Anarchic inventions: On making poetry present

David Antin and Charles Bernstein

Radical Coherency: Selected Essays on Art and Literature, 1966–2005

Radical Coherency: Selected Essays on Art and Literature, 1966–2005

David Antin

University of Chicago Press 2011, 384 pages, $25, ISBN 9780226020976

Attack of the Difficult Poems: Essays and Inventions

Attack of the Difficult Poems: Essays and Inventions

Charles Bernstein

University of Chicago Press 2011, 296 pages, $26, ISBN 9780226044774

How does (or should) one regard the work of innovative or experimental poets whom one has been reading for nearly forty years? The question is, to be sure, something of a mare’s nest — not one question but several, starting perhaps with the old problem of whether the terms “modernism,” “avant-garde,” or even “art” itself are not inherently defined by term limits. The artist Lawrence Weiner once said: “When my work is assimilated into the art context, it will change something. I hope it won’t be considered viable living art in ten years. … As what I do becomes art history the minute culture accepts it, so it stops being art.”[1] The short happy life of a gallery show trumps the relic at the Met.[2] Or, alternatively, imagine a museum of contemporary art that periodically removed artworks from its holdings, repairing them not simply to a basement but to an alley where the recycling truck stops by on Mondays, perhaps to convey the remains to a salon des refusés. Naturally there is the issue of who decides when the time of an artwork, or of a certain way of producing such things, is up. Artists, curators, and dealers, not to mention critics and historians, have their variable templates. An elderly reader may not be the one to ask about the work of his or her contemporaries, unless one is in a retrospective frame of mind.

photo by Alan Thomas
photo of Charles Bernstein and David Antin by their editor at University of Chicago Press, Alan Thomas

Here are two collections of essays by poets whose long and distinguished careers provoke (and even pursue) this terminal line of thinking. In Radical Coherency David Antin (b. 1932) gathers together his critical and reflective writings on art and poetry of the past forty-five years, opening a looking glass on the development of his own poetry during the crucial period of the 1960s and ’70s in which the experience of art (as Antin figures it) was characterized by the exhaustion of one kind of Modernism — the abstract or formalist tradition championed by critics like Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried — and the recovery of another that required the reconceptualization of such matters as representation, narrative, and performance. This rethinking is basically the critical task that holds Radical Coherency together. Meanwhile, in Attack of the Difficult Poems, Charles Bernstein (b. 1950) assembles some of his recent writings on poetry and poetics, in each of which one nevertheless encounters the distinctive terms and concepts (“materiality,” “particularity,” “the ordinary”) that Bernstein has advanced over the years in Content’s Dream (1986), A Poetics (1993), and My Way: Speeches and Poems (1999). Indeed, one can read Attack as a companion piece to Bernstein’s recent retrospective arrangement of his poetry, All the Whiskey in Heaven: Selected Poems (2010), in which we can study both the diversity and consistency of his work from Asylum (1975) to Girly Man (2005), where the material of Bernstein’s poetry — “the transcription of spoken, everyday language” — proves to be formally open-ended for the simple reason that the everyday is not a style or a period but is made of vernaculars in a perpetual or anarchic state of innovation.[3]


what I would like to talk about    really 
is a subject that probably doesn’t have a name. — David Antin, “talking at pomona” (1971)

Starting out in the 1960s, Antin’s writings on art include pieces on (among others) Andy Warhol, Alex Katz, Robert Morris, and Alan Kaprow. Each feeds into a wide-ranging essay from 1971, “It Reaches a Desert in which Nothing Can Be Perceived but Feeling,” where Antin makes his case that Abstract Expressionism has long since run its course and that it is time to start the history of art over again, principally by developing a new concept (or at least defense) of representational and figurative art, not so much to reduce the artwork to its “aboutness” as to come to terms with such “nonformalist movements” as Pop Art, Minimalism, and Happenings in which the artwork is as much an event as an object — an event characterized by a recontextualization of things, images, and actions from the lower (popular, commercial, industrial) end of the cultural scale, or for all of that from the transient materials that keep ordinary life on its day-to-day course: “Light, Air, Water, Food, Heat, Shelter, Transport, Rest.”[4] A good example of “material” art would be one of Robert Smithson’s earth projects like “Spiral Jetty,” a landfill that circles out into Utah’s Great Salt Lake, and which comes and goes over the years as the water levels of the lake periodically rise and fall. What is particularly innovative about staging of such basic materials is that the so-called artwork that results is no longer reducible to genre-descriptions or, indeed, to any description that is not local and contingent in its application. Definitions, categories, and distinctions evaporate before they hit the ground on which the artwork takes its turn.

