A Blog Post on …
February 2, 2012 1 Comment
A Blog Post on Charles Bernstein
I enjoyed the reading of “Johnny Cake Hollow,” although I didn’t really understand the title. The body of the poem reminded me of Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky.” Both poems are best read aloud on account of their rich sounds. “Johnny Cake Hollow” is more impressionistic than “Jabberwocky.” In the “Jabberwocky,” the speaker is a parent addressing a son. “Johnny Cake Hollow” doesn’t have a clearly defined speaker, but the hollow has all the sound effects of Carroll’s “wabe” and “borogoves.” Here is a bit for our memories:
`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
Carroll invents neologisms that effectively take the place of English words. “Brillig,” for example, could be a substitution for “bright,” and “slithy toves” for “slimy toads,” such that the first line would read “’Twas bright, and the slimy toads…” Boring. Kids listening to Carroll tell the story would rather hear nonsense—it’s just more fun. It’s not “academic” poetry, but who cares? Bernstein, on the other hand, invents some new words as far as I can tell, but their place in the poem never feels like a one-to-one substitution for known words. To hear him read (and I note this poem is also read by Bernstein on www.youtube.com) is to hear poetry. I can’t say the same for “Lift Off,” which is well-conceived but sounds terrible.
In “Close Listening,” Bernstein says, “During the past forty years, more and more poets have used forms whose sound patterns are made up – that is, their poems do not follow received or prefabricated forms. It is for these poets that the poetry reading has taken on so much significance.” I think he’s speaking of poems like “Johnny Cake Hollow,” where the sound is the material that constructs the poem, rather than the semantic properties of words.
One of the goals of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, as I think Bernstein would claim, is for the words to create the meaning, and not the other way around. I guess that’s what I tried to do in the last three paragraphs. I agree with Brian Brodeur when he says it’s hard to make meaning out of it. Bernstein speaks of John Cage in “Close Listening,” and I can’t help but think of Marcel Duchamp’s urinal. I saw it in Cincinnati a couple years ago, and it is just a toilet. But when it’s in an art museum, it’s not just a toilet. Like a lot of Bernstein’s poetry, I only wanted to see the damn thing once, but I keep thinking about it (and other avant garde art) wherever I go. For example, in the larger men’s restroom in the basement of McMicken, there is a wall of urinals that look almost exactly the same as Duchamp’s. To appreciate this fact during a mundane act elevates the experience to art, creating new meaning for me.
In conceptual poetry, Bernstein is a key player. This will be a short paragraph. See—I’m already starting to be more conscious of the language I use and how I use it.
Humor aside though, I also enjoyed the pennsound website, which I am glad to know. The recordings are excellent, and most of them can’t be found elsewhere—except for youtube and other websites. I applaud any efforts by institutions to make information free and indexable. I wish more libraries would contribute to this effort and start indexing and storing recordings. It would be great to search Summon for a keynote at a conference, let’s say, and have a link to the recording as well as the text. Again, “Made Not Only in Words” by Kathleen Blake Yancey—from our TCW reader last year—comes to mind. The text doesn’t give the experience that conference-goers had.
Bernstein’s “Electronic Pies in the Poetry Skies” feels dated, much like the rest of his work. I suppose his work ages quickly in the same way Lisa Nakamura’s work does; by the time it’s published, it’s already old hat. Yet Nakamura stated that she is working toward identifying and establishing the theory of what she studies, which is exactly what Bernstein did and continues to do.
Because I don’t know how to end a blog post (I have only started using the genre last year), I will end with my favorite poem/lecture? of Bernstein’s:
A Test of Poetry
By Charles Bernstein
What do you mean by rashes of ash? Is industry
systematic work, assiduous activity, or ownership
of factories? Is ripple agitate lightly? Are
we tossed in tune when we write poems? And
what or who emboss with gloss insignias of air?
Is the Fabric about which you write in the epigraph
of your poem an edifice, a symbol of heaven?
