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This is Jacket 14 - July 2001   |   # 14  Contents   |   Homepage   |

This issue of JACKET is a co-production with SALT magazine

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.
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The first purpose of Clothes, as our Professor imagines, was not warmth or decency, but ornament.

— Thomas Carlyle, Sartor Resartus

the idea of form
is to fit tight
(Frank O’Hara said that)
& a sonnet seems like one
of those turtlenecks that if it’s
a good color
& the shape hugs
then it becomes

— "Sonnet" (I/I 64)

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).

— "Surface Reflectance" (TS 168-69)

My father pushed a
line of ladies’ dresses - not down the street
in a pushcart but upstairs in a fact’ry
office. My mother was more concerned
with her hemline.

— "Of Time and the Line" (RT 42)

[W]ord processor ideology reinforces the idealization of "clean copy" - a defleshed, bureaucratic and interchangeable writing.

— "Blood on the Cutting Room Floor" (CD 357)2

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.[1] 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.

drawings of some jackets

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
of the last 25 years has engaged in militant . . .
campaigns to "restrict the subversive,
independent-of-things nature of the language"
in the name of the common voice, clarity, sincerity,
or directness of the poem, & specifically
in the highly problematic equating, as in
the passage from Wesling, of the "irrational"
and the "artificial". (AP 46)

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).

In an essay that he might have titled "Tradition and the Individual Lack of Talent," Bernstein argues against the tradition of "plain speech" as one that limits the writer: "Rather it seems to me that, as a mode, contemporary expository writing edges close to being merely a style of decorous thinking, rigidified and formalized to a point severed from its historical relation to method in Descartes and Bacon" ("Writing and Method," CD 221). In much the same way that industrialization brought the standardization of goods, including clothing, writing has been standardized. Where writing becomes standard, Bernstein’s argument goes, thinking itself atrophies.

some jackets

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 quo.

In "Surface Reflectance," a long quasi-meditative poem, Bernstein reflects on his father’s business, without specifying which Mr. Bernstein he’s describing.[2] 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 24).

Charles Bernstein, whose relationship with his father was apparently [sic] ambivalent, finds himself performing the same kind of work as his father, though within a different frame, and he hopes without the lock. He presents himself as a salesman for poetry: "I always say I am a professor of poetry, I profess poetry; think of me as a snake-oil salesman, a confidence man: I don’t want to test your accumulated knowledge; I want to convince you of the value of poetry as a method, as a way of writing, as a form of vision" (Bové 63). Earlier in the interview he had emphasized the conjunctions of poetry and business:

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
things that less fashion-alert males have said
about the chemise, Mr. Bernstein plans
to back it. He will risk
several thousand yards of material
which is what he has
set aside for this style . . . . Mr. Bernstein
has been known to sell as many as 12,000
copies of one style in the same week . . . . Of
course there are certain ’classics’ that will continue
to sell and probably keep Mr. Bernstein
from closing up shop even
if he guesses wrong and cuts
thousands of dresses that buyers will never buy.
These classics include shirtwaist
dresses and full-skirted cotton with scooped
necklines." (TS 165)

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.

some jackets

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
or tone, the anaesthetist
may wish to abolish it
at its origin. A less toxic approach
is to block the signals
or otherwise interfere with their transmission
from source to destination. (TS 171)

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."[3]

So fashion emerges out of the worship of conventional forms, the easily recognizable styles of dress or speech, and anti-fashion blocks recognition by altering style, purifying the language of the tribe, paradoxically, by rendering it less "understandable." Anne Hollander writes in her study of clothing: "If anything, clothes are rather like conventional expressions in a literary form, of which the canonical examples have been assimilated by the reading public" (xv).

While Hollander, despite her example, still warns against equating clothing with language use, Roland Barthes makes the equation plain: "Fashion behaves like language itself, for which the novelty of a turn of phrase or of a word always constitutes an emphasis destined to repair the wear in its system" (15). At the same time that fashion is reparative, writing about fashion is what makes fashion fashionable; the fashion editor is one who "invests nothing of himself in his speech . . . he simply conforms to a certain conventional and regulated tone" (228). What is meant to stand out and apart - the fashion item - then, does so because it’s described in the most conventional of languages, that of the magazine. This vicious process ends, rather predictably, with the garment becoming "a signifier of something which is yet nothing other than this very constitution" (287).

