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   Jacket 33 — July 2007        link Jacket 33 Contents page        link Jacket Homepage

Dan Thomas-Glass reviews

Girly Man
by Charles Bernstein
160 pages. The University of Chicago Press. US$24. 022604406. Cloth.

World on Fire
by Charles Bernstein
20 pages. Nomados Press. US$12. 0973152192. Paper.

This review is about 8 printed pages long. It is copyright © Dan Thomas-Glass and Jacket magazine 2007.

The Accessibility of Obscurity


Reading through the reviews of Girly Man, Charles Bernstein’s latest book from the University of Chicago Press and something near 30th overall, one refrain quickly stands out. Susan Howe, in her dust-jacket blurb (which also headlines — literally, before the title or author — the press release that accompanies review copies), hails the book as perhaps Bernstein’s ‘most accessible collection.’ Robert Hicks, in The Kansas City Star, writes that Girly Man is Bernstein’s ‘most accessible and rewarding volume to date,’ in an article with the subtitle ‘Poet’s latest collection appears to be his most accessible work.’[1] Gordon Tapper, in The Brooklyn Rail, suggests that ‘many readers will find Girly Man more accessible than Bernstein’s previous work.’ Thomas Devaney, in The Philadelphia Inquirer, states his point in the negative: that Girly Man is Bernstein’s ‘least formally unorthodox and least elusive book to date.’ (It turns out that this also means it is ‘his most emphatic and rewarding poetry collection so far.’) David Kaufman, writing for Forward, insists that the book is the ‘most approachable’ poetry Bernstein has produced. R.D. Pohl, in The Buffalo News, reads Bernstein meteorologically: ‘there is a gradual warming shift in tone from Bernstein’s earlier, more self-consciously experimental work.’

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This consensus is notable not just for the fact that Bernstein is ‘widely regarded as a difficult poet’ (Robert Hicks again), but because Bernstein himself has explicitly stated (in an interview with Marjorie Perloff, published in Fulcrum in 2003) that ‘[p]opularity or immediate accessibility is not a criterion of value for poetry in our time.’ This statement comes at a moment in which Perloff and Bernstein are discussing publications with large circulations — and the dearth of (experimental, avant-garde, etc.) poetry in their pages. Bernstein argues that the culture’s refusal of such poetry is in ‘direct violation of the public interest,’ because poetry that challenges our cultural norms and reading practices is the only poetry worth having. This exchange between Perloff and Bernstein comes out of a larger debate in the world of poetry between experimentalists, of which Bernstein and all other L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E -affiliated or -descended writers are easy examples, and traditionalists[2], represented by John Barr of Poetry Magazine, former U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser, Dana Gioia of the National Endowment for the Arts, and others that fall into the movement generally referred to as New Formalism.[3] This debate, not coincidentally, centers on the question of accessibility.[4]


Roughly paraphrased, the New Formalists have argued that poetry these days is too inaccessible to the average (generally American) reader: that the ‘willful obscurity’ of High Modernism has hurt poetry’s reputation among the reading public, and as a result no one reads poetry any more. This is the reason that kids in school think ‘poetry is hard,’ and the reason why most people prefer to spend their evenings with CSI: Miami than with the latest verses from their favorite bard. If we all wrote like Robert Frost, poetry would be way cooler than MTV or Xbox 360 or even the Internet. Or, at the very least, it would be one of the cultural forms average people would want to consume.


Experimentalists have rejoined that the world of 2007 is different than the world of 1907, and writing like Robert Frost can’t turn back the century. They argue for a formalism that looks forward rather than backwards — that works to create a new culture in place of re-creating the past. They champion a poetry that engages the realities of the Internet and Xboxes, rather than hoping to ignore or supplant them. Obscurity, so the argument goes, is part of the legacy of the 20th century, just like airplanes, atomic bombs, and the cultural turn away from poetry.


