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Conclusion: Reappropriation and Resistance: Charles Bernstein, Language Poetry, and Poetic Tradition
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Reappropriation and Resistance: Charles Bernstein, Language Poetry, and Poetic Tradition

The lacunas in Pound's guides to culture have begun to speak . . . . The present flourishing of a formally innovative, open, investigative poetry—a poetry that refuses to take subject matter, syntax, grammar, or vocabulary for granted and that rejects simple and received notions of unity of conceit, closure, and prosody—is unprecedented in its scale in American literature.
Charles Bernstein,
"Pound and the Poetry of Today"

The movement in contemporary American writing known as Language poetry has now existed in some form for at least two decades; but it is only recently that this language-oriented or language-centered mode of poetic writing has begun to attract a relatively widespread critical following. Among the more prominent academic critics to have addressed the developments in Language writing are Marjorie Perloff and Jerome McGann. Perloff's article "The Word as Such: L = A = N = G = U = A = G = E Poetry in the Eighties" is primarily concerned with the formal and linguistic implications of Language poetry; she does not attempt, except in passing, to contextualize the movement in terms of historical tradition or literary influence.[1] McGann, in his article "Contemporary Poetry, Alternate Routes," is almost exclusively interested in exploring the political and historical context out of which Language writing emerged in the 1960s and 1970s. Writing that the primary significance of Language poetry is "not stylistic . . . but ideological and ultimately political," he treats Language poetry as most fundamentally a rejec-


tion of "bourgeois" modes of writing—those forms of literary writing that fail to question their own ideological assumptions.[2]

I propose to read the work of the Language poets, in particular that of Charles Bernstein, in a different context from those examined by either Perloff and McGann. I consider Language poetry as a movement within the larger tradition I have defined in this book. It is my contention that Language poetry was the most vital outgrowth of this tradition in the 1970s and 1980s. Not only have the poets associated with Language writing gained the respect and support of established members of the tradition such as Robert Creeley; they have also extended in important ways the directions taken by the experimental New American Poetry movement(s) of the 1950s and 1960s. The Language poets are certainly not the only heirs to the Pound tradition who have influenced the course of American poetry over the past twenty years: poets as diverse in their orientations as Clayton Eshleman, Robert Kelly, and Diane Wakoski have made significant contributions to the tradition of Pound and Olson, and the production of Ginsberg, Creeley, Levertov, Snyder, Dorn, and other poets of their generation continues to redefine the parameters of contemporary American poetry. Nevertheless, I believe it is the Language poets who have made the most concerted, focused, and influential effort since Olson's push of the early 1950s to alter radically the way in which experimental poetry is written and understood in this country.

Like their predecessors in the Pound tradition, the Language poets are marked by an acute awareness of the poetic practices and concerns that form a context for experimental American writing and from which their own work is largely derived. In tracing the American lineage that I see as most central to Language writing, I identify the following progression(s) of poetic writing: Whitman and Dickinson to Pound, Williams, and H. D. to Zukofsky and Oppen to Olson, Duncan, and Creeley to Clark Coolidge and Michael Palmer to Language poetry.[3] Rather than


constituting an entirely new tradition of writing, the Language writers are the latest manifestation of a larger tradition of experimental poetic concerns with roots in the work of Pound, Williams, and Modernist / postmodernist practice. But as is also the case with Pound and his descendants, the work of Language poets cannot be understood only in reference to a narrowly defined sense of poetic tradition. The fundamentally incorporative poetics the Language poets share with the other poets in this tradition simultaneously promotes a sense of affiliation with a number of alternative traditions of poetic and nonpoetic writing, among them Russian Futurism, French Surrealism, and the New York school of John Ashbery and Frank O'Hara.

Clearly, the practices and beliefs of Bernstein and other Language writers differ significantly from those of Olson, Duncan, Creeley, and other poets of the 1950s and 1960s. The most significant change in emphasis, if not in orientation, is in a greater receptivity to the ideas generated by literary, social, and political theory.[4] Nevertheless, the Language poets have continued to look to predecessors within the Pound tradition for models of poetic composition. In many cases, direct lines of descent can be traced: from Zukofsky to Bernstein; from Olson to Barrett Watten; from Creeley to Larry Eigner, Clark


Coolidge, and Robert Grenier; from Duncan to Michael Palmer; from Jack Spicer to Ron Silliman. Such lineages do not necessarily entail direct stylistic and formal influences, but they do indicate important continuities in the articulation of poetic projects and stances.

