Commentaries - June 2013

Wildly Light on his Feet: Todd Swift on  a poet's bracingly flamboyant disregard for lyric proprieties.

PDF of review

UK Edition from Salt Publishing

A Charles Bernstein poem is not a result of inspiration.  There is no attempt at formal mastery, narrative, or metaphor.  Nor does his poetry seek any sort of insight into personal experience; nor is his poetry merely slapstick, satire, irony, parody or pastiche, though that is there, sometimes, too.  His poems resist appreciation, even acceptance, by most if not all mainstream critical measures, willfully and with premeditation.  So, what is left?  What does a Bernstein poem do? Well, everything else, you might say – it does anything and everything language can do.  To read Bernstein’s writing - his poems, manifestoes, and essays (often one and the same) - is to learn, more or less, what he thinks a poem is, or what it could be.  

Charles Bernstein is one of the best-known poets of the American L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Poets, who, around 1978, began to find fault with mainstream lyric poems, and even postmodern alternatives as provided by poets of the Beats and poets of the Black Mountain and New York schools.  These poets, including Rae Armantrout, Ron Silliman and Bruce Andrews, took a Marxist turn to emphasize the materiality of linguistic production.  Deriving much of their force from post-structural French theory and the Oulipeans, these poets wrote unsentimental, non-representational discursive poems fluid in terms of tone and levels of discourse.

The difference between what Cambridge School late modernist poets, such as JH Prynne, do, and what Bernstein does, is partly down to how his own radical practices have evolved over the past thirty-five years of his hugely influential and increasingly public career, and how experiment (or progress) in poetry is received in North American versus British literary circles.  It also has to do with how Bernstein has modified his more austere, Adornoesque earlier works, and allowed the comedy and music of his New York, and Jewish, roots, to emerge in the later poems.

In the UK, the avant-garde remains mostly on the margins of the so-called mainstream (as much by choice as by fortune), whereas in America, and Canada, it is one of the dominant practices, and much more widely embraced by foundational institutions.  In the case of Bernstein his lack of marginality at home and relative obscurity in the UK is easily gestured at – this Selected was originally published in America by FSG – the rough equivalent of Faber here – but has appeared (a few years later) in the UK under the independent imprint of Salt.  This is a good thing for Salt, because this is arguably the most important poetry book by an American to appear in Britain so far this decade.

The appearance of All the Whiskey in Heaven now makes available many of  Bernstein’s key interventions into poetry and poetics. It is not possible to be on the fence about Bernstein. Like a barn dance, one either jumps in, or stands pouting on the sidelines –– to mix metaphors in precisely the way he does, all the time, and with delight. One thing this startling, outrageous, sometimes tedious, often hilarious book does make clear, however, is how much Bernstein is the missing link for understanding current British poetry. For important younger British poets like Luke Kennard (also from Salt) Bernstein is essential

 The earliest texts here are list poems, rambling prosaic letters, collages, and exercises in violent jolts of tone and theme, with political and ideological concerns at their core.  The briefer of these are so opaque as to be hugely entertaining as bold snubs to the lyric stance.  ‘You’ is a good example and can be quoted in full:

 Time wounds all heals, spills through
with echoes neither idea nor lair
can jam.  The door of your unfolding
starts like intervening vacuum, lush
refer to accidence or chance of
lachrymose fixations made
mercurial as the tors in crevice lock
dried up like river made the rhymes
to know what ocean were unkempt
or hide’s detain the wean of
hide’s felicity depend.

 The flamboyant disregard for the usual pleasures of lyric poetry is bracing, as is the sense that poetry is the main subject at hand.  Many of Bernstein’s best-loved poems are here, like ‘The Klupzy Girl’ which opens:

Poetry is like a swoon, with this difference:
it brings you to your senses.  Yet his
parables are not singular.  The smoke from
the boat causes the men to joke.  Not …

There is a “rain in spain” sound to some of this, and here we are reminded that the highly-charismatic performer that Bernstein is. At readings he revels in the borderline nonsense sounds that words can evoke when jostled together (yoked is not quite the thing); and he particularly likes silly puns, as well as sensible aphorisms.

