Attack of the Difficult Poems: Essays and Inventionsby Charles Bernstein
Charles Bernstein is our postmodern jester of American poesy, equal part surveyor of democratic vistas and scholar of avant-garde sensibilities. In a career spanning thirty-five years and forty books, he has challenged and provoked us with writing that is decidedly unafraid of the tensions between ordinary and poetic language, and between everyday life and its
Charles Bernstein is our postmodern jester of American poesy, equal part surveyor of democratic vistas and scholar of avant-garde sensibilities. In a career spanning thirty-five years and forty books, he has challenged and provoked us with writing that is decidedly unafraid of the tensions between ordinary and poetic language, and between everyday life and its adversaries. Attack of the Difficult Poems, his latest collection of essays, gathers some of his most memorably irreverent work while addressing seriously and comprehensively the state of contemporary humanities, the teaching of unconventional forms, fresh approaches to translation, the history of language media, and the connections between poetry and visual art.
Applying an array of essayistic styles, Attack of the Difficult Poems ardently engages with the promise of its title. Bernstein introduces his key theme of the difficulty of poems and defends, often in comedic ways, not just difficult poetry but poetry itself. Bernstein never loses his ingenious ability to argue or his consummate attention to detail. Along the way, he offers a wide-ranging critique of literature’s place in the academy, taking on the vexed role of innovation and approaching it from the perspective of both teacher and practitioner.
From blues artists to Tin Pan Alley song lyricists to Second Wave modernist poets, The Attack of the Difficult Poems sounds both a battle cry and a lament for the task of the language maker and the fate of invention.
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ATTACK of the DIFFICULT POEMSESSAYS AND INVENTIONS
By Charles Bernstein
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2011 Charles Bernstein
All right reserved.
Chapter OneProfessing Poetics
One of the Fathers, in great severity, called poesy vinum daemonum, because it filleth the imagination; and yet it is but with the shadow of a lie. But it is not the lie that passeth through the mind, but the lie that sinketh in and settleth in it, that doth the hurt. FRANCIS BACON, "OF TRUTH" It is a ridiculous demand which England and America make, that you shall speak so that they can understand you. Neither men nor toadstools grow so. As if that were important, and there were not enough to understand you without them. As if Nature could support but one order of understandings, could not sustain birds as well as quadrupeds, flying as well as creeping things, and hush and whoa, which Bright can understand, were the best English. As if there were safety in stupidity alone. I fear chiefly lest my expression may not be extra-vagant enough, may not wander far enough beyond the narrow limits of my daily experience, so as to be adequate to the truth of which I have been convinced. HENRY DAVID THOREAU, WALDEN Still, how to bear such loss I deemed The insistent question for each animate mind, And gazing, to my growing sight there seemed A pale yet positive gleam low down behind THOMAS HARDY, "GOD'S FUNERAL"
THE DIFFICULT POEM
All of us from time to time encounter a difficult poem. Sometimes it is the poem of a friend or family member and sometimes it is a poem we have written ourselves.
The difficult poem has created distress for both poets and readers for many years. Experts who study difficult poems often tie the modern prevalence of this problem with the early years of the last century, when a great deal of social dislocation precipitated the outbreak of 1912, one of the best-known epidemics of difficult poetry.
But while these experts have offered detailed historical discussions of difficult poems and while there is a great deal of philosophical speculation and psychological theory about difficult poetry, there are few practical guides for handling difficult poetry. What I want to do in this essay is explore some ways to make your experience with the difficult poem more rewarding by exploring some strategies for coping with these poems.
You may be asking yourself, how did I get interested in this topic? Let me be frank about my situation. I am the author of, and a frequent reader of, difficult poems. Because of this, I have the strong desire to help other readers and authors with hard-to-read poems. By sharing my experience of over thirty years of working with difficult poems, I think I can save you both time and heartache. I may even be able to convince you that some of the most difficult poems you encounter can provide very enriching aesthetic experiences—if you understand how to approach them.
But first we must address the question—Are you reading a difficult poem? How can you tell? Here is a handy checklist of five key questions that can help you to answer this question:
1 Do you find the poem hard to appreciate?
2 Do you find the poem's vocabulary and syntax hard to understand?
3 Are you often struggling with the poem?
4 Does the poem make you feel inadequate or stupid as a reader?
5 Is your imagination being affected by the poem?
If you answered any of these questions in the affirmative, you are probably dealing with a difficult poem. But if you are still unsure, look for the presence of any of these symptoms: high syntactic, grammatical, or intellectual activity level; elevated linguistic intensity; textual irregularities; initial withdrawal (poem not immediately available); poor adaptability (poem unsuitable for use in love letters, memorial commemoration, etc.); sensory overload; or negative mood.
