Subjects range across Holocaust representation, Occupy Wall Street, and the figurative nature of abstract art. Detailed overviews of formally inventive work include essays on—or “pitches” for—a set of key poets, from Gertrude Stein and Robert Creeley to John Ashbery, Barbara Guest, Larry Eigner, and Leslie Scalapino. Bernstein also reveals the formative ideas behind the magazine L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E. The final section, published here for the first time, is a sweeping work on the poetics of stigma, perversity, and disability that is rooted in the thinking of Edgar Allan Poe, Emily Dickinson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and William Blake.
Pitch of Poetry makes an exhilarating case for what Bernstein calls echopoetics: a poetry of call and response, reason and imagination, disfiguration and refiguration.
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Pitch of Poetry
By Charles Bernstein
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2016 Charles Bernstein
All rights reserved.
In Unum Pluribus
Toward a More Perfect Invention
Espians (Sun Yat-sen University, Guangzhou, China), no. 2 (2012); reprinted in the first issues of CAAP's International Journal of Poetry and Poetics (2014). Inaugural address presented at the first convention of the Chinese/American Association of Poetry and Poetics, China Central Normal University, Wuhan, on September 30, 2011. The initial sections of the essay were written for the keynote address of the annual international conference of the American Studies Association of Korea (ASAK) in Korea in 2010.
On March 18, 2008, presidential candidate Barack Obama gave one of his most resonant speeches. His subject was, to use a phrase of Langston Hughes, America and the racial mountain. Obama's speech was titled "More Perfect Union," a phrase he often used in speeches during this campaign and early in his presidency.
"More perfect" is the sign of Ralph Waldo Emerson's moral perfectionism, to use the contemporary American philosopher Stanley Cavell's term for Emerson's view that while we move toward provisional goals, we do well not to fret about arriving at a destination: we dwell in process and betray that process if our orientation is toward predetermined results. Our journeys don't end, our business is unfinished, our poems open upon ever new poems. More perfect is a direction, a movement, not a final state of idealized perfection.
The poetics here is ethical, not moral: dialogic and situational rather than fixed and rule-bound.
Obama's speech begins with a slight truncation of the opening words of the Preamble to the US Constitution (he elides "of the United States"): "We the People [of the United States,] in Order to form a more perfect Union." Not a perfect one but a more perfect one, with an emphasis on process rather than final destination: ever more perfect, never achieving perfection. It's no wonder Emerson's moral perfectionism is called pragmatic: we do the best we can. Obama's poetics are explicit: "We perfect our union by understanding that we may have different stories, but we hold common hopes; ... we may not look the same and we may not have come from the same place, but we all want to move in the same direction."
Without saying the word, Obama continues by holding forth the truth of miscegenation, of the syncretic, as the promise of a more perfect union: "I am the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas." And this is the grace note on which he ends his speech: "That is where the perfection begins."
We are always at that beginning; it is the promise of America.
So here today at this first conference of the Chinese American Association of Poetry and Poetics, with the theme of "dialogue," allow me to recast our national motto, E pluribus unum (from many one), in the name of an ever-emerging dialogic poetics of the Americas, as In unum pluribus (in one many) but also In pluribus unum: within many one.
The question of what kind of union or unity exists in the diverse poetries of the Americas is vexing but rewarding. It is a founding question for the poetics of the Americas.
The Chinese/American Association of Poetry and Poetics (CAAP) was founded in 2008, both at the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing and here at Central China Normal University.
CAAP, like this conference, is dedicated to dialogue, and as I've suggested, I take this as a term of poetics more than just a gesture of friendship. Cultural exchanges and translation between Chinese and American poetry pose serious, but I would also say thrilling, barriers and opportunities for dialogue.
I take the rather perverse view that the more we focus on the barriers, the greater the possibility for the exchange.
Obstacles for translation provide opportunities for dialogue.
The "same" words, phrases, gestures, styles, or forms — if the word same can be used provisionally here — often have the opposite, or in any case deviant, meanings in a Chinese poem and in an American poem. To translate a poem we need not only to translate the literal meaning but also to account for the social and cultural and — for it is not the same — the aesthetic meaning and context. One could say that about all translations, so also, for example, translations between the French and the American, but the meaning of this injunction would itself need to be applied differently, for the US and France have an intense history of poetic exchanges going back over 150 years and with special emphasis on the most formally inventive poetry of both cultures. With Chinese and American poetry, our cultures' relative isolation from one another over this same 150 years poses other, unique challenges, one of which is acknowledging the dissimilarities in our foundational poetic assumptions, the ground against which innovation and tradition figure.
Indeed, it is this very trope of innovation and tradition that means something quite different for a Chinese poet a hundred years ago and an American or European poet of that same moment. In Li Zhimin's illuminating lecture as a CAAP Fellow at Penn, he stressed that, thinking still of the modernist period, in a Chinese context what we in the West hear as a cry of radical individuality, noncomformity, or rebellion would be heard in a Chinese poem as "Western" — not the shock of the new but the importation of foreign goods.
