Poetry is a form of sophism rather than of truth

Interview with Charles Bernstein by Daniel Benjamin

Daniel Benjamim: How has your upbringing and early exposure to poetry shaped your work?

Charles Bernstein: No doubt my upbringing underlies the proclivities and unconscious obsessions and fascinations that I pursue. I’ve lived all my life pretty much in the same neighborhood in the Upper West Side so I think that being from that place, the look and sound, social attitudes, the implicit imaginary of the neighborhood is very important and informative, though I don’t necessarily represent it or much talk about it. I avoided early exposure to poetry. But at some point I did get the infection, which took a viral hold over me that I couldn’t shake despite common sense and against all odds.

I write poetry because I can’t do anything else as well.

In college, I studied philosophy with Stanley Cavell and Rogers Albritton. My undergraduate dissertation, “Three Steins,” focused on Ludwig Wittgenstein and Gertrude Stein. (I was a lone “steen” among the Steins.)  Sometimes it scares me how little I have strayed from my engagements in that early work; but then, I am easily frightened.

At the time, I wrote a little bit of what might be called poetry, but I would have said I was interested in writing: verbal stuff.  The concept of poetry that was in my mind was too narrow. Over the years I’ve gotten much more engaged with the history of the genre and am inclined to think of poetry in the broadest sense, as the language art, as David Antin has so usefully insisted.

DB: Could you talk more about Wittgenstein and his influence on you?

CB: At Harvard, I found an asylum in Emerson Hall, because I couldn’t abide the literature classes: the axiomatic claustrophobia of the professors was intolerable, but far worse was the quick and contemptuous dismissal of modern and contemporary art in all its forms by my overwhelmingly (or so it seemed) prep school or prep school wannabe classmates. I remember a class on Céline’s “Mort à  credit” (“Death on the Installment Plan”) … such incredible use of ellipsis, such a dystopian imagination, so grotesque…  My classmates had never read anything like this … they didn’t like it. At the time, I was young enough to feel wounded by their responses. So I found my way over to philosophy. While the analytic side of philosophical discussion was of only modest interest to me, I didn’t have that same visceral revulsion, maybe because I didn’t care as much about abstract philosophical arguments as I did about art. So that’s how I drifted into philosophy. I enjoyed especially the history of philosophy—the Greeks; Augustine and Aquinas, Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz; Kant, Rousseau, Mill, Marx, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche …  And then especially Wittgenstein.

Wittgenstein’s turn to language had me in its spell.  His perception that words are not just a mapped onto “things” in a one-on-one correspondence (slab for slab, slop for slop), but that the texture of language, as we use it in conversation, is a basis for our ways of seeing. Language provides a lens or filter or map or probe with which, and through which, we negotiate the world.
It’s this dimension of aesthetics in terms of poesis that is attractive to many poets, if not through Wittgenstein then through John Dewey or Roman Jakobson or George Lakoff.  Wittgenstein encourages intuitions about significance of sound, that metaphors are not expendable (we don’t just see but see as), that syntax is a perceptual system. So even though Wittgenstein is the poet of the everyday and of convention, for me he also provided a foundation for an engagement with the practice of abnormality, aversion as Emerson puts it, or swerving away in the Heraclitean or Alfred Jarryesque sense: the odd or queer turn of phrase that might suggest a way of life.

Of course I also swerved from Wittgenstein, toward more socio-historical and ideological frames of reference and toward making art. I’m more interested in interest, in Habermas’s sense in “Knowledge and Human Interest”; and also in factura, constructing verbal objects for reflection.

DB: With the idea of the “linguistic turn,” one might see Language poetry and Ordinary Language philosophy as two paths that came out of Wittgenstein in very different ways.

CB: One more expected and the other a surprise, the illegitimate child. I associate the linguistic turn with Stein, Freud, Wittgenstein, and Benjamin, but behind that Blake, Poe, and Dickinson, among others. I think of philosophy more the way I think of poetry, as a genre like detective fiction, rather than as a truth-seeking activity in and of itself. The truth-seeking activity is the genre.

