Li Zhimin: Cut continuously for more perfection — on 'Pitch of Poetry'
Reflections on Charles Bernstein's avant-garde poetics
This essay originally appeared in Foreign Language Studies (Wuhan, China, April 2017, 39:2) and is forthcoming in a Chinese translation in Poetry Exploration (诗探索, Beijing). It is reprinted here with the permission of the author.
Abstract: This essay explicates three principles of Charles Bernstein’s avant-garde poetics while reflecting on his new book Pitch of Poetry, highlighting the contribution of Bernstein, as a leading figure of language poetry, to avant-garde poetics in the West. The first of the three principles is nonstop exploration. Bernstein is now a well-established figure. However, he insists, “Our journeys don’t end, our business is unfinished,” and has been consistently carrying out exploration in the field of avant-garde poetics. The second is poetics of organization. Bernstein considers that “organizing is a poetic practice,” and has served as a strong “connective tissue” for the circle of avant-garde poets by taking up many organizing activities and offering assistance to many poets. The third is ever-expanding the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E family. Bernstein is considered as a founder of language poetry and has been urging its development. Paradoxically, Bernstein himself suggests that “Language Poetry does not exist.” It is because Bernstein has never attempted to force upon others his poetics, allowing all poets of the group to have complete freedom to carry out their own exploration. Thus each poet of this group is writing poetry of their own individual characters, though they share a certain family resemblance. The three principles of Charles Bernstein’s avant-garde poetics could shed great light for pushing forward the development of avant-garde poetry in China. Foreign Language Studies published a shorter version of the essay.
Li Zhimin is a professor at the School of Foreign Studies, Guangzhou University.
关键词：查尔斯·伯恩斯坦 先锋诗 语言诗 诗学原则
I have heard what the talkers were talking, the talk of the beginning and the end
But I do not talk of the beginning or the end.
There was never any more inception than there is now,
Nor any more youth or age than there is now,
And will never be any more perfection than there is now,
Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.
— Walt Whitman: “Songs of Myself” (III)
In the first essay in Pitch of Poetry, “In Unum Pluribus: Toward a More Perfect Invention,” Charles Bernstein’s attention is drawn by the two phrases “more perfect” and “curve continuously,” the former from a speech by Barack Obama and the latter a roadside sign posted in China. His interest in the two phrases is itself an obvious demonstration of his well-cultivated intellectual sensitivity and an aesthetic taste for the beauty of the language. In the common sense of the language, being “perfect” denotes the ultimate point with nothing else beyond. However, “more” breaks the common sense, opening up endless space beyond. The effect of this linguistic break itself is amazing. Yet the more amazing is the spirit behind that would never rest at a certain point. It is indeed such an insatiable thirst for knowledge and beauty that has been constantly pushing forwards the development of humanity.
“Curve continuously” is a mistranslation of the Chinese road sign “连续弯道,” which would usually be translated into English as “Caution: Road Curves.” Bernstein explains in his essay that he is interested in the term “curve continuously” because such “accented” translations are “poetically striking” and are revealing “points of contact” between cultures (Bernstein, 2016: 11)[①]. He is also interested in the term because it fits in with his concept of an “aversive poetics” (11). Besides, much more power is presented in the word “continuously” in the road sign of “curve continuously.” What is a road like that “curves continuously”? It should be a road that spirals from the foot of a mountain right until the very top. Indeed, Bernstein found the road sign at the foot of Wudang Mountain.
But for poetry and poetics, the road will never stop, even at the very top of the mountain, as there is no ultimate point for Bernstein who is always “on the road” for “more perfection.” Here we have touched Bernstein’s spirit that motivates all his innovative poetry and poetics, and in particular his recently published Pitch of Poetry. Thus we have got the main body of the title: Cut continuously for more perfection. “Curve” is replaced by “cut” because Bernstein “cuts” more than “curves” in his poetry and poetics, which is explicated in this essay.
