March 11, 2013

essay-review "Wordscape Artists" (on Charles Bernstein, Bruce Andrews, and Bob Perelman) by Douglas Messerli

by Douglas Messerli

Charles Bernstein Controlling Interests (New York: Roof Books, 1980)
Bruce Andrews Wobbling (New York: Roof Books, 1981)
Charles Bernstein Stigma (Barrytown, New York: Station Hill Press, 1981); reprinted in Republics of Reality 1975-1995 (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 2000)
Bob Perelman Primer (San Francisco: This Press, 1981)

Perhaps the most serious-minded and influential new literary development in this country is the rise of poetry that basically renounces narrative structures and challenges both symbolic, thematically unified poems in the tradition of T. S. Eliot and imagistic, assemblage poems in the tradition of Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams. The young [young in 1982, when this essay was originally written] practitioners of this poetry, who are often grouped under the rubric “Language poets,” look instead to the Russian Futurists, Gertrude Stein, and ancient charm songs for their roots. What they share with the likes of Kruchenykh, Khlebnikov, and Stein is an emphasis on the mind in process, a focus on the jumps, leaps, fissures, cuts, aural patterns, and patter of public and private language—of the phoneme, word, phrase, line, sentence, and paragraph. How they differ from these earlier poets and from one another is apparent in three recent books—Primer by Bob Perelman, Wobbling by Bruce Andrews, and Stigma by Charles Bernstein.

     As the title suggests, Perelman’s poems, speaking of themselves and the processes through which they were created, serve as a presentation of elementary principles. Like Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, and others associated with “field” poetry, Perelman understands poems as “fields of speech.”  But whereas Olson and Duncan’s poems generally refer back to nature, history, and myth, Perelman’s—taking Olson’s theories to their logical conclusion—refer little to “us or use.” The poem, for Perelman, is energized by instant-to-instant shifts in thought and conversation. Meaning is not something affixed to the poem, or to which the language is directed, but is itself the language in motion. Language, accordingly, is the necessary and proper focus of poetry. As Perelman, with Steinian clarity, expresses this idea, “The proper study of trees is trees.”

     But as Gertrude Stein anticipated, such emphasis on language in motion leaves the poet without a past. For Stein that was liberating; but for many readers and writers, such anti-traditionalism narrows the poetic context. It is fine to be able to “...predict/The present, hearing a future/In the syllables’ erasing fade,” but what of the self, society, and memory as shaped by past experience? Criticism of such blatantly vanguard poetry is to be expected in these times of retrenchment. And in their relentless call for the creation of a new language—their demand for what Perelman describes as “a new world.../To stomach the images/Floating on the headless/Torso of the old”—these poets have understandably seen themselves as alienated from the poetry establishment. Whether Perelman has been affected by such criticism or by his own self-doubts—he seems to have been free of such dilemmas in his exuberantly intelligent previous book, 7 Works (The Figures, 1978)—it is evident that, while arguing in Primer for a “new world,” he is simultaneously attempting to locate the poems within the Great Tradition as he defines it. Throughout the book there are references to poets as radically dissimilar as Chaucer, Shelley, Baudelaire, and Rilke; and several of the poems play with quasi-traditional structures.

     Such an attempt at rapprochement is admirable. But, unfortunately, most of the poets and forms Perelman employs tend to contradict his expressed ideas. It is one thing for the poet to encourage us to “leap across/Cracks between words,” and quite another for him to structure a series of poems around variations on the same sentences. The first dislocates, and forces us to reevaluate and reshape our knowledge; the second calls upon our memory, and asks us to repeat and reconfirm our understanding. The one challenges most traditional principles of structure; the other accepts them pretty much at face value. Throughout his work, Perelman calls for a poetry of linguistic discovery (“Have you ever seen a school fence?”) that seldom operates in the poems themselves. Even the “new world” for which he argues ends up sounding strangely like the old one of the Romantics:

                                          Each word

                                          Floats through us.

                                          Piney mountains on memory clouds

                                          Visit in starlight, inconstant

                                                       (“Hymn to Intellectual Beauty”)

While it contains beautifully wrought poems, Primer ultimately fails to marry language-centered poetry and poetic tradition because Perelman compromises with, rather than answers, the criticisms of those who condemn such poetry in general.

     In Wobbling Bruce Andrews make it clear that he has no intention of compromising—with either critics or admirers of his work. He is attempting to create poetry more encompassing than traditional structures permit: “there are twists and turns in events and resultants, so, the search for a more inclusive vision—of standing, falling, sitting still.” Structure recalls for Andrews the “vivid forms,” “puzzles,” and “games” of childhood which adults understand as myth; it is “What affects/Character.” In fact, the reader of Wobbling is faced with several pieces which seem less like poems than crossword puzzles or acrostics. In “Fidel,” for example, Andrews limits himself to the use of only seven letters: A, E, L, M, P, S, and X; in “Jeopardy,” the words are organized primarily by alliteration; and in the 22 lines of “Prepositions,” there are no prepositions.