Antin gives a nice twist to this idea in “FINE FURS” (1992), which describes an event in which he arranged for one of his poems to be written in the air by skywriters. For the record: “Skypoems are gone in twenty minutes” (302). The experiment, it turns out, is a form of iconoclastic protest against the institutionalization of “public” art (the kind that gets preserved in various urban centers — picture the Picasso in the Daley Plaza in downtown Chicago).[5] “I don’t think public art installations should be permanent,” Antin says. “I think they should be wreckable. I think we should have a ceremony of destruction and remove them regularly” (303). Antin recalls that he once proposed this idea in a talk at an architectural college; his suggestion (“that the problem of architecture is not how to make it, but how to get rid of it”) was not well received (304).

In this same hygienic spirit Antin writes: “If we are to do something fundamentally meaningful we have to begin by eliminating the genres that have helped to trivialize our art. By this I don’t mean subgenres like ‘painting’ or ‘sculpture.’ I mean the distinction between the arts in general” (55). Robert Morris’s Exchange (1973), for example, raises the question of where or whether video art belongs in any inventory of art forms. The work is “a series of verbal meditations on exchanges of information, collaborations, and interferences with a woman, accompanied by a variety of images taped and re-taped from other tapes and photographs for the most part as indefinite and suggestive as the discourse, [which] goes on till it arrives at a single distinct and comic story of not getting to see the Gattamelata [a fifteenth-century sculpture by Donatello], after which the tape trails off in a more or less leisurely fashion. … The work is ‘boring,’ as Les Levine remarked, ‘if you demand that it be something else. If you demand that it be itself then it is not boring’” (86). Yet knowing exactly what the work is when it is just itself seems precisely what the work sets out to defeat. Recall T. W. Adorno on the Rätselcharakter of the modernist artwork: “If a work opens itself completely, it reveals itself as a question and demands reflection; then the work vanishes into the distance, only to return to those who thought they understood it, overwhelming them for a second time with the question: ‘What is it?’”[6]

Just so, Robert Morris (b. 1931) appears to be the key figure in Antin’s thinking, chiefly because of his (Morris’s) capacity for reinvention, which is to say his anarchic resistance over several decades to any rule of identity. In “Have Mind, Will Travel” (1994), Antin traces Morris’s career from his abstract paintings of the early 1960s through his various experiments in minimalism, conceptualism, and performance art, culminating in his 1990 show at the Corcoran Gallery, “Inability to Endure or Deny the World,” which featured large assemblies of images “drawn from a mélange of art history, popular magazines, and older works of Morris himself” — images whose elusive significance “is further complicated by the elliptical texts with which they live in often enigmatic relation” (Radical, 116–17).[7] For example, the exhibit included Morris’s “Investigations Series,” twenty-four graphic-on-vellum drawings, each of which is scored by a citation from Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations.[8] The drawings depict historical events and iconic figures — the Army-McCarthy hearings, a famous photograph of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg during their trial for espionage, even Jackson Pollock hurling paint at a canvas on the floor.

What emerges from Antin’s portrait of Morris is the figure of “a restless, ironic and intellectual artist who engages with whatever surrounding discourses happen to interest him and leaves them as soon as they cease to interest him” — someone very different from the more settled artist (Antin mentions Donald Judd and Sol Lewitt) “whose works consist of a single stylistic gesture that is allowed to unfold over a wide field of manifestations” (Radical, 119). Morris is, whatever else he is, a “nomad” — a term that recalls Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s concept of nomad aesthetics in which the work of art is serial or segmental, made of “lines of flight” rather than parts subsumed by a whole. Interestingly, Deleuze and Guattari regard nomad art as distinctively American rather than European in character in the sense that the nomadic work is “rhizomatic,” like Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, rather than an “arborescent” totality like Mallarmé’s Grande Œuvre, in whose formal principles every possible poem is already implicated.[9] At the same time, however, nomadic art is nonexclusionary: at the level of the “local and contingent,” that is, in the absence of any “universalist claims” or taboos, there is nothing that cannot be counted as art, unless it is just that which persists in work after work as a single-minded and predictable “trajectory of intention” (Antin, Radical, 100). Hence the virtue of Allan Kaprow’s Happenings — “colloquial” events in which “triggering concentrated, self-conscious reflection on any action undertaken, say vacuuming a floor or brushing one’s teeth, will become a way of making art” (149).