Many readers when they first encounter a difficult poem say to themselves, "Why me?" The first reaction they often have is to think that this is an unusual problem that other readers have not faced. So the first step in dealing with the difficult poem is to recognize that this is a common problem that many other readers confront on a daily basis. You are not alone!
The second reaction of many difficult-poem readers is self-blame. They ask themselves, "What am I doing to cause this poem to be so difficult?" So the second step in dealing with the difficult poem is to recognize that you are not responsible for the difficulty and that there are effective methods for responding to it without getting frustrated or angry.
The writers of difficult poems face the same troubling questions as readers, but for them the questions can be even more agitating. Often a poet will ask himself, if he is man, or herself, if a woman (transgendered individuals also find themselves asking these questions): "Why did my poem turn out like this? Why isn't it completely accessible like the poems of Billy Collins, which never pose any problems for understanding?" Like readers of difficult poems, these writers of difficult poems must first come to terms with the fact that theirs is a common problem, shared by many other authors. And they must come to terms with the fact that it is not their fault that their poems are harder to understand than Billy Collins's, but that some poems just turn out that way.
Difficult poems are normal. They are not incoherent, meaningless, or hostile. Well-meaning readers may have suggested that "something must be wrong" with the poem. So let's get a new perspective. "Difficult" is very different from abnormal. In today's climate, with an increasing number of poems being labeled "difficult," this is an important distinction to keep in mind.
Difficult poems are like this because of their innate makeup. And that makeup is their constructed style. They are not like this because of something you as readers have done to them. It's not your fault.
Difficult poems are hard to read. Of course, you already know this, but if you keep it in mind then you are able to regain your authority as a reader. Don't let the poem intimidate you! Often the difficult poem will provoke you, but this may be its way of getting your attention. Sometimes, if you give your full attention to the poem, the provocative behavior will stop.
Difficult poems are not popular. This is something that any reader or writer of difficult poems must face squarely. There are no three ways about it. But just because a poem is not popular doesn't mean it has no value! Unpopular poems can still have meaningful readings and, after all, may not always be unpopular. Even if the poem never becomes popular, it can still be special to you, the reader. Maybe the poem's unpopularity will even bring you and the difficult poem closer. After all, your own ability to have an intimate relation with the poem is not affected by the poem's popularity.
Once you have gotten beyond the blame game—blaming yourself as a reader for the difficulty or blaming the poem—you can start to focus on the relationship. The difficulty you are having with the poem may suggest that there is a problem not with you the reader nor with the poem but with the relation between you and the poem. Working through the issues that arise as part of this relation can be a valuable learning experience. Smoothing over difficulties is not the solution! Learning to cope with a difficult reading of a poem will often be more fulfilling than sweeping difficulties under the carpet, only to have the accumulated dust plume up in your face when you finally get around to cleaning the floor.
Readers of difficult poems also need to beware of the tendency to idealize the accessible poem. Keep in mind that a poem may be easy because it is not saying anything. And while this may make for undisturbed reading at first, it may mask problems that will turn up later. No poem is ever really difficulty-free. Sometimes working out your difficulties with the poem is the best thing for a long-term aesthetic experience and opens up the possibilities for many future encounters with the poem.
I hope that this approach to the difficult poem will alleviate the frustration so many readers feel when challenged by this type of aesthetic experience. Reading poems, like other life experiences, is not always as simple as it may seem to be from the outside, as when we see other readers flipping happily through collections of best-loved verse. Very often this picture of readerly bliss is not the whole story; even these now-smiling readers may have gone through difficult experiences with poems when they first encountered them. As my mother would often say, you can't make bacon and eggs without slaughtering a pig.
A BLOW IS LIKE AN INSTRUMENT: THE POETIC IMAGINARY AND CURRICULAR PRACTICES
I shall not see—and don't I know 'em? A critic lovely as a poem. DOROTHY PARKER
Recently, I went to a talk by Stanley Cavell at a bookstore in New York City. A crowd of perhaps fifty people gathered into the upstairs space of the store to hear the distinguished philosopher talk about Hollywood melodramas of a bygone era. The question period that followed Cavell's initial presentation was characterized by a mix of erudition and over-the-top enthrallment in these films, both by Cavell and the audience members. While I had seen some of the films being discussed, I had only the haziest recall of any of the details being pored over by the group as if they were a familiar part of a shared culture of those participating—a culture I also shared with them, but had fallen out of, at least to a degree. Toward the end, someone asked Cavell to talk about Blond Venus, and in the course of his remarks he noted that in the film Marlene Dietrich sings in both a gorilla costume and in a white tuxedo; he said one of the questions the film raised is whether the Dietrich figure can appear in these ways and still be taken for a responsible mother. I heard this question as reflecting on what Cavell himself was doing: Can you do philosophy in a gorilla suit or a white tuxedo and still be responsible to the profession and to the activity of philosophy (not the same thing)?