There is no simple way to make this apparent in a translation, since the same words or content or gesture are understood culturally in opposite ways. Such key terms of poetics as conformity, deformity, difficulty, tradition, individual, talent, obedience, disobedience, rebellion, radicalism, and aversion are aversive — swerve from one another — in American and Chinese poetry. For this reason, universalism is both nonproductive and monological. A simple way of putting this: If I use "Coke" (for Coca-Cola) in a poem, it is not the same as Pepsi or soda. If "Coke" is in a Chinese poem, it doesn't mean the same thing and so can't, exactly, be translated as "Coke," or if it is, still, its meaning is aversive to my meaning of the same word in my poem. Coke the product is international — and possibly the "same" substance — but its meaning in a poem is local.
Could this also be true of water?
Looking at it the other way around, it was initially difficult for me to grasp key aspects of Mao's poems. For one thing, it's hard to imagine any American political leader being so deeply engaged with poetry, or producing poetry that has been recognized as a major artistic achievement, so the social meanings of what it is to be a poet are not held in common. During Obama's campaign for president, he was sometimes accused of being poetic, just mouthing pretty words. He walked a thin line because the oratory of the black church, from which he sometimes drew, is viewed as inappropriately poetic to those who associate a "just the facts" rhetorical style with good governance. There is a well-known saying that you should campaign in poetry but govern in prose. Certainly, in office Obama has adopted a very prosaic approach to his speeches, which I am sure is a very conscious decision to avoid seeming too poetic, in the sense of "just talk" rather than action. I think it's disappointing. In a recent poem, I wrote, "A President should campaign in prose and govern in poetry." I wasn't being ironic: I think this is the lesson of moral perfectionism.
Mao, of course, was not just a head of state but also a revolutionary leader. We do have a poetry of political and social rebellion and radicalism in America — one especially associated with the 1930s. But Mao's poems have none of the markers of socialist realism or formal radicalism; they are prized, indeed, for their superb execution of traditional forms, and moreover by his great skill as a calligrapher. By the same token, if Bei Dao's poems are translated into conventional-sounding American free verse, as some were early on, the style chosen for the American version would fail to convey one of the most fundamental aspects of how the poems were heard, and how they mean, to Chinese ears, which is the most interesting aspect of the work. This would be true, perversely, in direct proportion to the literal accuracy of such a translation, because the apparently "same" or in any case mistily similar style does not mean the "same" thing in the different cultures. Indeed the term misty is itself an example of a vexed term, because it conveys something quite different in the American from in Chinese. The bedrock ideology of American official verse culture is that poems have a universal appeal, but this is exactly wrong: it is particularity that gives poems their aesthetic power.
The incommensurable cultural divergence of American social space — the many in our putative one, the indissolvable multiples in our indivisible union, our states united by difference, not sameness — is itself, crucially, something not shared by Chinese and American poetics. So the emergent meanings of American forms that mark the course of moral perfectionism, including our cultural agonism, the overlay and melting of African American dialect, immigrant second languages, and the ghostly silence of scores of indigenous languages, are not readily able to be articulated into Chinese. And vice versa: in Chinese and American poetics, linguist divergence, catachresis, "bad" grammar, vernacular, and accent would have different meanings and in Chinese poetry are not present in the "same" way, because the history of Chinese dialects is not analogous to the history of American vernaculars.
The first publication of CAAP was Our Common Sufferings: An Anthology of World Poets in Memoriam 2008 Sichuan Earthquake, edited by Nie Zhenzhao and Luo Lianggong. This book commemorates the catastrophic Wenchuan earthquake, with its seventy thousand dead. The scale of that is so horrific that if we begin to think, as Blake has it, of every cry of every man, every woman, every child, of every parent, every teacher, of every sister and every brother, it is overwhelming; the mind, no matter how empathetic its heart, shuts down — we say "breaks." A parent's grief at the death of her or his child is so searing as to cut through cultural differences, or so I imagine. But whether that grief is understood in terms of individual deaths or collective deaths — well, there cultural difference begins to fill up the void of sameness, for culture abhors a vacuum as much as nature.
Rachel Carvosso begins her poem in the volume with "natural disaster is not natural." For an American, thinking of the terrible devastation of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, the line immediately brings to mind the political context of that disaster. It's not that any of the deaths "in themselves" are made more or less unbearable by their context, but the cultural meaning of the event surely changes. And that's where translating the literal and not the cultural creates a problem, because many poems are not, at heart, about the death itself, or the grief itself. If we want universal expression there, the expression of the body in pain, then I think of Artaud's mark of the outer limits of art, the piercing scream. But poems traffic in cultural, not unmediated, pain, even if through their cultural signs they give voices to something near to that unmediated pain.
If in a poem about Katrina I include some variant on "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job" — well, the Americans here will recognize that, but probably very few of the Chinese. No technical knowledge of English will get you there. And even if you looked up on the web the origin of the phrase — a remark then-president Bush made to the head of the federal disaster relief agency — the significance of it would require commentary: not just to say that "Brownie" was in fact not doing a good job but also why the expression "heck of a" played into it; why it's different than if President Bush has said "excellent" or "adequate" or "noble" or "fantastic," or if he had not used his nickname or even that nickname.