     Yet the playfulness and humor of Wobbling merely point up Andrews’ sincerity, his conviction that truth is the palpable and mutable reality of the “social hieroglyphic” we call language. And in his passion to “purge man from/look of light”—in his desire to free us from the “antiqued rhetoric” which daily convinces us it is truth, but is merely a conventionalized imitation of experience—Andrews issues his “inclusion vision” with the zeal of a missionary among the uncomprehending natives. If such an attitude occasionally results in incomprehensible poetry, it also imbues each poem with a sense of urgency and consequence that draws us in, compelling us to make meaning for ourselves, to “separate and sort” our lives “out of this confusion and regard.” In poems such as “Gossip,” “And the Love of Laughter,” “The Problem of Titles,” “Twining,” and “So,” Andrews uses a “private speech/That settles self together”; he builds up a range of semantic possibilities that unites the reader and poet who together create a new world not on any map.

     So Andrews addresses, in part, Perelman’s problem of language and the past; language, he suggests, is inherently tied to both the cultural and the individual past; but it is only through removing it from those contexts that we can make it fresh and reform our futures. For Andrews the tradition is not defined by older poetry as much as it is expressed in the present by the quality of writing, by the impact of language on the lives of his readers and himself. Engaging the world through the only medium—the language of mind and sensation—in which it can be understood, Andrews provides no answers and asks few questions. What the reader of Wobbling primarily experiences is the fluctuation of her own thoughts and emotions as she works her way through its parts. And in this respect, Wobbling is less a book of what is usually meant by lyric poetry than an imposing and exhilarating encyclopedia of all our loves and lives.

     Charles Bernstein’s Stigma is more modest in both size and scope. While the book lacks the impact of Bernstein’s best works—Shade, Controlling Interests, and Islets/Irritations—it typifies much of his writing. Unlike Andrews, the crusader, Bernstein is a conciliator, a poet of amends and recompense. For Bernstein, as for Perelman and Andrews, language, the dominant enterprise of poetry, is also the motivating force of human acts and thought. But that does not mean that we always recognize it as such. Like the tales of Samuel Beckett, Bernstein’s poetry is riddled with memories of pain, hurt, and loss which often result in a quietude that the reconciler/lover finds difficult to penetrate. But Bernstein does not sentimentalize such breakdowns in human relationships, those “quiet oas[es] of a stall”; for him there is no value to be found in our isolation, no benefit in being unable to share one another’s suffering. As he says in “March,” “Refused for want of hurting, gain/Else that quiets….” Conventional syntax tells us that there are words missing before and after “gain”: “I” (or “we”) and “nothing.” Language is the only healer; words “Like towers make amends....” There is an insistence about Bernstein’s work, a tireless attempt to regain our attention, to “Loose the emotion laden umbrella” and bring us from inertia into discourse once again. If Bernstein’s poetry seems more accessible than Andrews’s, it may be because of this incessant prodding of the reader—his perennial attempt to return us to the “legless hope” of language; to bring us into “The gravity of a peaceful/Chat....” And if, in all this concern, Bernstein reveals that he lacks Andrews’ faith in being understood, we recognize that it is because his poetry is more philosophically than politically inspired.

     In American culture, there is a stigma attached, in fact, to such a preoccupation with words. There is a distaste, almost, for this compulsion to speak. Perhaps the vastness of our landscape has helped to instill in us a reverence and admiration for the laconic and concise. Bernstein obviously is aware that he, Andrews, and Perelman must face the “ageless glowering/At shudder speed”; in some respects their poetry goes against the American grain. That they continue to construct such powerful landscapes of language in the face of a society that prefers its art realistically precise is a testament to what Bernstein describes as his “hope/Of a future persuasion.” Whether or not they change the course of American poetry, there is no doubt that it will be said of each of them, as Andrews has written of himself, “he made language in his own eager style.”

College Park, Maryland, 1982
Reprinted  from The Village Voice, 1982.

This essay-review was published in The Village Voice in 1982, and, to my knowledge, was one of the first pieces on “Language” writing to be addressed to such a large audience. I make no claims, however, for its effect, and am a bit surprised in rereading it by my criticisms of Perelman’s work—although I do stand by what I wrote. Without claiming it was a direct response, it is interesting that he later wrote a book titled Face Value, the very words I used to criticize how he approached some aspects of structure.

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