DB: Could you talk more about editing L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine and the beginning of Language poetry and how that related to previous avant-garde movements in poetry?

CB: Language poetry doesn’t exist. It’s a chimera robed in allusion. Imaginary. Or perhaps it’s an oasis: you’re in a desert and there seems to be a pool of water just over there. Something like the enticing, if wintry, Lake Michigan just out the window from Regents Park, where we’re talking. People on different shores are looking at it from different perspectives and seeing different things they want or don’t want from it, and it becomes those things. So it’s plural (a plural that includes those who think it isn’t). Or then again: Language poetry is a social construction; a performance not an essence. Collective and collaborative.

One thing about L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, which I edited with Bruce Andrews from 1978 to 1982, is that it rejected the modernist avant-garde model.  L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E  was a bricolage of related poetic, philosophic, and political works; we were exploring a tendency, not defining a set of principles. We were trying to connect disparate groups, individuals, and formations and by so doing advocate approaches to poetry, modernist and contemporary, that we felt were undervalued, or indeed that were stigmatized. In particular, I was scanning for poetry and poetics that were formally eccentric, diverging from literary and linguistic norms, poetry that was weird and queer and extreme and very self-conscious about how its forms were provisional and imaginary and invented.

What we did in the ’70s is specific to what was possible at that moment, building on the work of radical modernist and New American Poetry, but also reflecting the cultural possibilities of the moment, following the anti-war movement and taking some cues from an emerging counter-culture of dissensus.  From the point of view of cold war neoliberalism—post history, post ideology—our insistence that poetry was not removed from ideology … well it made some folks see red. We were accused of being dogmatic precisely because we refused the prevailing verse dogmas (PVDs).

L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E assembled a compendium of samples, a range of activities that had no natural place of their own, no proper place. Here I would use the term of Michel de Certeau and say we were about tactics because we were not able to have a strategy.  Certeau speaks about strategy as being for someone that has the high ground, the proper space; tactics are activities that undermine those controlling interests.  Although I’d also say that it’s not just tactical, that what’s needed is a poetics of tactics, so there is of a larger reflection on the nature of how those tactics operate. In that sense, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E was a constellation of tactics without an underlying principle, except perhaps Joe Hill’s: don’t mourn, organize. The absence of an underlying principle is, I think, what I mean by “imaginary” in my initial reply to you; I think it’s crucial to why the magazine may have resonance now (if it does). Often poetry groupings have more to do with commitments to a specific style or to a particular social milieu. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that!”, as Seinfeld would say. But either I wasn’t interested in that or maybe it’s just that in New York in the mid-’70s I was too much on the periphery of the art and poetry and performance subcultures that I found most attractive, and I didn’t find any one style that I wanted to marry either. So we made something up!  But eclecticism was not our thing either.

L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E was a montage. We were about constellation not juxtaposition. It was all about picking and choosing to create a palpable, compelling even tantalizing sense of the possibilities for poetry, all the time acknowledging the history we felt ourselves extending. And forging friendships and commitments as we went along.

I understand this kind of approach isn’t for all poets, or maybe even for most poets, many of whom would find so much organizing a distraction. But for me—and this takes me through the rest of my life—organizing is a poetic practice. I think of poetry, marginal though it is, as a fundamental activity within our culture. I think of it as historical, cognitive, philosophical, aesthetic work. Because I think that, I try to put things together that might not go together at first—but then, after not too long, it might seem they were—almost—a natural fit.  And for me it also means mapping poetic work onto multiple cultural spaces, some expected some not—the internet, universities, reading series, the visual arts, music, film, little magazines, performance, publishing, radio.

