By Charles Bernstein
Farrar Strauss and Giroux, 2010. ISBN: 978-0374103446
Reviewed by Benjamin Myers
The problem with being an experimental poet is that one has to stay experimental in order to stay a poet. When the experiment relies on a particular theory for its fuel, the problem is amplified, for what is there to do after the theory has produced its poem? If one repeatedly mines the same theory for the same sort of poem, one becomes no longer experimental and thus no longer a poet. This is the constant danger faced by the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, those Wittensteinian, Derida-soaked revolutionaries/tricksters of contemporary poetics. All the Whiskey in Heaven, a new volume of selected poems by the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E ubermensch, Charles Bernstein, offers, in its thirty-five year retrospective, a fascinating study in this problem, if not a clear solution to it.
Beginning in the late seventies, a loose group of associates such as Ron Silliman, Lyn Hejinian, and Bernstein, set out to create a poetry that radically rejects traditional ideas about speaker and narrative. Their motives were expressly political: by emphasizing language rather than meaning, they hoped to free the reader to construct meaning for herself or himself, thus striking a blow against all forms of hegemony by refusing to impose so much as a pretense of meaning on the reader. Taking their name from the magazine L=A=N=G-U=A=G=E, they considered themselves to be the heirs of the American avant-garde, from Louis Zukofsky to John Ashbery.
Bernstein’s early poems illustrate all the touchstone characteristics of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E experiment: the resistance to narrative, the assault on logic, the abandonment of meaning and closure, the jumpy typography. If the poems in this first part of the selection are unsurprising it is, to be fair, probably their own success, their influence on other poets, that has given them an air of banality. This, too, is the fate of the avant-garde. Perhaps, then, All the Whiskey in Heaven, at least for its first one hundred pages or so, is most useful as a primer in L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetics. Bernstein would seem to acknowledge as much in his decision to include at the end of the book notes on various poems, mostly revelations of the compositional techniques behind each piece, an addition that gives the volume an air of the school-text. Learning, for instance, that “Asylum” is a collage assembled from a book with the Foucaultian sounding subtitle Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates or that “Lift Off” is transcribed from the correction tape of an IBM typewriter provides the curious reader with clear insight into Bernstein’s refutation of the conventionally poetic. These poems answer the classroom question, what does a L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poet do?
After encountering lines of “poetry” like “HH/ ie,s obVrsxr ; atjrn dugh seineopcv I iibalfmgmMw” from the poem, “Lift Off,” many readers will conclude that what a L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poet does is thoroughly confuse and alienate the reader and will thus close the gorgeous cover provided by Farrar Strauss and Giroux never to open it again. This is a pity because much of what this book has to offer is found later in the volume, in the poems first published in the last decade of the previous century and the first decade of this one. It is in these poems that Bernstein fully embraces the playfulness that is perhaps inherent in the postmodern foundations of his experiment from the start. In other words, he attacks the avant-garde’s dilemma by getting in touch with his inner Billy Collins. Unfortunately, the result is sometimes pure shtick, as in the predictable “This Poem Left Intentionally Blank,” (which I have just quoted in full).
Not always more successfully, but at least more interestingly, the result is sometimes an experimental poetry that seeks to stay fresh not by seeking new theories or techniques but rather by seeking a variety of means to engage the reader. One technique used several times is to make the poem the occasion and location of its own reflection:
setting loose. (“The Years as Swatches”)
While arguably greatly reducing the scope of the poem – something the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets seem to set out to do anyway – such a gesture is reassuring, a gentle promise to the reader that this isn’t Pound’s Cantos, that all one needs to grasp the experiment’s handle is there on the page.
The technique is even more pronounced in “This Line”:
This line is stripped of emotion.
This line is no more than an
illustration of a European
theory. This line is bereft
of a subject. This line
has no reference apart
from its context in
this line. This line
is only about itself.
Bernstein’s clever enjambment, combined with the full view of his naked ars poetica, gives the poem a comic atmosphere that comfortably balances out the post-structuralist pretensions of its thought. Bernstein further invites the reader to relax as he, near the poem’s end, openly mocks his own theoretical aspirations:
This line is elitist, requiring,
to understand it, years of study
in stultifying libraries, poring
over esoteric treatises on
impossible to pronounce topics.
