Susan M. Schultz
Of Time and Charles Bernstein’s Lines: A Poetics of Fashion Statements
This piece is 11,000 words or about 25 pages long.
The first purpose of Clothes, as our Professor imagines, was not warmth or decency, but ornament.
The clothier makes the person (there’s
My father pushed a
[W]ord processor ideology reinforces the idealization of "clean copy" - a defleshed, bureaucratic and interchangeable writing.
TO UNDERSTAND the work of Charles Bernstein, one needs to think hard about fashion, in clothing and in print(s). For Bernstein, unlike his self-proclaimed precursor, Laura (Riding) Jackson, even nakedness is disguise, and power is at once naked and hidden by the audience’s desire, if not under actual or metaphorical cloth. The poet, quite simply and comically, can never take off his clothes:
Should I choose to take my tie off, the one with the embossed seals that is so carefully knotted over my Adam’s apple, I do not fall into a state of undress. I remain clothed, in some fashion or other, until I am without clothes and indeed then my skin still encloses me, until I disappear. (The real moral of "The Emperor’s New Clothes" is that power is always naked and by force of that concealed by the modesty of a people who cannot bear to look at the spectacle without mediation: the Emperor is clothed, that is, by the self-protective squeamishness of the collective subconscious. (CD 306-7)
What the poet can do, and what Bernstein has done throughout his nearly 30 year career, is to critique fashions of writing that attempt to conceal their status as fashion. His strongest critiques have been offered against what he calls "official verse culture" (represented by the kind of work published in The New Yorker and American Poetry Review) and the "frame lock" that distinguishes (or fails to distinguish) writing in the profession of literary criticism.
He explains that the "official" in "official verse culture" comes about because "it denies the ideological nature of its practice while maintaining hegemony in terms of major media exposure and academic legitimation and funding" (Poetics 248-9). And in his long essay-poem, "Artifice of Absorption," he writes:
Moreover, official verse culture
Elsewhere he defines "frame lock" as "an insistence on a univocal surface, minimal shifts of mood either within paragraphs or between paragraphs, exclusion of extraneous or contradictory material, and tone restricted to the narrow affective envelope of sobriety, neutrality, objectivity, authoritativeness, or deanimated abstraction" ("Frame" 92). The problem with both forms of writers’ "lock," as we shall see, is that for Bernstein there can be no separation between form, style or content; to write in a conventional style or form is to be conventional in one’s thinking. In "Artifice of Absorption," he asserts that "Content never equals meaning" (Poetics 10); meaning cannot be located outside the purview of the language of the poem; "meaning" is not conveyed through language. Language is, in and of itself, highly artificial for Bernstein - not natural, as the post-Romantic confessional school claims it is; he asserts that their "comfortably furnished landscapes and confessed selves [are] often found in such venues as The New Yorker" (CD 157). Or, as Jed Rasula puts it:
Meanwhile poets, patiently laboring under a vast cultural misconception, imagine that authenticity is conflatable with subjectivity, not realizing that subjectivity is simply the most acutely engineered of all our technologies - voice-activated, setting in motion a replay of cultural "memories" which are generic and thus belong to nobody. (49-50)
Bernstein seeks "an alternative to the drab conformist
fashion-minded thinking that blights our mental landscape
full as much as the nineteenth-century mills poxed the
English countryside" (Poetics 118).
More recently, Bernstein has compared the obligatory styles
of "dress and decorum" sported by job candidates at
the MLA to the dissertation style that "[is] the
bogeyman of frame lock" ("Frame" 92). As
Bernstein argues punningly in "Writing and Method,"
"The contemporary expository mode was adopted because it
effectively did the business of the society’s vested
interests" (224). Style, then, is a facade that becomes
content - a content intended to sell. The product to be
bought, if not consumed, is either the candidate at her MLA
job interview, or the successful candidate marketing her
dissertation as a book. In both cases, as anyone who has
served on a hiring committee can attest, the style of writing
and the writer’s methodology are as important as content
and often, in fact, dictate the content. Richard Ohmann made
very similar judgments of the teaching of Freshman
Composition in the early 1970s, when he wrote, "But of
course freshman English does teach the style, broadly
defined, of the managerial and professional classes. Style of
thinking, style of work, style of planning and organizing,
style of language" (167). Writing thus loses any
revolutionary force it might potentially have and becomes the
instrument of the discipline (in its various senses) that
perpetuates, and is perpetuated by, a status
In "Surface Reflectance," a long
quasi-meditative poem, Bernstein reflects on his
father’s business, without specifying which Mr.