It could be argued that an equally important source for the project of Language poetry is the writing of the New York school, especially of John Ashbery and Frank O'Hara. The work of Bernstein and other Language poets shares with the early poetry of Ashbery a resistance to clarity and transparency in language and the ideological critique such a resistance implies. There is, however, a fundamental difference between Ashbery and the Language poets in their approach to both language and ideology. Where Ashbery uses the disruption of semantic clarity in his poems as a self-conscious means of revitalizing his own poetic idiom and of breaking certain habits of poetic writing, he does not appear to be deeply committed to a fundamental critique of language itself or of its operations within a social or ideological context. The Language poets, who already take such (stylistic) moves as Ashbery's for granted, are less interested in opacity per se (that is, in the way in which opacity creates or allows for a multiplicity of meanings in the poem) than in how to treat the poetic text as a field for the inclusion of different discourses that comment on each other as well as on the external events of the political and social world. Like Pound and Olson, the Language poets regard as equally important to the creation of new poetic meanings the sense of language as a social artifact that is part of larger, often nonpoetic discourses. That Ashbery's work is assimilable into a canon of American poetry such as the neo-Romantic tradition of Harold Bloom (a canon that has consistently excluded Pound, Williams, Zukofsky, Olson, Duncan, and Creeley) indicates that the intertexts making up his poems are more literary and less disruptive than those proposed by the Language poets. Whereas Ashbery generally attempts to maintain the appearance of a seamless flow of (literary) language despite the local disturbances in its semantic continuity, the Language poets follow Pound, Zukofsky, and Olson in fore-


grounding or disrupting the formal and syntactic as well as the semantic texture of the poem and thus in calling attention to its status as made object or artifact. Such a disruption or fore-grounding is a central aspect of Bernstein's poetics, one he characterizes through the various metaphors of "maladaption," "resistance," and "antiabsorptiveness."

Even with the increasing notoriety achieved by the Language school, at this juncture it is somewhat difficult to provide a simple and overarching definition of its contours either in terms of historical origins or central participants. Ron Silliman, one of the principal practitioners of language-oriented writing, locates the "breach and [the] new movement in American writing" at the first issue of the magazine This, co-edited by Robert Grenier and Barrett Watten in 1971.[5] In fact, the seeds of the new movement were sown even earlier—starting with the 1964 publication of the magazine Joglars, co-edited by Clark Coolidge and Michael Palmer. This journal brought together in its first two issues representatives of the second generation of the Pound / Black Mountain tradition—Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, Fielding Dawson, Jonathan Williams, John Wieners, Joel Oppenheimer, Robert Kelly, Larry Eigner, and Michael Palmer as well as their Objectivist predecessors Zukofsky and Niedecker. Coolidge, Eigner, and Palmer came to be seen as the early forerunners of the Language group; they maintained a strong identification with the New American Poetry and the anticonventional sentiments of Olson's "Projective Verse," but they wished at the same time to challenge Olson's dogmatic belief in the direct referentiality of poetic expression and the "naturalness" of speech as a poetic mode.[6]


In Content's Dream, an important book of critical essays, Bernstein defines the poetic practices of the Language poets in terms that reflect directly the legacy of Pound and his followers: the (inter)textual poetic space as defining a relation to other poems, poetic language, and an exterior world of social and historical particulars and the way in which this conception informs a sense of poetic "author-ity" and a concern for the poet's interaction with language and discourse. In his 1986 essay "Pound and the Poetry of Today" Bernstein locates his own work and that of other experimental American writers more specifically within the context of Pound's contributions to poetic practice. Bernstein opposes the compositional technique Pound intended for The Cantos —montage—with the technique of collage that he believes Pound achieved. Bernstein concurs with earlier poets that the unintended collage effect, rather than representing a "failure" in The Cantos, actually "opened the floodgates" for "further explorations of the unheard and unsounded in our poetry." The "free play" that is for Bernstein "the most salient feature of The Cantos " (CD, 638) creates an environment in which multiple forms of experimentations can take place.

