In Conversation

CHARLES BERNSTEIN with Adam Fitzgerald

Charles Bernstein is the author of Attack of the Difficult Poems: Essays and Inventions (University of Chicago Press, 2011); All the Whiskey in Heaven: Selected Poems (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010); Blind Witness: Three American Operas (Factory School, 2008); and Girly Man (Chicago Press, 2006). He teaches at the University of Pennsylvania, where he is co-director of PennSound  See for more information.

Portrait of Charles Bernstein. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

Adam Fitzgerald (Rail): How long have you been working on the book? Meanwhile, you’re prolifically writing essays, speaking, doing appearances, Interneting.

Charles Bernstein: Interneting? Hmm. I guess so.

Rail: When do you tell yourself these occasional performances, speeches, and texts should assemble into a larger pattern, a “book of essays”?  

Bernstein: There’s a different story for each book. The basic unit of writing for me, more than a poem or essay, is the book. The collections are not structured primarily as chronological assemblings: each book has a formal or structural or thematic frame. With All the Whiskey in Heaven, my recent selected poems, even though all but the title poem had been in previous books, I went about making a new book in its own right, selecting works not just as best or representative, but in terms of what worked for the book.

Attack of the Difficult Poems has been a long time in my mind. But over the years I was putting together the manuscript for the University of Chicago press, I discovered I had three books. That surprised me. I kept weaving together the interrelated parts and dropping whatever wasn’t crucial, in an attempt to cover with each new essay things I otherwise hadn’t. Or perhaps better to say, the book came together as a series of interrelated responses to ongoing preoccupations of mine that I felt I hadn’t otherwise adequately addressed, and also to engaging issues as they emerged in the world, in poetics and politics but also in terms of language reproduction technology. There are threads that move through all of the books, certainly the books of essays. On the one hand, this book is very specific to the last decade in terms of new technologies and new poetics; but the heart of it is backfill—providing detailed historical, aesthetic, and philosophical contexts for the issues I take up. So there is a very long timeline here, from the invention of the alphabet to the emergence of the Internet, along with some historically specific case studies, such as a detailed piece on poets, songwriters, and blues artists from the 1920s and 1930s (with special attention to sound recording).

So I found, to my surprise, I had written three interconnected books. In addition to Attack of the Difficult Poems, there is a collection of interviews and conversations, a favorite genre (and here we are hard to work at it); I am tentatively calling this book In Exchange. The third book has a working title adapted from Hugh MacDiarmid, The Kinds of Poetries I Want.  That book will be made up of essays about individual poets, well mostly poets: Jackson Mac Low, Louis Zukofsky, Robert Creeley, John Ashbery, Barbara Guest, Larry Eigner, Hannah Weiner, Jerome Rothenberg, Charles Olson, Ezra Pound, Leslie Scalapino, Gertrude Stein, Maggie O’Sullivan, Bob Dylan, Samuel Greenberg, Paul Celan, Dickinson, Poe, etc.

Rail: But you decided not to put those three books together?

Bernstein: It would’ve been too long, from a practical point of view. In working on the manuscript, Attack of the Difficult Poems emerged: I was able to make a constellation out of the diverse parts; I think when you read it you can palpably sense the interconnections even among parts with apparently disparate subjects. That’s the plan, anyway. And I’ve had the title of the new book in mind for quite a while.

Rail: How long?

Bernstein: At least five years. I gave that title to the Ward Phillips lectures included in the book, which I gave at Notre Dame in 2006, and I also used the title for a related collection published in Stockholm by OEI in 2008 (De svåra dikterna anfaller, eller Högtspel i tropi-kerna / The Attack of the Difficult Poems: A Tropics of High Stakes, edited and translated by Anders Lundberg, Jonas (J) Magnusson, and Jesper Olsson). Once I came up with the title I thought aha, that’s just right! And then I went about composing the book, or, well, in the end, all three books (though still working on the other two).