The idea is to guard against “persistence” (100–101). In “Modernism and Postmodernism: Approaching the Present in Modern American Poetry” (1972), Antin notes that “For better or for worse, ‘modern’ poetry in English has been committed to a principle of collage from the outset” (170). But by the 1950s this principle had been displaced by the closed forms that characterized the poetry of Robert Lowell, Randall Jarrell, and Theodore Roethke, among others. Antin locates his own beginnings as a poet with (or near) the “return of collage Modernism” in the work of Charles Olson, the Black Mountain poets, the Beats, and the New York School, whose “enlarged repertory of possibilities” (185) produced the return of the long poem, that is, the serial poem that has neither archē nor telos but is always in a process of departing from itself — “beginning again and again,” in Gertrude Stein’s famous description of open form.[10] It was, Antin says, “the specific claim of modernism to be finally and forever open” (Radical, 162).

The question is whether “finally and forever open” isn’t an oxymoron, or at least a kind of endgame in which things eventually fade to black. Antin cites passages from Olson, Frank O’Hara, and Allen Ginsberg with considerable affection, but he finds ways to hold himself apart from them: as he says in a conversation with Charles Bernstein, he felt closer then (and now) to Jackson Mac Low’s “performance poems” and John Cage’s “Lectures.”[11] Likewise, in “Some Questions about Modernism” (1974) Antin emphasizes the paradox of “collage Modernism,” namely that it was generated by a “hostility to arrangement” that “led some artists into a hostility to collage [itself], because they saw collage in terms of its multiplicity of pieces. They reasoned quite correctly that if there are pieces there is arrangement, and all arrangements, no matter how ‘random,’ are apprehended as some kind of order, because randomness is conceivable but not perceivable” (Radical, 213–14).

To which Antin decisively adds: “Personally I share this distaste for ideas of arrangement and I don’t think anyone can be very interested in doing collage work now, mainly because of the predictability of its effect” (214).[12] Indeed, for Antin the real importance of “60s Modernism” was not so much its recovery of the principle of collage as its “neo-Romantic sensibility,” which included, among other things, “the underlying conviction that poetry was made by a man up on his feet, talking” (194).

All of which leads Antin to his title piece, “Radical Coherency,” a “talk poem” from 1981 in which Antin responds to the question of why in the early seventies he stopped writing a poetry made “in accordance with what I would call collage strategies” in favor of the talk pieces he’s doing even now, several decades later (227).[13] Antin’s answer takes the form of an anecdote in which he recalls the day he took his mother to Sears to help her buy some shoes, when suddenly it came to him that Sears is a vast labyrinthine arrangement of disparate articles — a “simultaneously incoherent coherency” (235) — pleasurable in its way but in this case a state of affairs in which his mother grows increasingly uncomfortable: “I want to go home,” his mother says, a line that serves Antin as his cue —

                                                                   now I one of the
reasons I abandoned collage    which is organized something like sears
     by and large    and while it is sometimes entertaining or    illuminating to
consider this kind of organization    to inspect the parts from which it has
been assembled and speculate upon the discourses from which they might
have been taken     to restore the missing parts or merely take pleasure in
  the juxtaposition and collision of these fragments of otherwise unrelated
   or arbitrarily related things (235)

In the end what came to interest him, Antin says, was (and remains) something more self-reflective: namely, the kinds of coherency that develop “out of the way the human mind works as it faces the exigencies of everyday life” (236).

Specifically, what Antin wants to know is how the mind works when it’s not doing mathematics or playing chess or, for all of that, making art. Doing Dada cutups and assembling them now one way, now another, certainly counts as a way of making art.[14] But Antin finds a more compelling challenge in trying to make sense “out of someone’s most conventional narrative” (Radical, 237) — an anecdote, for example, which is a form of vernacular storytelling that circulates at the level of everyday life rather than at the level of grand narratives that gather things together from some end-of-history standpoint. Narrative at the level of contingency is a radical form of coherency, which is neither a logical construction nor an aleatory assemblage but an account of events that, however they ramble or drift, have the virtue of “mattering” to somebody (262).

