by Charles Bernstein

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Long anticipated, Recalculating is Charles Bernstein’s first full-length collection of new poems in seven years. As a result of this lengthy time under construction, the scope, scale, and stylistic variation of the poems far surpasses Bernstein’s previous work. Together, the poems of Recalculating take readers on a journey through

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Long anticipated, Recalculating is Charles Bernstein’s first full-length collection of new poems in seven years. As a result of this lengthy time under construction, the scope, scale, and stylistic variation of the poems far surpasses Bernstein’s previous work. Together, the poems of Recalculating take readers on a journey through the history and poetics of the decades since the end of the Cold War as seen through the lens of social and personal turbulence and tragedy.
The collection’s title, the now-familiar GPS expression, suggests a change in direction due to a mistaken or unexpected turn. For Bernstein, formal invention is a necessary swerve in the midst of difficulty. As in all his work since the 1970s, he makes palpable the idea that radically new structures, appropriated forms, an aversion to received ideas and conventions, political engagement, and syntactic novelty will open the doors of perception to exuberance and resonance, from giddiness to pleasure to grief. But at the same time he cautions, with typical deflationary ardor, “The pen is tinier than the sword.” In these poems, Bernstein makes good on his claim that “the poetry is not in speaking to the dead but listening to the dead.” In doing so, Recalculating incorporates translations and adaptations of Baudelaire, Cole Porter, Mandelstam, and Paul Celan, as well as several tributes to writers crucial to Bernstein’s work and a set of epigrammatic verse essays that combine poetics with wry observation, caustic satire, and aesthetic slapstick.
Formally stunning and emotionally charged, Recalculating makes the familiar strange—and in a startling way, makes the strange familiar. Into these poems, brimming with sonic and rhythmic intensity, philosophical wit, and multiple personae, life events intrude, breaking down any easy distinction between artifice and the real. With works that range from elegy to comedy, conceptual to metrical, expressionist to ambient, uproarious to procedural, aphoristic to lyric, Bernstein has created a journey through the dark striated by bolts of imaginative invention and pure delight. 

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Editorial Reviews

Kenneth Goldsmith

  “I was wrong, I apologize, I recant. Originality may be the only course when loss is the mother of invention. These are not my words but I mean them."
Rae Armantrout

Recalculating gathers a substantial selection of (mostly) new poems—a few go as far back as the 80s and 90s—in a remarkably coherent and enlightening collection—though I’m certain Bernstein would abjure both of those adjectives. He has always rejected the idea of the poem as honed and polished object, and the poems in this book are as open as life itself. One thing that Recalculating makes clear is that, though Bernstein can deliver some ‘killer’ aphorisms, he is primarily a poet of abjection. He has always been drawn, as he puts it here, to the ‘painfully clumsy, clumpsy.’ Slapstick is bunkmates with failure and even heartbreak. This is especially evident in recent poems such as “Recalculating” and “Before You Go” which directly or indirectly reference the sudden death of the poet’s daughter. It is breathtaking—disturbing and admirable—that grief appears in these poems, as it does in life, alongside—well, alongside everything.”
Susan Stewart

“The English word ‘calculate’ has a double life: in standard English it means to ‘reckon’ or ‘intend’ and in dialect it means ‘to guess.’ These contrary, wayward, definitions—the first so full of certainty, the second so full of ironic doubt—shimmer and clash on every page of Charles Bernstein's obsessive, brilliant new book of poems, Recalculating. Through responses, translations, adaptations, and occasional pieces, through little hymns and tragic litanies, Bernstein measures and dreams a circle: a community of readers and writers who spin within a world built from the living history of words.”
Eileen Myles

“Charles Bernstein is writing in the simplest of forms—so simple they become radical. I love reading his work because he’s writing on the cusp of what poetry is.”
Mei-mei Berssenbrugge

“The ethos and critique are of poetry, which becomes a rich dark with a phosphorescence of lyric as witness.”

“For Charles Bernstein, historical works, interpretation, and adaptation all contribute to the cacophony of contemporary life. This collection contains a characteristically wide range of innovative verse, including formal stanzas with predictable end rhymes, columns of replicated phrases, essays in verse, axiomatic maxims, zen koans, and translations of Baudelaire, Apollinaire, and Catullus. Throughout, Bernstein usurps expectations and even anticipates, jokingly, how skeptical readers might receive his work: ‘I try to get them to see it as formal, structural historical, collaborative, and ideological. What a downer!’”

