I am struggling to recall the point of purchase for this book. I read it while working in the Segue archive, but I didn't purchase it until several years later. On the inside flap there is a price sticker from Half Price Books, which tells me I purchased it for $7.95. But where? No store by that name exists in New York state or in Florida, where my mother lives, which means I must have purchased it online. The plastic on the front cover is starting to peel away from the paper -- come on, Harvard UP, you can do better than that!
A Poetics is a mishmash of essays on everything from poetics to Pac Man to Ezra Pound. "Artifice of Absorption," an 80-page essay cut into lines and stanzas, occupies more than a third of the book. I think of it as a kind of archetype of CB's sophistical, sophisticated, ideologically-driven examinations of poetry and poetics. Beginning with an apparent binary: absorption/impermeability, he proceeds to upend, undermine, and deconstruct this opposition by examining the terms not as opposing sides of an argument, but rather as different strategies for producing certain effects in a literary text.
While he clearly is arguing for an antiabsorptive or impermeable poetics, these terms do not preclude the use of absorptive or permeable strategies in the construction thereof. More importantly, he is making the implicit or explicit point that the opposite is also the unacknowledged truth of the poetries he is arguing against. That what is seen by their authors and defenders as natural, i.e., that which is transparent, clear, concise, and absorbing, is making as much use of the impermeable and antiabsorptive as the avant-garde in the production of its own "naturalness," which makes their poems, like it or not, constructions, thus, "unnatural," which binary (natural/unnatural) is itself being torn apart in the process of thinking through these terms.
What one finds throughout Bernstein's essays is a restless and skeptical probing that immediately zeroes in, via a combination of informed ideological critique and biting satirical humor, on the structural weak points of the discourse on poetry. The effect can be unsettling because it can seem nihilistic, which I suppose is why his detractors can be so virulent in their attacks on him. But I don't see his project as nihilistic; rather, I see it more as an attempt to keep the field of poetic discourse open to possibility. His inner sophist resists those arguments, movements, poetries, institutions that would limit poetry's possibility by circumscribing the field of discourse in which it is enacted. It is not so much a rejection of everything as a rejection of the exclusionary impulse within that discourse.
When I first pulled this book off the shelf, I immediately went looking for a passage I remembered from the first essay ("State of the Art") in which he writes an hysterical parody of Bly's Iron John to make his point about certain kinds of false attempts to "represent" cultural diversity in contemporary poetry:
Too often, the works selected to represent cultural diversity are those that accept the model of representation assumed by the dominant culture in the first place. "I see grandpa on a hill/next to the memories I can never recapture" is the base line against which other versions play: "I can see my yiddishe mama on Hester street/next to the pushcarts I can no longer peddle or "I see my grandmother on the hill/next to all the mothers whose lives can never be recaptured" or "I can't touch my Iron Father/who never canoed with me/on the prairies of my masculine epiphany". Works that challenge these models of representation run the risk of becoming more inaudible than ever within main stream culture.