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Andrei Codrescu

WHAT I'M READING: Charles Bernstein [by Andrei Codrescu]


 "Recalculating" by Charles Bernstein (The University of Chicago Press, 2013)

When they are not being performed, Charles Bernstein's poems are on the edge of performance. But they don't start that way. They start as notes from a mind that is never still, fueled by extensive reading, a constant regimen like a diet or a job. He reads the newspapers, the mail, and the philosophers. He talks on the telephone. This activity is divided between the pleasure of finding something new, the recasting of a text in a grotesque or alien context, stripping it for a good idea, and talking it out. Talking or thinking it out loud is a beta performance that may later be transcribed. His interlocutors could be dead (books) or alive (friends). Bernstein's engine is also revved up by an epistolary practice or lit up by a Jewish joke. Addressed to a a respondent, the "you" could also be anyone, so the "you" is automatically intimate. A joke often tips his thoughts into performance. When he is moved to perform, the transcription aligns itself in a poem, and a sound machine orders the words to his particular music.

The mind of Charles Bernstein is local, but the locality moves with an ever-changing present, a circumstantial circus that needs to amuse or outrage him. Or else. A bored Bernstein you don't want to see. But performance is a slippery slope, it is rarely (if ever) totally successful. Sometimes, a text on autopilot pleases the audience, but embarasses the poet. Ideas are not as risky in notes, but if the notes stretch into essays the form can smother their spark. Fitting a good idea into any form runs the risk of the idea drowning in the form, and becoming irrecoverable in retrospect. How many ideas, not just Bernstein's, have disappeared in their genres? Great ideas are so tender they disappear on their bookshelf classifications. In bookstores I lose interest in sections labeled Essays or Fiction or Poetry. I still trust the alphabet, if only because there is mystery in its apparent disorder. Why are Berkson, Bergson and Bernstein together? Where are Baudelaire, Berlin and Bachelard? Somebody bought their books, leaving the other B's to huddle together. Call it a hazard of the market, or a game by ghosts. Next week it will be a different crowd.


 The rich men, they know about suffering

That comes from natural things, the fate that

Rich men say they can't control, the swell of

The tides, the erosion of the polar caps

And the eruption of a terrible

Greed among those who cease to be content

With what they lack when faced with wealth they are

Too ignorant to understand. Such wealth

Is the price of progress. The fishmonger

Sees the dread on the faces of the trout

And mackerel laid out at the market

Stall on quickly melted ice,]. In Pompeii

The lava flowed and buried the people

So poems such as this could be born.

This performance embarasses Bernstein, but it lands with the audience. I extracted this at random, by opening the book, titled somewhat apologetically, somewhat defiantly, "Recalculating." If the GPS led from a thought about economy to environmental disaster and to the fish market where the iced catch makes surrealist faces, it is because the poet can't stop himself. The avalanche is inevitable and pedestrian, the metaphor is awakwardly collaged, and the last line is apologetic (sort of.) It's not the poet's fault that the GPS is defective. It would not be difficult to trace this poem to its notes: wealth, decadence, disaster, fish and poetics. The price of fish these days! Check the iPhone Notes: the sources are there intact, not filed down to fit in a poem to be performed. This is not just about Bernstein, but literature sui generis. Ideas are constantly menaced by the bandits of convention. They threaten it as it travels, like a carriage in Stendahl. The woods on either side of the road are filled with murderous Essays, Novels, and Villanelles. To take an idea safely to wherever it might lead it must continually be on guard against capture by well-trained forms. An idea must be ready to do battle with every idea that resembles it, even with its twin. In the case of "Pompeii" we can watch a desperate struggle to escape from predictable capture, and its surrender in the last line.

Here are other texts from "Recalculating" that reference the conflict between thought and performance at deeper levels:

 "The truth of the poem is neither in the representation nor the expression. Its truth dwells in what has never been and what will never be. Where possibility and impossibility collide, here the poem is forged."

 "Digital poetry 2003: in 1975, everyone was worried about the idea that language is code; in 2003, everyone is worried that code is language."

 The first note here is the thought in its almost pristine transcription. "Almost" because the last sentence is obligatory, a reminder that Bernstein has a job theorizing. That a poem is "forged" is an inconvenient truth, but not a revelation. That the forgery happens where the possible meets the impossible is not news either, though it bears some reflection. Where is that place? A street corner in Paris at sunset? We know what the possibility is wearing (a frock sonnet, a fractured lines dress) but what is the impossibility (Jack the Ripper, a shadow, a bodiless contradiction?) And why does our Parisian sonnet meet the mysterious impossibility in an understandable sentence? Why does this encounter between a known form and a shapeless phantom "forge" a poem? The answer is circular: we are trying to understand what a poem is because that is our job: poetics.

The second note attempts to inject some heft into the final canole-shell sentence in the first note. It establishes a timeline for a process (progress?) of language. It is approximate despite its dating. "Everyone" is Bernstein's friends, or, more generously, the philosophers he was reading. But were they really "worried" that language is a code? Seems to me that since the beginning of language, everyone everywhere knew that language is a code. What else can symbols be? More interestingly, we would like to know what about this code we call "language" was "everyone" worried about in 1973. I suspect that in 1973 everyone we knew and read, was paranoid. The codes of language were read in a paranoid key, justified by all the social horrors around us. This is also the year when The "Language School," a poetry society led in part by Charles Bernstein, upset all the poets not belonging to it. In retrospect, the poets of the Language School, were not so much "worried," as intoxicated by the discovery of language codes, aided by the poetic philosophies of the French deconstructionists, Foucault, Derrida, DeLeuze, Jabès, etc. Edmond Jabès was possibly Charles Bernstein's chief inspiration in his thinking about language, writing and Jewish identity. Also, published in 1973 was "The Theory of Communicative Action" by Jurgen Habermas, a book that may have been read by the more Left-leaning members of the Language group.  Habermas discussed the role of rational discourse in social institutions. And thus was the old rift between French poetics and German rationalism duplicated in miniature by American poets.

In 2003, "everyone" (a considerably larger group) was "worried" that code was language. That is definitely a graver thing to be worried about. That year it became visible to many people that numbers were shedding the layers of culture and meaning that words had acquired during their ages of use. Without the weight of centuries of reference, the codes became versatile enough to reprogram the human archives and to, eventually, create another history of humanity, based on numbers not on accrued meanings. In 2024, there is no need to worry any longer. Code has rewritten the future, and is in the process of rewriting the archives. Charles Bernstein second note is perfect. It nails one stage of the process, it identifies the second, and it points to the next.

Charles is occasionally Baudelaire, but he is always Wittgenstein.

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I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark

from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman


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