Does freight refer to cargo of lading carried
for pay by water, land or air? Or does it mean
payment for such transportation? Or a freight
train? When you say a commoded journey,
do you mean a comfortable journey or a good train
with well-equipped commodoties? But, then, why
do you drop the ‘a’ before slumberous friend? And
when you write, in “Why I Am Not a Christian”
You always throw it down / But you never
pick it up—what is it??
In “The Harbor of Illusion”, does vein
refer to a person’s vein under his skin or
is it a metaphor for a river? Does lot
mean one’s fate or a piece of land?
And does camphor refer to camphor trees?
Moreover, who or what is nearing. Who or
what has fell? Or does fell refer to the
skin or hide of an animal? And who or what has
stalled? Then, is the thoroughfare of
noon’s atoll an equivalent of the template?
In “Fear of Flipping” does flipping mean
How about strain, does it mean
a severe trying or wearing pressure or
effect (such as a strain of hard work),
or a passage, as in piece of music?
Does Mercury refer to a brand of oil?
In the lines
shards of bucolic pastry anchored
against cactus cabinets, Nantucket buckets
could we take it as—pieces of pies
or tarts are placed in buckets (which
are made of wood from Nantucket)
anchored against cabinets (small
rooms or furniture?) with cactus?
What is nutflack?
I suppose the caucus of caucasians
refers to the white people’s meeting
of a political party to nominate candidates.
But who is Uncle Hodgepodge?
And what does familiar freight
to the returning antelope mean?
You write, the walls are our floors.
How can the walls be floors if the floors
refer to the part of the room which forms
its enclosing surface and upon which one
walks? In and the floors, like balls,
repel all falls—does balls refer to
nonsense or to any ball like a basket ball
or to guys? Or to a social assembly for
dancing? Falls means to descend
from higher to a lower
or to drop down wounded or dead?
But what is the so-called overall
Is the garbage heap the garbage heap
in the ordinary sense? Why does
garbage heap exchange for so-called
overall mesh? Since a faker is
one who fakes, how can
arbitrary reduce to faker?
Who or what are disappointed
not to have been?
Does frames refer to form, constitution,
or structure in general? Or to a
particular state, as of the mind?
In the sentence,
If you don’t like it
colored in, you can always xerox it
and see it all gray
–what is it? What does
colored in mean?
A few lines later you write,
You mean, image farm when you’ve got bratwurst—
Does bratwurst refer to sausage?
Does the line mean—the sausage
you saw reminded you of a farm which you imagined?
Does fat-bottom boats refer to boats with thick bottoms?
Is humble then humped used to describe the actions of one
who plays golf? In the phrase a sideshow freak—
the freak refers to a hippie? Sideshow refers to secondary
importance? Or an abnormal actor in the sideshow?
Then, who or what is linked with steam of pink. And
how about the tongue-tied tightrope stalker—
does the stalker refer to one who is pursuing
stealthily in the act of hunting game? The stalker
is a witness at first and then a witless witness?
You write The husks are salted:
what kind of nut husks can be salted for eating?
What does bending mean—to become curved,
crooked, or bent? Or to bow down in submission
or reverence, yield, submit? Does bells
refer to metallic sounding instruments or
a kind of trousers?
Just a few lines later you have the phrase
Felt very poured. Who felt poured? Toys?
Is humming in the sense of humming a song?
Stepped into where? Not being part of what?
In “No Pastrami” (Walt! I’m with you in Sydney / Where
the echoes of Mamaroneck howl / Down the outback’s
pixilating corridors)—does the pastrami refer
to a highly seasoned shoulder cut of beef? Is
Mamaroneck a place in the U.S. where wild oxes howl?
I take it corridors refers to the passageway
in the supermarket? Could I read the poem as—
The speaker is doing shopping in a supermarket
in Sydney; he is walking along the eccentric
passageways among the shelves on which goods
are placed; he does not want to buy the pastrami
as he seems to have heard the echoes of wild oxes
howling in the U.S. while he addresses Walt Whitman?
In “No End to Envy”, does the envy refer to admire or
in the bad sense?