Bernstein's 1982 statement about Language writing, "For Change, " situates his work and that of his colleagues in the tradition of inclusiveness proposed by the collagist work of Pound, Olson, and Duncan. The work of Language poets, Bernstein claims, is "informed not only by the synchronic activities of other active writers and the various traditions of literary writing but significantly by far larger frames of writing and art activity current and past." Furthermore, theoretical discussions by these poets include the input of those "not primarily involved with


poetry, such as other artists, and political and cultural workers, and . . . suggest possible relationships between the poetry and recent critical and philosophical thought."[7]

Bernstein gives a more specific sense of his own range of sources in an interview with Tom Beckett. He lists Gertrude Stein, Samuel Beckett, Zukofsky, Creeley, and Laura Riding as poets in whose historical context he places his work, but he sees the more widely defined question of influence as a "byzantinely complicated matter":

I don't feel exclusively influenced by work done in the genre of poetry, of equal importance is both nonpoetry literary and nonliterary writing. . . . As to impact, too, on my works, the other arts have been important, very formative to my thinking. Certainly looking at Pollock and Louis, say, not to mention Kandinsky or Braque or Schwitters or Gorky, etc., etc., had much more influence on my ideas than reading many poets with whom I feel an affinity.    (CD, 390)

Bernstein's appropriation of different sources in his poems owes a great deal to Pound, Zukofsky, Olson, and Duncan, among others, who compose their works largely by using "found" or "discovered" objects as poetic material.[8] Bernstein's own adaptation of sources, however, is more closely related to that of Edward Dorn in Slinger, a post-Olsonian epic in which the use of radio and other media as "accidental" sources of information fills the poem with quasirandom pieces of discourse. In some respects, Bernstein goes beyond Dorn in his sense of linguistic and formal play: "made-up quotations that sound like they are from a prior text" are combined in the poem with actual quotations from various sources—poems, letters, memos, sayings (CD, 393–94). Sometimes Bernstein no longer remembers


the source of a quotation by the time it reaches the poem; thus, the Poundian notion of textual authority is almost totally undercut in Bernstein's work. Unlike Pound and Olson, Bernstein does not seek to use sources, quotations, and personae as a means of self-definition; nor does he believe in integrating the variable discourses of his "multidiscourse, polyvalent writing practice" (CD, 409) into a "single web," "unified field," or "one matrix" as outlined by Olson and Duncan. Instead, Bernstein takes further Olson's critique of the lyric ego by allowing language itself to shape the poem by "poking through the expected parameters" (CD, 38):

In this process, the language takes on a centrifugal force that seems to trip it out of the poem, turn it out from itself, exteriorizing it. Textures, vocabularies, discourses, constructivist modes of radically different character are not integrated into a field as part of a predetermined planar architecture; the gaps and jumps compose a space within shifting parameters, types and styles of discourse constantly crisscrossing, interacting, creating new gels. (Intertextual, interstructural ...)    (CD, 38–39)

Like Dorn, Bernstein uses shifting discursive parameters to subvert the expectation of a poem's "predetermined planar architecture," thus challenging habitual understandings of language use and pointing out relationships between language and ideology. Bernstein goes beyond Dorn in more actively fore-grounding the various processes through which language operates—semantic, syntactic, intertextual, structural—and thus in calling even greater attention to the political acts linguistic acts unavoidably contain. It is in privileging the autonomy of language over its participation in a determined (narrative) pattern that he transgresses the poetic practices of Olson, Duncan, and even such a skillful manipulator of expected discursive formulas as Dorn. Bernstein's notion of intertextuality is clearly informed by the discussions of such theorists as Barthes and Foucault, though Bernstein is not willing to go as far as they do in dismissing the concept of authorship altogether:

There is no question that the concept of authorship has been given much more significance than it merits, and as such is an obstacle for


reading and writing to overcome; even though I do not feel that it makes sense to carry these views to the extreme of cancelling authorship as a factor completely, making the text exclusively the product of a discourse or a period, since in crucial ways a poem is as much a resistance as a product, and for the moment at least the individual is the most salient concept with which to describe the site of this resistance. The valorization of the author function, in its current guises as persona, voice, autobiography, and self-expression, hierarchializes a complicated constellation of variables including structure, social context, genre, method, politics.   (CD, 408–9)

Thus, while the poet's interaction with different discourses may be a largely arbitrary matter, the decision to privilege certain of them in a given work establishes his or her own defining presence in the text. In his own work, Bernstein explains, he has chosen to foreground in different books varying approaches to discourse—a "sociocentric" mode in Controlling Interests (1980), an "idiocentric" one in Islets / Irritations (1983). As even the titles of the two books indicate, Controlling Interests is more concerned with discourses pertaining to a wider social or political realm, whereas the poems of Islets / Irritations are determined more by the poet's sense of his personal environment. To this extent, at least, the function of the author in Language writing remains a vital aspect of the poetry generated: the poet's role is no longer that of framing the work within a coherent or consistent lyric voice, but it continues to require the manipulation of a dialogic, heteroglossic, or intertextual fabric that reflects a social or aesthetic orientation.

