Joshua Weiner reviews Attack of the Difficult Poems by Charles Bernstein in the Los Angeles Review of Books -
... Whatâs being entertained here are at least two things, for the joke is neither facetious nor smug: the tonal caricature conveys straight forward reminders useful to any reader of poetry, but especially those readers who eschew difficulty because they donât feel up to it: relax, get busy â after all, difficulty in poetry is ânormal,â âinnate;â and âsmoothing over difficulties is not the solution!â
One could hardly argue; after all, Bernstein sounds as if heâs asking for a retooled negative capability, of attending to but not straining after an understanding, allowing oneself to reside in the presence of something thatâs mysterious, unknown, even if itâs critical of another poetryâs âmystification.â But âthe tendency to idealize the accessible poem,â which still circulates in the economy of reviews, prizes, jobs, and chancellorships, warrants the counter-claim that difficult poems have attributes that spur us to consider: what is language; what is poetry; how does it work; and what is its value? (In the context of teaching, which is the inspired concern of the first part of this collection, we have to remember that what an undergraduate with no conscious experience of poetry finds difficult could be any piece of writing. And often what a teacher finds himself doing with a poem in the classroom is to suggest its difficulty right where a student reads simplicity. Those for whom poetry and difficulty are synonyms, however, generally arenât stopping in; it all remains an irrelevant mystery, warranting a detour one bypasses on the way to Econ 101.)
As the âDr. Poetryâ persona soon after drops, we find Bernstein earnestly promoting the value of poetry and the humanities as an open-ended inquiry thatâs precious for creating experiences liberated from the logic of capital ... It is precisely this kind of flexibility and double-hinged intelligence, keen on paradox and chiasmic thinking, that makes Bernsteinâs book so useful: as a practical guide through the perilous logic of short-term gain that now plagues the university, to classroom pedagogies (what he calls creative âwreadingâ), to further statements in the ongoing manifesto that is Bernsteinâs declaration of poetic âpractice,â and that clearly informs his teaching: âpoetry as processâ; scholarship as âexplanation by associationâ; âpoetics as âphilosophy of compositionâ; the notion that âpoetry begins in the present moment and moves backward and forward from thereâ ... When it comes to thinking about poems, however, I still favor analysis, the deep dive into the mechanics of language and form, and as important to teach as poetics, granting that the former is impossible without the latter ...
âWith the advent of the photo/phono electronic, postliterate age, the emerging function for poetry is neither the storage of collective memory nor the projection of individual voice, but rather an exploration of the medium through which the storage and expressive functions of language work [. . .] Poetryâs singular burden in a digital age is to sound the means of transmission: call it poetryâs textual function, making audible/visible the ethos enacted in and by the fabric of writing.â This is a bracing salvo, as Bernstein devotes himself to thinking about the most important question facing poetry: what does poetry do, what can it do, today, that is special to it as a medium. Itâs an essential question, and searching out a plausible answer requires engagement not only with poetry but also with the full range of our communications technology â its past, present, and the forecasts for its future ... Regardless of the kind of poetry you like to read or write, if you care about the fate of poetry in a digital age then you have to think about this: what constitutes a text, let alone a poem, or a public ...
The entire review is a joy to read just in and of itself. How can you not like a review that has sentences like this one?:
... Just as he argues persuasively that new technologies donât replace old ones as much as old technologies continue to exist alongside new ones, so too do we come to understand through these pointed and thoughtful considerations of poetry and technology how contemporary writing is caught in a kind of concatenation of ongoing translation between technologies ...
Edited by J.A.A. Purves, 27 September 2012 - 12:09 PM.