Bernstein’s later poems are far more inviting, if no less radical – as riddles, jokes, non sequiturs, parables, nursery rhymes, and other formal approaches escalate, though never in a way as inviting as Paul Muldoon or Don Paterson. There is always a countervailing against the grain counter-texture being laid down – breaking out, more and more often, into rather plain, moving, and even humane evocations of presence. If not a conventional lyric voice – then a lyric sense of style, which, as with much work that is based on restrictions, is all the more effective for what gets through the sternest aesthetic blockades. The texts deny themselves pleasures by default, as a matter of course, but now they protest too much, wearing their L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E status on their sleeves.  ‘This Line’ opens: “This line is stripped of emotion.”  The word stripped excites our interest, and emotion is introduced. ‘After Campion’ , meanwhile, is almost lyric, in its last couplet:

Music strays, will’s composed
Pleasure strikes when feeling stays.

Later Bernstein is wildly light on its feet, as if Ogden Nash and Auden had decided to write a book called Making Tea For Wendy Cope, as in ‘The Boy Soprano’:

My mommy she is ultra cool
Taught me the bible’s golden rule
Don’t talk back, do what you’re told
Abject compliance is as good as gold

I find ‘All the Whiskey in Heaven,’ the collection’s final and title poem particularly moving. Its last two stanzas (below) show how far, in thirty-five years, Bernstein’s work has come –– arriving at  a willingness to be utterly simple, and seemingly against all he represented, before.  His last few years, which have seen him experience personal loss, as well as a public engagement with post-9/11 America, and becoming a critic of all the Bush era represented, have allowed him to write the following love poem, which stands as an act similar to Nixon going to China. That is, the poet most against sentiment expressed in poetry was the one who had to go there in the end:

Not for all the fire in hell
Not for all the blue in the sky
Not for an empire of my own
Not even for peace of mind
No, never, I’ll never stop loving you
Not till my heart beats its last
And even then in my words and my songs
I will love you all over again

All the Whiskey in Heaven page at EPC: reviews, links, recordings, about the book

also from Salt:
Salt Companion to Charles Bernstein, ed. William Allegrezza

It is my great pleasure to announce Robin Seguy's  genetic edition of John Ashbery's great poem "The Skaters." This is the first in the newly created Text/works series, a digital library that intends to make freely accessible critical editions and analytic tools for an array of 19th to 21st century French and American poetry collections.

We are very grateful to John and David Kermani for making the typescripts, as well as the text of the poem, available.

In its current state, this edition offers:

     – a plain text version of the poem, with optional display of the lines and stanza numbers;

     – the transcription of two typescript drafts of the poem, as well as 20 poems and fragments—18 of which are unpublished,—pertaining to the first typescript's dossier. The genetic dossier is displayed, with all variants, in four formats: HTML and XML-TEI, along high-resolution image files and searchable PDFs of the original pages;

     – three annotated versions of the text: one showing “referential” data such as names, places, time markers, etc., the second the use of personal pronouns, and the third thematic data such as sounds, colors and weather notations throughout the text;

     – a full searchable index, with links to the poem lines;

     – a few elements of quantitative analysis, such as number of occurrences and frequencies for lexical items, etc.

'QAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE': The visual poetry of Mike Cannell

Word Malfunction by Mike Cannell
Word Malfunction

What does it mean for a language to malfunction?

What funds its means? What makes it done for?

First we have to ask: What is the function of language? What is it is supposed to do? And who decides—who assesses its function?

Is language a Paul Klee twittering machine? A W. Heath Robinson fantasmallegorical don’t-shut-your-contraption? A speech balloon animal? Does one’s signs fit all?

English writer Mike Cannell’s work explores the radical and unassimilable. The fragmeant. The movemeant. These are not capitalist letters, rather writings against the right. A lash of rightning. An alphanarchabet.

Word Malfunction by Mike Cannell

Qage is a term created by the visual poet and critic, Geof Huth. According to Huth, “Qage drives us to read with our eyes. We cannot understand it, yet Qage creates our ability to read. Qage is the beauty of written language.” It is also, "the attraction people feel concerning the shapes of particular letters of an alphabet and the particular beauty of individual alphabetic characters." (from Huth's very useful 'Essential Vocabulary.'

Mike Cannell’s poetry is rich with Qage. A Qage against the machine. The mashmeanery of capitalism and power structures. It’s saiditious in its saying. Subversive in its wish to be better not verse.