As Michael Davidson suggests, Bernstein's poems can easily be understood in terms of Bakhtin's dialogic structures of literary writing. In Language writing, Davidson argues, such a discursive analysis allows us to see the way in which "the discontinuity between one line or sentence and the next is both a qualification of causal, narrative logic and an assertion of the paradigmatic nature of reference."[9] In other words, these discontinuities or lacunae serve as markers for the different assertions in the poem, each of which has a different social or


psychological context. Unlike the dialogic relationships of utterances and quotations in a poem by Pound, Olson, or Snyder, where the breaks between fragments or meaning clusters are accompanied by clear shifts in spatial and vocal orientation, the heteroglossia of Bernstein's poem "Baggage"—Davidson's example from Islets / Irritations —is not necessarily indicated by any visual, syntactic, or punctuational marker except the enjambed line ending, conventionally the moment on which we are most accustomed to relying for a sense of semantic continuity:

Thinking ain't doing, so really I'll
partly I've never gotten in the habit
you always seemed to turn
so where begin to, where report.

Davidson demonstrates in his reading of the poem that each attempt at assertion is undercut either by syntactic elements, changes in tone, or qualifications and evasions. In "Part Quake," another poem from Islets / Irritations, the units of discourse are even smaller than the partially completed statements of "Baggage." Here the progression of the poem seems conditioned by the resonances of individual words, and the gaps between identifiably meaningful utterances become more frequent:

The restoration of slighted, by forecast thundering,
faded aggregate sweeps plane in wanton arch
the very lacunas discount. Preclusion of
emphatic instability inflated within cornered
propulsion. Militant valence, or sense of
seen. When fills of, for, former entail
portends an increment, adjourned at what
is loaned, all to sudden screeching. Drop,
instanced bodily (lozenge, prick . . .) by motor
denotes, held in caption, ritual zone

In this complex passage lines and phrases are generated in numerous ways: by sound and visual pattern—"fills of, for,


former"; by phonemic or morphological resemblance—"preclusion, propulsion, portends," "aggregate, adjourned," "instability, increment, instanced," "discount, denotes, demark"; and by recurring registers of diction. This last category, involving the semantic or intellectual interplay of words in the poem, is the most complicated level of Bernstein's composition and the most suggestive. Bernstein interweaves various patterns of discourse in the passage: weather report—"forecast thundering"; military-industrial—"cornered," "propulsion," "motor," "zone"; economic—"discount," "inflated," "increment," "loaned." Certain other words are made ambiguous by their context and could apply to more than one register of discourse at a time. "Restoration" suggests art museums but also contains other possible referents: the literature and politics of late-seventeenth-century England and the restoration of various forms of political and economic control in this century. Words such as "instability" and "caption" are similarly fluid in their denotative and connotative potential within the poem. Another group of words—"slighted," "wanton," "portends," "screeching," and "ritual"—cannot be located within any particular discourse; instead, they serve a purely connotative function, creating in their cumulative presence a disturbing emotional tonality.

In a similar way Bernstein's use of passive and participial constructions provides a unifying sense of syntactic cooperation among the various elements of the stanza and contributes to its foreboding sense of controlled panic. Just as semantic discourses cannot always be clearly located, parts of speech cannot be easily identified: are "fills," "entail," "drop," and "prick" to be read as nouns or verbs? The force of the few clearly active verbs in the passage—"sweeps," "portends," "denotes," and "demark"—is vitiated by the predominance of abstract words and prepositional phrases surrounding them. In every respect, then, the poem enacts a conflict between the possibilities of language to evade meaning and reference, on the one hand, and the activity of the poet in combining them, on the other. Bernstein's sensitivity to the phonic, semantic, and etymological qualities of


words and his awareness of the various conceptual fields to which they belong counteract the seeming arbitrariness of the poem's discursive units.[11]

If such a poem as "Part Quake" is largely intertextual, it is participating in an intertext of which the individual source texts have become difficult or impossible to determine; thus, it is one much closer in kind to the universal text of Barthes or the discursive formations of Foucault than to the deliberately structured intertextual matrix of Pound or Olson. Nonetheless, like Pound and Olson before him, Bernstein is deeply concerned with the question of what constitutes the poetic "self" and the "author-ity" of a given poem. In the very act of dismantling the appearance of a coherent lyric voice in a poem like "Part Quake," Bernstein foregrounds on various levels the exercise of authorial control. For some Language writers, such as Marxist-oriented Ron Silliman, the authorial presence is completely undecidable outside its social context. Bernstein, however, takes a position between a doctrinaire materialism and a belief in the creative potential of the individual self: "Individuals are in essence that which is maladapted, idiocentric, resistant; it is in that sense that we get to know another only through the identification and appreciation of the peculiarities as particularized—mutant—and not as some generalized feature of some genre of humans" (CD, 410).