Bernstein he’s describing. The elder Bernstein worked as a dress
manufacturer for Smartcraft Corporation, which sold
imitations of designer dresses in the fifties. His
business went belly-up in the early sixties, but rebounded
later. Bernstein’s father lived according to
proverbial phrases, which reflected American wisdoms; in
"An Autobiographical Interview With Charles
Bernstein," the son reports: "my father’s
concerns were centered foursquarely on success, and too
often, and very painfully for him, failure in business. As
he put it, ’One can achieve success and happiness if
the right priorities are valued’" (Bové
One day I woke up and found myself metamorphosed into a tiny businessman. All that I have done since, political and poetic, has changed this not at all. For poetry, after all, is the ultimate small business, requiring a careful keeping of accounts to stay afloat . . . That is to say, I have wanted to bring poetry into the "petty, commercial," indeed material and social world of everyday life rather than make it a space in which I could remain "free" of these things, or, better to say, chained to an illusion of such freedom. (Bové 28).
As Marjorie Perloff has noted in another context, "Surface Reflectance" is not so much a Language poem as an exploration of "the relationship of the individual to those elusive by ever-present structures of big business within which one negotiates one’s daily life" (Radical 174). The language of the poem (including the words "material," "style," and "’classics’") applies almost as well to poetry as to clothing (I assume that this Bernstein is Charles Bernstein’s father):
"Despite the disparaging
Few poets have so well described the postmodern conundrum that "classics" are mass produced; that the language of poetry cannot often be distinguished from the language of advertising; and that style is absolutely crucial to clothes and to poems - more crucial, it would often seem, than content. It’s no mistake that one of the most hilarious interludes in this long poem is the meta-redundant, "And then we’ll go axeroxing! / Axeroxing! Axeroxing" (164)! Here we find the amoralized landscape of "image consultants" like Dorothy Sarnoff, who writes that "surveys have revealed that only 8 percent of the audience pays attention to the content of a speech, 42 percent to the speaker’s appearance, and 50 percent to how the person speaks" (quoted in Stuart Ewen 260-61). And so 92% of the listeners are concerned more with style than with content.
Later in this poem, Bernstein quotes the fashion-conscious voice of someone who says, "I just bought it because it came out" (168), which he follows with a parody of Martin Luther King’s "I Have a Dream Speech": One day people will be judged / not only by the color of their skin but by / the color in their eyes" (168). Later yet comes the quotation I used in my headnote to this essay: "The clothier makes the person (there’s / a change in the sweater, a change / in the smock, from now on / there’ll be a change in you)" (168-19). Toward the end of the poem, Bernstein takes the anaesthetist as a paradoxical hero in the fight against style-as-self. The poet is simply a potentially less toxic anaesthetist:
To suppress a twitch
This blockage of signals becomes the basis for
Bernstein’s advocacy of "non-absorptive"
writing, or writing that blocks the accustomed signals
between sender and receiver, writer and reader. To block
these signals is to perform the kind of operation on the
language accomplished by George Orwell in his "Politics
and the English Language."
Bernstein has long been interested the way in which
language participates in the larger economy of
"value," in its two senses. In his 1980 volume,
Controlling Interests, whose title is a play on
business lingo, Bernstein includes the poem
"Sentences My Father Used." The title of this
poem suggests that his father did not create his
sentences, but "used" them, that they were
prefabricated and hence that the language he used already
used him. The poem is full of allusions to his
father’s business; just as significantly, however, one
of the poem’s subjects is the impressions that people
leave on one another through their appearances. These
appearances are crucial to the moral values that his
father holds. Thus: "The impression I got / is
everybody. Or I should say well groomed. But / in
appearances" (23). Or, closely following a passage
about conformity: "Patent leather shoes. In a gentle
way, I / wasn’t very. I didn’t have a / very, my
appearance wasn’t one of, that / one could take, well
I didn’t make / the. Nothing stands out" (24).