By the same token, when the Beijing artist Ai Weiwei, son of the poet Ai Qing, after all, referred last month to his sense of deep alienation in the city, calling it "a constant nightmare," he is not saying the same thing, not referring to the same urban alienation, as T. S. Eliot in The Waste Land.
In the first translation of mine into Chinese, done primarily by my friend Zhang Ziqing in 1993, we entered into an illuminating dialogue on cultural versus literal translation, which is recorded in Zhang's commentaries on the poem and in my poem "A Test of Poetry." What interested me here was that no matter how formally difficult a poem is in terms of syntax or structure, and many of my poems are difficult in that way, the overriding difficulty is cultural, especially in terms of vernacular, cultural reference, and social context. Nonstandard, vernacular, slang, or accented language in a poem, which is a fundamental formal device of much twentieth-century American poetry, loses its meaning when translated for the lexical or word-for-word meaning.
In the case of my work, I often distort my cultural references, making it almost impossible to look up what the "original" reference is: a daunting problem for the translation. In one poem I refer to "Fat-bottom boats" — an oblique reference to glass-bottom boats, but with the added slang "fat bottom" — meaning a person with a large behind — and then whatever association I intended by the reference to fat-bottom boats in the first place (a memory of a childhood vacation in Florida). Zhang thoughtfully queried a another phrase of mine — "caucus of Caucasians" — whose meaning is not the literal one of a white race party but rather a sarcastic remark on the way Americans mark all groups except the dominant one, whites, so this phrase would never be used in everyday language.
My best example, from a poem not yet translated into Chinese, is "going cold turkey or lukewarm tongue." This combines Jewish deli meats (why Jewish? turkey and tongue and even pastrami are not necessarily ethnically marked, and yet I would say they are in this line), with the slang expression for heroin withdrawal, with a pun on tongue meaning language, so a brain-tongue twister. Add to that — we say insult to injury! — the line is a bad grammatical construction, an example of catachresis, which increases its wackiness quotient.
More than the dictionary, data searches on the web provide the best means to grasp such colloquial and cultural specific references and uses. Restrictions on the ability to search or access the entire Internet are often justified with political reasons. Are these political reasons worth the potential loss of maximizing our dialogue through poetry? [Pause.] Yes, that is meant to be comic: what government cares that much about poetry? But if I may risk becoming a latter-day Don Quixote for a moment, a culture's language is one of its greatest assets and the more we acknowledge that, the richer we will be.
There is much discussion about Chinglish, but in traveling in China I found many of the Chinglish signs totally delightful and indeed poetic: they marked, even if unintentionally, real cultural barriers to translation and in that sense were for me sites of dialogue, an opening into difference rather than into the void space of sameness. A sign that warns against climbing over a fence says "Prohibition of surmounting" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), which I find quite beautiful (in American English, we surmount psychological obstacles but not physical fences); a sign in a hotel elevator touches on the magnificent impossibility of literal translation: a food dish is labeled "Jellyfish with Jew's-Ear" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) — something I would like to use as the title of a poem, I like it so very much.
Excerpted from Pitch of Poetry by Charles Bernstein. Copyright © 2016 Charles Bernstein. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of ContentsContents Preface I. L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E In Unum Pluribus: Toward a More Perfect Invention You Can’t Evict an Idea: The Poetics of Occupy Wall Street (with Jane Malcolm) Sounding the Word This Picture Intentionally Left Blank Disfiguring Abstraction The Expanded Field of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Coda: Enough! II. Pitch Gertrude Stein: The Difference Is Spreading Louis Zukofsky Charles Olson: A Note on “The Kingfishers” Paul Celan’s Folds and Veils Barbara Guest: Composing Herself Jackson Mac Low: Poetry as Art Robin Blaser’s Holy Forest Robert Creeley: Hero of the Local Larry Eigner’s Endless Song John Ashbery: The Meandering Yangtze Hannah Weiner’s Medium Haroldo de Campos Thou Art Translated (Knot) Jerome Rothenberg: Double Preface “And autumnstruck we would not hear the song”: On Thomas McEvilley Leslie Scalapino’s Rhythmic Intensities Maggie O’Sullivan: Colliderings Johanna Drucker: Figuring the Word III. Echopoetics Contemporary Literature (with Allison Cummings and Rocco Marinaccio) Musica Falsa: On Shadowtime (with Eric Denut) Foreign Literature Studies (with Nie Zhenzhao) The Humanities at Work (with Yubraj Aryal) Bomb (with Jay Sanders) Chicago Weekly (with Daniel Benjamin) FSG Poetry: All That Glitters Is Not Costume Jewelry (with Alan Gilbert) Revista Canaria de Estudios Ingleses: Editing as Com(op)posing (with Manuel Brito) Études anglaises: Poetry’s Clubfoot—Process, Faktura, Intensification (with Penelope Galey-Sacks) Evening Will Come: Off-Key (with Joshua Marie Wilkinson) Wolf (with Stephen Ross) IV. Bent Studies The Pataquerical Imagination: Midrashic Antinomianism and the Promise of Bent Studies (a fantasy in 140 fits) Pataquericals & Poetics