Friday, July 30, 2004

Seventeen years later, after books like Charles Bernstein’s A Poetics and My Way, The Sophist doesn’t necessarily look as radical to the eye as perhaps it once did. Significantly, both of those texts are more apt to be characterized as critical – collections of essays into which poetry “intrudes.” Bernstein’s own books of poems, such as With Strings, have in fact moved back to something closer to what we might expect from a “normal book.” At least the selfsame principle appears more visible there. That something that has taken deeper root in Bernstein’s “professional” writing than in his “creative” work should have shown up first here in The Sophist is itself worth thinking about.

As are precedents. The two I think are most visible are William Carlos Williams’ Spring & All, a volume that appeared nearly 50 years before anybody was ready to “get it” back in 1923, mixing Williams’ most deeply condensed poems into the hot broth of the most radical poetics text that had, at that late modern moment, been written. Williams’ book sunk more or less without a trace, odd enough under any circumstance but positively bizarre given just how famous some of its poems – “The Red Wheel Barrow,” “The Pure Products of America” – later became, tho largely due to being read in WCW’s various collected editions. It wasn’t until Harvey Brown produced what may have been a pirate edition of the original volume in 1970 that a much later generation of poets found themselves dumbstruck at the brilliance of Williams’ total project. I would argue that the organization of The Sophist follows Spring & All not in its “linked verse in a critical frame,” but rather because the construction of the book itself is understood by its author as a critical act. Which is why it follows that this principle follows Bernstein into his prose more than into his later poetry.

The second source is one that Bernstein sort of half gives away in a title’s allusion amidst the poems I listed – Robert Duncan, particularly the Duncan of Roots and Branches & Bending the Bow. In many respects, The Sophist is very nearly a direct descendant of Duncan’s project, mixing as the San Francisco writer’s did prose, plays, individual poems, translations, as well as – contra Zukofsky, contra Olson – sections of his ongoing long works, Passages and The Structure of Rime. But whereas Duncan understood his commingling of divergent texts as part of a larger organic relation that could be traced back to his life (with some fudging as to chronology in the process, especially in the first of his trio of books, The Opening of the Field), the New Yorker Bernstein doesn’t buy into the mystical self-justifications – a defensive wall more than anything else – that Duncan erected around his work. Bernstein’s text in this sense forms an argument, not an autobiography. It is worth noting that in the opening of “Outrigger,” the piece that immediately precedes “The Years as Swatches,” Bernstein adapts a device taken directly from Duncan’s “The Fire, Passages 13,” a little grid of phrases apparently with no connection one to the other that nonetheless build tonally.* “The Years As Swatches” appears more Zukofskian with its hyper-narrow lines than the echo of Duncan’s The Years as Catches might suggest, but its concerns with speech & the ontological status of language directly address this question:
Voice seems
to break
over these
short lines
cracking or
setting loose.
I see a word
 & it repeats
itself as
your location
overt becalm
that neither
binds nor furnishes:
articles of
in which I
see you
changed by the
return to
sight of
our encounter.
My heart
in twos
to this
that we
had known but
have forgotten
along the way.
Maze of chaliced
gleam a
menace in
the eyes
once again.
Gravity’s loss:
weight of
hazard’s probity
on the lawn’s
Funds deplete
the deeper
fund within
us lode no
one has
And yet
as if, when all –
should current
flood its
& self
in concomitant
This is one of those moments, and poems, in which one might say Bernstein is being startlingly literal. He means this. The argument here between politics (the market) and the self (“the deeper / fund within”) comes down clearly in favor of the Enlightenment, even if it is an Enlightenment thoroughly conditioned with a hard-earned cynicism. It is precisely this commitment that will enable the most comic poet of his generation to be, in the same moment, one of the most political. The Sophist in this sense is a hinge text, for Charles Bernstein & for poetry.

* Bernstein will return to it again later in the ninth section of “A Person is Not An Entity Symbolic but the Divine Incarnate.”