Attack of the Difficult Poems: Essays and Inventions

June 23, 2011

To judge a book by its cover (which is what book covers are for, of course), the reader of this book, given its 3D, blocky, Pop Art-style yellow-on-orange lettering, might expect witty, irreverent and democratising literary criticism dedicated to some of the most challenging and rewarding late Modernist (or Post-Modernist, if you prefer) American poetry with which Charles Bernstein is associated. In other words, a debunkingly lowbrow, B-movie approach to a body of work (Jerome Rothenberg, Ron Silliman, Susan Howe, Lyn Hejinian, etc) sometimes assumed to embody a highbrow aesthetic.

Indeed, wit, irreverence and a knockabout demotic style are duly delivered in this collection of lectures, statements, essays and, in one case, an email exchange, produced over the past decade and a half. The eponymous "difficult poems" don't make as much of a show as one might expect, still less do they attack; Bernstein more often styles himself their defender against attack.

This is a shame, as Bernstein is a provocative and insightful reader (the two qualities often go hand in hand) of modern and contemporary poetry. His incisive comments on Louis Zukofsky's responses to T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, for example, are as shrewd as anything Harold Bloom had to say on the subject of poetic predecessors, and steer the reader back to the business of voice, texture, lexical register and tone, rather than inviting Freudian speculation about authors' psychological anxieties.

Bernstein follows these observations on the construction of poetic voice with a detailed consideration of the relationship between American popular song and what he usefully terms "second-wave Modernism", displaying great sensitivity to the nuances and contingencies of performance as an aspect of what we might call "total textuality". For Bernstein, a poem is much more than merely its words, an understanding of aesthetics that resonates with the latest, more ethnographical work of scholars such as John Miles Foley.

This commitment to the material delivery of a poem as part of its meaning is evidenced elsewhere in the collection, and in Bernstein's hugely important editorial work for the Electronic Poetry Center hosted by the State University of New York at Buffalo, sound files for which are frequently and helpfully referenced in the book's notes. Bernstein is justly to be applauded for integrating much textual-theoretical work of recent decades with the practice of reading and interpreting poems.

Not all the items here are of the same quality, however. Too often, especially in the first grouping of essays, Bernstein pontificates: about the crisis in the humanities in the US academy (while simultaneously bemoaning the solipsistic navel-gazing of the academy); about the widespread failure of English professors to teach their subject in creative, imaginative ways (he is, according to his own anecdotes, a notable exception); and about the narrow-minded rejection of one of his essays by the readers of the journal PMLA. Such polemic is rarely as interesting to readers as to the author, and the indignant, self-aggrandising tone of some of these pieces threatens to eclipse the value and interest of what Bernstein has to say elsewhere.

Yet these are "essays", in the true, etymological sense: attempts, tries, assays on a subject. Some of these pieces on "difficult" poetry, whether attacking or attacked, are failed attempts; others certainly find their mark. But I could do without the self-referential asides in which the author proclaims himself "a kinder gentler Frankenstein"; not all B-movies are cult classics.

Attack of the Difficult Poems: Essays and Inventions

Charles Bernstein

University of Chicago Press 296pp, £61.50 and £17.00

ISBN 9780226044767 and 4774

Published 19 April 2011

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