An Introduction and Guide to Reading Charles Bernstein, Thank you for Saying Thank You in Girly Man and Poem in With Strings.
In teaching avant-garde, non-normative poetics to undergraduates I often find that I have to teach them the tenets of normative poetics just so that I can then show them how Bernstein or Howe, Raworth or Prynne diverge from such well worn pathways. Naturally this leads one to a clearing full of possible revelation, that in fact such normativity is, in general, no more normative than postmodern, disjunctive poetics. And odd situation but also a gratifying one. Most people are not, in fact, slave to the normative.
Bernstein’s poem “Thank You for Saying Thank you” (Girly Man 2006) steps into your way as you move through the dark again trees and says, here it is in a nutshell squirrel-boy, normative poetics so that your students can recognise them and learn not to be absorbed by them. To which I say thank you for saying Thank You for Saying Thank You, if we count writing as a form of saying.
It begins: “This is a totally / accessible poem. / There is nothing / in this poem / that is in any way difficult / to understand.” Having located one squarely in the field of transparency, the bane of much contemporary literature as a whole not merely modern poetics, and addressed the reader’s apparently natural fear of the dense, having, in other words, won us over, Bernstein goes on to console us that: “This poem / has no intellectual / pretensions. It is / purely emotional.”
Suddenly a deer breaks from cover and steps into the dappled light. Pauses then is launched once more back into its natural context. I make a note to think about that later when I am on my futon and in need of spiritual healing.
Indeed as this friendly little poem progresses we learn about a whole set of issues about which the poem is clear-headed, rational and normal. We find we are reading a poem that “fully expresses / the feelings of the / author”, that the poem “appreciates / & values you as / a reader” and that “each line, / words, & syllable / have been chosen / to convey only the / intended meaning.”
It is tiring being lost in the trees like this, ask Baudelaire about it I am sure he would have something apposite to say, if you speak French that is. If not, less apposite perhaps but you can still jam to the music of his voice. So I am glad that with the poem at least, which is actually quite long (“90 lines, 269 words”) lightness is all. Not that there isn’t a certain weightiness there: “While / at times expressing / bitterness, anger, / resentment, xenophobia, / & hints of racism,” but “its / ultimate mood is / affirmative.”
That’s nice, and look there are two butterflies, gyring in the glade. So much of the forest is nice if looked at correctly. What is it they say about the wood of the trees being worse than the bark? Sometimes I ask for my literature to bite me.
We are coming to the end now and I hardly noticed I was reading a poem because as a work of poetry “it / says just what / it says. It’s / real”. And here were are, the rickety stile that marks the forest’s end, not even a forest really, nor even a wood, a cheeky little copse you could sprint through in, what, five minutes. You know, a lot of nonsense is written about forests. They are not so tough a nut to crack, and the kernel inside is as sweet as sweet can be sweet and remain as it is, real, meaning not too sweet, realistically sweet, believable and normally so.
The poem being described here consists of many of the elements of normative poetics making it easy for us to remember what they are and how pervasive they have become:
-Accessibility through linguistic transparency
-Anti-intellectualism in favour of emotional expression
-Stability of the subject who speaks (lyrical ego) with the intention to communicate authentically
-Shared values of humanism
-The importance of craft
-Direct communication with an implied readership that will forgive racism in great art
-It says what it is, it is real
At the same time the profound irony is, of course, that the poem itself, perhaps called “Thank You for Saying Thank You” or perhaps some other poem un-named, does not exist. The poem in question remains external, permanently other to, the rows of pithy lines that come to describe the poem. So where is the poem, where is poetry indeed, in the conception, the execution, the interpretation or beyond and outside of all of that? Are we in the forest and the poem surrounding us with space, or is the poem somewhere in the middle, a clearing full of magical insight. Where are the borders, the titles, the binding, the spacings; how can I mark out the parerga from the essence of the work?
And of course as soon as one begins to ask that, the poem’s promise to us of transparency, and emotional anti-intellectualism is broken. This poem maybe be real, but this poem also does not exist, which may be the truly real thing about it. Big thoughts for the small-hearted, not emotional at all in the end.