Bernstein’s arguments about writing take Barthes’s position as their starting point; he claims that intellectual fashion precludes thought because of the socialized fact of a "regulated tone" that discourages discovery and encourages conventionality. The "sanctioned prose of the profession" ("Frame") serves to perpetuate the profession itself rather than to create new knowledge, new approaches. Within the scholarly or poetic marketplace, then, the writing garment signifies little more than its fact as a commodity to be bought or argued over. Its "intrinsic" value gets lost in the ironic consumer economy of the academy (where cultural capital has far more value than actual capital).

As I mentioned earlier, Bernstein coined the label, "official verse culture," for those poetries that work within convention, rather than challenging it. He often uses the language of clothing to make this argument; in his interview with Loss Glazier, for example, he claims that, "Official Verse Culture operated then, as it does now, by denying its narrow stylistic orthodoxy under the cloak of universalized and unassailable poetic principles" (Bové 42). Again, basing his logic on paradox, Bernstein argues that the emphasis on individualism in mainstream poetry, an emphasis that is defeated by the utter conformity of its conventions, could better be achieved through collective action: "If mainstream poetic ’individuality’ breeds unreflected conformism, collective formations might actually provide the space for conversation as well as for difference" (42).

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).

Bernstein’s poem is fascinating in its presentation of the most ordinary of language (plain, common speech) that obviously mirrors an ordinary life that is created, at least in part, out of that language. And yet the poem, by cutting and mis-seaming its way from sentence to sentence, critiques that language and the "form" of life that it at once creates and mirrors. Where "values" are presented as clichés, they tend to lose their value; and, where the businessman discusses his "values," the consumer’s use of the word cannot lurk far beneath the moral one. The father’s "style" may be simple, but his business is in creating another sense of style, that of women’s fashion. Stuart and Elizabeth Ewen write that "the construct that assumes a simple and austere man and a highly sumptuous woman still stands to underwrite masculine morality, feminine guilt" (Channels 107). Later I will discuss the way in which Bernstein turns away from his father’s "masculine morality" and toward the "feminine guilt" of sumptuous literary fashion.

Bernstein has other fathers than Mr. Bernstein, of course; there are also the (always difficult) poetic ones, including Ezra Pound, whose anti-semitism makes him especially problematic. "Surface Reflectance," from The Sophist, moves quickly, jaggedly, and in unseamly fashion from the poet’s father to Mr. Pound:

These classics include shirtwaist
dresses and full-skirted cotton with scoopednecklines."
And went down to the ship
very bored. What has not been
made, what has not been
seen, what has not been
spoken: always in the fold of the
audible, visible
projection of desire: to launch
a care, munching a pear. (165-66)

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.

And yet there is something troubling, to this reader at least, in the way Bernstein moves from what seems an advocacy of "making it new" to the flip "to launch a care / munching a pear." Newness, at least here, comes at the price of wisdom, though perhaps, as Charles Altieri suggests, Bernstein’s moments of wisdom are accidental, and not constructed. For Bernstein, however, the accident is already contained, as potential, in the garments that we wear. Some of these garments are, quite literally, nonsensical, like the sound of an advertising jingle at the end of a statement of poetics. Of course, poetics are also a form of advertising, and of that Bernstein, as we have already seen, is terribly aware.

The process of radical disconnection between parts that forms the core of Bernstein’s poetics is one that he refers to as "dysraphism," the title of another poem in The Sophist. He defines the term in a long footnote: "’Dysraphism’ is a word used by specialists in congenital disease to mean a dysfunctional fusion of embryonic parts - a birth defect . . . Raph literally means ’seam’, so dysraphism is mis-seaming - a prosodic device!" Bernstein links the method to the purveyor of that method, the poet: "But it has the punch of being the same root as rhapsody (raph) - or in Skeat’s - "one who strings (lit. stitches) songs together, a reciter of epic poetry." He finds the word adjacent to another, "’dysprosody’" [sic]: "disturbance of stress, pitch, and rhythm of speech’" (44). The poet, then, lets be be the finale of seams - he stitches his epic out of speech’s defects, not its seemlinesses or even its seaminess. His "allusion" to Pound alluding to the Iliad is, above; all, not neat; rather, it is a parody intended to expose the modernist habit of revering the tradition and trying to extend it by placing it within a different context.

some jackets

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).

Here he taps into Barthes’s vocabulary where that writer, borrowing a binary from Saussure, suggests that, "we might agree to call the structural, institutional form of what is worn clothing (that which corresponds to language), and this same form when actualized, individualized, worn dress (that which corresponds to speech)" (18). Dress, then, is what is individually tailored, just as uniforms (or uniformity) are what is mass-produced. That this is already a dead metaphor (we know that the dress is also mass-produced) matters less than that Barthes and Bernstein define their terms to distinguish between the multiply similar and the multiply different or eccentric and that they make clothing serve as a metaphor for language use. In arguing against ready-mades, of course, Bernstein is also setting himself against the model of his father and of Pound, for whom the allusion was a kind of ready-made to be slipped into the piggy-bank of poetry. It is no accident that what often seems, in a Bernstein poem, to be (or to have been) a literary allusion, is a mis-copy, a flagrant mangling of the actual lines from a prior poem into something new, and very strange.

