• Groucho and Me: An Interview with Charles Bernstein

    I met Charles Bernstein as a student at the University of Pennsylvania, where I would listen to him wax lyrical about the avant-garde and more on a weekly basis. Charles is the recipient of the 2019 Bollingen Prize for American Poetry from Yale University, American poetry’s highest honor. He is the author of Near/Miss (2018), Pitch of Poetry (2016), Recalculating (2013), and Attack of the Difficult Poems: Essay and Inventions (2011). In 2010, Farrar, Straus & Giroux published All the Whiskey in Heaven: Selected Poems. Charles is Donald T. Regan Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Pennsylvania, where he is co-director of PennSound, and is also a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.


    ROBERT WOOD: One building block for your poetry was your formal study of Western philosophy. Other people have noted how Ludwig Wittgenstein is present in your work, but I want to ask about Stanley Cavell. Cavell was one of your teachers, and to my reading, he informs Near/Miss and Pitch of Poetry with its references to culture and humour and ordinary language. How did Cavell matter then and how does he matter now?

    CHARLES BERNSTEIN: I met Stanley Cavell 50 years ago. He was part two of a year-long history of philosophy. In the fall of 1968, I was swept away by Rogers Albritton’s sinewy commentaries on Augustine, Aquinas, and the Sermon on the Mount (I’d sign up for Albritton’s version of Christianity in two shakes of a sophist’s tail). Enter Cavell swerving from Rousseau to Marx to Mill to Nietzsche. God wasn’t dead so much as transmogrified (or is it transubstantiated?) into the possibilities of thought. Cavell wasn’t about theorizing but thinking. Each week he talked with us through the history of ideas, as if the ideas were the standards that Cavell used to bounce off for his improvised riffs. Something closer to bebop than explanation. All performed with the understanding that what we say — how we use verbal language — matters. Language matters, that is, not just as a way of describing things or as a way of adjudicating things, but as a way of bringing the world into consciousness.

    Something I wrote the next year, after one of Cavell’s talks on Walden, stays with me: “We are limited to language but not by language.” Cavell showed that consciousness is both individual and shared, because its site is language, which is collective and singular.

    That’s what I encountered in the ground floor auditorium of Emerson Hall at Harvard College when I was 18. I recently wrote about first meeting Cavell in ASAP Journal.

    This past fall I was back in that same classroom for the memorial. I paid tribute to Cavell as writer for whom philosophy was a genre, not a prescribed mode of exposition; a thinker who was aversive to rationality in the pursuit of reason. I stressed that his wide range of topics — Emerson and Thoreau, Wittgenstein and Austin, Hollywood comedies and Shakespeare tragedies — did not take him outside of philosophy but rather put him at philosophy’s center. Cavell was never eclectic. The objects of his attention together formed a constellation (in Walter Benjamin’s sense).

    A central focus for Cavell is how language means. He greatly broadened my ability to recognize the semantic field as something that exists in n-dimensional space. Cavell was at pains not to refute, but to respond to, skepticism — not just to the problem of how we know anything for sure, but also the problem of how we know words mean what they say. His response was that words, as the world, means by doing, and that we know by responding. Our knowledge of the world is reciprocal: you get what you give, but only if you can acknowledge that.

    That sense of being with others is also there in your latest release Pitch of Poetry, where one gets a sense of your role in a critical community. This commitment to the forms and perspectives of others has been there for a long time, not only in L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E but also in the Electronic Poetry Center and at PennSound. You have spoken about these in relation to editing, technology, and other poets. But one other place where you see the collective in this new release is in the interviews in the section “Echopoetics.” Why does “the interview” matter in Pitch of Poetry?

    I only know what I think when I am in conversation. Conversation’s an art: my thinking comes alive in dialogue. I don’t have doctrines or positions, I have modes of engagement, situational rejoinders, reaction deformations. It takes two to tangle, three to rumble, four to do the Brooklyn trot. I want my writing to dance to the changing beats of the house band. Dialogue’s the center of what I do: my collaborations with co-editors, composers, artists, and other poets; my work as host of the LINEbreak and Close Listening radio shows; my teaching. Beyond that I want poems that avert the single lyric voice expressing itself to the reader in favor of poems that deploy multiple voices and discourses calling out for response, poetry that comes alive when readers or listeners project their own psyches onto them, poems that find ways to be in conversation — interenact — with readers/listeners. Echopoetics locates writing as a form of listening, with reverb as rhythm’s ungainly gait. I am less interested in answering a question than bouncing off it, finding out where it takes me.

    In bouncing off it, you do resist a hegemonic poetics that would dissolve aesthetic difference and often depoliticizes verse or even resurrects troubling aspects of Heidegger. You and I have spoken privately about anti-Semitism in places as far away as Australian poetry. And there is a heightened concern about the limits of free speech. What do you make of all this?