"All the defiance and revolution, all the polemics and pontifications, all the shouting and laughter, come from the same core source; Charles Bernstein's profound love of poetry. All the wrong turns, all the deviations, all the explorations, all the escapes, they all return to one fundamental idea; poetry is beautiful and poetry is important. And so is Recalculating."
Galatea Resurrects

"The range of invention in Recalculating is impressive: translations and adaptations (Baudelaire, Cole Porter, Mandelstam, Celan, Wordsworth, Plath, and Nerval, just to name a few), aphoristic poem-essays (including the title poem), doggerel, list poems, joke-poems (“The Twelve Tribes of Doctor Lacan,” for example), elegies, hay(na)ku, and more. The collection has a richness which will not be exhausted by multiple readings. It demands to be read over and over again—not for reasons of exegesis, but for pure pleasure. "
Recalculating is an immense book, hitting the extremes — of slapstick and tragedy, wisdom and buffoonery. The book’s accomplishment, ultimately, is its constant attempt to expand what it is in us that is affected by poetry."

Provincetown Arts - Jed Rasula

“Charles Bernstein’s ars poetica is courageously resistant to the blandishments of what he calls ‘personification’ in its easy embrace of the unimaginable. This insistence makes all the more poignant and arresting, then, the abject misery of personal misfortune obliquely sheltered, honored, and given voice in Recalculating, a resounding collection by one of the true originals of the art.”

“Ignore those who “don’t read Charles Bernstein” because of tired and tedious attitudes about L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets. Bernstein’s Recalculating is one of the most fascinating books of the year. Recalculating shows a wider range of tones, modes, forms, and political engagement than the anti-L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E folks would have you believe. It uses slapstick, prose, fragment, aphorism, lyric invention, and artifice to do something fantastic.”
Times Literary Supplement

“For all his earnestness of purpose, there has often been a Groucho as well as a Karl Marx element to Bernstein’s poetics, a belief that humor is as likely to open the doors of perception as polemic.”

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Product Details

University of Chicago Press
Publication date:
Edition description:
New Edition
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Product dimensions:
6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

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Copyright © 2013 Charles Bernstein
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-92528-8

Chapter One

    after Fernando Pessoa

    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

    1 April 1931


Imagine poetry as a series of terraces, some vast, some no bigger than a pinprick, overlooking the city of language. The sound and light show begins in the dark: sentences dart by, one by one, forming wave after wave of the rag and bone shop of the quotidian, events passing before our eyes like the faint glimmer of consciousness in an alcoholic stupor. Facts, facts everywhere but not a drop to drink.

Now it is dawn, now night, now noon, now morning. It's as if the day never ends, it just keeps coming back for more.

Language is an event of the world, just as, for language users, the world is an event of language. Even the world is a word.

Speak truth to truth.

In the viscosity of process, the end never arrives.

Poetry shows the ink the way out of the inkbottle.

Don't let the Proper Name horse lead the active thinking cart.

A thing of beauty is annoyed forever.

Poetry's social function is not to express but rather to explore the possibilities for expression.

Poetry is difficulty that stays difficult. [Hank Lazer via Pound / Williams]

Slivers of reason make amends.

Connect the knots.

Blaming others for your own failings is inevitable; getting others to do it for you is unforgivable.

Fate makes us who we are Just as we make it what it is But the sadness overwhelms

I don't want interdisciplinarity but nondisciplinarity.

Something there is that doesn't love a frame That wants it laid bare.

Before I made a frame I'd ask to know What I was framing in or framing out.

Two frames diverged on the common road & I, I could not choose the one for the other So stood, astounded, in place.

For frames are what we are inside of.

Two frames are better than one Three's the thicket.

Today I am worried about Professor B, who worries about whether his worrying is run-of-the-mill worry or worrisome worry, and this worrying about his worry worries him the most, turning his worrying into the kind of worrisome worry he worries about.

"Is the best you can do really the best you can do?"

Does the work frame the interpretation or the interpretation frame the text? Or is a text a work without a frame?

Poetry starts in the present but immediately takes you to its many pasts, through its many paths.

