it projects the "superior" nature of one relatively small poetic formation, ignoring, against all evidence, that the forms of poetic resistance that most writers and readers make use of in times of political exigency are ordered from the forms of everyday language-- forms which naturally tend to be pointed outward in addresses of partisan reference, and not inward in deconstructive analyses of cultural ideologemes. Given this fact, some fairly obvious questions could be posed to Watten, et. al. : Whose poetry was, or is, more "politically" relevant: Stein's or Neruda's? Zukofsky's or Hikmet's? Mallarme's or Brecht's? Was Vallejo wrong to abandon the hermetic poetry of _Trilce_ when he wrote the great popular poetry collected in _Espana, aparta de mi este caliz_? Does, say, Owen's "Dulce et Decorum Est" have the effect of disciplining dissent because it is written in a prosody and syntax similar to that used by Kipling or other pro-imperial poets?

That's not to suggest that the poetry of a Stein or Zukofsky is without political value, nor, much less, that the kinds of writing practices advocated by the first-generation Language poets are irrelevant. To the contrary-- their poetry and criticism has much to contribute. But culture (it's a somewhat obvious proposition) is informed by a diversity of reading formations, and these negotiate and manipulate their semiotic environments in complex and mutually impacting ways. An effective poetics of resistance will be likewise diverse, and informed (at least provisionally) by attitudes of mutual tolerance and respect. Call it a Total Syntax of Poetic Resistance-- one that recognizes axiological values as fluid, contingent, and not necessarily counterposed in their utilities, and which refuses, consequently, to grant privilege to any particular mode of compositional attention.

But in that regard, the so-called avant-garde in American poetry is far away, right now, from leading the way.

Kent Johnson