And so, the man who conforms both in his clothing and in
his language, goes on, "Those were my values. To me
they were good values. I didn’t want to / struggle.
& I could live frugally" (25).
These classics include shirtwaist
The younger Bernstein’s misprision of Pound connects the
world of actual fashion to that of poetic style; were poetic
traditions composed of a series of ready-mades, like the
"classic" dresses his father manufactured, then
literary tradition (beginning from the Iliad) would be
terribly boring. That much of contemporary literature is dull
is one of Bernstein’s primary problems with it. So the
poet emphasizes the ready-madeness of tradition by alluding
to this ready-made allusion by Pound while, through his own
method, attempting to break out of the prison house of
allusiveness through a process of mis-seaming, or of rapid
cuts from one thought sentence to another. He offers only
half an allusion, which then carries him somewhere else
entirely, notably away from the literary world and into one
that more resembles soap opera or advertising language. In
this sense, and maybe in this sense only, he is the heir of
Marianne Moore, who deflected the grandiose literary
ambitions of the high modernists by using quotations from
Forest Service manuals and business texts.
Rather than argue against "fashion" per se,
Bernstein claims time and again that, while fashion and style
are inevitable, writers should define them in the plural,
write unofficial verses. Where a "universal" style
is problematic, Bernstein suggests that a plurality of styles
is less so. As he told Tom Beckett, reversing the usual
assumptions about style as a reflection of content, or a
conduit of meaning: "It is not the valorization of
style, and certainly not a style, that is fundamental, but
the recognition that meaning is possible only through
styles" (CD 388). New styles will inaugurate new modes
of thinking. Official verse culture’s greatest problem is
that its perpetrators produce ready-mades, or poems that
cannot be distinguished from other similar poems written in
the same tradition. These ready-mades are bland, uniform,
standardized, and (hence) empty. In response, Bernstein
proposes a poetics of the non-standard - an especially
relevant term for a poet who often writes in his own
non-standard forms (or idiolects) of English.
"Poetics," he writes, "is all about changing
the current poetic course. Putting on a dress, not strapping
yourself into a uniform" (Poetics 157).
The relation between the standardized ideality of the discursive images of femininity and the imperfect body generates that perpetual renewal of desire into which the texts tying desire to commodity are inserted. Women are returned again and again as consumers to the retail outlets that will remedy their ever-renewed textually reflected imperfections (208).
Women, then, are the true commodities, filled with
imperfections, but capable of being "upgraded" and
"improved." To be a desirable woman is to take part
in a constant process of improvement; there is nothing static
about a woman’s desire to be more desirable. Thus a woman
cannot achieve the status of a "well wrought urn";
she can only work toward that status through a series of
strategies. The fashion industry creates and stokes that
desire through a number of marketing strategies aimed at
pointing out defects and proposing solutions through the use
of their products. The kind of desire inspired in the woman,
taking herself as an audience for herself, is above; all
surface oriented, visual.
The new consumer democracy, which was propelled by the mass production and marketing of stylish goods, was founded on the idea that symbols and prerogatives of elites could now be made available on a mass scale. The values of elite culture were simultaneously upheld and undermined by this peculiar variant of democracy. (32)
Whereas mass produced clothing had originated for the
working class market (blue jeans come to mind), it soon
became a marker of elite status, even if that status was only
symbolic. Aesthetic values became less important for their
own sakes and more so for the sake of promotion; as
advertising man Ernest Elmo Calkins wrote, "Beauty is
introduced into material objects to enhance them in the eyes
of the purchaser" (46). Then, in much the way that
Barthes describes the actual garment being transformed into
the "written garment" (3), Egon Friedell in 1931
saw fit to declare: "Neither are there goods any
more, but only advertisements. . . We call all
this ’Americanism’" (S. Ewen, 47)
In "Artifice of Absorption," Bernstein sets up a binary distinction between "absorption" and "non-absorption," a distinction which will not last out the poem. His definitions of terms are as follows:
By absorption I mean engrossing, engulfing
By way of contrast:
Impermeability suggests artifice, boredom,
Here he reverses Hart Crane’s terms, at least those that Crane uses in his letter to Kahn. No longer are "belief" and "conviction" and Romantic "reverie" to be valued over "digression," lack of "integration," and refusal of "convention." The very style in which Bernstein defines his terms signals the ascendancy of a willful obscurity:
The terms began to consume
Bernstein’s fashion statement here bears some similarity
to that of poems in The New Yorker, one of his
favorite whipping-magazines. After all, the line about
limitlessness is ever so much longer than the line that
follows, a line whose subject is, after all, limitation.