I. Nonstop Exploration
Charles Bernstein’s name has long been well-established worldwide, and he has been granted a well-paid Chaired Professorship which enables him to enjoy a pretty comfortable life as part of the middle class in the US. However, this earthly comfort has never blunted his acute desire for the renovation of poetry, as is testified to by the publication of Pitch of Poetry, in which he declares: “Our journeys don’t end, our business is unfinished, our poems open upon ever new poems. More perfect is a direction, a movement, not a final state of idealized perfection” (3). It is without doubt that Bernstein will never stop in his search for even newer and more innovative poetry and poetics.
While interviewing Bernstein, Rocco Marinaccio asked: “While any questions of authority with reference to poetics need to be considered in terms of the relative lack of authority that poetry, especially radical poetry, has within the dominant culture, it is also true that within a specific community of response you assume an authoritative position. How do you conceptualize this bifurcated position?” (187) Bernstein responded: “Then again, isn’t it a bit like the poet saying ‘All poets are liars’? Or ‘Only liars can tell the true from the not-so-true, the blue from the not so blue?’” (189)
Marinaccio’s question is difficult to answer. On the one hand, Bernstein is a recognized leading figure in the field of innovative poetry and poetics, which brings him a sort of authority. On the other hand, authority is often accompanied by a set of rules, which could present obstacles for the cause of innovative poetry and poetics. On other occasions, Bernstein negates such authority by saying: “Discrepancy is the key. I want a poetry that makes up its own rules and then doesn’t follow those either” (211). “I don’t like to follow rules — not even my own rules” (268). “To set up a rule and then to surpass it” is the very spirit of Bernstein’s philosophy for innovative poetry and poetics, which releases one’s mind, so that one could escape from being locked. It might be more appropriate to say that Bernstein is a leading figure ardently working in the wild field, not an authority sitting comfortably in an office.
Though Bernstein does not want to follow any rules, we could at least detect one “rule” for the mission of innovative poetics: to constantly expand the boundaries of the field of poetry and poetics, and by doing so, bring about a “more perfect” understanding of what good poetry is.
Reflecting upon the history of development of Western poetry and poetics, Bernstein declares: “Too often those who claim to speak for ‘traditional values’ forget that radical innovation in form and content is a fundamental part of the literary tradition of the West, from Blake to Baudelaire, Swinburne to Mallarme, Poe to Dickinson and Melville” (223). Even Walt Whitman was severely criticized and blamed by some critics who claimed to speak for “traditional values” when he published the first edition of Leaves of Grass. If there had not been such enthusiastic support from Ralph Waldo Emerson and others, Whitman might have been discouraged and given up on poetry, causing the loss of a great American poet and a great American literary tradition. Indeed, it should be noted by anyone who speaks for “traditional values” that radical innovation has itself become a tradition in the literary world.
Bernstein has repeatedly complained about so-called “official verse culture.” He says: “Official verse culture is characterized not by its choice of poets but by its repression of the ideological criteria for its judgements” (246). It is not that Bernstein does not think some officially recognized poems are nice or even beautiful. It is rather that he strongly disagrees with a “culture” that discourages risk-taking and innovation in the field. Bernstein and his fellow poets fought against such a culture and achieved much success. Bernstein writes: “Over the past two decades, the stranglehold of Cold War scenic-voice poems has loosened under the pressure of the literary in(ter)ventions of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E and its partisans to let a soupcon of flowers bloom in official verse culture greenhouses” (295). There is much more to do to push official verse culture wide open to the difficulties and significance of the works of the avant-gardes, and all is worthwhile.
In contrast to official verse culture, which encourages poets to stay in their comfortable “greenhouses,” Bernstein and his fellow poets have been travelling in the wild field looking for whatever that “makes a difference” and bringing this to the public, as he says:
L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E pursued a poetry aversive to convention, standardization, and received forms, often prizing eccentricity, oddness, abrupt shifts of tone, peculiarity, error, and the abnormal — poetry that begins in disability (see Davidson’s 2008 Concerto for Left Hand: Disability and the Defamiliar Body). This is what I call the pataquerical imperative (a syncretic term suggesting weirdness, wildness, and precarious querulousness by combining inquiry with ’pataphysics, French protomodernist Alfred Jarry’s “science” of exceptions, imaginary solutions, and swerves). Dissonance is certainly a signal manifestation of what might also be called the pataqueasical, and it marks perhaps the starkest break from the harmonious or melodic or tonal lyricism of much free verse poetry. (76–77)
Bernstein has deliberately chosen an untrodden road, which has brought him his share of negative reaction. However, he is confident of the cause he is pursuing, and would even joyfully claim himself as “self-untaught” (ix). He was once not very confident while being criticized for the road he had taken. However, he is now completely confident and believes “it’s best to take on their negativity, to wear such stigmas as badges of honor” (204). Bernstein has in fact made himself undefeatable by proclaiming himself “self-untaught” and by being willing to wear certain “stigmas as badges of honor.”