There is something else at stake here, which is Bernstein’s implicit critique of gender politics by way of his use of fashion statements in prose and poetry. For, in his assertion that one should wear a "dress" and not a "uniform," Bernstein subverts the traditional, "conventional" notion that fashion is feminine, not masculine; he suggests instead that fashion is both. As Fred Davis notes, "To the person on the street, and only slightly less so to the student of dress, the word fashion is more likely still to evoke images of women rather than men" (205).

And as Jennifer Craik comments, "Women are fashionable but men are not. This lament is common in western cultures" (176). Likewise, Stuart Ewen quotes the maven of etiquette, Emily Post, who wrote in 1930 that modern spare design was "well suited to men....Empty spaces, the absence of ruffles and curtains, and beautifully polished surfaces of wood and metal were masculine" (130). Femininity became associated with kitsch, which was associated with popular, rather than high, culture. Dorothy E. Smith’s discussion of texts and femininity includes the following meditation, which could as easily and profitably be associated with poetry:

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.

As Jane Grimes writes, "We are trained into clothes, and early become practiced in presentational postures, learning in the age of mechanical reproduction to carry the mirror’s eye within the mind, as though one might at any moment be photographed" (quoted in Breward, 198). She can herself be rendered more perfect if her outward appearance improves. Women’s fashion, since the watershed of the 18th century, has allowed for more superfluous touches than has men’s fashion, which tends to be geared more toward the workplace that toward the work of being looked at.

The modernist masculine poetics of a writer like James Joyce, commenting that The Waste Land meant the end of poetry for "ladies," was based on a spareness of style (if in manifesto only), a getting away from the "frilly" sentimentality of the Romantics. Bernstein, it seems to me, flaunts this distinction between male and female fashion in a poetry that elevates style into content, and foregoes all claims to participating in a "common speech," even when, as it often does, it imitates common speech quite uncommonly. The poet who wears a dress further admits to associating his identity as poet with his garb. He or she is a consumer of words, but not, according to Bernstein’s notion of it, a consumer who seeks perfection, even if he or she does frequent malls in search of new vocabularies. He and she, as I should probably phrase it, also possesses a larger potential market share than the poet whose uniform is more uniform and uni-gendered.

Yet Bernstein recognizes the subtle lacunae of his own argument, which situates him with and against the fashion industries of contemporary writing. While he distrusts fashion, he likes the idea of an anti-fashion that lurks within a larger system, an anti-fashion that can quickly become fashionable. As Stuart Ewen notes, "today’s fashions offer the weapons of resistance and compliance in one, ready to wear" (187). Thus in an interview with Tom Beckett, Bernstein notes that, "’Fashion’ might be a useful middle term between power and dominance, on the one side, and centrality as its legitimizing facticity on the other. Fashion seeks hegemony but produces resistance - not just to ’fashion itself’ but also as the motor of fashion" (AP 188). In that sense, the fashion that Bernstein seeks to wear and write is an anti-fashion like the one described by Dick Hebdige in his important study, Subculture: The Meaning of Style: "However, the challenge to hegemony which subcultures represent is not issued directly by them. Rather it is expressed obliquely, in style" (17). Hebdige goes on to say that subcultures "represent ’noise’ (as opposed to sound) and violate the taboos that protect "the sanctity of [a pre-existing] language" (90-91)..

This connection between anti-fashion in clothing and in writing is crucial, as I’ve already argued, in a discussion of Bernstein’s work, either as poet or as critic, especially as Language writing generally has been so often critiqued as "noise" rather than as "music."[4] The comparison of fashion and writing, although it can be misleading, as Ann Hollander argues, is especially pointed in Bernstein’s case since his father sold ready-made copies of designer dresses. This is an irony that is surely not lost on the poet, who has expended much energy in attacking the ready-mades, the easy copies, of literary fashion.