This is the upshot of Antin’s “The Beggar and the King” (1995), which is an attempt to construct a conception of narrative that goes against the grain of narrative theory, whether the classical Aristotelian version in which things come to term for a reason (plot), or the more dubious structuralist idea that all narratives are rule-governed systems whose events matter less than the relations that synchronize them into something intelligible. Antin gives brief honorable mention to Paul Ricoeur’s phenomenological conception of narrative, and even borrows Ricoeur’s idea that “reconnecting subject positions across the gulf of change is what constitutes the formation of self.”[15] But his own standpoint is that narratives (when they work) work like dreams insofar as dreams are narratives that cannot help mattering to us — imagine a dream that the dreamer does not find absorbing in the course of its development, however fragmentary or bizarre it might be. For “the goal of narrative is to make present, not to make intelligible, and a dream is nothing if it is not a making present of an anticipated future and a remembered past in which we always have a definite stake” (Radical, 263).[16] Against a whole army of eminent philosophers of narrative (Martha Nussbaum and Alasdair MacIntyre come to mind), Antin’s final line of his essay is an emphatic thumb in the eye: “Narrative explains nothing” (270).

Naturally one thus looks for some connection between Antin’s dream-model of narrative and his talk poems, which are frequently elusive replies to questions that appeal for an explanation. For example, “what am I doing here?” (1973), one of Antin’s earliest talk pieces, is (like “Radical Coherency”) a response to a request for “some sort of statement” about his work. As it happens, “what am I doing here?,” like most of Antin’s talk poems, is filled with anecdotes, and anecdotes are, in the nature of the case, true stories, in contrast to parables like the one about the beggar and the king in Pedro Calderon’s seventeenth-century play, La Vida es Sueno [“Life is a dream”], which Antin offers “as a poet’s refutation of Aristotle” because its plot “makes nothing experientially intelligible” — nothing, that is, except Antin’s thesis about narrative (Radical, 236). Anecdotes are not so much explanations as instances of something that is the case, as in Antin’s story in “what am I doing here?” about a story told to him by his unfortunate friend from work, Candy, in which she recalls an absurd moment that terminates a possible love affair just as it appears to be getting under way:

could she have on her mind with such a story?     what could it
      have meant that it happened to her?       and  i realized that      this 
   was the major structure of her life      she had in fact described
the existence that she lived[17]

Just so, in Antin’s talk poems, anecdotes are ways of thinking by examples rather than according to logical procedures. Anecdotes come into play, as Wittgenstein would say, when explanations come up short, as inevitably they do.[18] Recall Wittgenstein’s idea that logic “seeks to see to the bottom of things,” whereas “[w]hat we want to understand [is] something already in plain view” (§89) — as, for example, when trying to “explain to someone what a game is.” In such an effort, one “gives examples,” not in order to show what games have in common, but to supply something like a narrative experience of game-playing, making it present as a form of life (§71).

This is the line that Antin follows when it comes to the question of how to think about poems and artworks in the absence or misfire of criteria of identification. In “Stranger at the Door” (1987) Antin recalls that this was the question that he and Jerome Rothenberg confronted in their magazine, some/thing (1965–68), when taking up poems as divergent as George Brecht’s Dances, Events, and other Poems, Jackson Mac Low’s Pronouns: A Collection of Forty Dances, translations from Aztec and North American Indian poetic traditions, John Cage’s “Lectures,” and Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons. What this heterogeneity of examples generated was a rethinking of genre in terms of Wittgenstein’s concept of resemblances within a large and expanding family, where “the basis of inclusion was affiliation with any subgroup within which a new candidate shared a fundamental feature” (Radical, 253–54). What is crucial here is that for Antin “a fundamental feature” is not a formal marker that situates a work within a class but a productive force — one might call it, after Marcel Duchamp, an “obstacle placed in the path of the mind, temporarily checking it or forcing it out of its former path and compelling it to seek some partial realization” (Radical, 140), or, after John Cage, “an instigation of the mind to the solicitation of experience” (Radical, 254), on the theory that “what you most desire in life is the capacity to attend to no matter what eventuality” (337) — which is what a “talk poet” needs when, as in Antin’s practice, he is someone who seldom settles beforehand what he’s actually going to talk about when he gets to his feet.[19]

A tedious schoolmaster might mutter to himself that an Antin “talk” is more rhetorical than poetic insofar as it is an improvisation backed by an inventory of topoi — a vast range of subjects to which Antin has already given thought, or which is simply part of his personal, cultural, and philosophical experience, and from which he selects material appropriate to whatever situation or audience is at hand. Rhetorically, inventio is not formal innovation; it means finding (from all that has been said) what has application in a particular case. As Antin himself says about the materials of improvisation: “There is no such thing as ground zero for any human being who hasn’t suffered brain damage. For any performer there is always some complex of past, future and present relevancy conditions that makes the notion of complete spontaneity an absurdity” (325).