    I’m listening . . . because my first responses often strike me as tone deaf. I come into both my political and aesthetic consciousness in, around, and about 1968. I recognize that some of my 60s and 70s shibboleths fail in the face of persistent economic and social inequality. But the problem with neo-illiberalism and lyric atavism is that they quickly get absorbed by the right. As Heidegger might have recognized, an acute sense of “aggrievement” often fuels right-wing attacks on those, like Jews, who are designated as foreigners and who are stigmatized as cultural/national invaders and appropriators. A nightmare is haunting America and Europe; it’s slogan could be: “I am aggrieved by your aggrievement.” The danger is depoliticization in a reversion to instinctual loyalties. Aggrievement is not the end of politics but its beginning. And yet, it’s true that freedom of speech (including tolerating pernicious ideas, though hopefully not with silence but with vocal dissent) benefits those with power more than those without it, which is a given in a perjurocracy (my neologism for rule by those who violate the public trust, which echoes Pound’s neologism, pejorocracy, rule by the worst).

    I find it useful to focus on the parts of Heidegger’s late poetics that are most compelling — not to spin that off from his illiberalism nor to taint it as a siren song. Rather, it’s a reminder that some of the most liberating thinking about poetry is at the same time a poison: the cure that is a curse (which means it is possible to mistake one for the other). Curing might be good for meat but perhaps not thought, lest salami turn to baloney. I want a poetics that gets by without cures and where the curses curtsy in time to unheard maladies. I am most Jewish in my aversion of halakha. My homeland is diasporic.

    In that homeland, you have been a champion of polyvalent formalism and progressive materialism. With all that in mind, I was interested to see that you work at defining terms in “Pataquericals & Poetics” in Pitch of Poetry. It is a list of keywords that helps us with the primary work of sharing language with each other. How does definition matter as the first step in creating a community?

    Over the past 40 years, I’ve made up lot of terms as a way of resisting linguistic reification — that is, relying on a limited number of SuperNouns as shorthand for entangled semantic complexes (ESCs). If you are making a stump speech in a political campaign, the buzzwords may be necessary. But when they are used to police thought, under the sign of legibility, resistance is called for. I am erratic in the use of my own coinages and formulation, often restricting them to a single essay. I am not trying to introduce a new set of terms for general use and, indeed, many of my terms are sufficiently ludicrous to prevent general use.

    In 1968, many of us objected to the reductive language of the old Left and the way it described the ills of the world with ten SuperNouns. Every one of those nouns was both revelatory and reductive. Like many, I was looking for nonbinary alternatives. One term I made up in the 1970s is ready for a revival, com(op)posing: “writing resistance to established norms, including received ideas of how the world is represented.” An editor of a nationally circulated magazine recently explained to me about why I’m persona non grata at such publications — my poems “won’t translate to our pages.” That’s been my perverse joy all along: to create resistance to assimilation in order to provoke thought and pleasure.

    Com(op)posing: poesis as a pose, a come-on that flaunts itself as such, opposing oscillating with composing.

    Building on from that, there are implications for thinking about poetry and poetics when it comes to re-visioning one’s own historicisation. We see this in “The Pataquerical Imagination,” which features the words of others woven together to manifest a future for “Bent Studies”. Talk to us about your historical materialism and explain what “Bent Studies” might become.

     “Bent Studies” and “pataqueroid,” from Pitch of Poetry, are among my most recent coinages, which link, in the final essay, to “midrashic antinomianism.” Antinomianism is the refusal to be governed by moral (or religious) law. This is disobedience not lawlessness (as, paradigmatically, in the teaching of St. Paul). Antinomianism is an active aesthetic that rejects morality decreed by authority in favour of an ethics that is founded in social praxis. Obedience by our own lights, not searchlights from on high. Susan Howe reads Dickinson as an antinomian, working in the wake of Anne Hutchinson. But there is also a Jewish antinomianism — an aversion of halakha (in particular ritual law). The antinomian frees midrash (commentary, interpretation) from proscribed meaning, allowing for allegorical and associative readings (and for poetry that does not have an intended moral message).

    My friend Feng Yi sent me this quote from the Tao Te Ching, suggesting it was a kind of motto for “Bent Studies”:

    What is most full seems empty:

    Yet its use will never fail.

    What is most straight seems crooked [bent]

    The greatest skill seems like clumsiness

    The greatest eloquence like stuttering. (45:2, tr. Arthur Walley)

    Poetry, the kind of poetry I want, is not the unmediated expression of truth or virtue but the bent refractions — echoes — that express the material and historical particulars of lived experience. My poems don’t instruct, nor do they signal my virtue; they don’t “translate” into easily assimilable anecdotes and messages. Rather, the poems provide a thinking/feeling/perceptual field that readers enter at their own (imaginary) peril. They provide a place for interenacting.

    I think all these aspects also matter to Near/Miss. Other critics have noted its disruptive openness and how you break the heart of cliché. Yours is not an authentic voice expressing its inner self in language that is easily accepted and readily acceptable. What is it pitched towards, and for whom?

    Pitched toward the moon. And just for you.

