Tuesday, October 21, 2008
by Charles Bernstein
Charles Bernstein writes persuasively on the generous musicality of Gertrude Stein in his essay, “Professing Stein/ Stein Professing,” where he sidesteps the pitfalls of much criticism that, as Bernstein puts it, confronts her work as “…a puzzle that must be cracked, a code that must be deciphered, a problem that must be solved or dissolved, an inchoate phenomenon that must be theoretically psychoanalyzed; and worst of all, a secret that must be detected.” Bernstein’s essay does not apologize for Stein’s diffuse prose, nor does he “explain away” the complexities of the text. Instead, he celebrates it. He accents Stein’s sonorous honesty, insisting on the great pleasure her writings can offer and discouraging hermeneutics by admitting that “what you see is what you get or, better, what you get is what you hear.” Bernstein concedes “a purely formalist approach will never exhaust all there is to say about Stein…,” but he also quotes Wittgenstein as a warning: “[The] mistake is to look for an explanation where we ought to look at what happens as a ‘proto-phenomenon.’ That is where we ought to have said: this language game is played…” Bernstein does not differentiate between games and play, welcoming both within a discursive, antiabsorbtive “approaching” of language at a nexus of its very word-ness. Within the web of word-ness, Bernstein discovers modes for discovery and dissent.
The essays in poet and theorist Charles Bernstein’s 1992 collection, “A Poetics,” including the above-discussed “Professing Stein/ Stein Professing,” avoid the worst arrogances of poetics – to conclusively explain and explicate through generalized and rigid aesthetic theory. The reductive adamancy of the New Critical establishment continues to serve as a valuable warning against such over-confidence. Bernstein repeatedly writes against closure and towards a voluminous opening. The rallying cry of the book is one of explorative divergence and difference –an actualized diversity divorced of PC tokenism. I’ve heard claims – haven’t you?- of Bernstein’s critical militancy, yet these assaults do not withstand investigation. Bernstein displays a confluence with an Emersonian optimism in discourse with the oftentimes bleakness of postmodernists such as Adorno and Jameson. Instead of Adorno’s “truth is the antithesis of existing society,” Bernstein suggests “…truth is the synthesis of existing societies…,” but he himself admits “…that would be to substitute my own poetic pragmatism for Adorno’s more rhetorically scathing insight, as if I didn’t get the joke.” That he is willing to “hear out” the joke, so to speak, is one of his critical strengths.
Above I discuss Bernstein’s poetics as an invested opening – and what is an opening but a hole? Along those lines, I would ask you to remember the “holes” Robert Creeley writes about as existing within words. These holes are negative semantically, but judgment is never passed on their worth – they are not negative qualitatively. The discrepancies and necessary waste of language – to plunder Bataille’s theory of economics, are rewards of a kind. Take note of the holes, as is the case within these essays in reference to meaning, as a methodology of ambiguity against entrenched reductives – the myth of conclusiveness.
See how Bernstein argues against the finality of Danto’s “End of Art,” while not quite arguing against Danto’s “End of Art” as a critical concept. Elsewhere in the long poem/poetics “Artifice of Absorption,” Bernstein questions Helen Vendler when she hopes “…readers might be provoked by some/….poems to say – “Heavens, I recognize the place, I know it!’ It is the effect every poet hopes for.” But it isn’t an effect “every” poet strives for, it simply represents the overriding goal of a highly visible and authoritative contingency within mainstream poetics. That goal is not in and of itself a bad goal, but it remains ‘a’ goal, instead of ‘the’ goal. Bernstein hopes “…readers might be provoked to say of some poems,/ “Hell, I don’t recognize the place or the time or/ the ‘I’ in this sentence. I don’t know it.” Charles Bernstein is writing more about departures from within a language, while Vendler is discussing a rediscovery within established linguistic modes – “recovering” instead of Bernstein’s “uncovering.” Fantasy anthologist Lin Carter would often paraphrase Irish writer Lord Dunsany in expressed our wish to move beyond “…the fields we know.” This is not the escapist exoticism Emerson writes against, but an affirmation of difference. Bernstein, to my understanding, approaches a similar sentiment.
Like many critical writers, Bernstein truly comes alive in his discussion of poets in whom he has a vested interest– an aesthetic passion and pleasure he wishes to impart to the reader. This is different than a “required reading” list, he warns against just that. Bernstein stresses “the point is not to retrace the steps but to respond to the process of discovery. The idea that you’ve got to read what I read, or what he or she reads or read: awful nightmare of sameness.” Not a syllabus or course list. Rather, reading Bernstein is akin to essayist Guy Davenport in the sense that reading these authors extends vast concentric circles of possibility. Circles instead of canons. Jerome Rothenberg is another one of our great practitioners of such an opening, a widening, as seen in his many anthologies, such as “Revolutions of the World,” discussed elsewhere on this blog, and the more recent “Poems for the Millennium” with Pierre Joris.
Let me return, then, to Bernstein’s concise essay on Gertrude Stein. Bernstein reminds us that “Stein spoke not of being avant-garde, not of futurity, but of being contemporary.” The twin pillars that bolster and guard “A Poetics” against authoritative arrogance is Charles Bernstein’s insistence on contemporality and contextuality. He asks “What is it to be contemporary? What is it to be where we are, to be present in language, to language: and for language to be present for you?” Aren’t these questions also at the forefront of the essay, “Time Out of Motion?” Here, Bernstein extends a discussion of Oscar Wilde’s; Bernstein responds that “Yes, each period kills the thing it loves/ But each century does not die.” What complicates an inclusive appraisal is “The failure of contemporaneity- the failure of one’s contemporaries to be contemporaries…,” that is, with so many contemporary poetries enacted simultaneously, we must jettison any pretense of completeness. Nothing is “comprehensive,” so much as inclusive.
Contemporary poetics cannot encapsulate, but it can juxtapose. Pound’s failure in “The Cantos” was that he could not, as he hoped to, arrive at “…deeper truths that could be revealed by more monadically organized poems operating with a single voice and a single perspective.” Pound’s success is that he crafted a work of dizzying “…indeterminacy, fragmentation, abstraction, obscurity, verbiage, equivocation, ambiguity, allegory…removing ideologies from their origins and creating for them a nomadic economy whose roots are neither in the land nor in property but rather in the abstraction of aestheticization and the irresolution of the jarring harmonies of incommensurable sounds.” Pound fails to encapsulate, but succeeds in juxtaposition. Earlier in “A Poetics,” Bernstein writes “…there is always an unbridgeable lacuna between/ any explication of a reading & any actual/ reading. & it is the extend of these lacunas-/ differing with each reader but not indeterminate-/ that is a necessary measure of a poem’s/ meaning.” What he is getting at is the same thing which attracted me to poetry from the start - the decentering of textuality; the destabilizing of a poet’s authority, connected to but apart from(perhaps a further investigation of) talk of the “death of the author;” and the ultimate empowerment of the reader as entitled and individual creative territories.