With L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, there were a number of poets who were in conversation, engaged in a discussion of the linguistic turn, of the significance of verbal language as a perceptual membrane that changes the way we see the world, of the possibilities of continuing formal invention within poetry and the social implications of such invention, and of the relation of voices to voicing, found materials to made patterns, parts to wholes, standardization to conformity …

L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E  is syncretic. Our conversations melded into an alloy. And there is one more crucial element, maybe most important of all: our commitment to non-expository modes of discursive thinking; to new essays forms engaged with nonlinear thinking. Essays, poetics as a crucial part of the work of poetry …

DB: Your work is formally very varied, spanning poetry, essays, libretti, online placards.  And even within the “poetry” your work takes very different form.  I’m wondering if you could talk about if you’re conscious of working in form, and whether it’s a mistake to divide your work through that kind of formal lens?

CB: I am interested in poetry as a medium for exploring the possibilities, and resistances, to expression, not as a vehicle to express a message I have already formulated. My poetry doesn’t convey what I know, it explores the conditions of how I know it. A lot of the kicking-up-dust aspects of 1970s discussions about poetry were, not surprisingly, centered around the problems of language and description. The word “poem” doesn’t delimit all that much. It used to drive me crazy when people whose work I thought was terrific would say “poetry does this” and “poetry does that.”  I remember writing a letter to Jerome McGann saying I love this essay but I don’t understand why you say poetry in this way; isn’t it some poetry or this particular poem. And then I found myself doing exactly what I was complaining to McGann about, and for the same reason that McGann sometimes does it, as an expression of desire.

Poetry itself is a porous term; it means a lot of different things to different people. It’s not an honorific. A work doesn’t become a poem because it’s good and cease to be a poem if it is bad. If somebody chooses to publish the TV listing from this hotel as a poem—and why not?—the problem would not be whether the work is a poem. Veronica Forrest-Thomson, in “Poetic Artifice,” lays this out this argument persuasively. She points out that if you can take a newspaper article and break it up into verse lines, you’ll read it as a poem, but not necessarily as an especially good or interesting poem.

For me poetry is a form of sophism and of rhetoric rather than of truth and sincerity.

Our terminology or typology for poetry is inadequate to the proliferating and contradictory range of approaches in the postwar years. I want to talk about hue or tone; about satire versus irony versus sarcasm versus humor; about bumpy versus smooth surfaces; about 13 ways of looking at rhythm in nonmetrical poetry; about the difference between form and its inflections. Narrative, prose poem, lyric, epic, personal, performance, long, short, elliptical, sound, visual, identitarian, disjunctive, projective, formalist, objectivist—just as “language” or “conceptual”—don’t account for the wild divergences within the rubrics and unexpected affinities across them.

Still I count on recognition of genre distinctions, including these sub-genre categorical distinctions, even when I pull the rug out from under them. This was crucial to me in putting together my “All the Whiskey in Heaven: Selected Poems,” where a stanza can be a short poem or then again part of a longer serial work; and where the poems, taken from thirty years of work, are repurposed to be part of this new serial work, with the book as organizing principle. For the selected, I wanted to juxtapose very disparate forms, in order to create a rhythm out of the movement among the discrepant parts; the meaning is as much in the space in between as in the poems themselves. Each poem does have its autonomy, but the book as a whole more as an installation than a collection.

DB:In the promotional material for your new book some lines struck me as interesting.  You are called “both trickster and charmer.”  And your poems “provide equal measures of aesthetic pleasure, hilarity, and philosophical reflection.”  What are your thoughts on being read as a satirist?

CB: My work has a lot of comic elements. In some way I think of poetry, in its expressive and figurative quests, as comic; if not outright bathetic then the pathos of decorum often strikes me as vaguely ludicrous. Yet, I’ve resisted the terms satire and irony, even though some of my poems most surely do appear to be one or the other, maybe both. One way to say it is that they’re never wholly ironic and they’re not primarily satiric. It’s more that things don’t always mean what they seem to mean on the surface. Nor do they mean the opposite.