Stanley Cavell is no guerrilla warrior in the trenches of the canon wars. And his suits, while appearing tailored, tend to be blue or gray. Nonetheless, what counts for him as an activity of philosophy, at least in this instance, is barely recognizable in terms of the ostensive subject matter of his talk. Because what is philosophical about his project is not the content but his mode of thinking, by which I don't mean a set of philosophical issues that he applies to a discussion of the subject, but rather an attitude of inquiry, a manner of listening, a mode of recognizing what is significant and proceeding from there to identifying networks of significance. So the answer to the question Can philosophy still be philosophy if it is performed in a guerrilla suit or a white tuxedo? is that philosophy can be philosophy only if it acknowledges the suits it is wearing and also that these suits are not (only) what are issued to us in central casting but (also) ones that we fashion and refashion ourselves.
There are no core subjects, no core texts in the humanities, and this is the grand democratic vista of our mutual endeavor in arts and letters, the source of our greatest anxiety and our greatest possibilities. In literary studies, it is not enough to show what has been done but also what it is possible to do. Artworks are not just monuments of the past but investments in the present, investments we squander with our penurious insistence on taking such works as cultural capital rather than capital expenditure. For the most part, our programs of Great Books amount to little more than lip service to an idea of Culture that is encapsulated into tokens and affixed to curricular charm bracelets to be taken out at parties for display—but never employed in the workings of our present culture. Ideas are dead except in use. And for use you don't need a preset list of ideas or Great Works: almost any will do if enactment not prescription is the aim.
I often teach works that raise, for many students, some of the most basic questions about poetry: What is poetry? How can this work be a poem? How and what does it mean? These are not questions that I always want to talk about nor ones that the works at hand continue to raise for me. Whatever questions I may have of this sort, I have either resolved or put aside as I listen for quite different, much more particular, things. My own familiarity with the poetry I teach puts me at some distance from most students, who are coming to this work for the first time. And yet, when I overcome my resistance and engage in the discussion, which I often find becomes contentious and emotional, I am reminded that when a text is dressed in the costume of poetry, that, in and of itself, is a provocation to consider these basic questions of language, meaning, and art. Inevitably, raising such questions is one of the uses of the poetry to which I am committed; that is, poetry marked by its aversion to conformity, to received ideas, to the expected or mandated or regulated form. These aversions and resistances have their history; they are never entirely novel nor free of traditions, including the traditions of the new; that history is nothing less than literary history. But the point of literary history is not just that a selected sequence of works was created nor that they are enduring or great (or deplorable and hideous) nor that they form a part of a cultural fabric of that time or a tradition that extends to the present. All that is well and good, but aesthetically secondary. The point, that is, is not (not just) the transcendental or cultural or historical or ideological or psychoanalytic deduction of a work of art but how that works plays itself out: its performance not (just) its interpretation. But as history is written by the victors, so art (as a matter of professional imperatives) is taught by the explainers.
It needn't be so, for we are professors, not deducers: our work is as much to promote as to dispel, to generate as much as document. I am not—I know it sounds like I am—professing the virtue of art over the deadness of criticism but rather professing the aversion of virtue that is a first principle of the arts and an inherent, if generally discredited, possibility for the humanities.
I suspect part of the problem may be in the way a certain idea of philosophy as critique, rather than art as practice, has been the model for the best defense of the university. Critique, not as opposed to aesthetics but without aesthetics—that is, the sort of institutionalized critique that dominates the American university—is empty, a shell game of Great Books and Big Methods full of solutions and cultural capital, signifying nothing. That is, Professionalized Critique dogs every school of criticism when as a matter of routine (and perhaps against its most radical impulses), it turns art into artifact, asking not what it does but what it means; much as its own methods are, and quicker than a wink, turned from tools to artifacts. Like I told the man at the agency, if you want the guy to talk maybe you need to remove your hand from his throat, even if it looks to you like that's the only thing keeping him upright.
Poetry and the arts are living entities in our culture. It is not enough to know the work of a particular moment in history, removed from the context of our contemporary—our public—culture; such knowledge risks being transmitted stillborn. Just as we now insist that literary works need to be read in their sociohistorical context, so we must also insist that they be read into the present aesthetic context. So while I lament the lack of cultural and historical information on the part of students, I also lament the often proud illiteracy of contemporary culture on the part of the faculty.
Excerpted from ATTACK of the DIFFICULT POEMS by Charles Bernstein Copyright © 2011 by Charles Bernstein. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Charles Bernstein is the Donald T. Regan Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Pennsylvania, as well as coeditor of both the Electronic Poetry Center and PennSound. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and recipient of Guggenheim and NEA grants. Among his many publications are three books also published by the University of Chicago Press: Girly Man, With Strings, and My Way: Speeches and Poems.
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