The joke is a flexible one, offering to the initiated an insider’s joke that is really a pat on the back for their wide and fashionable reading and to those outside the mysteries of Derrida and Lacan, an ironic wink that promises no study is really necessary. While one is unlikely to be haunted by any given line in a poem like this, it is hard not to like it. If not a great poem, it is, at least, an affable poem, which is often enough.
The poem as its own occasion technique appears again in the later “Thank You For Saying Thank You,” this time as an insiders’ laugh at the expense of readers who laud Ted Kooser’s “accessibility” and who listen faithfully to hear Garrison Keilor share poetry with the masses on his “Writer’s Almanac” program. The joke takes off from the first line:
This is a totally
There is nothing
in this poem
that is in any
One thinks immediately of Ashbery’s similarly tongue-in-cheek “Paradoxes and Oxymorons,” which begins with the claim that “[t]his poem is concerned with language on a very plain level.” While Ashbery’s oft-anthologized poem, however, goes on to develop the joke into a surprisingly tender reflection on the ontological gap between poet and reader, Bernstein’s poem goes on simply to repeat the joke in 90 mercifully short lines. The poem fails because it never moves beyond the cheap gesture of shared condescension. The same may be said for poems like “Foreign Body Sensation,” which begins with comically forthright statement “I am especially interested in the treatment of depression. With my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ at the center of my life, I have found real Joy and Purpose in dedicating myself to the Truth of His Teaching as Written in the Bible” (“Foreign Body Sensation”). The joke depends upon the shared assumption between poet and reader that we are not those people. These poems have little to offer the reader beyond the school-yard or faculty club affirmation of a strained superior laughter.
To his credit, Bernstein seems aware that this strategy isn’t sustainable long term and gives some indication of movement in a different direction in the book’s only new poem, the envoi and title poem, “All the Whiskey in Heaven.” What to make of this last poem may be the most pressing question for reviewers of this book. Considering the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets’ rejections of the lyric “I,” this last poems seems to be surprisingly earnest. The final stanza is almost embarrassingly frank:
No, never, I’ll never stop loving you
Not till my heart beats its last
And even then in my words and my songs
I will love you all over again
While the lack of punctuation in these lines might strain toward some sort of experimental façade, the sentiment is shockingly commonplace and the poetry is shockingly bad. Each of these four lines seems to revel in its own triteness. Is it possible that Bernstein, with no where left to go in the experimental direction, finds himself forced back into conventional territory only to find he has no actual poetic talent at all? Or is it the most avant-garde statement of all, an abandonment of the last narrative standing, that of the poem’s own antagonistic relationship to tradition? Or, is Bernstein calling us to question the very notion of good poetry and bad poetry? Of course, these questions only matter if one reads poetry in order to meditate on poetics, if one only cares about this poem for what it says about poetry. Taken at face value, it’s just a bad poem.
All the Whisky in Heaven is an important book because it collects the best of a body of work that has usefully challenged the complacency of mainstream poetry. Bernstein’s work provides interest, provokes thought, and occasionally amuses. If it fails to provide all that one might go to poetry seeking, it faithfully serves its side in a dialectic between the experimental and the “accessible” that gives much vigor to contemporary American poetry and poetics. It serves both as a helpful primer on the history of the contemporary avant-garde and as an open question about the future of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry.
Benjamin Myers won the 2011 Oklahoma Book Award for Poetry for his first book, Elegy for Trains (Village Books Press, 2010). His poems have appeared in or are forthcoming in Measure, Christianity and Literature, The Chiron Review, Ruminate, The Pedestal Magazine, The New Plains Review, poetrybay and many other journals. His essays have appeared in several academic journals, including Studies in Philology and English Literary History. With a Ph.D. from Washington University in St. Louis, Myers teaches literature and writing at Oklahoma Baptist University. He blogs at www.myerspoetry.blogspot.com.