And yet, to complicate the matter further (a characteristic of Bernstein’s thinking), he has argued in "Living Tissue / Dead Ideas" that, "Language is the first technology, the extension of the body outward toward an articulation, forging, of the world, which is immediately transformed by this act, hence a forgery" (CD 364). In this sense art can only deal with the world by rendering it as a "forgery"; language, which is above all not "natural," is the artifice by which we describe - and hope to change - the world. For Bernstein, then, forgeries and copies are at once the symptom of our failure to use language "well" (which often means "badly" in the conventional sense of the term) and the only hope to intervene in that world, now filled with disposable ready-mades. As he writes in the autobiographical, "Three or Four Things I Know About Him": "Ethics & aesthetics become increasingly ’out there’. Dress & syntax & right behaviour are copied from presented models, a process of emulation rather than interpretation. Clerks & secretaries spend their time typing neatly, removing idiosyncracies from the language & presiding over a tan neutrality" (CD 25).

Bernstein, then, is interested in breaking certain taboos about language, taboos not often discussed openly but held very strongly by cultural conservatives and others. "Notions concerning the sanctity of language," writes Dick Hebdige, "are intimately bound up with ideas of social order. The limits of acceptable linguistic expression are prescribed by a number of apparently universal taboos. These taboos guarantee the continuing ’transparency’ . . . of meaning" (91).

The metaphor that Bernstein employs to link conventional thinking to nineteenth-century industrialization is apt, as is his attempt to inoculate the language against conformity through his own, almost homeopathic, use of "styles." As early as 1859, Oliver Wendall Holmes was cautioning against the time when the "image would become more important than the object itself, and would in fact make the object disposable" (quoted in S. Ewen,); transpose this discussion of image onto one about writing, and you get the thrust of Bernstein’s critique of fashionable thinking, which is simply another manifestation of a consumer culture more interested in acquiring and dispensing thoughts than in actual thinking. According to Stuart Ewen, the nineteenth-century became the originary site of a paradox fundamental to "style" - that the mass production of clothing and other items made possible a greater democratization and, at the same time, undermined the democracy it helped to spread:

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)

It was not so much that everyone became a true democrat by sporting an egalitarian fashion of clothing, but that every democrat became an elitist by donning the "uniforms" of the rich and of celebrities. In 1930, for example, one Bernard Waldman, garment executive, began making copies of a wedding gown from the film King of Jazz, which inaugurated the Modern Merchandising Bureau, which made copies of movie fashion (S. Ewen 99).

The most long-lasting result of the increasing supremacy of fashion over substance was not that the fashion of clothing changed, but in the link between surface appearances and identity that developed. Stuart Ewen refers to style as "a tool for constructing personhood" (79) and adds that, "The utility of style in this regard is to find for oneself, and for others, the evidence of meaning in one’s life" (79). Proliferations of style and emphasis on consumer goods led to the conflation, immediately after the fall of the Berlin Wall, of democracy with consumer goods; many of us remember images of stunned East Germans wandering through the shops of West Berlin and pointed remarks by television commentators that these East Germans were discovering the benefits of a "free [sic] society." Democratic values are measured by the production of goods that have a good style. These values are tied in with leisure time rather than with work.

As Ewen explains it: "With the rise of mass fashion, the language of elegances and luxury entered the common vernacular of perception and expression. The garment industry, initially a supplier of clothes designed explicitly for workers, and for work, now began to dress its public in wares that suggested the common accessibility of prosperity and leisure" (130). But Bernstein himself recognizes the distinction between the makers of garments and the wearers of them, when he tells Glazier that, "’The right priorities’ [his father’s words] was not a particularly elastic concept for him and in this he represents, more than less, a new-immigrant generation that didn’t have the leisure to question what their very hard work made possible for my generation" (Bové 24).

Poetry has traditionally been associated more with leisure than with work in American society, in large part because it doesn’t easily fit into a consumer mind frame; poetry is that which cannot be bought and hence, the argument might go, also cannot so easily be disposed of.

The contortions of Hart Crane’s arguments to Otto Kahn, in September 1927, illuminate the problem he had in communicating the value of his work to a man who ran a successful business (in that sense a man very like his own father). Ironically enough, Crane’s only claim to work experience, which he mentions to Kahn, is as "a perfectly good advertising writer" (HC 308). He uses these skills to attempt to persuade Kahn of the "value" of his work. Part of what Crane knows might disturb this man of business is the fact that poets need free time to meditate about their work, time that looks to the outside eye as if it’s being "wasted." So he writes: "It has taken a great deal of energy - which has not been so difficult to summon as the necessary patience to wait, simply wait much of the time"; his metaphors take a materialist turn as he continues the sentence, "until my instincts assured me that I had assembled my materials in proper order for a final welding into their natural form" (305). The Bridge, then, must be explained as if it were the actual Brooklyn Bridge and the poet its real engineer. Any less material metaphorical field would confirm the businessman’s suspicion that poets live more in the clouds than among the steel girders of the bridge.