The essays on the history of the alphabet, media theory, digital textuality, technology—that whole section—is the hard core of Attack of the Difficult Poems. It was crucial for me to have the material on poetry and sound recording, related to PennSound, which extends the Close Listening essay in My Way. And related to that, various pieces on social media (avant la lettre), literary fraud, poetry and the visual arts, our seemingly endless neoliberal moment, and above all invention, which I am contrasting to innovation. “Objectivist Blues”—which is about anti-assimilationism in Second Wave Modernist poets, blues singers, and songwriters, and which focuses on dialect, race, and the vernacular—is the essay on which I spent the most years (the essay has an almost delirious set of interconnected excursions). It’s the second part of “The Poetry of the Americas” from My Way. And this is at the center of a cluster of essays on the ordinary, secular Jewish culture, and translation. Then, of course, there are the satiric pieces, including a few that start off the collection “The Difficult Poem,” which is something of the title essay, and what has become my old chestnut, my best loved essay, “Against National Poetry Month as Such,” which was first published on the website of the University of Chicago Press when My Way came out in 1999. So that makes up another cluster, concerning difficulty, the academic profession, teaching, poetry and the visual arts, and the “fate of the aesthetic.” And then there’s “Recantorium,” the final work in the book, which recants everything I say in the earlier essays. I call that “a bachelor machine after Duchamp and Kafka,” but it might be more accurate to say it’s an anti-bachelor machine, as it counters the very self-cancellation it articulates. So there are several distinct story lines that, taken together, make a narrative. But you could tell me, since you’re one of the few people who’s already read the book.

Rail: Oh, I found it extremely readable, both entertaining and gripping. 

Bernstein: Perfect. I can’t interview you about my own book, but—

Rail: Of course you can!

Bernstein: I am delighted you find the book so readable, because, as you know, there’s a great range of approaches from comic set pieces to highly detailed scholarly studies, from media theory to polemic.  But above all it’s meant to read as one long work that takes you on a wild and unexpected journey. Years ago I said about Content’s Dream that it could almost be listed as essay/fiction. A book of essays should be at least as interesting as a novel or TV show or movie. Without, though, sacrificing its technical commitments. Attack of the Difficult Poems is, among other things, an unrelenting work of literary criticism and history. So it goes from “Poetry Bailout,” which was popular on the Internet as a comic work in the wake of the financial bailout, to the detailed analysis of “Objectivist Blues.” What interests me is to be able to have that range: from satire to philosophy (but maybe philosophy is always satiric), from ideological critique to Tin Pan Alley. “It all ties together,” as I say, quoting Raymond Chandler, in the epigraph. I want the radical shifts of mood, style, tone, and, yes, attack, to be, in part, what makes the book compelling.

Rail: Did you find certain pieces being heavily revised?

Bernstein: Everything was revised or overwritten, both initially, at the time of first publication, and then for this book. I don’t know if my most recent thought is my best thought, but I tend to give it the benefit of the doubt. What starts in improvisation, which is my basic method of composition for essays, has the benefit of lots of later reflection. I’m not saying I always revise but that I always rethink. I can’t help myself. I am a man of constant second and third thoughts (and I’ve seen trouble all my days). And often the key revisions for me are paratextual in nature: the footnoting, the acknowledgments, the visual layout of the paragraphs, the organization of the sections, and all the issues that come up in copyediting. Endless fussing. I was very lucky to work with Carol Saller, author of The Subversive Copyeditor and The Chicago Manual of Style Online’s Q&A. Since my essays are filled with linguistic anomalies, rebarbative inconsistencies, and counter-conventional turns of phrase, ferreting out my errors from my mistakes takes a verbal sleuth. More often than not I fool myself. It’s great fun when copy-editing is taken as collaborative and constructive rather than punitive and regulatory. (Carol even makes a cameo appearance in one of the footnotes.) But then it’s surely Susan Bee who catches most of my errors and points out many of my mistakes, too. I seem to make more unintended typographical errors as each day passes; Susan has her hands full and I am grateful she has not yet given up on me.

Some of the essays in the book were originally presented as talks or performances. So I have several versions of overlapping essays, each with slightly different wording and often with phrases or paragraphs imported from one another. One of the things I typically do in performance is to cut out individual paragraphs, put them on index cards, shuffle the cards, and then read the text in the order determined by the procedure. I could do this with the whole book: the parts can be constantly permuted or reconstellated, to allow for constantly new versions. The coherence of the book is non-linear: even those skeptical, sure this would just produce a dissociated jumble, are surprised at how it all comes together, indeed, vividly together, in the shuffle-card performances. But that wreaks havoc on the written text, as I don’t always remember where a line originates and I have to be on the alert for lines repeated in more than one essay, which I didn’t want for the book. Anyway: one thing I was able to do in putting the book together is create a textual version that retains some of the flux of these performances. In the book I break things up. Some pieces I’ve pulled out as separate essays previously existed as single longer pieces, and vice versa. The book creates an experience of changing parts, shifting and recombining.

