Sunday, January 18, 2009

Aimless Reading: The B's, Part 18.5 (Charles Bernstein)

Bernstein, Charles
My Way: Speeches and Poems

When scholars get around to separating the whole of Charles Bernstein's literary career into discrete periods, the Buffalo years will most certainly be one of them.  But within Bernstein's "Buffalo Period," if I may, they will also note that the change that distinguishes this period from earlier ones has less to do with his time teaching in the Queen City than with his having taking up a position within the academy.

The original publication dates of the essays, speeches, interviews and poems in this collection fit neatly into CB's first ten years teaching at SUNY Buffalo, and it is tempting, nay, irresistible, to read them in this way. So let us proceed. My Way, published in 1999 (when I purchased it at Talking Leaves in Buffalo), does not at first glance differ greatly in form from A Poetics or Content's Dream, his two earlier collections of essays.  All three expand traditional conceptions of what is called poetry, what is called poetics, what are called essays, what is called thinking. They do this by explicitly rejecting the formal markers that set these genres off as distinct from one another.  

What I think marks My Way as distinct from the earlier works is that where they concern themselves with power, ideology, and institutional authority as manifest in the linguistic practices within late capitalism in general, many of the essays in My Way apply this critique to the power structures of the academy in particular. The longest essays in the book, "Revenge of the Poet-Critic, or The Parts Are Greater Than the Sum of the Whole," "What's Art Got To Do With It: The Status of the Subject of the Humanities in the Age of Cultural Studies," "Frame Lock," and "Poetics of the Americas," in addition to sometimes making use of the academically ubiquitous title-colon-subtitle format, all in one way or another address power, ideology and authority as manifest in the linguistic practices of the academy.

At the same time, many of the poems in this book reveal a new willingness to address a "public" by means of "speech" or speeches articulated by a more or less transparent speaker in more or less transparent language.  The "foregrounding of the materiality of the signifier" takes a something of a back seat to strategic speech acts designed to reveal hidden and not-so-hidden institutional assumptions that the speaker (or listener) of the poems might harbor. This kind of poetry becomes much more prominent in Girly Man, published a few years later and written mostly in the wake of 9/11.

Why I am I suddenly writing literary criticism?  I promised myself I wouldn't do that. Maybe I feel guilty for having abandoned the dissertation I was working on with Charles. Nah. I think it has more to do with the fact that as I read through my library I am beginning to feel a need to engage more directly with some the ideas that have come to form my own thinking.  Having read many of his books and studied with him for several years, these ideas no doubt inform a great part of that thinking. This is the second time (Walter Benjamin being the first) my project has been slowed by my desire to re-read the books under consideration.  It probably won't be the last.

Here's very short poem from this book:

Shaker Show

Now that is a chair
I wouldn't want to sit in.

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