Bernstein knows a thing or two about enjambment. And yet,
precisely what is lacking from his poem is any reference to
image or landscape, what Charles Altieri calls the
"scenic style" of much contemporary verse. The extent of his
discursiveness leaves a self-proclaimed discursivist like
Robert Pinsky in the prosaic dust. Instead, the poem sounds like an essay
written in the professional mode of literary criticism.
The response comes in the guise of a self-help transcript:
Of course new ventures always require risk, but by carefully
This leads the poem into a consideration of poetry as a
business, the poet as a businessperson who takes risks only
insofar as he expects to reap rewards, and one who considers
himself part of the "service economy." "Our
new / service orientation / mea / nt / not only changing the
way we wrote poems but also diversifying / into new poetry
services" (22). (This reminds me of a colleague whose
application for full professorship included a listing of her
poetry readings as "community service" - and why
I had decided to go back
In a conversation I had with Bernstein early in 1993, he
said that when he first started out to be a poet, he asked
himself what he could do to distinguish himself, to write
something genuinely new. So this discussion of poetry and
business sense has beneath its hilarious veneer a terribly
serious "content," having to do with the way in
which poets construct careers for themselves in a
"business" that has so little to offer of
"value" in the pecuniary sense.
No matter that the content of an essay may interrogate the constructed unity of a literary work or a putative period; may dwell on linguistic fragmentation, demolition, totality, continuity, narrative progression, teleology, or truth and may insist that meaning is plural, polygamous, profligate, uncontainable, rhetorical, slippery or sliding or gliding or giddy and prurient. ("Frame" 90)
Yet compare this verbal highwire act to some of the prose
that follows, which makes essentially the same point though
in a different manner: "Professionalization is the
criteria [sic] of professional standing but not necessary
[sic] professional values; nor are our professional writing
standards at or near the limits of coherence, perception,
edification, scholarship, communication, or meaning"
(91). This long sentence, I would argue, is more interested
in making sense than in making style; it also participates in
the rhetoric of the profession that Bernstein is criticizing.
Again, later in the piece, he writes, in a style that
imitates the very fault it points to: "In frame-locked
prose, the order of sentences and paragraphs is hypotactic,
based on a clear subordination of elements to an overriding
argument that is made in a narrative or expository or linear
fashion" (92). What Bernstein is doing here is not
developing a new line of argument so much as running that
argument through two or more machines of rhetoric, two or
more languages. He is not evading style, he is just trying
out more than one style in his critique of "frame
lock." Like "official verse poetry,"
"official professional speak," as he might call it,
insists "on a univocal surface" and a minimum of
shifts or misseams.
the multiplication of persons in a single being is always considered by Fashion as an index of power; You’re demanding, and you’re sweet, too; with the couturiers you discover you can be both, you can lead a double life: herein lies the ancestral theme of disguise, the essential attribute of gods, police, and bandits. (256)
So, while Bernstein does not put forward a feminist agenda
in his work, the poems and essays can be seen within the
frame of a challenge not just to "official verse
culture’s" claim on tone and style in poetry, but
also the implicit masculinity of its claims. The simplicity
and directness of "official verse" can be seen as
part of the modernist project to make literature again the
province of male writers intent on cleaning up the ruffles
and lace of Romanticism. Yet Bernstein’s feminism cannot
but be partial; he attempts to rid contemporary poetry of its
mass-produced fashions, which might be seen as analogous to
the work of a male designer making women’s clothes. By
creating a fashion that is averse to conformity, he
reinstitutes the individualism that feminist critics often
oppose; fashion can at least sometimes be seen as an
expression of community, though not in Bernstein’s view
But it is a naive idea of authority. People advise graduate students - and I read these manuals that try to do so - in a way that’s not likely to get them authority. It’s fine to say that if you do what everybody is doing and you don’t stray and you use the references everybody else uses that people will think, "Aha, this person knows what he’s doing," but also, if there are so many other people who are doing the same thing - just in the most crass, capitalist sense of market differentiation, this kind of manufacture of dullness doesn’t necessarily create the authority that people think. (Monroe 208).