Despite the protests of the experimentalists however, in 2007 the New Formalists largely control the sources of funding for poetry. Dana Gioia, at the NEA, pours money into Shakespeare in Iraq, a Midsummer Night’s War. John Barr and Poetry Magazine, with their $200 million Ruth Lilly grant, pursue sonnets and sestinas like they never went out of style. Both former CEOs, these are poets whose lines are first and foremost bottom.


This is one answer to the question of why most of Bernstein’s critics are thinking in terms of accessibility. Accessibility, Bernstein’s best arguments notwithstanding, is explicitly a criterion of value: it carries material, economic significance. A poet writing in traditional forms is far more likely to get widely published than a poet writing in experimental forms. It can be of little surprise then that in several reviews, Bernstein’s ‘accessibility’ is directly tied to ‘reward’.


But what about Girly Man is actually accessible?


The collection consists of seven different chapbook-length sections. The book opens with ‘Let’s Just Say’, first published as a pamphlet by Chax Press in 2003, which contains poems that undermine and resist their stated intentions. ‘In Particular’, the first poem in the collection, consists of four pages of discrete and decontextualized individuals — ‘A Mexican boy putting on shoes’ or ‘A Jew watering petunias’ — who, in their blank repetition and subjugation to rhythm and rhyme, are stripped of their particularity. The next poem, ‘Thank You for Saying Thank You’, has received more attention than any other poem in the book, largely for its ironically direct address of the debate over accessibility. The poem opens:


This is a totally
accessible poem.
There is nothing
in this poem
that is in any
way difficult
to understand.


Ron Silliman has analyzed the ways in which the poem moves in interwoven layers of believability — arguing that there are statements in the poem which are either obviously true, patently false, or somewhere in between. One might instead read the poem for its dual referential valences: the semantic content of the declarative statements being one, and their relationship to a critical history being the other. In this reading, the poem’s ‘meaning’ is produced in the dialectical movement between these poles, with the heavily ironic tone being the road sign pointing toward the necessary philological fluency.


Both of these poems, and the other two which make up the first section, present Bernstein’s characteristic deployment of irony, humor, and strict formal structures to create distance from any traditionally lyrical emotional affect. Yet that affect is at the heart of accessibility — if we are to believe the parody in ‘Thank You...’, which states that the poem ‘is / purely emotional. / It fully expresses / the feelings of the / author: my feelings, / the person speaking / to you now. / It is all about / communication. / Heart to heart.’ Indeed, this emotional poem, the poem which ‘celebrates the / triumph of the / human imagination / amidst pitfalls & / calamities’ would seem to be the model for the sort of individual-centered confessional lyric that Bernstein and the other Language writers set out in the 1970s to deconstruct. So if accessibility is tied to emotional affect, which in turn is tied to individual experience, how can Bernstein be accessible, if he holds each of these at bay?


Enter ‘Some of These Daze’, the second section of Girly Man, which chronicles in diaristic prose the minutes and weeks and months following ‘September 11th, 2001’ — several sections of which were posted to the University of Buffalo Poetics List starting as early as the morning of 9/11. Though it occupies barely one tenth of the book, ‘Some of These Daze’ looms large in many reviews. Corinne Robins, in Talisman, reads it as literally being central to the collection: she writes that Girly Man ‘includes, “Some of These Daze,” a sixteen-page chronicle of life in New York City after 9/11, delineating time, the weather, and rhythms of the streets. Before and after this section, the poems give a conglomerate of orders...’ Ange Mlinko, in a fascinating exchange with David Yezzi in Poetry Magazine, likewise uses the tropes, places and dates of ‘Some of These Daze’ as a lens through which to read the entire collection: ‘Refracting his place and time — just before September 11 and through the Afghanistan and Iraq wars — Girly Man is, by any measure, autobiographical work.’


