Saturday, April 30, 2016

John Amen, Charles Bernstein’s Pitch of Poetry: Iterations of the Avant Garde

Pitch of Poetry (Book Cover Image)
The University of Chicago Press Books, 2016
Charles Bernstein 

Charles Bernstein’s Pitch of Poetry
Iterations of the Avant Garde
by John Amen

I first encountered Charles Bernstein’s work when I was in my twenties and came across his 1994 collection Dark City. The opening lines of the title poem read as follows:

A transom stands bound to a flagpole. Hard
by we go hardly which way is which
lingering somewhere unsettled where evidence
comes harder by sockets, stems
etched in flexed omission like osmotic
molarities flickering edge and orange at flow
rates unrepresentative of ticking or torpor….

Bernstein’s poetry, indeed his method, seemed to emerge from or at least have connections to a continuum of work with which I was, at the time, quite taken: the European Dadaists and Surrealists, Gertrude Stein, the so-called objectivist poets, and John Ashbery, among others. Bernstein was clearly part of what I’d paradoxically tag a tradition of subversion, confronting a longstanding and homogenizing aesthetic that pervaded (and perhaps still pervades) the landscape of American poetry; more specifically, an Orwellian academizing of “founding fathers” Thoreau, Emerson, and Whitman—and “token mother” Emily Dickinson. To reconfigure a metaphor employed by Bernstein in his recent release, Pitch of Poetry, his work struck me as a continuation of an important literary and cultural “conversation” (225). The opening line of “Dark City”—“A transom stands bound to a flagpole”—seemed obliquely impenetrable, drily nonsensical, and yet, irresistibly compelling. The rhythms and tautologies of the second line constituted a chthonic albeit quasi-mechanical music, even if meaning, in the utilitarian sense, was elusive or unavailable. I was fascinated by the abstractions (a definite revolt against Eliot’s “objective correlative”), unmalleability, and scientific (sci-fi?) tone inherent to the subsequent phrases and lines. I accepted Bernstein’s implicit invitation and plunged into his oeuvre.

One of the more rewarding experiences associated with reading Bernstein’s Pitch of Poetry is that the included essays, interviews, and (transcribed) talks directed me back to his verse. That said, my assignment is to review Pitch, not All the Whiskey in Heaven, which has remained open to various poems for the last two weeks and remains open beside me now (to 1975’s “Asylum”). Much of what Bernstein implicitly expresses in his poetry is fleshed out in his scholarship; much of what is elucidated in his scholarship complements a rereading of the poems. Speaking about his own writing vis-à-vis his involvement with L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, the now famous literary magazine founded and edited by Bernstein and Bruce Andrews, he stresses repeatedly that “Language poetry doesn’t exist” (240, 284, among other instances, sometimes expressed with, sometimes without, an accompanying exclamation point), clarifying: “We didn’t capture an already-existing, fully formed aesthetic as much as participate in 
its creation” (60).

…this poetic constellation was a resistance to (or phobia of) naming, characterization, and standardized modes of representation. So the description is part of the “problematic,” and it remains an open question whether this constellation of activity was a movement or school, aesthetic tendency, or convenient label, and whether the names for the phenomena were insulting labels or a standard for group solidarity. (61)

The editors of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E weren’t seeking devotees who might dutifully spin their poetic wheels in stylistic ruts or apply the principles of some cultish manifesto. Process and exploration, at least ostensibly, were paramount. Unfortunately process is customarily trumped by teleology critically constructed in hindsight, according to any number of paradigmatic dictates. Hence, the notion of “Language Poetry” as a definable subgenre or “movement” displaying x, y, and z characteristics. History inevitably simplifies and singularizes what was (and still is) the multifaceted and paradoxical present.

Bernstein, however, remains a stand for what he was advocating in 1978: “But one thing I stood against then, as now, was any set of ‘basic tenets’ defining a poetry or poetics” (224). And: “I am interested in poetry as a medium for exploring the possibilities, and resistances, to expression, not as a vehicle to express a message I have already formulated” (242). Indeed, the second section of Pitch, in which Bernstein comments eloquently and in depth on various seminal poets, is contextualized by his appreciation for modernism’s salient legacy: process-orientation. Of Gertrude Stein he writes:

…Stein found an alternative to the teleological thinking that underwrites much aesthetics as well as ethics: the idea that meaning lies outside or beyond what is at hand. She found meaning inside the words of which a poem is composed, a discovery and exploration of the wordness of words that has parallels in Einstein’s discovery of relativity, Freud’s uncovering of the conscious, and Wittgenstein’s encounter with ordinary language. (84-5)