One could argue easily, I think, that Bernstein is misreading what we often call "the profession"; for better or for worse, the system does reward those who use the right references, and use them well. Bernstein’s use of the metaphor of "manufacture," as in "the manufacture of dullness," is another jibe at the ready-made culture his father - and many others - made. But to argue against manufacture and for a kind of cottage industry of idiosyncracy is to ignore the very market system that Bernstein invokes. If Charles Bernstein is successful because he has created a cottage industry in an era of ready-mades, then Charles Bernstein has done something that most graduate students (if not all of them) cannot do. His invocation of Emerson in what follows the previous quotation, is appropriate, since Bernstein’s criticism seems at times to echo that of his unlikely forerunner: "It’s an Emersonian idea, but not being dull is perhaps not as risky as people tend to think. You don’t fall off the earth. You’re not as incomprehensible as you may fear....It’s a risk in some way, and people experience it as a risk, but what is actually on the other side of that risk" (Monroe 208). It is that risk that has made Charles Bernstein’s career unique, a one-of-a-kind, one of which the "old-fashioned" Emerson might even approve.
W O R K S C I T E D
Altieri, Charles. Self and Sensibility in Contemporary American Poetry. NY: Cambridge UP, 1984.
Andrews, Bruce and Charles Bernstein, eds. The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1984.
apex of the M. #2 and 3. Edited by Lew Daly, Alan Gilbert, Kristin Prevellet, Pam Rehm.
Bernstein, Charles. A Poetics. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1992.
---. Content’s Dream: Essays 1975-1984. Los Angeles: Sun & Moon, 1986.
---. Controlling Interests. New York: Roof, 1986.
---. Dark City. Los Angeles: Sun & Moon, 1994.
---. "Frame Lock." In My Way. 90-99.
---. Islets / Irritations. New York: Roof, 1983, 1992.
---. My Way: Speeches and Poems. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1999.
---. "Narrating Narration: The Shapes of Ron Silliman’s Work." In Content’s Dream.
---. Rough Trades. Los Angeles: Sun & Moon, 1991.
---. "Stray Straws and Straw Men," in The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book. 39-45.
---. The Sophist. Los Angeles: Sun & Moon, 1987.
Bové, Paul, ed. "Charles Bernstein: A Dossier." boundary 2 23:3 (Fall 1996): 1-72.
Breward, Christopher. The Culture of Fashion: A New History of Fashionable Dress. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1995.
Craik, Jennifer. The Face of Fashion. London: Routledge, 1994.
Crane, Hart. Collected Letters. Ed. Brom Weber.
Davis, Fred. Fashion, Culture, and Identity. Chicago: The U of C Press, 1992.
Ewen, Stuart. All Consuming Images: The Politics of Style in Contemporary Culture New York: Basic Books, 1988.
Ewen, Stuart and Elizabeth Ewen. Channels of Desire: Mass Images and the Shaping of American Consciousness. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1982, 1992.
Hebdige, Dick. Subculture: The Meaning of Style. London: Methuen, 1979.
Hollander, Anne. Seeing Through Clothes. New York: Viking, 1975.
Monroe, Jonathan. Special Editor. diacritics 26: 3-4 (Fall-Winter 1996).
Nash, Susan Smith. "Death, Decadence, & the Ironies of Language Poetics." Talisman 10 (Spring 1993): 201-205.
Ohmann, Richard. English in America: A Radical View of the Profession. NY:
Oxford UP, 1976.
Orwell, George. "Politics and the English Language." In Eds. Paul Eschholz et al, Language Awareness: Essays for College Writers, 7th edition. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997. 199-210.