The words that make up this section encourage such a reading. The final entry, from November 22, 2001, is a letter to Arkadii Dragomoschenko, and is signed ‘Charles,’ making Bernstein’s name the final word in the piece. The first entry, ‘It’s 8:23 in New York’ (date stamped for a title and a final line, followed by another date stamp, ‘September 11, 2001’), opens with the impotence of the poet: ‘What I can’t describe is how beautiful the day is in New York...,’ which, despite the disavowal of description, firmly places the experience of the individual poet at the center of meaning-making. Throughout, the straightforwardly sincere prose invokes familiar sentiments and images: ‘I can’t imagine Manhattan without those two towers looming’; ‘It was hard not to feel like it was a movie’; ‘I keep turning on the TV to hear what I can’t take in and what I already know’; ‘[T]here are ten or twelve firemen in front of the firehouse... It’s a relief to see them. Then we hear that nine of the thirty men stationed there perished.’ Even the title of the second section, ‘Today is the next day of the rest of your life’, borrows of the same logic which reads the world as permanently changed — having experienced a singular moment, rather than histories of systemic oppression and injustice — the same logic that is legible in the rather blunt title of one ‘post-9/11’ college composition textbook: The New World Reader.


This is ground zero of Bernstein’s accessibility: the return, in the midst of formal challenges to all manner of traditional reading practices, of the lyric ‘I’, the poet of emotion, slapped into being by the trauma of 9/11. The affirmation that Bernstein is just like the rest of us, in thrall to the memory-spectacle of planes flying into buildings, defangs the rest of the poetry in the collection — it makes it ‘approachable’. By the time the longest entry of the section, ‘Report from Liberty Street’, builds itself around paraphrased bits of Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’ — ‘These vast and hollow trunks of steel,’ ‘boundless and bare,’ etc. — and the italicized refrain ‘They thought they were going to heaven,’ the return to the Romantic ideal of poet-as-observer is complete. Bernstein reports on an external world through his own personal spontaneous overflows of emotion; and one can’t help but wonder what has come of all the work done by the poet and his cohort to foreground the materially interconnected political dimension of language.


This is not to say that Charles Bernstein will be seen sporting a New Formalists letter jacket any time soon. It does, however, explain how people like David Yezzi (in that same exchange with Ange Mlinko in Poetry Magazine) can read Bernstein for what he wants to ‘talk about’ (emphasis mine). That is, the shift to the lyric ‘I’ at the imagined heart of this collection, which reads as formally ‘neutral’ (in the same ideological manner in which whiteness or middle-class-ness reads as ‘neutral’), allows Bernstein’s critics to read him for his content, as opposed to his form. And the explicitly political nature of much of the content encourages this approach: ‘The Ballad of the Girly Man’, for example, from which the collection takes its title, riffs on Governator Schwarzenegger’s infamous 2004 Republican National Convention speech in which he denounced ‘the girly men’ who opposed the Republican platform:


So be a girly man
& sing this gurly song
Sissies & proud
That we would never lie our way to war


Robert Pinsky, in The Washington Post, argues that ‘Bernstein deliberately writes with the crudity of a beginner, and with an ironic distance from that crudity, though he means everything he says.’ Though the sentence begins in form, it ends in content. What he says remains the point of interest, as opposed to how he says it.


As a final pair of examples to illustrate this point, we can look at two of Bernstein’s ‘blank’ poems: ‘this poem intentionally left blank’, from the 2001 collection With Strings, and ‘A Poem is Not a Weapon’, from Girly Man. The first has no content other than its title: in this regard, it is a purely formal exercise, insisting that the reader ask not just what might be in this blank poem, but what constitutes poetry in general. The second consists of one bracketed sentence: ‘[THIS POEM REMOVED FOR INSPECTION AND VERIFICATION.],’ which seeks to complicate the declarative certainty of its title. In this comparative light, a question presents itself: why not make the bracketed content the title, to preserve the formal epistemological maneuvers of the earlier poem? But this would lose the overt connection between poetry and weapons; the explicit political content of the poem relies on there being content at all.