Rail: I want to ask you about this word “difficulty.” Part of what the book plays upon is an awareness of the audience, who might not necessarily be sympathetic to its stance.

Bernstein: Yeah, I wonder how I got that idea? [Laughter]

Rail: One of the kinds of satire or humor you enlist as a tool, in an Erasmian sense, becomes an elbow or a wink among the dissenters of the Poetry Establishment. Your work doesn’t hold anything over the common reader, but they also poke holes through a lot of these terms that we mythologize, like, well, “the common reader.”

Bernstein: “Recantorium” is a prime example. Although, even as you say that, and I acknowledge my own rebarbative ways, I’m still resistant to any kind of coded or insider speak—I most often try to be as explicit as possible and to address commonly held, or anyway frequently argued for, assumptions. (Rebarbative is a term of art here; it means repellent, so difficult in the sense of not assimilated or absorbable.) My style is unconventional, for sure, but mostly its play is with the vernacular; still, sometimes a technical term is necessary (like techne, the art of making something). “Recantorium” is all about actual things that have happened to me, to which I have had emotional responses. It’s polemical, it’s satiric, but it’s also, by virtue of its concept, acutely personal, an autobiography of my poetics.  (The ad campaign for Attack of the Difficult Poems would be, “Just when you thought it was safe to go back to the poetry waters …” and for “Recantorium”: “Now it’s personal… ”)

“Recantorium” is impossible to miss on some level: it’s a very broad piece of humor, though the actual details of what I’m talking about would read very differently to people who knew the intricacies of the poetics I’m discussing, so it works on two levels. (“I was wrong, I apologize, I recant. I altogether abandon the false opinion that National Poetry Month is not good for poetry and for poets. I abjure, curse, and detest the aforesaid error and apostasy. And I now freely and openly attest to the virtues of National Poetry Month in throwing a national spotlight on poetry, so crucial to keeping verse alive in the 21st century.”)

The first piece in the book, “The Difficult Poem,” doesn’t have any insider or esoteric aspect to it. And also, while it’s satiric, it’s also true; the satire doesn’t take away from its sound, if comic, advice. I don’t like irony that makes the author seem better than you, that’s condescending. Sarcasm is aggressive but doesn’t have to be smug; on the contrary, it often assumes a contentious or even preposterous point of view (not that I would ever be preposterous?!) that can be deflationary. The perfection I’m sometimes seeking in satire is when the irony disappears into the social real. So you’re not saying the opposite of what you mean but also what you mean, albeit in quotes: a 360 degree turn. “The Difficult Poem” treats difficulty on the model of relationship with a difficult (or “special” or “gifted”) child. When you think about someone being a difficult child, it takes on a different valance than when you think about a poem being difficult. They’re not analogous; it’s a slight of hand. (Better check your wallet before you close the book.) But, here’s the rub, I do propose that we think of difficult poems in this way. I find poetry attractive and significant because it raises difficulties, because it “challenges” me to think in “different” ways. I like poetry that is extreme, eccentric, intense, unexpected, visionary, uncompromising, fresh (in both senses). Just like I find people attractive for those reasons. Just like? Are difficulties with art the same as the difficulties one has in life? Perhaps not completely dissimilar nor outside of the flow of everyday life.

Rail: One repackaged idea we receive often enough, from editors and publishers and even poets, is that the mainstream reader isn’t interested in or doesn’t know what to do with “difficult poetry.”

Bernstein: Readers, even readers of poetry, are not a unified group: we are a divisive bunch passionately interested in quite different things. That’s for the good. Mainstream “viewers” are probably most sympathetic to traditional pictures of their pets or their boats (and after that someone else’s pets or boats), but does that mean there is problem with Malevich? (Now maybe that does sound condescending; irritation does that to me; but here I am trying to counter the condescending dismissal of the difficult; if you love your painting of “Paradise Lost” in dry dock, so be it. Maybe my problem is that I don’t have a pet or a boat.) If the issue is book sales, then it is accurate to say book buyers, in aggregate, are not interested in contemporary poetry of any kind, at all, compared to other genres. But let me switch the frame again (and it’s just this switching that is my way of being difficult): If we want to talk in terms of national and international politics, most voters prefer explanations that are simple and implausible to those that are complex and plausible; our politics is based on lobotomizing language in the name of winning talking points. Poetry can and often has succeeded with spareness, simplicity, and directness; but to demand accessibility of poetry often smacks of anti-intellectualism. The debate about poetry’s difficulty or accessibility is ideological. It’s not a question of what’s more popular or mainstream, as if poetry was running for high school class president. In that case, let’s just stipulate: poetry would lose. There is plenty of old-fashioned poetry around for conventional readers, much of which has no circulation, and the same could be said for innovative poetry for unconventional readers. The fact that on the web, for example, lots of wild and crazy poetry circulates like hotcakes, or that there are millions of downloads of sound files from PennSound, isn’t going to convince a conservative to get with “the new,” nor should it. Or vice versa. (And yes let’s get that vice back in verse, that’ll bring the broad masses of the people back to poetry faster than you can say tiddlywinks.) Poetry is an art, so for me the issue is not circulation but aesthetics. As Williams says in “Pastoral”: “No one / will believe this / of vast import to the nation.”