To people who have limited imaginative power and intellectual capability, all poets are simply crazy, and Bernstein and his fellow poets are the craziest. However, to others who would open up their minds, Bernstein and his fellow poets are pursuing a noble cause and should be greatly appreciated. Poets are never destroying the Republic by saying no. On the contrary, they are contributing to the Republic by pushing forward the boundaries of the imagination of a Republic, not the geographical boundaries guarded by soldiers, but the emotional and intellectual boundaries of the people.
While talking of poetic beauty, Bernstein notes:
The turn away from beauty of emotion, like the aversion of identity or expression, may be both a response to the shallowness of what is accepted as beautiful or emotional and a mark of the search for beauty or affect, a beauty or affect not already trapped and tamed. For if you say what I find beautiful is worthless, then I may say I reject beauty, but that is just a measure of my recognition of how categories of the beautiful anesthetize you from the experience of beauty. For some, it is only in renouncing the beautiful that the possibility of beauty opens. And those of you who lament this turn away from beauty of emotion, compulsively proclaiming its return, do not and perhaps cannot understand what it is to be outside the script, dead as you are to sensation, oblivious to beauties that cannot be dreamt of in your moralities. (312)
It is no surprise that people who have stereotyped concepts of beauty take Bernstein as crazy. However, if one would get oneself unbound and open one’s eyes and minds, one would surely be awakened to see the fact that there are many different kinds of beauty, of which many are not conventionally mild and sweet. When one starts to appreciate different poetic beauty, one’s taste is being cultivated and one’s outlook broadened.
Of course, people normally experience more failures than successes while travelling on an untrodden road. This is exactly why they should be given more attention, encouragement, and support from the public, though, on the contrary, they are actually often offered neglect and discouragement instead. Fortunately Bernstein and his fellow poets are firm in their innovative works and would never yield to pressure. Though there might be many failures, any of their success could be of ground-breaking significance, which will open up a virgin land, while people who work in the safe and well-cultivated field could at most have a good harvest if they bring out some nice works.
II. Poetics of Organization
In an interview with Daniel Benjamin in Pitch of Poetry, Bernstein writes, “But for me — and this takes me through the rest of my life — organizing is a poetic practice” (241). This is a line that might be easily neglected by readers, although it has vital importance for the survival and development of avant-garde innovative poetry and poetics.
In an essay on Robert Creeley, Bernstein mentions that “A few days after Creeley’s death, Charles Alexander spoke of Robert Creeley as our poetic “connective tissue” (135). Bernstein too might also be described as “our poetic connective tissue,” which is demonstrated by the numerous works he has reviewed, journals he has edited, programs and organizations he has founded. It is indeed difficult to find anyone else who has done more than Bernstein in this respect. Ezra Pound encouraged some brilliant poets and helped them attract the attention of the public, yet he shifted his attention to serving the Fascist cause, which severely hurts his role as a poetic connective tissue.
In the field of official verse culture, those who serve as “connective tissue” are merely organizers who bring people together. However, in the field of avant-garde poetry and poetics, they are doing life-saving work: saving good poets from being discouraged and giving up, and saving good poetry from being ignored and lost forever. Bernstein declares that: “I don’t believe that the best work surfaces over time. On the contrary, I think a lot of work is lost or buried, a lot of work is destroyed, a lot of the best artists give up out of discouragement. Critical intervention doesn’t produce them, but it does, at its best, create space for poems to be written, to be heard” (195). I have been wondering whether Walt Whitman would have given up poetic creation if he had not been encouraged by Emerson at the right moment, when he was so bitterly treated by other critics. Similarly, we may not today be so familiar with the works of John Donne and the other metaphysical poets, if they had not been recommended by T. S. Eliot. T. S. Eliot meanwhile may not have grown into such a successful poet if he had not been assisted and encouraged by Ezra Pound.