“Thank you” reminds me very much of “Poem” in With Strings (2001). Here the poet dances through the landscape of a poem, an as yet unwritten or permanently withheld from view poem, and calms us as regards possible areas of ambiguity or tension: “I will use the seasons / in a metaphoric way, / as you shall see”, “When I write I it / most often refers to myself”, and “I have taken / in several words from foreign / languages: Pierre is a French / name similar to our own / Peter.” Most comforting is the explanation that “The goat / that comes up / in the first few lines is simply / a garden-variety goat”, not an event then nor a symbol, not like my own deer which seemed slightly less than real for being a touch mute, sublime and uncanny. Not a goat to get our goat but a goat of Williams-esque, rural realness. A red wheelbarrow of a goat.
I like goats and do not feel the need to get too close to them. They are picturesque and simple like that, goats. Not like horses or, god forbid, skunks.
Bernstein has, yet again, invented a whole new aesthetic here with works such as “Thank you” and “Poem”. They are critical poetic equivalents of postmodern critical fictions such as Pale Fire or Art & Lies, but they are more than that. Certainly they also exercise a postmodern irony but again they move beyond it an a joyful, expansive manner. Their conceptualism is of a particular highly developed kind for they describe a work that does not exist in such a way as to call up a work that is a poem, is called literally a poem, but in actual fact is little more than portrait of a poem. The question is not the now rather tired What is a Poem, but the much more invigorating and ontologically less transcendental Where is the Poem, what are its borders, its boundaries? When does it come into view, how does one apprehend it? Is it like a clearing in the trees, a deer bolting across the path, or the gate at the far side beyond which your car waits to take you home and back to your desk? And so on.
I know I left it here somewhere, oh here it is, under my tax returns.
These are not conceptual works at all in fact. They are fiercely traditional in that they are poetic manifestations, apostrophes like the old old odes to gods and absent friends: “Ah bounce why dids’t thou have to die?” In this way they are, however, anti-odes, for in calling up the normative, romantic, free-verse poem they immediately place it in a permanent space over or out there.
And I suppose this is the final irony of the anti-ode. There is no need to apostrophise the normative poem. It is not absent at all but omnipresent. But somehow, when one calls it out, gives it s name, summons up its very essence with the magic words, its transparency becomes insubstantial and the normative poem, so dependable and real, dissolves.
This is the catastrophic power of the anti-apostrophic anti-ode: it does not give material form to a bodiless absence, but dissolves the presence of the normative poem body. In seeing the wood and the trees, the whole forest is suddenly felled and what seemed like a glade, a Heideggerian clearing, a spot of light, is simply just a featureless part of a wide open field. There’s nothing there really, when you look at it, the forest I mean, not late-Romantic, free verse poetry.
This is a pretty good field actually. My goat would love it here.
And as she described each feature to the rest, although he was standing right there in front of them, it, poof, disappeared. His lovely eyes, pits. His flowing hair, scalp. His hands and feet, stumps and pegs. His heart a messy cavity, his spleen a leaking gash. And so on for his shoulders, torso, groin and left knee. One by one they were blitzed by the word. Until all that was left was a sort of grey, saggy, bag-like thing thrumming on the stubbly grass at their feet.
“What’s that?” Dirk asked. Trust Dirk to stick his oar in.
“Oh that,” she said absently, “that must be his soul.”
“His soul, what’s that?” Rhiannon asked, poking it with a length of willow.
“Well it is his essence I suppose, you know his essential being kind of.”
“Never seen one before,” this was Diane, crouching down to take a look. She sniffed. “Smells musty, like a mushroom.”
At that point Luigi, who had been backing away from the bag perhaps in apprehension, rushed up and gave it a tremendous kick. It lifted high into the air and just kept on rising, quite slowly, like a balloon with no child to mourn it.
“A soul,” muttered Dirk as they moved on as one towards the settlement beyond, “what an ugly little word for a dirty, ugly thing. Sometimes words just match what they name don’t they. A soul, yuk I just stepped in a soul.”
“Ugh, I think I just swallowed a soul.”
“Put that soul down, you don’t where it’s been.”
“What a shitty little soul of a hotel, let’s not stay here, I know a much better place.”
But it was late and they were tired so they handed over their documents and made their way wearily to an unsettled night on a lumpy mattress while somewhere over the hill an unknown creature barked, then moaned then reedily keened all through the endless night.