Accordingly, the most productive way to read Antin’s poetry is not through formal analysis but to follow the recurrences of certain signature topics — a good example of which, given Antin’s aesthetic disposition against permanent artifacts, is duration, which makes a telling appearance in an early poem, “Definitions for Mendy” (1967), an elegy on the death of a friend in which duration is implacable, like a tombstone:

is a stone
it is a fact
it does not move …
it is smooth
the water does not wear it away
it wears the water away
it is a fact
it does not mean anything
it cannot tell time[20

Again, in “how long is the present?” (1978) Antin says that he takes the question of the present “very seriously as a poet,” because, for one thing, talking is one of the things that, unlike a piece of architecture or a poetic text, moves along in the present as the present itself moves, beginning again and again, in contrast to an entretemps or between-time of interminable attention, as when watching a game of chess.[21] Likewise the experience of pain, whether physical or mental, fastens the present to an intensive point. Antin recalls how time stopped when one day he severed his finger in a car door — an experience that he then contrasts with “the scraping aching tedium” of having the severed piece surgically reattached:

    there is no feeling more appalling to me than lying on my back
being     ministered to while im helpless     I have the feeling
     of such complete irrelevance     of having become some
  kind of object (tuning, 99)

(For some reason, an art museum’s restoration of an old master comes to mind.)

Later, in “durations” (1983), Antin explores the several varieties of duration — that of art objects, museum visits, and air travel, this last of which (in an anecdote about a flight from California to Dallas) entails multiple and conflicting forms of time depending on how and where one directs one’s attention, whether toward the landscape passing below, or toward the monologue of the fellow in the next seat, or in recollections of things past. During his flight, Antin says, he recalled his anxious experience of waiting when his wife and son failed to make it home one evening — an experience of non-arrival that he recalls still once more in his telling of it, such that “durations” becomes the story of several durations, the duration of which will itself contract as time goes by:

                                          as I go on living this duration will get
   shorter and shorter     as I think of it next month or next
year     and I may be able to summarize it in my mind in a
    matter of seconds     till maybe I lose it altogether as an
   image     and it contracts to the point where it will hide
       behind a phrase or a name from which I can only call it up
  by chance    with the right password and then only in the
   act of telling that may turn it into a quite different
experience and duration[22]

Appropriately, Antin concludes “durations” with an anecdote about his visit to his mother and mother-in-law in their retirement community, in which he observes the narrowing of an elder’s memory to a present that lasts hardly longer than one of his Skypoems. Art objects may endure, but duration itself is not an object, although, as a topic, it can be transported to new contexts, which is basically how a talk poet stays on his toes.


I imagine poetry … as that which
can’t be contained by any set of formal qualities. — Charles Bernstein, “Optimism and Critical Excess” (1988)

Attack of the Difficult Poems is a collection of essays, reviews, formal lectures, position papers, and comic turns, this last represented by Bernstein’s concluding text, “Recantorium (A Bachelor Machine, after Duchamp, after Kafka)” (2008), a paper presented at a conference on “Conceptual Poetry & Its Others” in which he “apologizes” for his famous attacks against “Official Verse Culture,” with its premium upon self-expressive and transparent verse forms. In fact, on close reading “Recantorium” becomes an apology in the classical sense, namely a defense of Bernstein’s long-established position that “the reinvention, the making of poetry for our time, is the only thing that makes poetry matter. And that means, literally, making poetry matter, that is, making poetry that intensifies the matter or materiality of language — acoustic, visual, syntactic, semantic” (Attack, 30). Recall these luminous lines from Bernstein’s “Lift Off” (1979):

HH/  ie,s  obVrsr;atjrn  dugh  seineipocv I iibalfmgmMw
er,,  me”ius  ieigorcy¢jeuvine+pee.)a/na/t”  ihl”n,s

