Here Charles Bernstein is pitching poetry, pitching for poetry, and describing both the acoustic and visual pitch of poetry, and the field, the pitch, of poetry. He’s at once a shill, a carney, a huckster, a used-poem salesperson, a showman, a shaman, a promoter, a master of ceremonies, a promoter, a provocateur, a pitch-man – but only occasionally an apologist. The likes of Sophocles, Longinus, and Sydney all beat him to it, but it’s never too late to pitch again for poetry. A relief pitcher. Plato and his followers have kept hitting dingers. Bernstein is and wants to be the reason the poets were expelled from the Republic. He reads askance the ‘official verse’ poets who have tried not be expelled.
In one possible reading this book is 350 pages of Whitman saying “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” For Bernstein, Poetry contains multitudes. He spurns poetry that is orthodox, normal, conventional, predictable, standard. “I can’t bear standards,” he writes, “or, rather, I want to lay them bare” (28). He describes the magazine L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E that he co-founded with fellow poet Bruce Andrews in 1978 as having “pursued a poetry aversive to convention, standardization, and received forms, often prizing eccentricity, oddness, abrupt shifts of tone, peculiarity, error, and the abnormal – poetry
I think it might be more accurate to say that I have helped pervert certain values of taste rather than
normalize them; perhaps it amounts to much the same thing. But then, as you know, I have always been
as hung up on the sin in sincere as the verse in perverse.”
But don’t let me shimmy my way out of this one – only, please, don’t throw me back into that briar patch.”
... if I question evaluative language, how can I say, as I just did, “one of the most important...”? .... But do
we really have time now to get into such a complicated question? I mean before lunch?”
In any case, flippancy is the gamma gobulin of poetic minds. (Or then again, maybe not.) (190-91)
One of the major Bernstein essays reprinted here is his 2012 explanation of the magazine L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E (reprinted from the Routledge Companion to Experimental Literature). In tone (or ‘pitch’) it’s an anomalous inclusion, solemn, seemingly factual, unironically discursive among its wild, witty and pataquerulous companions. As a result some of it seems anxious and defensive, especially remarks such as “all [the poets] were deeply affected by the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s” (66) – i.e. why wouldn't they have been? – or that not all “the poets involved were free of the effects of misogyny among ourselves and in our culture” (67) – i.e. it would be surprising if any were "free of the effects of misogyny." It can be unsettling to be asked to canonize one’s own literary movement – but Bernstein is unlikely (and why not?) to refuse the opportunity.
Another important inclusion is a long meditation on the difficulty of artistic representation “after Auschwitz”: “This Picture Intentionally Left Blank.” The 1949 Theodor Adorno observation that first articulated this crisis, “Nach Auschwitz ein Gedicht zu schreiben, ist barbarisch,” which appears to say, literally, that “after Auschwitz to write a poem is barbaric,” has been widely understood as saying “to write poetry after Auschwitz is impossible.” It’s a translation that, perhaps deliberately, made the observation easy to dismiss. I’ve seen two problematical words there: both Gedicht and barbarisch. What (in 1949) did Adorno understand as ‘poetry’? And isn’t ‘amoral’ a more plausible translation of the metaphorical barbarische than ‘impossible’? The barbarism of the Third Reich has continued to be all too possible.
Bernstein greets Adorno’s statement with an out-of-left-field pitch of his own, when he includes barbaric among the Blakean ‘kingly titles’ (along with perverse, girly [as in his collection Girly Man], odd, weird, eccentric, erroneous, twisted, foreign) that he lists at the back of the book as the “Primary Vernacular Terms (Pejoratives)” he has adopted in his poetics. (He tells interviewer Eric Denut that such “epithets are OK by me; I think it’s best to take on their negativity, to wear such stigmas as badges of honor” ). In the book overall, it appears that poetry nach Auschwitz for Bernstein is best “disruptive, contentious, inchoate” (51), “extravagant” (59), “aversive to convention” (76), “prizing [of] eccentricity, oddness, abrupt shifts of tone, peculiarity, error, and the abnormal ... weirdness, wildness” (77), “weird, queer, and extreme” (240), “unattractive, disagreeable, low” (277), “mired in inability and disorientation” (278), “bent” (293), “nutty” (299). In this post Second World War essay, he implies that poetry and art are both, post-Auschwitz, at best non-descriptive, “occulted, shredded” (41) embracing of cultural and linguistic “miscegenation” (44) “ghostly” (45), “thick” (46), self-aware: “punch ... holes in their [own] representations” (34) – be unconstrained by the conventions and decorums which concealed and normalized the attitudes which enabled the Holocaust. Such art, he argues, is “more perfect” (34) than the adroitly conventional. It’s a clever gambit, not only because it’s consistent with Bernstein’s understanding of his own poetry and poetics, but also because it causes both Gedicht and barbarische to be retranslated: To write poetry as one did before Auschwitz would be meaningless, an empty gesture. “To write poetry after the Second War,” he translates, “is to accept that barbarism is before us, staring us in the face” (44).
A third essay that makes this book worth having is the previously unpublished “The Pataquerical Imagination” which occupies most of the concluding 60 pages. This is the essay that outlines where Bernstein’s evolving “bent” poetics have brought him, and articulates most cogently his belief that poets and poetics must have “pitch” – must have ‘attitude’ on how language works and what values are worth writing for.
Overall this is an openly makeshift collection – a descriptor Bernstein might well take as a further kingly compliment. It bundles essays from different periods and in different discourses, with twelve interviews (in a 106-page section punningly titled “Echopoetics”), and 17 short notes or book reviews focused mostly on other prominent oppositional writers – Stein, Zukofsky, Olson, Celan, Mac Low, Blaser, Creeley, Ashbery, de Campos, Rothenberg, Scalapino, Drucker. The title of this 107-page section is “Pitch” – these are endorsement essays – pitches for other pitches.