Most telling, however, in this request for funds, is Crane’s final (and in some ways heartbreaking) use of metaphor in the letter: "There is no monetary standard of evaluation for works of art, I know, but I cannot help feeling that a great poem may well be worth at least the expenditure necessary for merely the scenery and costumes of many a flashy and ephemeral play, or for a motor car" (309). He concludes his request for money with a sentence that puns between the worlds of art and business: "But that is a speculation which depends entirely on your interest" (309). Here we see the poet’s metaphors used to convey "value" as a monetary quality, not an "inherent" one. The pathos of the letter is that these two forms of value are so removed from each other that Crane’s attempts to link them through metaphor seem rather a false currency.

That they resemble the words of Bernstein’s father, in "Sentences My Father Used," is symptomatic of the continuing split in American culture between the worlds of poetry and of products. That they resonate in Bernstein’s own conception of himself as a "confidence man" or "small businessman," points to the continued desire of American poets to place themselves within the actual economy of value, if only metaphorically.

While Crane, whose poetry is notoriously difficult to comprehend, paradoxically wished for a large audience and wondered why readers found his work inaccessible, Bernstein - arguing as he does against the poetry of plain speech - embraces difficulty, obscurity as a homeopathic cure of the obscurity of political and advertising language. His "Defence of Poetry," written exclusively in "typos," barely conceals a plea for comprehensible, honest talk by politicians (George Bush the Elder being the representative inarticulate man here). If the goal of much contemporary poetry is to convey meaning through as simple a vehicle as possible, then Bernstein’s intent often seems to be that of the owner of a uniquely stylish vehicle who finds meaning in the vehicle itself. Another vehicle would make another meaning, an idea that is anathema to writers who aim at absolute "organicism" of form and vocabulary.

As he writes in "Artifice of Absorption," "The obvious problem is that the poem said in any / other way is not the poem" (AP 12). The obvious solution is linked to this obvious problem; to make a poem that means something new, the poet must begin from a concern with style and form. And so, where the poet of plain speech aims to "absorb" the reader and hence to make it easy for the reader to "absorb" the poem’s meanings, Bernstein proposes a theory of non-absorptiveness. The poetics of non-absorptiveness is his long essay-poem, "Artifice of Absorption," whose deliberate obscurity of genre forces the very question he addresses. Non-absorptive poetry is, of necessity, a poetry that values style as least as much as substance; the merchants of substance want to sell the content of their work and aim to find as simple a vehicle as possible to convey that substance. Bernstein’s work begins from the desire to make that transaction difficult; his poetry is not easily consumed on the open market. And yet this argument conflicts with Bernstein’s desire to be a business man for the avant-garde; in that sense, he is very like the Gertrude Stein who writes plain-spoken advertisements for her most obscure work.[5]

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
completely, engaging, arresting attention, reverie,
attention intensification, rhapsodic, spellbinding,
mesmerizing, hypnotic, total, riveting,
enthralling: belief, conviction, silence.

By way of contrast:

Impermeability suggests artifice, boredom,
exaggeration, attention scattering, distraction,
digression, interruptive, transgressive,
undecorous, anticonventional, unintegrated, fractured,
etc. (AP 29)

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
my imagination, a pataphysical extravaganza
of accumulating works & fields absorbed
into this tropic zone without benefit
of underlying unity of perspective. There seemed no
limit to what
the absorption/antiabsorption nexus could

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.[6] The extent of his discursiveness leaves a self-proclaimed discursivist like Robert Pinsky in the prosaic dust.[7] Instead, the poem sounds like an essay written in the professional mode of literary criticism.

In that sense, Bernstein is using the vocabulary of one of the styles he’s been known to attack in order to de-calibrate the vocabulary of the poetic style he means to dislodge from its "official" status. Bernstein knows that he cannot step outside the styles that are available to him; styles, like voice (in his important essay, "Stray Straws and Straw Men") are for him a possibility, but not an end.[8] While he cannot escape the possibility of voice, he can try to dislodge it from its status as the true reflection of a unique sensibility, unique precisely because it fits so well the form(ula) of the age.

Or, as Jed Rasula puts it, "Driven by a taste of novelty, Americans seem intent on celebrating as sublimely original only those achievements that are servile imitations" (9). The adequate representation of sensibility, then, comes through ready-made vocabularies. In using these ready-mades, however, Bernstein risks his own authority, at least the kind of authority one arrives at through a tone of sincerity. He arrives at a sincerity that is oddly based either on a highly performative use of other people’s vocabularies or one acquired through non-sense. He thus aims to be the wise fool on the stage of his own creation, a status that is ever risky, because it can cut both ways.

