Charles Bernstein

Noncanonical Congo (PoemTalk #26)

Vachel Lindsay, 'The Congo'

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Many of us read Vachel Lindsay in school — at least until he was removed from the anthologies. Few of us have heard the recordings of Lindsay performing — not just reading, but truly performing — his poems, “The Congo” most (in)famously. So we PoemTalkers decided to try our hand at the first section of Lindsay’s most well-known poem. Al suggests that readers and listeners must attempt to “get past” the obvious racism (even of the opening lines), but Aldon Nielsen takes exception to that formulation, and off we go, exploring the problem and possibilities of this poet’s foray — Afrophilic but nonetheless stereotype-burdened — into African sound and, more generally, the performativity of a culture.

Charles Bernstein finds this “one of the most interesting poems to teach,” and adds: “[Lindsay] felt there was something deeply wrong with white culture, that it was hung up, ... that it was disembodied, that it was too abstract.” All the problems of the poem, Charles notes, remain present when one reads or hears it. It’s all there. It’s not a “bad example” of something; it makes its own way (or loses its way) in the modern poetic tradition, as it is.

What can Lindsay teach us today? Michelle Taransky is sure that young writers can learn from Lindsay’s experiments, and not just in sound — but also in the way he uses marginal directions, which serve as performance (or production) cues. She commends Lindsay for making available to us the realization “that a poem doesn't have to be read in a monotone way…and that they [young poets today] can read a poem in a way that seems appropriate to them at that time.”

Aldon doesn't want to “get past” the tension between Lindsay’s desire to make a progressive statement and the racist content in the poem; as a whole, this work creates a tension that “absolutely at the core of American culture.” Aldon is hesitant to use the phrase “teachable moment” (which during 2009 has been a phrase that is dulled from facile overuse in “ongoing conversation” about race) but that —teachability — is about the sum of it: to teach this poem is to gain access to a central American discussion.

distance learning

At Paul Baker's Wordsalad today: "I have not attended the u. of pennsylvania and have not enjoyed the privilege of attending classes with charles bernstein. but you know what? Bernstein has been one of my most valuable and appreciated teachers over the past 5 years or so. How? because of his poetry, his radio programs, his books of essays and criticism, his conference appearances, his blog (which, yes, promotes his own work, but to a much larger degree promotes the work of others), and because of his work with Al Filreis, producing the audio content on Pennsound. I met Charles at a conference last year sponsored by the Academy of American Poets in NY a year ago. The guy’s passion and counter-establishment perspective will always be attractive to me."

Just begun to learn (PoemTalk #22)

Louis Zukosky, "Anew" 12

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One of the signal steps forward in the PennSound project--the gathering of recordings of modern and contemporary poets reading their own poems--was the release of the recordings of Louis Zukofsky, thanks to the generosity and cooperation of Paul Zukofsky. The recordings on PennSound's Zukofsky author page are being made available for non-commerical and educational use only (in line with PennSound's mission), and any other use can only be done by permission of Paul. (If you need to contact him, just write us and we'll put you in touch: poemtalk [AT] writing [DOT] upenn [DOT] edu.)

The Zukofsky recordings are remarkable! One of them was made in 1960 by Zukofsky at home, on a reel-to-reel tape machine. It was meant for the Library of Congress. It includes readings of some sections of the long poem Anew. PoemTalk 22 is a discussion of the gorgeous twelfth poem in the Anew series, which is untitled and gets mentioned by its first line, "It's hard to see but think of a sea." One gets a sense of its worked-at density from this first-line sentence alone.

The Anew poems were written between 1935 and 1944 and published in March 1946 at James Decker’s press in the small-format “Pocket Poetry” series. Marcella Booth has dated the writing of our poem precisely: January 16-17, 1944, a week before the poet’s 40th birthday. Several critics have contended that Anew was Zukofsky's attempt at a fresh start. William Carlos Williams, a great supporter of Z and an admirer of these poems, called the writing in this work "adult poetry." Perhaps he meant that Zukofsky was growing up, taking on seasoned topics. Certainly, at least, the end of our poem is quite personal, words coming from the poet's contemplation of his 40th birthday, of mortality's challenge to and provocation of open-ness. As Bob Perelman puts it (asked to compare this poem to others), "The poem is almost conversational. 'Gee, I'm 40. I'm thinking about my entire life.'" Much of our conversation--with PoemTalkers Perelman, Wystan Curnow (visiting us from New Zealand), and Charles Bernstein--is devoted to integrating the first part (full of the language of science) with the second (the personal retrospective).

