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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.

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