Of Louis Zukofsky:

He rejected the major keys for minor chords, universals for particulars, the grandiose for discreetness…Zukofsky’s poetry is both emotional and accessible, but it demands much of its readers because of its refusal to separate intellect from feeling, or complexity from clarity. (100)

And Ashbery:

His deflationary diction provides a powerful counterforce—a negative dialectic—to fighting fire with fire, anger with anger, outrage with outrage…Moreover, Ashbery’s poetry is a (literally) breathtaking swerve away from the bombastic rhetorics of the years of his coming of age, during the Second War, of the apocalyptic thinking associated with the Extermination Process, of the H-bomb, and of the strident anti- and pro-communism/capitalism of the Cold War. (150)

As Bernstein’s commentary on his involvements and motivations prompted me to revisit his poetry, so his tributes to other poets catalyzed a rereading of the primary texts, again furthering or amplifying important “conversations.” When asked by Allison Cummings about the role of the critic, Bernstein replies:

Critics, like poets or other writers, often are most interesting when they pursue their own intuitions, when they articulate what most strikes them about the work they are discussing—whether or not it conforms to what the artist or other critics might say is the right approach. (189)

All the Whiskey in Heaven was published in 2010 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux; Pitch of Poetry was released in April by University of Chicago. Prominent presses. In addition, Bernstein’s filling rooms on his current book tour. That’s encouraging news, and there’s no need to fallaciously equate popularity with dilution. After all, it’s often the case that an artist’s radicalism speaks to a subsequent generation, or a generation twice or three times removed, more keenly than it does to one’s own. Certainly Bernstein’s brand of rebelliousness is timely, though authentic provocation is somehow always timely, archetypal, and transpersonal; then again, so is conformity. What’s the centripetal without the centrifugal? And isn’t Satan, speaking in Blakean terms, eternally on the verge of triumph, even if by his very nature he never actually triumphs? (If Bernie Sanders is elected president (which he lamentably won’t be), Bernstein should be the “inaugural poet.” Who will it be if Hillary Clinton is elected? Would there be an appointed poet at a Donald Trump inauguration?)

Art need serve no agenda—aesthetic, political, or otherwise—though clearly the role and/or proper purlieu of art is more often than not aesthetically, politically, or otherwise defined in such a way as to advance or further entrench any number of agendas. Bernstein’s observations regarding the manner in which “official verse culture” imposes agendas “by denying (or naturalizing) its positions” (334) leads him to proclaim, in the final section of the book, “The Pataquerical Imagination”:

The legacy of romanticism haunts the contemporary imagination of poetry. Romantic ideology…underwrites the hegemonic ideology of postwar US poetics—that poetry, through its commitment to lyric sincerity (high lyric) and refined craft (high-bred) can be a universal expression of human sentiment. (296)

And specifically:

I dwell on these publications and critics [see 293-337] because I think that they…do matter…but mostly in the negative sense: they make poetry seem culturally dull, more concerned with civic uplift or memoir than aesthetic invention, even when this betrays the aesthetics of the poets being championed. (336)

And finally: “The lunatics have imprisoned us and say that we are deviants, monkeys, insects, anonymous schizophrenics! (337).”

The various pieces in Pitch cover substantial ground, addressing a plethora of concerns and illustrating Bernstein’s lifelong commitment to vital expression—his own and that of others—how Bernstein has, for forty or so years, consistently confronted institutionalized criteria that invisibly and systemically perpetuate exclusivism. As I opened this review (has it actually turned out to be a review?) with a reference to Bernstein’s poetry, I’m inclined to close the piece in a similar way. Consider these lines from “The Lives of the Toll Takers” (also from Dark City):

     There is no plain sense of the word,

nothing is straightforward,

          description is a lie behind a lie:

      but truths can still be told.

If postmodernist history, theory, and literature have underscored anything, it’s that language is an instrument of both intimacy and distraction, both interconnectivity and isolation, both the ecumenical and hegemonic. It is, ultimately, a vehicle by which we vacillate between madness and enlightenment, for the most part remaining in neither for long. Perhaps in this protracted and mostly Sisyphean journey, there are indeed moments during which “truths can still be told.”