    Pitch is defined in preface to Pitch of Poetry as frequency of a voice (highness or lowness), sales rhetoric, black gummy matter from wood tar or turpentine, inclination (as on a boat), degree of intensity, and the throw of a baseball. But I want to add, in respect to Near/Miss: the place you choose to station yourself, as when you pitch a tent.

    One of the qualities I noticed in the book is the enmeshment of language with technology. It does help me think about Near/Miss as part of your longer interests from the Xerox machine to your blog. I was wondering if you could unpack the social relations of this in light of the multinational digital corporation.

    The slash in the title of Near/Miss is, possibly, the mark of mediation. Verbal language is one kind of mediation, writing is another, the recorded voice yet another. Near/Miss was issued in cloth and paper as well as a digital and an audio book. Susan Bee’s cover image is based on a still from Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket. It represents the lover’s visit to the prison, where she is separated from her beloved by bars or a grate, something that also brings to mind the grate of a confessional. The painting offers itself as an allegory of mediation, of language: that a grate separates us from that which we are closest. The grate is a gate.

    Daniel Benjamin in Chicago Weekly asked you about being a “trickster and a charmer” but I prefer to think of you as a Groucho Marxist. I always appreciated that you had a childhood with vaudeville, Lenny Bruce, and gallows humor. In this collection, you use the pun, the dad joke, and irony to great effect. Your humor never sits still but it always plays around. What makes poetry fun?

    There is a direct connection with what I do and the work of Groucho Marx. His comedy is grounded in puns, on tripping on the material conditions of words, and on context switching. The jokes are embodied, situational, and antic. They reflect the shrewd intelligence of the second language speaker: the making of the diasporic, the condition of immigration, a home ground filled with delight. Bringing to mind another great Jewish entertainer, Harry Houdini, Groucho Marx’s jokes are allegories of escape, and especially escape from being defined. The Jewish comic, like the Jewish poet, dodges, deflects, evades, ducks.

    Why a duck? Because someone may be throwing a punch.

    “Certainly there be that delight in giddiness, and count it a bondage to fix a belief; affecting free will in thinking, as well as in acting,” Francis Bacon writes in “Of Truth.” I don’t want to run from this warning so much as up the ante. I use something Bacon writes a few sentences later as an epigraph to “Professing Poetics” in Attack of the Difficult Poems: “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, such as we spake of before.” That’s perjurocracy.

    The illicitness of the comic, like the radical impersonality of the scientific method, has the potential of unsettling truth, of setting it free. Where freedom is not an end but precariously transitory. The comic as a method of aesthetic intensification is best when its giddiness is measured by its ability to resist redemption.

    In Near/Miss you use a lot on repetition, from list poems to re-hashed slant phrases to other passages that recur. What draws you to repetition and what do you think it negates?

    The poems with reiterating structures, for example with every line repeating the same word or phrase, fall under my rubric of radical legibility. Several poems of this kind appeared in Girly Man, though my first use of radical legibility goes back to one of my earliest works, from 1974, “My/My/My.” Since the lines of these poems tend to be short, each one is riveting and it’s impossible to get lost. Even if you miss a line, when your mind drifts, the poem stays in the groove. The structure marshals attention in a way that borders on coercive. At the same time, the poems don’t have a conventional anecdotal or scenic coherence; the array of lines is conceptually divergent. So the form allows for simultaneous discontinuity and continuity at a high level.

    In some ways, radical legibility has a similarity to the overlapping repetitions in the music of Steve Reich but with the glaring difference that the line for line shifts are semantically disruptive rather than modulating. The coerciveness is countered by the porousness of the array, so the works approach what Tan Lin discusses as “ambient.” Moreover, each of these poems is a patacosmology —  that is, each generates a world but not the world.

    You also attend to the rhythm, musicality, and aural qualities in these latest poems; ear work and close listening have been well noted by other critics and interviewers. Tell us about the other senses in Near/Miss and its corporeal imaginary?

    The sense of unknowing, not being able to put your finger on it. That so-called sixth sense. The intuitive. Going by ear rather than by eye or idea.

    Near/Miss could also be read as a fulcrum. After this, will there be a confessional turn to liberal lyric that is palatable to the burghers of official verse culture? I want to know your pitch for tomorrow in our poetry and poetics.

     Tastes morph and sheer persistence — persistence of resistance — has its power. When I got the Bollingen Prize for American Poetry last month I was stunned and happy. I take it that the prize was partly for my sticking with my poetics by not staying the same, for opening myself and my work to changing forms but also for acknowledging continuity (and warping) in the shifts. The more I change the more I encounter myself. “My/My/My” was already listing all the things that I could call mine as both incommensurable and a barrier. When the Bolligen was announced, I got a flood of letters and congratulations. I’m grateful for each one. “You deserve it,” many wrote; I was heartened. But I know “you deserve it” is also what ones says to someone who is made to walk the plank. The jury is always out on poetry: each reader delivers the verdict for a poem every time they read it. And in that lies poetry’s freedom.