Rail: When did that shift happen in the presentation of American poetics? How does that relate to the Myth of the Accessible Poem?

Bernstein: The issues about difficulty and accessibility, as they are often now addressed, go back, in large part, to Modernism, though there is also a much longer time frame. Attack of the Difficult Poems really means to take this on in full scale. You could say that this is the centennial of difficult poetry. A Hundred Years: Difficult and Proud. As I say in the book, the kinds of difficulties in Modernism are not singular. The number one difficulty I address has to do with the radically changing culture and society from which American poetry emerges. As radios and skyscrapers, cars and film made for a different kind of poetry, so did a shift from a poetry of the countryside to a poetry of the cities. For Anglophile conservatives, the encroachment of the vernaculars of immigrants and African-Americans, as well as the voices of women and the dispossessed, is and remains the first difficulty. As for form: the difficulty of Gertrude Stein and William Carlos Williams—who use only everyday words you don’t have to look up and who don’t use allusions to the high literary tradition—is very different from the difficulty of Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot. Now, is poetry more difficult because it no longer refers to Homer and classical references or is it less difficult? Those are fundamental and irresolvable problems.

What’s difficult for many of us is what’s unfamiliar: whether references, or forms, or points of view: subjectivities as much as objectivities. Some who bemoan difficulty in poetry are not particularly interested in poetry, so the argument against difficulty can seem like it’s urging poets to write poetry for the poetry phobic: those who want to swim but not get wet. There are some poets who appeal to readers who don’t like poetry. And these often can be mainstream favorites: here is a poet you can enjoy. Why, it’s almost like… prose! But the forms and expressions in poetry are no more universal than people are, than cultures are, than history is. It’s the opacity, density, particularity; the forms you can’t find anywhere else, the saying it otherwise; that some of us crave.

One time I went to a hockey game, when I was living in Buffalo, where hockey was a huge thing. I sat up at the top and thought this is very beautiful, the ice skaters crisscrossing back and forth on the ice, the patterns they made. But I had no idea what was going on with the record of the two teams, the plays, the history of the players. I didn’t say to my friend this was too difficult for me, because I understood that in order to know what was going on in one hockey game I’d have to see many more games, follow the story, the teams, know the written and unwritten rules. We don’t associate sports with difficulty, but someone like me, just coming onto a hockey game, does find it unfamiliar, refreshingly so. Those people who want to spend time with poetry, that are committed to it as an art form, learn the ropes. But the difference with hockey is that contemporary and Modernist poetry is not part of mass culture or taught in most schools, so there is little or no orientation to many coming upon formally radical Modernist or contemporary poems for the first time. It’s foreign. Poetry’s unpopularity, or anyway the unpopularity of the kind of poetry I want, is part of its cultural condition and so part of its advantage. Its unpopularity may even be popular; that’s poetic logic for you. How about saying that poetry is the research and development wing of verbal language, better understood as collaborative thinking and investigation, at least for some of the practitioners?  It doesn’t necessarily express an individual author’s biographical feelings in a conventionally lyrical manner—a great deal of poetry does that, but a great deal doesn’t. The elitism is not poetry’s, but commodity culture’s, which says that value comes exclusively from the market or audience share. Forms of culture that are not immediately accessible to a mass or popular audience also matter. Difficulty is not an obstacle, it is a material means for engagement with the social real. Yes we can.

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Charles Bernstein

Charles Bernstein is the author of Attack of the Difficult Poems: Essays and Inventions (University of Chicago Press, 2011); All the Whiskey in Heaven: Selected Poems (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010); Blind Witness: Three American Operas (Factory School, 2008); and Girly Man (Chicago Press, 2006). He teaches at the University of Pennsylvania, where he is co-director of PennSound.