Are these digital manipulations records of physical paper torn and shifted on a photocopier? Are these real words ed ched tched etched stretched? Movemeants. There’s a suggetchedtion of familiarity, part of recognizable words and their parts. Fragmeants.

To appreciate his work is to savor the saying. The essaying. Ragments of letters and ords. Twisted. Furled and un. The seemingly torn. The semically detoured and détourned. Cannell literally ‘reforms’ language. He’s for squatters’ writes in the dictionary and against the ownership of words, their official demeanings, and how they contribute to the meaningness meannessing of society.

Word Malfunction by Mike Cannell


my work is primarily about one thing: language. i am very much preoccupied with the materiality of language and a lot of my process is about subverting, fragmeanting and playing with language.

in an anarchist sense i suppose i am subverting the conventional ways in which language fits together. my poetry focuses on the notion of the word as object. my work isn't meant to be easy to understand.

in a sense i want the reader to question their assumptions and think about what reading is and what language is.

how much can i disrupt meaning? how much can i question traditionally enforced language rules? how much can you tweak english before it malfunctions?

what is language? who controls it? who decides what is standard english and what is not?

if you look artists and writers that were once avant-garde and controversial, such as picasso, they are now mainstream. you can get Les Demoiselles d'Avignon on a t-shirt.

yet gertrude stein's work still isn't mainstream. it's still challenging.

how can you make lasting work without it being absorbed into the capitalist system?

one of capitalism's methods of getting rid of opposing movemeants is to capitalize and absorb them, making them tame and helpless. that’s what happened with punk. it used to be an effective counter culture movemeant, now you can buy mass-produced tops and stickers. eight-year olds can buy anarchy A's in HMV. you have to make culture that the mainstream cannot assimilate.

that’s why noise music, sound poetry, visual poetry and asemic writing have never been mainstream. they can't be categorized and cultivated for a market. fluxus, the letterists and the situationists have been an influence.



Mike Cannell is a post-avant poly-poet, who works in visual, sound and linier poetry of various types. His work follows different avenues in exploring language, from the materiality of language to its emotional power. He is the editor of würm, a currently hibernating e-zine dedicated to promoting innovative poetry. Visoundtextpoem is his blog with many examples of his work. 

Say the poem is a journey

taken with silent walking sticks

on a path strewn with memories

deaf, dumb,

blind & beyond measure.

Its mouth filled with words

its pockets filled with stale bread.


Say it is an elixir derived from chlorophyll

or the royal jelly of expressionistic bees.


Say its stops & turns are towers, shrines

or little discomforts in sleep.

That each of its shafts pierces

a separate element of dream.

That its bewildering sunlight

is a glittering city where ecstasy dances

hand in hand with death.


It was something I went
looking for.
I was afraid of getting
lost.  & so I hid
in the island of branching voices
illuminated by the ubiquitous pathos
of forgetting.  Something had
torn a hole in my heart
like a leaf, extended finger,
or bone.  & so I stuck
to the honey of something
heavy & eternal--
a breath where celestial light
fell in spurts
dampening the pain
of the infinite unmooring. 

Say that it is

or say that it isn’t.

Say that its exhibitions of false skies

are symbols of a catastrophe

at the dead ends of streets.

Say that its arrangement of white

sticky sugar skulls

is the hypnotic process of forgetting former lives.

That its burnt & empty homes

are the paralyzed angels

in the next century’s enactment

of Paradise Lost.

That its black tarantulas are seedlings

or the trials of an affective disorder &

that its iridescent scarabs

are the ozone above a chronic facultative storm.

That its conscience is a giant

in the form of a dragon guarding the treasure

of deceased gods.


I felt my existence
pressed against me
like a heel
piercing the grain
of the bark
of a fruitless mulberry tree.
I remember it from childhood
when its flesh stopped
falling & its leaves
turned a color of brilliant
unfed reason
that blistered in laughter
at the raindrops
which fell from the blue-
silver patina of branches above. 

Say so much of its

weight that it sinks

ten times

into the river

traversed by smoldering bridges.

& that the ash

of these bridges turns to bone.

& that inside these bones

floodlights surge


into the eclipse

of solar meaning.