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Felino A. Soriano, excerpts from Of this Momentum Song

Dr. Parry Celsus in Oz, image by Daniel Y. Harris 

Of this Momentum Song (thirty-seven)

  The way
 arc of moth
  from the splay
 of eyes     you
     invent ways
   to remove an
 hour’s contempt
  writing syllables
 of struggle into
  distant wall, far
 enough in shape
    to not recognize
horror     its phantom
 etching wait into the
moments’ configurative

to memory is to remove
 now’s body, strip
bone to cleanliness
interrogating the
 dirt of birth’s

   we’ve gone here
 to chant     chant in-
  to why wind answers
 in howl and holler-
   ing motivated     fathoms.

  known body to
 bend embrace
    into what finespun
  lace draws in
 across the face’s
    hushing rest…
  commune relevance,
 thirst the same as
   birth moving forward,
 freedom being said
  what the mouth
 circles and pronounces

     wholly resolute

Of this Momentum Song (nearly thirty-nine)

  We chant, we (reinterpret)
 what fell memorized
    our watching. 
  we said we would,
 and pushing at
    our backs, a
  wandering wind,
 and prophetic:     what
  comes next, an
 what flame
alters… the rise
  from where heat
the halved hero
 never dissipates
into whole history—
              what we
 sometimes sing,
a no less sigh
  than the mirror’s
 haunts us…

Of this Momentum Song (thirty-nine)

 Keyed into various                          
wisdoms, open
  windows’ vanishing.
                 Why we’re
 here we know,
but do not
  walk into
 what held
   our prior
 The way wait
holds us, we
 walk halved
in our steps, timid
   keeping tempo
 on time to arrive
rhythm is self
 without the face
of unknowing.
      And, the way
  scent first rises
 to land across
   why we’re moving
  this way… the
 prize of it holds
    memory, the
  becomes necklace,
   an heirloom tucked
 into the hand holding
    what we were, now

  We breathe and become
 what moves us.  No terror
    too thin to count
   on hope for home,
     though home can
 never be numerical.  Too
  homes never wholly
   held us.  Hands as
 rooms     always broken
    from the rust
  each hour named
 in light’s misnamed
 Why many
   know us,
we recall
 use syllables
to hide meaning,
 to bury secret
ornate to un-

     —brief as this
 hour might spin,
   where we’re going
we’ve become

              years before
 the foot moves, unearthing

          mass direction

Of this Momentum Song (forty-one)

                                      Dark eyes,
                                     their distance
                                    hands pulling
                                   shape from ex-
                                     tracted colors,
    from mirrors and
  faded rhythms
   systems arrive.  Hands,
  into them.  We’ve stayed
    long ago, near where
   Song began
  crawl, its freedom
 the free language
   calling forward
 toward what hears
our staying. Moved
  when night pushed,
 invented symptoms. 
   To listen was to
  untangle strands
     of silken hours.
  from what mimics
 long enough
   to reshape
  the mirror’s
                                        we pivot to
                                       portion our
                                          bodies.  To
                                        open scent
                                           to include
                                       occurs when
                                         language bends
                                        to loosen air
  beneath what
 exerts involved
   effort and obtained
     clarity from where
  we’ve a hurried
        circumstance of



Of this Momentum Song (forty-three)

   Another body gone.
  We multiplied
     symptoms: an
   arc of symmetries
language of breathing
 breaks when the
last cannot
 the spin dislodges, the
  penultimate brings
gold into the bone
   and structure
 beyond how
recognizes what
 new styles
  align with

   Another, gone.  To
 where each resides
   the eye misinterprets.
 Not a death in
  hiring: …speak
 to me means
 rolling beyond
Prior’s motivating

      of how we imitate
   the whole of
     sound does
articulate where
  we become, whole—

                    by Song
 we’re needed by
  the mouth’s
arc, a flight
  in a rhythm’s
   theory, roles
from where breaths

  search for the body gone, stilled within what impels distance into our momentary finding

 —Felino A. Soriano

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Rupert Loydell and Robert Sheppard, Two Poems from the European Union of Imaginary Authors (EUOIA)

                                      Professor Handcart in Hell, image by Daniel Y. Harris

Two Poems from the European Union of Imaginary Authors (EUOIA)


Hermes (1975-)

Mussolini Among the Muses

I puff out a simple blues on my pipes
in the Lydian mode. My legs sport eyes
like bees, I know I am me despite the hive
mind. I smoke myself out of torpor,
exercise the poet’s blink in the dark. I sail
like a radio wave, an anti-angel blocking the sun
as I track my echoing speck across the land.