Bernstein’s anti-establishmentarian stance was made considerably more difficult to sustain in 1989, when he stopped writing freelance medical texts for a living and became the David Gray Professor of English at SUNY-Buffalo. All at once Bernstein was "authorized" both as a critic, who used the jargon of the profession well before he entered it, and as an academic poet - or, at the least, a poet in the academy.

I take his 1994 book, Dark City, to be an extended (and very zany) meditation on the paradoxes of achieving success within the academy. For Bernstein realizes that he has entered into another consumer economy, that poetry in (and out of) the academy is marketed like any commodity, and that there is, to follow Barthes, not just an image poem but also a written poem. The "written" poem is the advertising copy that accompanies the poem in its travel outward toward audience: it may include the blurbs on the back cover of a book of poems, and it may also include the polemical positions taken by poetic movements - those for which Laura Riding had such disdain. As a charter member of the group of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets who achieved a certain distinction in the 1980s, Bernstein knows how to promote poetry. He was for a time the publisher of the Segue catalogue of experimental poetry books, and he now "owns" the Poetics list at SUNY-Buffalo and moderates a radio show on poetry, Linebreak. A recent issue of boundary 2 was devoted, in large measure, to his work.[9] He and Hank Lazer edit a series of books about poetics through the University of Alabama Press. And so on. Most of his work appears not in one, but in several venues. How to market poetry without becoming a pawn to consumer culture in the process is one of the central questions addressed in Dark City.

The first poem in the volume, "Lives of the Toll Takers," asks the question rather directly: what if one’s insistence on rebellion is itself a problem? What if it has been reduced to a style emptied of content? Bernstein seems to operate from an assumption perhaps best expressed by Stuart Ewen in his All Consuming Images: The Politics of Style in Contemporary Culture (1988), who argues that, "In the contemporary world, where the mass media serve as increasingly powerful arbiters of reality, the primacy of style over substance has become the normative consciousness" (2).

Ewen’s is a learned manifesto against the all-pervasiveness of style in consumer society, one that reflects an emphasis on appearances rather than on convictions. Art is made less for its own sake than for the sake of control in the marketplace (50). For Ewen, the worst aspect of this ascendancy of style is that it has become "an intimate component of subjectivity, intertwined with people’s aspirations and anxieties" (22). These aspirations, like the products marketed through a careful use of style, are themselves mass-produced and, ultimately, disposable.

Finally, like Bernstein, Ewen asserts that "style - as a form of information - discourages thought" (263).

Bernstein’s method, in the poems from Dark City, is to play with advertising language in such a way as to show its emptiness in any discussion of poetry. He has long argued against poetry that reflects its author’s subjectivity, claiming that he is not interested in himself but in language. This is certainly one way around - or out of - the problem of identity that Ewen addresses in his book. But, at the same time and unlike Ewen, Bernstein doesn’t step outside the fashion system he critiques. Instead, he operates as someone whose identity is composed of advertising slogans. His critiques of poetry strangely become defenses of its importance, as he exposes the ironies of discussing art as if it were merchandise. And he even questions the relevance of continuing to rebel, since he knows that rebellion, too, is a style:

What if
success scares you so much that at the point of some
modest acceptance, midway through
life’s burning, you blast out
onto the street, six-shooters smoking, still a rebel.
For what?

The response comes in the guise of a self-help transcript:

Of course new ventures always require risk, but by carefully
analyzing the situation, we became smart risk

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 not?)

Such consideration of poetry as a business leads the "speaker" (if I dare call him that) to talk about justifiable reimbursement for services delivered. "Besides, our current fees / barely cover our expenses; any deviation from these levels / would / mean working for nothing" (22-23). The poem is as hilarious as it is, in some real sense, serious. Why, the reader wonders, are poets NOT paid for their services? Poets do, as the poem tells us, "deserve compensation / for such services" (23), which include "alliteration, / internal rhymes, / exogamic structure, and / unusual vocabulary" (23). The poet then includes material from his own career:

I had decided to go back
to school after fifteen years in
community poetry because I felt
I did not know enough to navigate
through the rocky waters that
lie ahead for all of us in this field.
How had Homer done it, what might Milton
teach? Business training turned
out to be just what I most needed.
Most importantly, I learned that
for a business to be successful, it
needs to be different, to stand out
from the competition. In poetry,
this differentiation is best
achieved through the kind of form
we present.

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.