I looked forward
to it
where dwelling
in the sky
in the form of a hand.
My hair hung heavy
at my side
like the muscle & bone
of a being drawn
on a page outside of time.
My tongue wagged
this way & that
inside the continent
of my mind. 

Say it is circle, screen, or vessel.

Or that its round is flat

& drifts in-between

this broadstone

& that clenched idea

of a terrible god.


My arms weren’t what
they used to be.  When
I pointed to a star or rooftop
angry dogs barked in the distance
while the shrill whistling
of trains drove me further away
from home.  Into the hands
of enemies who advanced
on all sides
in signs,
light, doors, baskets, empty casements,
hallways, grass, & mirrored reflections. 

Or say it is earth, sun, star, or moon

the purple veil between

this realm & the next,

or paralyzed boat adrift upon

the black sea of wintered orphans.


Say it is the alchemical soup

one swims through in a dream.


I saw a light at the end of a tunnel
which grew in distance
the faster I ran to it.
I was in the back seat
& found that my vehicle
drove on faster & faster
completely out of control.
Each of the immense clocks
in my room had turned
an insane color of red.
My heart palpitated
like the motion
of a fish pulled
from lake, stream, or sea. 

Say it is the daylight of fissure

& sunwheel

or the darkness of

the muteness of moonlight.


I learned to
hunt & play
in the shimmering starfoam
of darkness--
I’ve heard the hyena &
the tokay make noise
by moonlight.  In the
circular music of their mouths
my own screams ceased
& I plunged into the depths
of their secrets. 

. . . . . . .

[Note. Concerning Stater’s Labyrinth of Vision, the opening of the first section of which is presented here, I’ve written previously: “To say it quickly: Bruce Stater’s Labyrinth of Vision is little short of extraordinary – a work that ties language to a journey truly taken & a mind in extremis that acts to record it.  Stater, as I read him, writes with a sense of imaginings that reminds me of a poet like Gerard de Nerval in his visionary prose work, Aurelia, where ‘dream is a second life’ & ‘an overflow’ into the everyday.  As with Nerval & a small company of others, then & now, the vision & the language are inseparable: ‘a Journey of remembrance & metaphor,’ as the title of Stater’s first chapter tells us.  If you want to take that as merely literature, feel free to do so; it is that & something more: a place where metaphor rings true & is – for the duration of the vision – the only truth there is.  ‘It is light, it is dark,’ the old Aztecs said in defining their own labyrinths, & it is also the mark in Stater’s labyrinthine journey of a strong new voice in poetry.”

                Or Stater himself in still more specific terms: “Interesting to me that I began A Labyrinth ... in my last & -- I do not hesitate to profess it -- final period of hospitalization. That in a significant way the writing has been a means of transforming this experience -- not simply of avoiding, confining, or eluding it -- but of providing it with a meaning beyond itself -- rewriting it toward some purpose -- allowing it to emerge beyond the familiar cultural meanings & necessary outcomes without falling back into the private meanings of its own delusional system, its fears, its horrors, its ego driven & solipsistic ideas of reference. Refusing to choose between these. I suppose one could say that I was simply unsatisfied with the semantic field of ‘madness’ -- of schizophrenia -- of the terms through which my experience must necessarily be defined & constrained by our cultural paradigms. Of the limitations of such a term's possible or inevitable outcomes. Even within it, ‘the madness,’ I always had a sense of a genuinely ritualistic mode of performing the possibility of becoming -- summoning a sort of transformation. The terms ‘psychological,’ ‘emotional,’ ‘spiritual,’ & ‘cognitive’ do not quite capture it. I could work with these terms, alongside them, at their edges & fringes -- but had a sense in which their fit was imprecise, shallow, & devoid of meaning. ‘Madness’ was not to be purposeful-- & yet mine seemed to be so.”

                The complete version of Labyrinth of Vision is available as an online book from Ahadada Books at]

Ron Silliman talks for six minutes about Louis Zukofsky's “A“ as a useful counterpoint to Rachel Blau DuPlessis's Drafts and the crisis of the long poem that is at the heart of its composition: MP3 audio.  Here is a link to the complete talk by Silliman. It was presented as part of a celebration of the poetry and criticism of DuPlessis held at Temple University in 2011.