Or “Amblyopia” (1987), which ranges haphazardly from the lyrical —

There is neither matter nor form, only
smell, taste, bite — eyes
hide by their disclosure. There
is only substance — structure — twin
fears of an unduplicating repetition:
the sandstorm of grief, the presentlessness
of distribution. As farfetched
ministers to its own resolve
purpose alone is the proprietor
of the poignant, vesture of solace’s
lazy haze. (132)

to the satirical —

And Now …
Texton introduces the Whipmaster Valorizerᵀᴹ
Yes …
Just when you thought you were stuck in the same
old shopworn anxieties and tired-out guilt
feelings, the Whipmaster Valorizerᵀᴹ has arrived,
revolutionizing the psychopoetics industry. (136–37)[24]

In “An Interview with Manuel Brito” (1997) Bernstein explained that his poetry is “a mix of different types of language pieced together as in a mosaic — very ‘poetic’ diction next to something that sounds overheard, intimate address next to philosophical imperatives, plus a mix of would-be proverbs, slogans, jingles, nursery rhymes, songs.”[25] In the present volume he characterizes this as “The Art and Practice of the Ordinary” (2004): what he is after, he says, is “an understanding of the social uses of language and the different registers of vernacular language. … What I am trying to do in my own writing is to produce an experience of language as social material, evoking, in the process, material facts about language and rhythms within language that each of us knows as well as our own breath or the thud of our heart or viscosity of our saliva” (Attack, 178–9).

“Standing Target” (1980), for example, is a ten-page assembly of lovely (if edgy) lyrics, together with paratactic arrangements of words and phrases, random citations, words falling Mallarmé-like across an empty page, inventories like the following —

Neurological impairment, speech delay, psychomotor
difficulties with wide discrepancies and
fluctuations, excessive neurotic fears and compulsive
behavior, a diffuse hostile attitude, general
clumsiness, confused dominance, poor fine motor
coordination, asymmetrical reflexes, aggressive,
callous, arrogant, excessive inhibitions,
rebellious, suspicious, attention seeking, erratic
friendship pattern, overexcitable in normal situations.

— followed hard upon by found texts of this sort:

As President and Chief Executive Officer
of Sea World, Inc., David DeMotte is
responsible for managing all aspects
of the Company’s operations at Sea
World parks in San Diego, Aurora,
Ohio, Orlando, Florida, and the Florida
Keys. A native Californian, DeMotte,
and his wife Charlotte, enjoy hunting,
fishing, and tennis in their spare time. (Whiskey, 58–59)

The difficulty here, supposing there to be just one, is to explain how it is that a found text (David DeMotte was in fact one of the founders and longtime executives of the Sea World Corporation) becomes a parody of itself when printed in a poem rather than, say, in a newspaper, newsletter, or corporate flyer. One argument is that an “experience of language as social material” is inherently comic for reasons that Mikhail Bakhtin laid out in a famous essay, “Discourse in the Novel” (c. 1938), which contrasted the serious, unitary language of the classical poet (a court figure) with the motley discourse found “on the stages of local fairs and at buffoon spectacles, [where] the heteroglossia of the clown sounded forth, ridiculing … the ‘languages’ of poets, scholars, monks, knights and others, where all ‘languages’ were masks and where no language could claim to be an authentic, incontestable face.”[26] In other words, one way to escape “Official Verse Culture” (“poets, scholars, monks”) is to situate oneself in Bakhtin’s “history of laughter.” Bernstein is happy to place himself in this context. In “Poetry Scene Investigation: A Conversation with Marjorie Perloff” (2003), he says: “One of my obsessions has been to include — fully and faithfully (or is it faithlessly, I always get those confused) — a set of Henny Youngman-style jokes within a poem” (Attack, 247).[27]

More to the point perhaps is the question of what actually counts as “difficulty” in the first place. The problem with “Official Verse Culture,” after all, is not just that it makes for easy reading; it reduces composition itself to a course in basic mechanics. The most compelling pieces in Attack of the Difficult Poems — “Invention Follies” (2006), for example — suggest that, when it comes to difficulty, poets themselves are the first responders or, in a classical sense, the first line of defense in poetic communities “where innovation, the new, ingenuity, and originality, perhaps even more than the aesthetic, are vexed terms, jinxed, perhaps ironically, by their own history” (Attack, 33). Bernstein’s idea, much like Antin’s, is to focus on what presents itself in the moment at hand: “What’s needed,” he says, “is a transvaluation of the concept of innovation, so that we can think of innovation in a modest and local way, as responses to historical and contemporary particulars — as situational, not universal. More like the weather — and one’s everyday adaption to it — than like the forward march of scientific knowledge. … Innovation is a constant process of invention in the face of the given” (34). And what is given is, first of all, language, which for Bernstein is structured like the weather, that is, a turbulent complexity refractory to concepts and rules, an environment that cannot be brought under control or reduced to instrumental operations and results. Whence Bernstein’s fluid poetics: “Poetry is turbulent thought, at least that’s what I want from it, what I want to say about it just here, just now (and maybe not in some other context)” (My Way, 41–42).