In another poem from this volume, "Emotions of Normal People," Bernstein again frames a discussion of poetry around its commercialization. He presents chunks of writing, much of it in advertising-speak, that concern everything from relationships to a book review (of the book by a different Bernstein), to a return notice, to a marketing questionnaire, to the promotional writing in a book about marketing poetry. The marketing questionnaire contains such questions as, "Which best describes your dress size? What brands of bar soap have been used in your household in the past 6 months?" and so on (93).

The most telling of segments, however, is the one taken from Poet’s Market, a book that lists journals and presses to which one can send poems, and also includes interviews with "successful" poets that an aspiring poet might want to emulate. What we have in this section is the "stylization" of poetry, which presents the perfect paradox of much contemporary work that it must be both unique and yet formulaic enough to fit the "market." The poet herself must find her own way by imitating the "saint’s lives" of poets like Richard Wilbur, 1987 Poet Laureate of the United States, and Rita Dove, winner of the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for poetry.

The irony, of course, is that Wilbur and Dove are among the poets who harvest poems out of their own experiences, so that the notion of learning from them how to write and publish poetry is, in some sense, quite a stretch. If, in fact, subjectivity is the primary subject of poetry, which members of Bernstein’s "official verse culture" believe, then one should not be able to share privileged knowledge about it. It’s as if Emerson were to set up a writers’ colony whose purpose would be to teach its participants how to have their very own moments of transcendence on Boston Common.

The poet most steeped in the contemporary language of advertising, Bernstein has been attacked on the grounds that his poetry accentuates style over substance, is itself lacking in convictions. In After the Death of Poetry, Vernon Shetley argues that Bernstein’s poem, "The Kiwi Bird in the Kiwi Tree," markets only its surfaces." There is nothing to penetrate because no meaning is hiding behind any other"; Shetley writes, "all are equally available, and the poem offers no ground for choice. But if this poem is ultimately too easy to read, it’s also too easy to write" (151).

Shetley has problems with poems written under the rubric of Language writing, that they are sometimes "all meaning or all randomness, but the interesting area, and the area of genuine difficulty, lies between" (153). Shetley’s mistake, I think, is to focus exclusively on this one poem; one poem does not a context make. Nor does one poem, of necessity, set up the grounds for choices.

The central problem with Bernstein’s critique of what might be called, by extension, "official writing cultures" is that his own language so often resembles that of the writers he is critiquing; as he himself writes in "Characterization": "Oddly, I have lately found myself writing things that would fit some of the prescriptions that the MLA, etc., puts forward. And I’m not quite sure why I’ve done that" (CD 450-51). Bernstein immediately posits his own unconsciousness in his claim not to know why he writes in MLA style; he becomes what Barthes calls a "looker" rather than a "reader," or someone who knows fashion without understanding it.

Certainly, despite Bernstein’s frequent claims that poetry and prose are not separate genres but writing, his essays do read differently from his poems. The dress and the uniform are distinct in his practice, if not in his theory.

I think it worth looking closely at a piece of writing that Bernstein presented at the Modern Language Association meeting in 1992, namely "Frame Lock," an essay that later appeared, rather surprisingly perhaps, in College English and has since been reprinted in Bernstein’s My Way (the publishing history of this piece itself makes a fascinating trajectory from research to pedagogy to poetics).

I’ve already discussed the main thrust of Bernstein’s argument in this essay - that the language of the "profession" has been so standardized that new thinking is discouraged, and that professional "fashions" (both in the interview suite and in the dissertation) are constricting. Bernstein advocates pulling the lock from the stable door here and changing professional style so that thinking can once again take place.

In a conversation with Jonathan Monroe, Ann Lauterbach, and Bob Perelman, Bernstein discusses the relish he feels when he talks to MLA convention goers, a relish that is as much performative as anything: "I would always write something that was too long for the twenty-minute slot - and I don’t like to go over the time - so what you can do is just collapse the time and read faster . . . They wake up, they’re interested, and it’s nice to be able to have almost a ’Captive Audience,’ to borrow the title of one of Mr. Perelman’s books, a trademarked item..." (Monroe 207).

So how does Bernstein present his argument against "frame lock," a phrase he takes from Erving Goffman? In what style or styles does he present these ideas? How do his styles reflect his ideas, which are themselves part of an ongoing professional dialogue on the questions of the role of theory and the oft-times dreary presentation of theoretical ideas in the "major" journals? Bernstein does indeed mix (and match) his styles in this piece of writing, but instead of mixing styles together, he "frames" an essay in professional discourse with the kind of rhetoric usually reserved for his poems. The "frame," then, is revolutionary, but the meat of the piece is "locked" in place; it is the MLA style that he avers to using, though without knowing why.