My flight plan is erratic, I hover to inquire
into what I see, what catches my attention
as I fly through the world. Radar and sonar
cannot confine my senses to the fivefold ratio.
My wings fan. I dive invisible to human eye;
my message drips like honey as I drop.
I wax eloquent, am like no other you know,

soar in the shape of paradise, harmonizing
as mathematicians did of yore. Your
equation is a riddle to be solved, in the CCTV
of my high eye, the pixellations of a grey alley
below, computing the lo-res transgressions
much as I sin against myself. The fever dream
of self sweats out my soul, I am all yours,

all on edge, nasty with innuendo, as I salute
the classical statues rimming the stadium I circle:
a Mussolini among the Muses, I sing, frothy with frills,
frantic to fly as music to the stars. I contort myself
into poetic shapes, stretch as I scatter the spores of relief,
swooping hawkish to my birdwoman’s nest, an olive branch
for the kitchen dropping from my beakish snout.

Poles Apart

There is something alive under the bed
and I press my ear to the pillow to keep
it out. It is not inspiration or love, it
might be a mud-faced creature, its snub-nose
sniffing me, rodent cognition in its whiskers.
A pumping thought excites my body –
perhaps it is desire personified, perhaps
it is the past come to haunt me? I know
only that past desire peeps through a curtain
and, seen from behind, it leans across a table,
a saucy painting of a courtesan espied by a
policeman who plays with his truncheon
and longs to use his power to arrest.
Handcuffs dangle in my mind as something
jangles under the bed. The long arm of some law
could curl around me to administer its
non-consensual anti-sensualist anarchic
hold. Consider the value of self, the way
we move through the world, how we hold
and nurture the white bear that peers through
our portholes, pawing at our circles of light.
There’s nothing he can claw back, nothing
more likely to polarise us. I am sure
there is something alive under the bed,
and I am sure it is me.

—Rupert Loydell and Robert Sheppard

Hermes is the founder of Bongos for Rain, a charity which works with those in drought-stricken parts of the world to handcraft drums to invoke the Gods and provoke rainfall. Most of his poetry and word-songs circulate in handwritten fascicles or as sound files on Bandcamp, but his one print volume, Working for the Healing Rain is available from or the alternative bookshop on the edge of Zlatare. This volume was nominated for a To Hell in a Handcart Award in 2010.

Note: Robert Sheppard is following up the fictional poems of A Translated Man (Shearsman, 2013) with EUOIA, a collaboratively written anthology featuring the 28 poets ‘imagined’ by René Van Valckenborch, the fictional poet of A Translated Man. Part of Poland’s Jaroslav Biały (1962-), written with Anamaría Crowe Serrano, may be read on The Bogman’s Cannon: A poem by Sophie Poppmeier (Austria, born 1981) may be read in A Festschrift for Tony Frazer (at   Zoë Skoulding may be viewed reading the works of Gurkan Arnavut at as part of the Manchester Enemies of the North in March 2013. Several collaborations may be seen as part of the Liverpool Camarade, February 18th 2015 at; another, with Alys Conran, reading our writing of Cristòfol Subira, part of Gelynion Poetry (Bangor), on May 26th 2015, may be viewed at   

The EUOIA website is still live at

Monday, April 18, 2016


               A Dream of Francis Bacon, image by Rupert M. Loydell 


Imagine! His smudges of raw paint
pulled into communion with the past:

the angel ill-defined, contorted,
with a gash for a mouth, can hardly

speak to the flesh wound that is
Mary’s face. Instead of a portico

and private cell there’s a room
outlined against saturated colour.

The dove is either that splash there
or has gone missing altogether.

You should be afraid. Should scream
and slur your speech, get drunk.

The spirit of God is upon you,
urgent and toxic. You’re soused,

unable to speak or think, have
been winging it from the word go.

—Rupert M. Loydell

Sunday, April 17, 2016


                One False Move, image by AC Evans 


One false move and you’ll turn into a machine.
Well, we all know that now
When it’s too late to worry, and that
Deranged hybrid lumbers into view.
The hangers-on look very sinister to me.

One false move and you’ll wrench your sockets.
It’s too late to worry, let the machines take over.
No problem is too trivial
No job is too small
No life so precious that in cannot be absorbed.

One false move and – that was tomorrow.
One false move and – the console lights turn red.
One false move and – that was exciting eh?

Deepen your aesthetic and sharpen your poetic.
The living curtain is a harbinger of doom.
The artist has a hissy fit – it’s what they do!

One false move and you’ll turn into a machine.
Well, you know the score.
It’s far too late to worry about the future of the soul,
And that deranged hybrid lurches into view
You’re in its sights, what a sight!

—AC Evans