It is true when Bernstein says that “It is and remains difficult for individual poets to survive, for poets to get their work published, for poets to have an audience” (202). In Pitch of Poetry, Bernstein includes eighteen essays, occupying almost one-third of the whole book, which introduce the works of avant-garde poets, some of whom are completely unknown. He has been ardently promoting lesser-known poets in this way throughout his life. It is particularly interesting to have Bernstein talk of the works he discovered because he has an established, special risk-taking taste that is different from that of many others. As he says:
I am particular, not catholic, in my taste in poetry, but I do like a great many contemporary poets, and these mostly turn out to be poets who get little or no attention for their work. I wish there was more I could do to increase the readership for these writers, to find more funding for publications, because there is so much work that deserves the attention, and many potential readers who are “underserved,” as we say in the education biz, by their lack of access to this poetry (191).
It is ridiculous that people, in an affluent modern society, are eager to embrace all sorts of cheap merchandise while taking no interest in the challenge of avant-garde poetry. Indeed, human beings are lazy by nature, and they tend to take whatever is served right at hand. The capitalist elites have well detected the weakness of human beings and have made good use of it. The modern consumers have been turned into passive receptors who tend to avoid the challenge involved in the reading of a poem, especially in the case of avant-garde poetry. It is this situation, paradoxically, that grants poetry, especially avant-garde poetry, crucial significance to society, since it challenges and activates people’s minds and helps them become more intellectually independent. Only in this light can we fully appreciate Bernstein’s role as a poetic organizer who has fought for the cause he stands for all his life.
Confronted with the suggestion that there might have already been too much poetry, Bernstein responded sharply: “There can never be too much poetry; is there too much prose? Too much musicmaking? … There is always a shortage of poetry that goes beyond the given, poetry that changes the terms of what poetry is or what it could be while opening up new vistas of consciousness for readers and nonreaders” (275). There is a deeply rooted bias against poetry in the modern world that takes it more or less like a kind of tiny decoration in the house, perhaps a bunch of flowers. For this reason, many people (even some poets) might tend to agree with the suggestion that there is already too much poetry in the modern world, unconscious of their bias. However, Bernstein’s firmness in the protection of the due right of poetry makes the reader rethink the issue, who will probably find that poetry should in fact be seated in the very core of the modern world, just as it was in the traditional society in China.
While talking of Language Poetry, Paul Hoover says that “much of the critical theory and organizational energy have been the work of Charles Bernstein, whose numerous books of essays including A Poetics (1992) and My Way (1999) most effectively express the group’s thinking.” (Hoover, 2013: xlvi) Indeed, thanks to connective figures such as Charles Bernstein, Robert Creeley, and many others, the field of avant-garde poetry and poetics has been doing extremely well, as Paul Hoover proudly declares:
In the introduction to the first edition of this book, we suggested, “By this reasoning, recent postmodern aesthetics like performance poetry and language poetry will influence mainstream practice in the coming decades.” This has proven to be an understatement. The leading language poets hold endowed chairs at leading universities, and their practice has become so historicized that, since the turn of the millennium, critics have referred to a “postlanguage” generation. With the rise of creative writing graduate programs and the increasing professionalization of what academics call “the discipline,” even the outsiders and vanguardists find teaching positions available. (Hoover, 2013: xxxiii)
I myself have benefited greatly from Bernstein’s poetics of organization. I have been fascinated by how efficiently he works. Every time I make a request, Bernstein always responds with accurate information and firm assistance right away. In fact, I have been wondering what kind of special dust this man is made of:
And what shoulder and what art
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
What the hammer? What the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain? …
III. Ever-Expanding L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Family
Charles Bernstein’s best-known organizational efforts are connected with his co-editing of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine with Bruce Andrews between 1978 and 1982. The title of the magazine itself is a marvelous demonstration of Bernstein’s poetics then and now. By inserting seven equal signs into the eight letters of the word “language,” it seems as if the iron chains that have locked up the life of the word for thousands of years have been broken, as if equal signs were the powerful arms and legs of a giant, opening up endless new linguistic possibilities. Magic power turns a dead symbol into an expanding being that is like a pregnant woman ready to deliver a new life. This one-word visual poetics has much expanded the horizon of modern poetry and poetics. In a certain sense, it represents a turning point in Western poetics. After that, whoever does not pay due respect to the poetic potentiality of the words themselves in a poetic work would very likely be considered outdated.