If the individual is no longer seen as the active historical force he or she was for the Modernists or as the "self" in the process of relating to his or her immediate environment envisioned by Olson, the concept of a clearly demarcated and particularized "individual" is still in evidence in Bernstein's writing. Bernstein's idea of a "maladaption" or "resistance" that allows spaces in the text for individual meaning echoes, though in a somewhat altered context, Olson's own use of the term resistance to connote


the physical body as the ultimate basis of our interaction with the world (see SW, 13–14). Bernstein invites a comparison with the physicality of Olson's conception:

For any person, the approach to, the hearing of language is going to be different. We come at this thing we share—our language, our world, what we see, which is in common, but we come at it from different angles. We have different resistances to language that create different sounds in people's poems or speech or conceptions. . . . I mean it also in a physical sense. If I go from here to there the air is resistant. Gravity. An impedence, a weight that you're pressing against and by pressing against it you create "sound."   (CD, 457–58).

Bernstein's more recent metaphor for the poetic act is also a physical one: that of absorptiveness. A long critical essay in the form of a poem, "Artifice of Absorption" is an intensely focused exploration into the process(es) of poetic composition. Rather than a traditional understanding of poetic texts—one that regards causal narration or thematic relevance as the unifying feature of a poetic work—Bernstein proposes a sense of the poem's ability to absorb into its "textural space" such materials as vocabulary, syntax, logic, tonality, rhythm, and reference. In doing so, the poem creates "a hyperabsorptive textual gravity in which the different originary elements are no longer isolable."[12] Absorptive works tend to hide their artifice behind an apparently seamless poetic fabric, whereas antiabsorptive works "flaunt" their techniques in such a way as to foreground the artificiality of the poetic process.

The implications of Bernstein's distinction for poetic writing and tradition are clear. Poets such as Stevens and Ashbery are fundamentally absorptive writers in whose most characteristic work any disruptions of the fabric are only "illusionistic interruptions," rather than real disjunctions. The antiabsorptive tradition in American poetry originates with Modernist writers such as Pound, Williams, Stein, Cummings, and Zukofsky, all of whose experiments with sound, visual form, typography, and


syntax have led to the current practices of Language poetry and related movements. But what interests Bernstein and his contemporaries is not merely the creation of opacity or antiabsorptiveness. Rather, it is the question of how to use "antiabsorptive means for absorptive ends"—in other words how to make the poem more, rather than less, engaging for the reader through these disruptive techniques. The challenge facing Bernstein is essentially that faced by all poets writing in the Pound tradition: how does the poet enhance the possibilities of poetic expression (in Bernstein's terms, the poem's absorptiveness) without relying on traditional techniques of transparency, meter, and causal unity or on the use of a coherent lyric voice and without alienating the reader? Bernstein concludes that the "thickness" of writing, that space created in the antiabsorptive text between the poem and reader, need not be an obstacle to a greater sense of connection between them. Instead, continuities of sound and diction must replace the sense of a lyric speaker or unified discourse. The formal strategies identified in my reading of "Part Quake" protect the poem from appearing utterly antiabsorptive—fragmentary, aleatory, or incoherent. The thickness of the poem will actually allow it to be reabsorbed into the world as object more easily than a conventionally absorptive poem.

Bernstein's terminology for understanding his engagement with the poetic text may seem overly scientific or technological to those who favor a more intuitive relation to the writing and understanding of poetry. But his metaphor, much like Duncan's fundamental notion of the poem as cell, is a physical and organic one; he sees the poem as a "spongy surface" that can interact with the materials available to it. In Bernstein's case it is not just the poem but the poet himself who is involved in this physical process: "I find I enact in my work an oscillating pull in both directions, cutting into & out of—en(w)rapment / resistance, enactment / delay, surfeit / lack."[13] It is this sense of the physicality of the poetic act—the poet's individual physical presence as it interacts with a shared world—that links most deeply the vari-


ous poets of the Pound tradition, including a poet as different from Pound as Charles Bernstein. If Bernstein and his contemporaries no longer accept the aesthetic confidence of many of Pound's assertions or the idealism of Olson's "language as the act of the instant," they still find ways of elaborating and expanding the vision of poetry shared by Olson, Duncan, Levertov, Snyder, Zukofsky, Williams, and Pound. It is a poetry in which the internal experience of the poem constitutes the reality of the world outside it, a world still retrievable only through those sensory processes that allow us to see, hear, feel, and think it anew.


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