Wystan, facing a vocabulary of science he didn't understand, wanted to look up the term "condenser" (what, after all, is a condenser really?), but then worried about his impulse to look it up. Is that a productive way of coming to understand Zukofsky's use in verse of electro-magnetism and wireless sound? "Condensed," after all, is an ordinary word--and a term of modernist poetry. (Bob points out Lorine Niedecker's contemporaneous use of condenser to refer to poetry itself, the act of writing in the modern way, in a famous poem that technically imagines the site of the poet-maker as a "condensery": "no layoff / from this / condensery.") "The poem," Charles says in praising its use of the referential language of science, "is not incomprehensible in that it will restore you to the knowledge you already had of what the word means."

Just begun to learn (PoemTalk #22)

Louis Zukofsky, 'Anew' 12

LISTEN TO THE SHOW

One of the signal steps forward in the PennSound project — the gathering of recordings of modern and contemporary poets reading their own poems — was the release of the recordings of Louis Zukofsky, thanks to the generosity and cooperation of Paul Zukofsky. The recordings on PennSound’s Zukofsky author page are being made available for non-commerical and educational use only (in line with PennSound’s mission), and any other use can only be done by permission of Paul. (If you need to contact him, just write us and we’ll put you in touch: poemtalk [AT] writing [DOT] upenn [DOT] edu.)

The Zukofsky recordings are remarkable! One of them was made in 1960 by Zukofsky at home, on a reel-to-reel tape machine. It was meant for the Library of Congress. It includes readings of some sections of the long poem Anew. PoemTalk 22 is a discussion of the gorgeous twelfth poem in the Anew series, which is untitled and gets mentioned by its first line, “It’s hard to see but think of a sea.” One gets a sense of its worked-at density from this first-line sentence alone.

The Anew poems were written between 1935 and 1944 and published in March 1946 at James Decker’s press in the small-format “Pocket Poetry” series. Marcella Booth has dated the writing of our poem precisely: January 16-17, 1944, a week before the poet’s 40th birthday. Several critics have contended that Anew was Zukofsky’s attempt at a fresh start. William Carlos Williams, a great supporter of Z and an admirer of these poems, called the writing in this work “adult poetry.” Perhaps he meant that Zukofsky was growing up, taking on seasoned topics. Certainly, at least, the end of our poem is quite personal, words coming from the poet’s contemplation of his 40th birthday, of mortality’s challenge to and provocation of open-ness. As Bob Perelman puts it (asked to compare this poem to others), “The poem is almost conversational. ‘Gee, I’m 40. I’m thinking about my entire life.’” Much of our conversation — with PoemTalkers Perelman, Wystan Curnow (visiting us from New Zealand), and Charles Bernstein — is devoted to integrating the first part (full of the language of science) with the second (the personal retrospective).

Wystan, facing a vocabulary of science he didn’t understand, wanted to look up the term “condenser” (what, after all, is a condenser really?), but then worried about his impulse to look it up. Is that a productive way of coming to understand Zukofsky’s use in verse of electro-magnetism and wireless sound? “Condensed,” after all, is an ordinary word — and a term of modernist poetry. (Bob points out Lorine Niedecker’s contemporaneous use ofcondenser to refer to poetry itself, the act of writing in the modern way, in a famous poem that technically imagines the site of the poet-maker as a “condensery”: “no layoff / from this / condensery.”) “The poem,” Charles says in praising its use of the referential language of science, “is not incomprehensible in that it will restore you to the knowledge you already had of what the word means.”

It's like a new reality, man (PoemTalk #14)

Wallace Stevens, 'Not Ideas about the Thing but the Thing Itself'

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PoemTalk listeners will want to stick around for the end of this show in particular, when Nada Gordon, a first-time PoemTalker, recites her flarfistic rewriting of Wallace Stevens’ late poem, “Not Ideas about the Thing but the Thing Itself.” Meantime, of course, we give the poem a good going-through. The talkers this time, beside Nada, are Lawrence Joseph and Charles Bernstein, and we were (for the first time in PoemTalk’s short history) on the road, at Studio 92 on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

Anyone who deals with this poem has to understand the rhetorical gist of Stevens's “like”: the cry he thinks he hears seemed “like” a sound in his mind; it was “like” a new knowledge of reality. Charles half-jokes that it’s anachronistically (and uncharacteristically) a 1960s like: a cool “very,” an intensifer, a pause. Al tries to stipulate that this is a Keats-at-the-casement poem: he’s inside, looking out and hearing minimal late-winter birdsong. But Larry believes firmly in the radical open-ness of this poem: we are neither inside nor out. There is no conventional place of standing. “Three times in the poem,” Nada has written elsewhere, “he says the sound was coming ‘from outside.’ But I don’t believe him. How can I believe this from a poet whose ‘actual candle blazed with artifice’?”

This was certainly the threesome, too, to say interesting things about the alphabetical “c” that precedes the choir.

Our recording comes from the wonderful collection of recordings at the Woodberry Poetry Room at Harvard, and we wish to thank Don Share, Christina Davis, Peter Steinberg, and others who have taken such good care of that material. Stevens traveled to Harvard to record this poem on October 8, 1954 (he died in 1955).