What is missing from bird's-eye view is plain to see on the ground.

Not incoherent, coherent by other means. By any means necessary.

Not the flow of consciousness but the flow of perception.

"It is not a thought, finished and complete, that seeks expression in a beautiful form. It is thought's struggle, what is in and below the thoughts; it is the things and all things behind them, the life-material, expressed in our perception, that we should render in aesthetic creation."

[Gunnar Bjorling, tr. Fredrik Hertzberg]

What's the difference between narrative and story? What's the difference between stories told and untold? What's the difference between a story told once, a story told twice, and a story told many times? Does a story have to find its own way of telling itself or does the teller tell it? How can you tell the told from the tale?

A fact is a frozen state of affairs. If I had to stipulate the facts of the poem, I would say there are no facts other than the words, and the words are not facts at all but what makes facts possible. The poem is the fact of its own making. The poet is the extension of the fact of the poem.

"It is what it is. It swings." [Paul Anka]

In the 1990s, it was common in Russia to find stores with empty shelves, but one was stripped to bare walls. It was a shelf store.

So much depends on what you mean by failure, what you want from success, and what you imagine poems do. Insofar as a poem is successful, it fails to fail, but, in failing to fail, it also succeeds at failing. That's a lose-lose scenario (which in the alchemy of poetry we imagine as win-win).

Some praise the beauty of a poem and the exactness of its images. Maybe this is what least I like. The poem's polish makes a glossy surface in which I see myself staring, barred from making it to the other side. Here we find the hymen of voyeurism intact. So here the poetics is compulsory autoeroticism. I have several names for what went wrong: tone constrained, ending boned, syntax pulled thin over box-like frame, then teaspoon used for stirring in feeling.

Either you have talent or we'll buy you some.

Better a four-legged dog than a three-legged cat.

The time is not far off, or maybe it has already come to pass, when computers will be able to write better poems than we can. So we must now add to logopoeia, phanopoeia, and melopoeia: algorhythmia.

Good poets make analogies; great poets make analogies between analogies.

Computers will never replace poets because computers won't take that much abuse.

Is the diachronic robustness more valuable than synchronic flickering?

The work of art always exceeds its material embodiment as well as its ideal form: physical or digital instantiations, anterior codes or algorithms, experience while reading or viewing, interpretations, contexts of publication or appearance, historical connections—all these have an affinity, clustering around an empty center.

Three types of fragmentation, or three aspects of any fragment: disjunction, ellipsis, constellation.

Serial frames, each displacing but not replacing one another.

In modular or serial essay form, each of the interchanging parts relate tangentially to the next, forming a cluster around a projected but unstated series of possible motifs. In this way, different aspects of the imaginary are addressed, as if they were the interlocking faces on the surface of a crystal.

Juxtaposing disparate, if related, material forms an array or constellation within an environment.

"We attain to but brief and indeterminate glimpses." [E. A. Poe, The Poetic Principle]

Words falter then fail, love and care persist. Love falls away, cares betrayed, words remain.

Better last night's salami than this morning's baloney.

Are poetry and poetics at odds? Are poetics and scholarship opposing? Is innovation a matter of aesthetics or of applied research?

Poetry is to the classroom what a body is to a cemetery.

Poetics and innovation are the Scylla and Charybdis, or possibly Mutt and Jeff, or then again dog and bone, or possibly singer and song, or is it doctor and patient, or inner and outer, or hook, line, and sinker?, of the politics of poetic form.

If reading poetry is not directed to the goal of deciphering a fixed, graspable meaning, but rather encourages performing and responding to overlapping meanings, then difficulty is transformed from obstacle to opening.

"It is a puzzle. I am not puzzled but it is a puzzle.... I am not puzzled but it is very puzzling." [Gertrude Stein, The Mother of Us All]

everybody talks about the fall of the humanities but few make the effort to get up. in other words, does the past have a future?

"The ladder urges us beyond ourselves. Hence its importance. But in a void, where do we place it?" [Edmond Jabès, tr. Rosmarie Waldrop]

Information is born free but everywhere in chains.

Poetry is metadata without code, free-base tagging, cascading style sheets with undefined markers.