Ezra Pound was the first person in the West to bring the Chinese visual poetics of the word to the public by publishing Ernest Fenollosa’s essay “The Chinese Written Characters as a Medium of Poetry.” Pound also carried out some poetic practice by inserting some Chinese characters into The Cantos. It is an interesting paradox that Pound successfully drew people’s attention to the visual poetics of words, though both Fenollosa and Pound were often mistaken in their understanding of Chinese characters. In fact, a Chinese reader would normally read a Chinese character just as a linguistic unit, not as a picture, because Chinese characters, after thousands of years of evolution, have long developed into a set of linguistic symbols, losing most of their iconographic sense. The meaning of many Chinese characters is in fact quite different from their structural elements, and some of them mean just the opposite. In the modern age, simplified Chinese characters have caused the loss of even more iconographic senses. Calligraphers in China sometimes pay attention to the visual quality of a character and play on this in their artworks, which is probably the only case when the structural senses of characters might be highlighted.
Nevertheless, Pound did break new ground and ushered into the Western poetic circle a completely new aesthetics, which was developed and broadened by poets such as e. e. cummings, W. C. Williams, and many others. In time, visual poetics based upon the English language became more and more mature, and finally reached its peak in the one-word visual poetics of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E as well as the many essays that appeared in this magazine.
Many factors have contributed to the huge success of the poets associated with the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine. But the three most important are perhaps: 1. The total freedom of the group; 2. Their ardent spirit of exploration into new horizons of avant-garde poetry and poetics; 3. The talents of many individual poets and critics involved.
In the essay “The Expanded Field of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E” (60–77), Bernstein gives a detailed retrospective and prospective for the cause of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E group. Bernstein has never stopped. He has been constantly expanding the field of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, and has even pushed its boundaries to include some poets in China. This has surely created a much better situation for new poetics to be discovered or invented than the age when Pound worked on Chinese poetry. After decades, it seems that “L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E” has become even more open, growing into “=L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E=.”
Although Ezra Pound found inspiration in Chinese poetry, his limited knowledge of both the language and culture meant that he missed much of the interest in discovering an alternative way of seeing the world. Nevertheless, he did benefit greatly from Chinese poetry and poetics. Similarly, Chinese poets could also learn a lot from Western poetry and poetics. In fact, Chinese poets have been learning a lot from the West. And we could take much inspiration from Bernstein and his fellow poets’ poetry and poetics. Bernstein recalls in Pitch of Poetry: “When we — the poets around L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E — were first centering on nonnarrative and non-voice-centered paradigms, we were often accused of being too intellectual, that is to say, not emotional enough: too difficult, too complex, and also too theoretical. Now, all those epithets are OK by me; I think it’s best to take on their negativity, to wear such stigmas as badges of honor” (204). It might be said that the problem with much Chinese poetry that it is not intellectual enough, and it should be good if they are a little bit “more difficult, more complex, and more theoretical.” Bernstein says: “it seems to me important for poetry not to be just on an emotional sleeve (‘I’m a poet, I’m emotional, I’m writing about my feelings’)” (205). It is surely not only a piece of advice for poets in the West. It is good advice for Chinese poets too.
Though putting forward many good principles, Bernstein insists that he does not want any invariant principles. He says: “My work is without principle, though not without its peculiar aesthetic, palpable sensibility, and patented ideological blinders. The absence of principle is a principle. My poetics is contingent and inductive; based on a stubborn desire to put one thing after another to create as powerful an aesthetic experience as I can within verbal language” (234). He says again later on: “I don’t like to follow rules — not even my own rules” (268). How to explain this apparent contradiction? Probably we could say that Bernstein wants “rules” or “principles” at the tactical level, while he wants total freedom at the strategic level. In his poetics, freedom always overrides principles or rules, although the latter are necessary in certain situations.
