Skip to main content

Charles Bernstein and Language Poetics


Have been teaching Bernstein for some years now and last year included him on my MA in Contemporary Literature and Culture at Brunel University, West London. Thought I would post these notes as a general introduction to Charles' work. This begins in a very rudimentary style desgined for all kinds of students who have not encountered Bernstein of Language poetries before.

1. Context: Introduction to Language poetics


So-called Language poetry emerged in 70s West and East Coast USA around journal This and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E

I was ostensibly reacting to the predominant free verse, confessional mode of English language poetry to be found across the US and UK poetry scenes

As a group it looked to build on the formally innovative and socially concerned poetry of American modernism

Picking up on the postmodern innovations of New York School poetry, the groups however had a political edge

Founder poet Bon Perelman defines the Language programme as the following:

“breaking the automatism of the poetic “I” and its naturalized voice; foregrounding textuality and formal devices; using or alluding to Marxist or poststructuralist theory in order to be open to the present and to critique change” (Perelman, The Marginalization of Poetry 13)
An early central theoretical concern of language poets was: the materiality of the signifier, that language is physical material not just a medium to express ideas or describe the world “out there”

Additionally that language is subject to the material conditions of everyday life like any other object in capitalism, thus assumptions about writing are all ideological in origin.

Their confrontational, often unreadable, poetry tries to demonstrate the materiality of the signifier and undermine the ideologies of naturalised signification.

Bernstein is the leading voice of this project which Watten has encapsulated in his comments on the two founding journals of the movement, This and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E.
The deictic This refers to things quiddity, there this-ness, namely for Marxist inflected aesthetics their ideological context.
In contrast the awkward articulation of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E reveals the materiality of all language, or that it is made up of phonetic and graphematic matter.
Taken together these two positions encapsulate all that is enduring, controversial and aporetic as regards the conception of the materiality of the signifier.
Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

John Ashbery, Some Trees

John Ashbery, Some Trees
(New York: Corinth Books, 1970)
Originally published (New York: 1956)


Close Readings and annotations of every poem in the collection March-April 1997 in preparation for In the Process of Poetry: The New York School and the Avant-Garde (Bucknell UP, 2001) currently in the process of complete update (2013)


"Two Scenes," 9

This is a poem about duality so in this sense the title actually refers to what the poem is ‘about’. John Shoptaw notes, for example, the phonic mirroring of the poem which he sees as an element later phased out as is the “linear introversion” to be found here. Thus we have the following phonic recurrences: “we see us as we”; “Destiny...destiny”; “News...noise”; “...hair/Air”; “-y” and rhymes of section 2; and “...old man/...paint cans”.


This simple but subtle semiotic device is then developed structurally as well, as the title hints. So ‘scene’ 2 reflects back internally onto ‘scene’ 1. “Machinery” recalls the train as does the canal; g…

John Ashbery, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror

John Ashbery, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror
(Manchester: Carcanet, 1977)
First Published (New York: Viking, 1975)

Close Readings and annotations of every poem in the collection March-April 1997 in preparation for In the Process of Poetry: The New York School and the Avant-Garde (Bucknell UP, 2001)


Introduction:

· Shoptaw notes that this return to poetry is dominated by images of waiting, that narrative (especially fairy-tale) returns, as do the musically based titles, there are no prose poems and no fixed forms such as sonnets of pantoums, most are free verse paragraphs, also bring forward a new American speech, more direct and inclusive.



“As One Put Drunk into a Packet-Boat”, 1-2

· Shoptaw notes this was the original title for the collection, marking a self-consciously Romantic return to poetry, recording the thoughts of “I” from afternoon to night, just outside a childhood country home. Has a pastoral crisis narrative in that a summer storm gathers but passes leaving the poet relieved i…

The Grenfell Tower Murders

The 72 victims of Grenfell Tower Fire were murdered, victims of the violence of neglect.  Here is the proof.
A year ago, a fire started on the fourth floor of Grenfell Tower, due to a faulty appliance.  The fire spread quickly up the side of the building because the tower had been refurbished in 2016.  Flammable cladding had been added to the exterior building as part of an £8 million refit which appears to have primarily made the tower more cosmetically pleasing.  The money was not spent on improving fire safety within the building, it would appear, a cause for concern for residents’ groups for years. The initial cladding that was to be used is not illegal in the UK but its use is restricted in other countries.  To save costs a cheaper version was eventually attached to the building, a more flammable version. 
Once the fire caught, residents were advised to stay in their flats.  In 99% of all cases this is the best advice, because flats are designed to be “fire resistant boxes” surr…