The role of teaching poetry, or of poetry criticism, is not to overrule difficulty, as in a court of law, but to sustain it—to recognize the ways that resistance to easy assimilation might sustain our engagement with the poem and in the process provide aesthetic pleasure and intellectual challenge.

Are we scholars and teachers and artists or academetricians?

The crucial distinction, in our poetics, is not only between presenting and representing, enacting and expressing, but also grasping and pointing.

All poetics is political All poetry is politics All politics is poetics

What you think and $5 will get you exactly something that's worth $2.95.

Think of poetry groupings not as islands but as directions: northern or southern, open to inhabitation by different times, different populations.

Schools are made to be broken.

No where to go but on.

Yes, we have no ideology, yes we have no ideology today.

Tumble, sunder, fake, fall. These are not only my subjects but also practice (makes imperfect). Does the poem allow its error to lead? rupture? collapse? rapture?

Even the Pacific Ocean has a bottom, but you'd be hard pressed to get there with even strokes.

I may be wrong, in fact I most surely am wrong, just not as wrong as you.

Two rights almost always make a wrong.

The absence of absence is not evidence of absence. (The evidence of absence is not the absence of evidence.)

What is after me is also after me. I hide in my past.

"But the world will never weary of watching that troubled soul in its progress from darkness to darkness." [Oscar Wilde, The Critic as Artist]

Don't tell me it's time to go to bed because I just woke up.

In Portuguese, you don't count the last syllable.

As if poetry was something you give to your mother-in-law when she goes deaf.

Rabbi Eliza would always say, Which comes first, the egg or the idea? as a way to stop a conversation she felt was coming too soon to a conclusion. One very hot afternoon, Rabbi Omar asked Rabbi Eliza to trace the origins of her favorite maxim. "In a roundabout way," Rabbi Eliza began, looking up from the passage she was studying, "it's related to Rabbi Yukel's so-called Rule of the Index Finger: Don't put all your chickens in one egg, which itself is a variant of the saying, attributed to Rabbi Raj, and which we chant on the first half moon of winter, One egg is not the world. On hearing this, Rabbi Omar loudly protested, noting that several centuries before Rabbi Raj, Rabbi Not-Enough-Sand-in-the-Desert-Not-Enough-Water-in-the-Sea had insisted that the central question to ponder on nights without-visible-rainbows is, Which comes first the basket or the idea of the basket? "Exactly," Rabbi Eliza said with a triumphant laugh, "without baskets or eggs we would only have words and without words only mouths."

Imagine poetry as a series of terraces, some vast, some no bigger than a pinprick, overlooking the city of language. The sound and light show begins in the dark: sentences dart by, one by one, forming wave after wave of the rag and bone shop of the quotidian, events passing before our eyes like the faint glimmer of consciousness in an alcoholic stupor. Facts, facts everywhere but not a drop to drink.

Now it is dawn, now night, now noon, now morning. It's as if the day never ends, it just keeps coming back for more.

Language is an event of the world, just as, for language users, the world is an event of language. Even the world is a word.


    I have an announcement.
    Due to previous engagements
    I'm unable to appear tonight
    and ... I will be ...
    replacing myself.
    I'm very sorry
    but the program is called
    "Impulsive Behavior"
    so I think we have to make some
    changes. Now there's
    supposed to be a dialogue
    with Bruce Andrews
    and Edwin Torres. Had I
    been present I might
    have joined the
    dialogue with Bruce
    and Edwin.

    But then me ... me ...

    I don't want to have a dialogue.

    That's why
    though I'm calling this
    Talk to Me
    I really would prefer to

    talk to myself.

    What are you saying?
    I can't HEAR you.

    I want to hear what you're saying—
    but I'm not listening!

    A poet
    Taking a long walk on the ice
    And fell down.
    A critic came along
    Seeing him lying there and said
    Are you comfortable?
    —I make a good living.

    I told my wife
    I was losing my grip.
    She said,
    What grip?

    My wife she stood—
    With a loaded gun—
    Who said that?
    I've always loved Sally Silvers' work
    especially her early work where
    she does stuff with movement that's extremely awkward
    a kind of awkwardness
    that you don't
    associate with dancers.
    I always wanted
    to do something like that
    with poetry
    to make poetry almost
    clumsy, clumpsy ...


Excerpted from RECALCULATING by CHARLES BERNSTEIN Copyright © 2013 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.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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