Perloff, Marjorie. Radical Artifice: Writing Poetry in the Age of Media. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1991.
Pinsky, Robert. The Situation of Poetry: Contemporary Poetry and its Traditions. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1978.
Rasula, Jed. The American Poetry Wax Museum: Reality Effects, 1940-1990. Urbana: National Council of Teachers of English, 1996.
Schultz, Susan M. "Gertrude Stein’s Self-Advertisement." Raritan XII:2 (Fall 1992). 71-87.
---. "Laura Riding’s Essentialism and the Absent Muse." Arizona Quarterly 48:1 (Spring 1992). 1-24.
Shetley, Vernon. After the Death of Poetry.
Smith, Dorothy E. Texts, Facts, and Femininity. Exploring the Relations of Ruling. New York: Routledge, 1990.
N O T E S
 Laura (Riding) Jackson’s dislike of fashion, in clothing and in poetry, can be found throughout her poetry and her polemics, from the beginning to the end of her bifurcated career. In "Poetry and the Literary Universe," collected in Contemporaries and Snobs (1928), she attacked "contemporary poetic gentlemanliness" in the following terms: "tortoise-shell spectacles natrual history, toupee’d comparative religion and Arrow-collared Aristotelianism" (119). In the posthumous tome that she co-wrote with her husband, Schuyler B. Jackson, which is introduced by Charles Bernstein, one finds this conflation: "The ’writers’ lead the army of cultural intellectualism. They carry the language with them, or what seems to be the language. It is a version of the language adapted to the new compartmental principle of human understanding, the new wisdom-fashions’" (431). As I once argued, (Jackson) Riding turns to a poetics of nakedness in an attempt to defeat the poetic professionals who are so well clothed (Arizona Quarterly 1992).
 In Dark City, Bernstein quotes (or invents) a review of another Bernstein’s book: "Bernstein’s argument is an important one and his discussion is consistently thoughtful, energetic, and smoothly handled. Any reader of the modern verse epic will find The Tale of the Tribe: Ezra Pound and the Modern Verse Epic stimulating and provocative" (92). This is Michel André Bernstein.
 Of course Orwell prefers a remedy by clarity, but his notion that "In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible" (206) and that the fault lies in the (mis)use of language, resembles Bernstein’s argument that, insofar as our politics are indefensible, the language did it to us.
 Language writing has been variously attacked by its enemies (from the "scenic style" camp, among others) and, more recently, by its friends. One of the sharpest critiques of Bernstein’s work is by Vernon Shetley, who prefers Ashbery’s style of compromise to what he sees as Language writing’s "radically dualistic schema" that sets traditional poetry and avant-garde poetry at extremes (142). Of Bernstein’s "The Kiwi Bird in the Kiwi Tree," from Rough Trades, he writes, "There is nothing to penetrate because no meaning is hiding behind any other; all are equally available, and the poem offers no grounds for choice. But if this sort of poem is ultimately too easy to read, it’s also too easy to write . . . When the poet is free to choose words without regard to goals other than polysemy, the polysemy that results scarcely seems an achievement" (151). More recent critiques include Susan Smith Nash’s "Death, Decadence, & the Ironies of Language Poetics" and that of the four editors of apex of the m in 1994.
 See my "Gertrude Stein and Self-Advertisement" for further development of this idea.
 Charles Altieri writes of contemporary poetry much indebted to Romanticism that, "The central aim of the art is not to interpret experience but to extent language to its limits in order to establish poignant awareness of what lies beyond words. There is virtually never any sustained act of formal, dialectical thinking or any elaborate, artificial construction that cannot be imagined as taking place in, or at least extending from, settings in naturalistically conceived scenes. As shorthand I will call this the scenic style" (11).
 Robert Pinsky, in The Situation of Poetry, writes that, "The poet’s medium, then, is abstract, more or less discursive, and in some senses conventional" (5).
 In "Stray Straws and Straw Men," Bernstein argues that "Voice is a possibility for poetry not an essence" (42).
 The issue of boundary 2 on Bernstein’s work was edited by Paul Bové and includes a personal interview with Bernstein by Loss Pequeño Glazier; the interview is remarkable for the openness with which Bernstein talks about himself and his family.
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