Thus, in the third paragraph, Bernstein indulges in a verbal carnival once he has stated, quite soberly, that "Frame lock, and its cousin tone jam, are the prevailing stylistic constraints of the sanctioned prose of the profession."

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.

It is not entirely clear what the shifts in style in this piece actually do for the writer or his audience, except insofar as they render it more entertaining (a word hardly ever applicable to professional writing of any sort). The meaning here comes patently before the style; Bernstein has a central point and he manipulates his style to make that point at once more clear and more slippery. The humor of the piece comes at the expense of the profession, but does not open the way to a genuinely new idea about it. What are the new ways of thinking opened up for us by this manic whirl of language? In this piece, at any rate, Bernstein doesn’t offer us a new field so much as new ways to play on the same field. This is perhaps appropriate, since Bernstein ultimately comes down on the side of style - if not over substance, then as substance.

Like Adorno, Bernstein believes that "Fashion enthrones itself as something lasting and thus sacrifices the dignity of fashion, its transience" (quoted in Davis 121). Given a world in which fashion and style rule, Bernstein plays with them, granting them transience but also hoping that in the transient moments of his own writing a new thought emerges. Or, if not, that Bernstein himself becomes the "model," striding down the literary runway time after time, never repeating himself, as Stein cautioned, but always insisting on a new manner, a new cloak, a new divestiture of meaning.

But the most radical way in which Bernstein uses style may have less to do with the language he writes as with the way in which he challenges our assumptions about style itself. In his own brief presentation of his family’s romance narrative: "My father pushed a / line of ladies’ dresses - not down the street / in a pushcart but upstairs in a fact’ry / office. My mother was more concerned / with her hemline" (RT 42), Bernstein posits his mother as the one who actually cares about style. His identifications with stylishness are identifications with what is generally interpreted as "feminine" practice; Bernstein refracts and deflects the reader’s "gaze" through a blinding sequences of fashions, styles. A writer who argues against subjectivity as a worthy position in poetry, he takes on disguises as his subject and multiplies himself both in the poetic and scholarly marketplace and in the quick changes of the poems and essays themselves. As he writes in "Frame Lock," mimicking Whitman: "I’ve only just begun to contradict myself. But I contain no multitudes; I can’t even contain myself" (97). And, as Barthes states it, using the feminine as his subject: "we see the woman of Fashion dreaming of being at once herself and another":

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 of things.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this essay, Laura Riding made important arguments against professionalism, equating professional behavior with "fashion" and style of dress, and attempted to denude herself of these encumbrances and so to arrive at "truth." This sequence itself derives from the notion that spareness of voice equals authenticity, that fashion is suspect; it is, in some ways, an anti-feminist argument, hardly surprising in view of the masculine will to power in modernist circles, including her own. It is interesting that Bernstein begins from a similar place, arguing against professional poets and critics for their attending more to fashion than to thinking, which is of necessity an unfashionable activity in a consumer society. And yet Bernstein has become the most consummate of professionals; he has a chair at SUNY-Buffalo; he has edited numerous books on poetics; he has published three volumes in which his own criticism is reprinted; he has published a couple of dozen books of poems. He is, even more importantly, and as a result of these successes, the creator and propagator of a style. His work has, in recent years, become fashionable. Like many poets, he has arrived at the point where his is a recognizable style - albeit a pluralization of styles - associated not just with himself but with a "school."

Unlike Riding, however, and more like Gertrude Stein, from whom he takes more than from any other writer, Bernstein relishes his position and destabilizes it at every turn. Like Stein, he uses his criticism (much more standard than hers) to advertise his poetry. It remains to be seen, however, to what extent Bernstein is able to maintain his anti-fashionable status at the moment when fashion is catching up with him, or if his strategy of disavowing fashion by indulging in it succeeds in dismantling other, more ready-made styles. I will end this essay with a final paradox: Bernstein does not so much disavow authority in his work as reconceptualize it. Given a climate in which authority is a suspect term, Bernstein realizes that the only way to have it may be to disavow it. When Jonathan Monroe asks him about the issue of authority and writing, Bernstein responds by talking about graduate students who are advised how to make themselves attractive on the job market:

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.

[1] 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).
[2] 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.
[3] 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.
[4] 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.
[5] See my "Gertrude Stein and Self-Advertisement" for further development of this idea.
[6] 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).
[7] 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).
[8] In "Stray Straws and Straw Men," Bernstein argues that "Voice is a possibility for poetry not an essence" (42).
[9] 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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