One poem in the “Selected,” “Thank You For Saying Thank You,” satirizes the belief that poems should be accessible and understandable. As the poem goes on, it becomes darkly impossible to take seriously the ostensive content because the poem, written in an apparently hyperaccessible style, is so patently undermining what it’s saying. And yet at the same time, the poem is making a relatively straightforward point. But the straightforward point of that poem (the contravention of the ostensive content) isn’t what interests me about it. It’s not that I’m not annoyed about certain kinds of superficial dismissals of difficulty in poetry. For poets of any stripe, or even of no stripe at all, issues of difficulty or “getting it” are unavoidable, because poetry as a genre is difficult. Even poetry that tries to be as user-friendly as possible can’t overcome the problem that it’s a poem … for God’s sake. Poets have a vested interest in either saying, “Oh no it really is accessible, just give it time,” or claiming to want to be inaccessible. The issue can’t go away because—nothing to do with any given poet—poetry is such a socially marginalized activity that even the concept of doing poetry itself is obscure to most people. Puzzling. “What is that, I sort of like that, but do you do that for a living?  Can you publish work like that?” So it comes back to this: as social form poetry has a kind of comic and pathetic aspect to it.

What interests me about “Thank You for Saying Thank You” partly is the borderline between the comic and condescension; exploding certain ideas as you’re saying them, so that it appears that you’re saying exactly the opposite, which in that case would not be saying the opposite. I’m interested in it as a kind of odd rhetorical machine, what I’ve been calling bachelor machine (after Duchamp and Kafka): “celibate machines,” non-productive, non-procreative. I think of them as self-cancelling artifacts that just get caught in their own internal logic, are hoisted on their own petards. It’s almost like a short-circuit in the internal logic. In “Recantorium,” which was in Critical Inquiry and excerpted in Harper’s last year, I specifically bring into play the disciplinary apparatus of Kafka’s “The Penal Colony”.

This becomes a motif in “All the Whiskey in Heaven,” starting with the first poem, from 1975, “Asylums,” which considers the language of self-enclosed, self-canceling, self-rending systems. The words we use, and that are used for us, can connect us to the world or cast us adrift, make us voyeurs of (even our own) everyday life or participants. I try to rub up against, and even mess with, the metaphoric or ideological structures we all live inside of, including, especially, my own (the ones that own me); I try to make these disciplinary imaginaries manifest, tangible. What is being satirized? Both “Thank You For Saying Thank You” and “Recantorium” can be described as sarcastic and satiric; sarcasm and satire are their subjects. But neither has a “proper” point of view that replaces the ostensive deformed order. In fact, both poems replace a deformed order with a bent and weird and unstable othering. I’d say they satirize satire, but that’s not right either, since they indulge in it. While, there is a recognition of bad faith in both poems there is also an acknowledgement of being enmired in it, of complicity. They’re quite performative and aggressive: they mean to do something, not do something that means.

Poetry—see here’s that overly abstract usage!—well, my poetry allows me to think through conflicts and agonisms in a space that isn’t directly involved with outcomes or solutions; I can dwell in ambivalence and disability. It’s a truism to say poetic decisions are not necessarily the best ones in non-poetic realms, such as those of the state. But poetry allows us to imagine alternative and even counterfactual or impossible outcomes. It’s a space for thought and for reflection.

DB: You have been a critic of “official verse culture.”  What constitutes official verse culture, and would you say it has changed significantly in recent years?

CB: Since it is a successful dynamic process, Official Verse Culture lives by change, much as vampires live by fresh blood. Official Verse Culture in 2010 has adapted to many things that it repudiated 25 or more years ago: it is, after all, at its heart, eclectic, incorporating the good, the bad, and the ugly.

DB: Are the changes in official verse culture legible through an ideological analysis—by which I mean, can we track the changes in official verse culture simply by tracking the changes in the economic and political conditions?

