Thursday, January 15, 2009

Aimless Reading: The B's, Part 18.1 (Charles Bernstein)

Bernstein, Charles (ed.)
The Politics of Poetic Form

If one wanted to get really anal about it, this book properly belongs among the anthologies three shelves north, right alongside Close Listening. For some reason I put it with his others, so I'll write about it now and decide its fate later. Like Controlling Interests, it was published by Roof Books and comes with a "plain brown wrapper" of a cover which seems to say: "the revolution will not be stylized" (I almost wrote 'revelation'). 

All of the essays were originally delivered at a conference of the same name at the New School For Social Research. And not in the English Dept., either -- in the school of Public Policy. So much for being unacknowledged legislators!

One thing I like about this collection is that it includes transcripts of the Q & A's that followed the papers, which makes it a little more lively than your average gathering of conference papers. The politics of the contributors (Rothenberg, Silliman, Howe, S., McGann, Waldrop, R., Mackey, Andrews, Brossard, Hunt, Mac Low, & Bernstein) vary quite a bit in specifics, but seem to agree on the central tenet of the conference: that the form of a poem has as much (if not more) political significance as the content.

I am sure I acquired this while working in the Segue archive, but I can't say for sure. I first met Charles as an indirect result of working there. It was in the spring of 1997 and the Segue series that had been running at The Ear Inn was about to move to a new location due to some disagreement with the owner of the bar, or possibly because the owner wanted to run his own series. I can't quite remember.

James Sherry instructed Dan Machlin and myself to go to the reading and to bring the sound system, which he claimed had been purchased with Segue money, back to the office. Andrew Levy was one of the readers that day, but I don't recall the other one. After the reading was over, Dan politely informed the bartender that we were taking the sound system back to Segue. The bartender (rather less politely) informed Dan that the sound system was staying right where it was.

Not knowing what to do about this, we approached Charles to see if he might talk to the bartender or help us in some other way. His eyes lit up and he sprang into action. However, instead of talking to the bartender, he told us to wait for his signal, then sneak the equipment out the front door and make a run for it. He enlisted Andrew Levy to distract the bartender, while Charles himself stood lookout.

Dan and I each took a piece of equipment under an arm and waited for the signal. Andrew stepped up to the bartender and got him talking. Charles waved us toward the door, repeating, "Go, go go!" We walked right past the bartender and out the door, then took off running down Canal Street -- all of this, of course, in broad daylight. We probably ran five blocks before we finally stopped to hail a cab. It wasn't until I moved to Buffalo to study six months later that I was actually formally introduced to Charles.

Here's an excerpt from CB's essay in the book:

Writing conventions play a fundamental role in the legitimation of communicative acts. They determine what is allowed into a particular specific discourse: what is accepted as sensible or appropriate or within the bounds of morality.

Yet dominant conventions are hardly the only conventions with authority and refusing the authority of a particular convention does not, in any sense, put one outside conventionality. Conventions are not identical to social norms or standards, although this distinction is purposely blurred in the legitimation process. Inflexible standardization is the arteriosclerosis of language. The shared counterconventions that may develop -- whether among all constituencies of poets or political groupings or scientists or regional communities -- are often a means of enhancing communication and articulation, in many cases because certain details (palpable material or social facts) are not articulable through prevailing linguistic conventions. Indeed, in its counterconventional investigations, poetry engages public language at its roots, in that it tests the limits of conventionality while forging alternate conventions (which, however, need not seek to replace other conventions in quest of becoming the new standard). Moreover, the contained scale of such poetic engagements allows for a more comprehensive understanding of the formation of public space: polis.

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