Troubled sleep (PoemTalk #12)

Ezra Pound, 'Cantico del Sole'

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Ezra Pound integrates — or, rather, doesn’t quite integrate — a response to a stupid contemporary judicial ruling on censorship and a fragment from the Canticle of Simeon (Luke, 2:29-32) to make a powerful, comic (even schticky) satire on American culture of his time and perhaps of ours. How this works, variously (and depending too on which recording of Pound reading the poem you hear), is the topic of our twelfth PoemTalk. Talkers this time: Charles Bernstein, Joshua Schuster, Rachel Levitsky.

How broad is the satire? Is the figure whose sleep is troubled by Americans reading classics widely the anxious, sensorious judge, relieved that no one really reads the indecent classics? Or is he the modernist poet, aiming for whatever would strike such a man as indecent? (Is this just another early-Pound personae? Is it the performance of a subject position Pound would never quite occupy? Does the speaker's elitist animosity toward America confirm the judge’s disquietude?

PennSound’s Pound collection (it’s complete — everything recorded by Pound that we know of) includes several readings of “Cantico del Sole.” PoemTalk plays two of them, one from the 1930s, the other from the late 50s.

The thought of what America would be like
If the Classics had a wide circulation
Troubles my sleep,
The thought of what America,
The thought of what America,
The thought of what America would be like
If the Classics had a wide circulation
Troubles my sleep.
Nunc dimittis, now lettest thou thy servant,
Now lettest thou thy servant
Depart in peace.
The thought of what America,
The thought of what America,
The thought of what America would be like
If the Classics had a wide circulation...
Oh well!
It troubles my sleep.

PoemTalk’s director, engineer and editor is Steve McLaughlin, who, by the way, has recently taken a turn at selecting his 12 favorite PennSound recordings.

This episode of PoemTalk was recorded in the Arts Café of the Kelly Writers House in Philadelphia. Next time, PoemTalk goes on the road - to our Broadway studios in New York, for a discussion of a late poem by Wallace Stevens and the talkers are Nada Gordon, Lawrence Joseph, and Charles Bernstein. Stay tuned.

Grease is the word (PoemTalk #8)

Rae Armantrout, 'The Way'

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This time the PoemTalkers were Ron Silliman, Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Charles Bernstein, and our poem was Rae Armantrout’s “The Way.” Charles had already spoken with Rae about this poem briefly during their interview in the Close Listening series, so we went into our convo knowing that Rae sees the poem as having two compositional parts—a first part consisting of found phrases, items from the poet’s notebook of linguistic observations, a collage of voices, no fixed I. “I am here” is Jesus revealed to you in a pew, but I is also a poem’s prospective speaker: someone saying something tautological. Where else would you be, at the moment, than here? The second half, again according to the poet—revealingly or not—is a quasi-personal recollection: being read to as a child, getting lost in a story and thus feeling “abandoned” by the mother who gave her the gift of books. Gretel-like, does she “come upon” these trees, this wood, each time diving into the wreck of each new now-nonnarrative venture? The most relevant of such ventures being...this poem itself? Who is lost in it? Have we lost the poem’s speaker, only to come upon her again (and again)?

Charles chants lyrics from Grease: Grease is the way I am feeling. Rachel reminds us that “I am here” can also read as “Kilroy was here” does — a marker left by someone who came randomly before. Ron helps us focus on the ending: a grand vision expected, a definitive something, the light coming down through the trees, and what we get is…“again.” The sort of thing that keeps happening over and over. “Once” (as in “once upon a time”) in “once again” (the fairy tale’s synchronicity).

Bard goes country (PoemTalk #4)

Allen Ginsberg sings Blake's 'The Garden of Love'

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Hear the voice of the bard…

Which bard? Well, we’re not quite sure how bardic Charles Bernstein is, but he certainly loves the idea of poem as song; he jouned some by-now regular PoemTalkers (Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Jessica Lowenthal) and chanted for us that very line. We’ve worn the grooves on an old LP of Allen Ginsberg signing William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience and for the fourth PoemTalk chose Ginsberg’s countrified (crossover?) rendition of “The Garden of Love.” Does the snappy, twangy (and relatively tuneful) setting create an irony? Jessica thinks yes; Charles thinks no.

But perhaps the tune should be in conflict with the poem’s sense, and thus perhaps Ginsberg was not so much pushing a song of experience into a popular (and thus single-direction-tending) mode so much as making it still more Blakean.

The binary of innocence and experience, Rachel says, is broken by the way the song is sung. Blake wanted the binary to be broken; Ginsberg only breaks it further. And seems to be having fun along the way.

Listen for the happy out-take at the end. We had some fun ourselves, albeit somewhat atonally and quite arhythmically.

Bard goes country (PoemTalk #4)

Allen Ginsberg sings Blake's "The Garden of Love"

 

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