This turn toward content is not universal in Bernstein’s poetic, however. The third section of Girly Man reprints the chapbook World on Fire, first published by Vancouver B.C.’s Nomados Press in 2004. The chapbook’s cover painting, like Girly Man and as per the norm with Bernstein’s books, is an ecstatically (and beautifully) colorful painting by his wife, Susan Bee. But where Girly Man’s cover displays the poet as King Kong, larger than life (with the Baudelairian title ‘Fleurs du Mal’), World on Fire presents a couple standing and looking down, perhaps outside a window, perhaps about to jump — the painting entitled ‘Escape.’


The echoes of ‘September 11th, 2001’ are inevitable — but as Ron Silliman has argued, ‘World on Fire can’t be filtered [to reveal a monadic response to 9/11]...Maybe it is, but if so, Bernstein’s not letting on. Indirection is almost a religious principle in his work.’ Indeed, very little of the lyrically singular voice of ‘Some of These Daze’ remains, when the chapbook is read on its own. The poems resist any coherent voice, speaking in advertising slogans, television and movie personalities, and quotations from indeterminate sources; in short, Bernstein’s typically challenging formal shiftiness. In ‘Broken English’, the /r/ and /n/ phonemes of ‘broken’ carry the poem across a disjointedly alliterative terrain of partial rhymes:


What are you fighting for? The men move

decisively toward the execution chamber.
Joey takes aim but muffles his fire.

Overhead, the crescent moon cracks
the unbroken sky. A moth beats its wings
against the closed door — intransigence its

only lore. What are you fighting for? The sirens

cry wolf to obedient masses who sway,
hysterical, in synch to the boys
on back streets and ladies of mourning.


‘For’ becomes ‘fire,’ and later, ‘from’ — the spatial logic of prepositions inextricable from the weapons of war — while ‘men’ turn from ‘moon’ to ‘mourning’. In each case the sounds bleed into each other, the /m/ appearing in ‘from,’ the /r/ in ‘mourning,’ resisting any clarity of origin. The reverberations of boy bands (‘in synch’ and ‘boys on / back streets’) maintain Bernstein’s unwillingness to detach the serious and political from the popular and fluffy. Narrative exists only as a skein in which to tangle any unexamined cultural norms.


In World on Fire we find a playful, bombastic, and formally challenging Charles Bernstein — a poet who is loudly and unapologetically obscure. But what is obscure in World on Fire — and in other high points of Girly Man, such as the hilarious ‘Slap Me Five, Cleo, Mark’s History’ — is only what is obscure in a world of infinite information: data streams, capital flows, labor migrations. The form refuses to simplify or ignore the complexities of a post-Fordist, globalized economy — and in doing so, it preserves its allegiance to the idealism in Ezra Pound’s well-worn dictum: ‘make it new.’ At its emergent best, the phrase incites poets not to put a new patina on the old, but to make the world new, to embrace their lineage from the Greek poiein, ‘to create’ — the poet as unacknowledged maker of the world. In Bernstein’s obscurity other ‘possibilities for existence’ (as the back cover of World on Fire has it) are legible: the accessibility of obscurity is the accessibility of possibility, of difference, of hope.


[1] All reviews cited here can be accessed via Charles Bernstein’s page for Girly Man at the Electronic Poetry Center:

[2] These two categories are somewhat arbitrary in their naming; one might also use such terms as radical and conservative, avant-garde and old-school, or emergent and residual. It should also go without saying that any simple binary is always going to be overly reductive and not representative of the range of positions available.

[3] These individuals and groups also constitute (part of) what Bernstein has referred to as ‘official verse culture.’

[4] For more detailed accounts of the terms of this debate, Dana Goodyear’s ‘The Moneyed Muse’ in The New Yorker of February 19, 2007 and Hank Lazer’s ‘The People’s Poetry’ in The Boston Review of April/May 2004 are both worth reading.

Daniel Thomas-Glass

Daniel Thomas-Glass

Dan Thomas-Glass is writing his dissertation on the audible traces in Language Poetry and rap music of the failed revolutions of the 60s. His poems have recently appeared in Digital Artifact, Shampoo, and Kitchen Sink. You can holler at him at danthomasglass[ât]

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