CB: Yes and no. My generation has been riding a wave of significant cultural change and poetry, at all levels, tracks, reflects, foments and impedes those changes. Demographically neither your generation nor mine has the same prejudices or assumptions about gender, race, and sexual orientation, or for that matter about marriage, as did my parents’ generation. At the same time, the question would be: does capitalism still work? Capitalism wasn’t exactly dependent on those cultural issues, which doesn’t mean the changes aren’t of the greatest value, they are. But also we shift our prejudices from one group to another, then the Reds now the terrorists, without coming to terms with the terrorism we create or the class inequities that have increased. And with official verse culture the problem is the systematic evasion of the criteria for judgments and the repression of the cultural and political interests that underlie the hierarchies being created; in other words, the fantasy that poetry is not a field made of competing and agonistic poetics and so the repression of that agonism.

Meanwhile, in poetry, certain styles that were forbidden thirty years ago are now fodder for the creative writing mill; while the Associated Writing Programs is more about containment than ever, partly because it sees neoliberalism and anti-intellectualism as a way to increase its footprint in the university and thus its economic base. As if the AWP is going to save the imagination from the MLA (in which case, God help the imagination). While poetry is, of course, important to AWP, it surely is not important to the New York Times, so it is sometimes hard to understand why the poetry coverage there is so one-sided and just basically clueless; it wouldn’t be tolerated in most other areas the newspaper (though I always do wonder about the real estate section). It just doesn’t seem to matter enough to give poetry …  well if not due diligence than any diligence, even some basic reporting.

Official Verse Culture continues to incorporate teaspoon doses of the kind of poetry I want. And when that happens, I am delighted and just want more, more instanter: tablespoons, buckets. I don’t back away from those encroachments into the mainstream, I seek them out. Because I think poetry matters, and I think the recognition poetry receives in the “larger” culture matters too. I think the poetry on the radio, the poetry taught in high schools and colleges, matters. I’d love to see the new multiple volume collected Larry Eigner get a front page review in the Times and a long article in the New Yorker. Every time I hear Garrison Keillor’s “Writers Almanac” do a poetry segment I am acutely disappointed by the timidity of the choices, the lost opportunity. I’m sad that any number of the books I’ve felt most significant have not had greater acknowledgment in the nationally circulated press and major newspapers or by the big awards and prizes; but it doesn’t affect the value of their work and the recognition these poets have among many of us who care about the art of poetry.

The critique is institutional. Poetry is striated by intense aesthetic and ideological conflict. That’s what needs to be acknowledged. Official Verse Culture attempts to neutralize such conflict, often with the pathos of the true believer.

DB: It seems as if there’s been a recent consolidation of many interesting avant-garde poetry groups: the EPC, PennSound, the Poetics List, and Jacket.  You have an early essay that is critical of “groupings.” I’m wondering if you’re worried about a new kind of grouping coming out in the poetic academy which might have a specific kind of power and force as a mold to be broken.

CB: I am worried about the consolidation of “intellectual content” in the hands of large corporations. With PennSound, perhaps more important even than the poetry readings we have made available is the fact that we have put this vast archive of poetry in the public domain (for noncommercial use); that is, kept it from being privatized. Everything on PennSound and the EPC is free, downloadable; there are no ads. With PennSound, I’ve been fortunate to work with Al Filries whose commitment to creating and maintaining alternative poetry spaces is extraordinary. The imperative to me is to make the most of the institutional resources available to me. The problem for me is not that we’ve done too much, but that we are not doing enough. And I hope and trust that the models we have created will encourage other people to respond to what we’ve done and especially what we’ve failed to do—and to create their own comparable sites.



Poets are fakers
Whose faking is so real
They even fake the pain
They truly feel

And for those of us so well read
Those read pains feel O, so swell
Not the poets’ double header
But the not of the neither

And so the wheels go whack
Ensnaring our logical part
In the train wreck
Called the human heart

Translated into English by Charles Bernstein
after Fernando Pessoa


Fernando Pessoa

O poeta é um fingidor.
Finge tão completamente
Que chega a fingir que é dor
A dor que deveras sente.

E os que lêem o que escreve,
Na dor lida sentem bem,
Não as duas que ele teve,
Mas só a que eles não têm.

E assim nas calhas de roda
Gira, a entreter a razão,
Esse comboio de corda
Que se chama coração.