While talking of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, Bernstein repeatedly states that “Language Poetry does not exist … I keep saying it: Language poetry doesn’t exist … Or then again: Language poetry is a social construction; a performance, not an essence. Collective and collaborative” (224, 240). In “The Expanded Field of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E,” Bernstein gives a more detailed explanation to this issue:
L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E was a site of conversation about a set of marked issues, a place to air differences but not necessarily to settle them. That conversation was radically distinct from the values of the official verse culture of the time, not only in terms of what poetry is, what it does, and how it works, but also in terms of the commitment to group and community formation through conversation. L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E and the poetry and poetics surrounding it was formed in controversy and remained controversial because its unity was not a set of agreed-upon aesthetic principles but rather an aversion to the conservative dogmas of much of the dominant poetry of the time. Yet despite its unruliness, the ensemble of activities that falls under this rubric does share a family resemblance — to use Wittgenstein’s term. Both the poetry and poetics posed a stark alternative to the prized poetry of the era. (61)
It is best for avant-garde poets to have a family, providing they do not have to submit their freedom to a father at the same time. In such a family, the poet can have total freedom as well as warm support while they are exploring innovative poetics and their own talents in pursuit of a “more perfect” poetry.
If rules and principles are the body, freedom is the very soul. We need the body, yet we need the soul more. While meditating on what I shall do in the present situation in China, I myself always take complete freedom: I shall help to set up some rules and principles, such as the fundamental cultural principles of freedom, equality, democracy, the rule of the law, and so on, given that society is now in a pretty morally confused situation. This is while I am working in the cultural field as a scholar. However, while composing poems, I would like either to assist or question and challenge any principles or rules ever set up. This is akin to the game of cooperation and fighting between the two hands of a person, the highest form of martial arts invented by Zhou Botong, a legendary figure in Jin Yong’s martial arts fiction. As a result, both my right hand and my left hand, hopefully, might become more powerful and more perfect.
While reading Pitch of Poetry, one does not have to fight to understand everything, or agree with whatever Bernstein says, to appreciate it. Bernstein occasionally goes to great lengths to make a point in the most powerful manner, sometimes at the cost of being readily accessible, just as he does in his poems. Indeed, Bernstein’s essays have a unique style, and share many qualities with his poems. It seems that Bernstein wants to blend the essay form’s power of intellectual clarity with poetry’s power of sensational intensity, rather than to separate the two.
Bernstein sometimes deliberately confuses his ideas or leaves blank spaces in his essays, which makes it impossible for a reader to see the full picture. To Bernstein, a full and complete picture probably does not exist. While answering questions in interviews, Bernstein never sets out to give a complete answer to any question. On the contrary, he allows his answers to conjure up more questions. As he says, “I don’t answer questions in interviews; I take the form as an opportunity to create a series of short dialogic works. But then I create a problem: explanations are needed for my explanations” (284). Thus one shall feel relaxed and apply John Keats’s negative capability and just push on when one gets a question, to leave it to be answered in the future when it is time. But one does need to read the book closely and reflect on these questions constantly. Otherwise one would not be able to ask important questions, and one would not be qualified for the application of negative capability.
Despite some small obstacles in Pitch of Poetry, it would be difficult for any reader to miss the inspiring elements of this text and the witty ways in which they are presented, which serves as a good illustration of Bernstein’s poetics. We could appreciate it more if applied with an appropriate philosophy in mind, which is in fact implied in the passage where Bernstein talks of the difference between morality and ethics: “Morality tells you what to think, what’s right to think; ethics asks what makes us think it’s right, and right for whom? Right in what way?” (249) We do not really need to stuff our minds by memorizing all the viewpoints encompassed in this book. However, we do need constantly to ask ourselves such questions as, “What makes us think it’s right, and right for whom? Right in what way?” and so on to understand Bernstein’s philosophy of avant-garde poetry and poetics, of which the key is already in the title of this essay:
Cut continuously for more perfection!
1. Charles Bernstein, Pitch of Poetry. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2016. All quotations from this book are indicated only by the page number in the rest of the essay.
2. Paul Hoover, Postmodern American Poetry (2nd edition), ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2013.