Tuesday, November 14, 2006


On Wednesday of last week, there was a book party & reading for Charles Bernstein’s latest collection, Girly Man, at Kelly Writer’s House. It was instructive to get to hear Bernstein & Barrett Watten in something akin to a back-to-back format to get a sense of just how very wide the range of poetries can be that are known historically as language writing, for while their deepest long-term goals are quite similar, their strategies as poets could not be further apart. Nor are these the only two poles of difference one might find among the langpos – take Clark Coolidge, especially the early work, & Rae Armantrout as two others & maybe you will start to get a sense of just how radically wide – or perhaps widely radical – langpo truly is. Maybe add another axis with Hannah Weiner & Tina Darragh as its “logical” pair of opposites. You could take any five of these examples & then pose the question about the sixth, Why is he/she a language poet? and it would almost feel like a plausible question.

Of all the language poets, Watten is perhaps the closest to the tradition of the troubadours, and especially of the concept of trobar clus, a literature that pulls out all the stops & tries to be all that language might be, that makes conscious demands on readers & expects them to actually want these demands, & to understand the pleasure that comes in reading a dense (if not “difficult”) text. The experience at the end of one of Watten’s works, especially those that go more than a single page, is not dissimilar from the feeling one has at the end of a good workout in the weight training facility, or perhaps great sex – one feels the muscles used, there is a “burn” that lingers, an exhilaration integral to the event. The ambivalence and irony that circulate about the title of Watten’s masterpiece, Progress, operate on so many different levels, for example, that one never fully exhausts them: it is true & not true at a dizzying rate.

This approach places Watten into a literary tradition that has clear antecedents in the work & life of Louis Zukofsky, with some aspects of Ezra Pound, with the Williams of Spring & All, and beyond them with the critical writing – and the role of critical writing – of Coleridge. If Watten is a troubadour, he is most definitely an Enlightenment one. He comes closer to Habermas’ model of returning to modernism – Watten’s preferred term is constructivism – and this time getting it right than any other poet I have ever met. As a result, Watten is the ideal test case for an argument – my argument, anyway – that langpo ultimately is not post-modern, but rather an argument with modernism & postmodernism alike.

If Watten’s approach to the reader is in your face, Bernstein comes from virtually every other direction. He is the most Brechtian poet America has yet produced, concerned not with demonstrating everything language can be (indeed, there is a deliberate slightness to his writing), but rather unveiling all the social processes through which we process – and by inference misprocess, dysprocess, malprocess – all the language we consume. I sometimes imagine Watten’s poems as being not unlike the monolith in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. They’re inescapable & force readers to confront the Other. Bernstein’s poems, in contrast, are more like the deadpan (but deadly) computer HAL in that same flick: I’m sorry, Dave. I cannot do that.

I think it’s easy – and this is the primary risk in Bernstein’s work – to mistake him for, or take him merely as, a “funny poet,” the hip version of Billy Collins. It’s possible to read Girly Man just this way, consuming it straight through because it goes down as easily as a comic novel. In fact, a good reading of this book would prove to be almost the antithesis of that. Take a look, for example, at this close reading I did more than three years ago of “Thank You for Saying Thank You,” one of the key poems collected in this edition. It is, of course, completely possible to read that poem straight through, to sense the ironies, and to move on. But to actually read the poem takes an effort of a whole other order. And the poem doesn’t necessarily let you know that.

I vacillate as to whether Watten or Bernstein has the much more reader friendly model for poetry. In one sense, you can get there, wherever there might be, either way. But it is possible – I know because I’ve heard people make the argument – to say that Watten writes only for those willing to make the effort to get deeply into his poems & that to others his work can seem intimidating. However, Bernstein writes in a way that allows some – how many is anybody’s guess – to think they’re reading him when they’re not getting it at all. That is exactly the point being made in “Thank You for Saying Thank You,” but how many will really follow through, acting on the implications of that text? Watten comes as close as is humanly possible to ensuring that nobody who attempts to read his poetry seriously is going to misread it. Bernstein flirts with that result all the time.

One consequence of this is that I know readers who love one of these poets & despise – basically just don’t get – the other. My argument would be that you need to understand, to really “grok” in Robert Heinlein’s sense of that term, the logic within each path. Both, I would argue, are absolutely necessary.


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