“Poetic innovations,” Bernstein says, “are often noisy, messy, disruptive, disorienting. They do not form a neat line with the innovations of the past” (Attack, 37). Witness, for example, the possibilities opened up by digital technology, which liberates the alphabet from its typeset incarnations.[28] In “Every Which Way But Loose” (2002), Bernstein says that, given this technology, “writers become language environment designers — textual architects — who need to foresee how the texts they write will be brought to life in particularized enactments. This entails anticipating the inevitable variances made by the different systems on which the work will be displayed. It also allows for creating variants in the configurations of the work: for example, randomizing the sequence of a hypertext so that each time it is viewed it is read in a different order” (Attack, 85). Bernstein doesn’t give any examples, but one can refer to the Brazilian artist Eduardo Kac’s theory (and practice) of “digital” and “holopoetry” to get a sense of what he has in mind. Digital poems, for example, are still material, but are raised to a higher (“hypertextual”) power, as in Kac’s “Tesāo”:

Eduardo Kac, “Tesāo” (1986), first shown in 1985 on the Minitel Network, a precursor to the Internet. Reproduced by permission.

Whereas “holopoems” occupy different dimensions entirely. As Kac explains in an essay on “Holopoetry”:

Holopoetry belongs to the tradition of experimental poetry and verbal art, but it treats the word as an immaterial form; that is, as a sign that can change or dissolve into thin air, breaking its formal stiffness. Freed from the page and freed from other palpable materials, the word invades the reader’s space and forces him or her to read it in a dynamic way; the reader must move around the text and find meanings and connections the words establish with each other in empty space. Thus a holopoem must be read in a broken fashion, in an irregular and discontinuous movement, and it will change as it is viewed from different perspectives.[29]

Think back here to Antin’s objections to persistence, architectural installations, and the tombstone duration of poetic texts. The holopoem is something like a self-innovating system, except that it requires the performative intervention of a reader whose passage through the multiple (third and fourth) dimensions of the poem changes it into something else — something that is nowhere except in the reader’s present. In Bernstein’s terms, it’s hard to imagine a more situational form of innovation or a more local and contingent form of poetry.

In the nature of the case it is virtually impossible to “cite” a holopoem in a printed text. Kac’s Media Poetry provides some excellent photographic illustrations, and one should also visit Kac’s extraordinarily rich website, as well as the videos of his digital poetry available on Ubuweb. The question is whether holopoetry can also incorporate the dimension of sound, which is the poetic material in which Bernstein seems to take the greatest critical as well as poetic interest. Much the best piece in Attack of the Difficult Poems is Bernstein’s “Objectivist Blues: Scoring Speech in Second Wave Modernist Poetry and Lyrics” (2006), which expands the “social field” of vernacular, colloquial, and ideolectical poetry to include an extraordinary range of historical and cultural examples:

One way to trace this [social field] is to take the representation of speech in Paul Laurence Dunbar’s African American and Claude McKay’s early Jamaican dialect poems and run that against Oscar Hammerstein II’s lyrics for Show Boat (“Ol’ Man River”) or DuBose and Dorothy Heywood and Ira Gershwin’s more supple lyrics for Porgy and Bess (“Summertime” and “I Loves You Porgy”), James Weldon Johnson’s early song lyric “Under the Bamboo Tree” and his later sermonic textualizations in God’s Trombone, Fanny Brice’s Yiddish schtick monologues (or Groucho Marx’s Euro-ethnic ones), the virtually “Objectivist” blues of Robert Johnson or Charlie Patton, and the transcriptive works of Sterling Brown; or contrast these with the more fluid poetic vernacular of William Carlos Williams, Jean Toomer, and Langston Hughes, and the rebarbartive anti-assimilationism of Louis Zukofsky’s “Poem Beginning ‘The.’” (Attack, 133)

“Nowhere,” Bernstein argues, “are the innovations of both assimilation and disruption more compelling than among the Second Wave Modernists, poets and comics, lyricists and blues artists born between 1889 and 1909” (136) — thanks in good part to the new technologies of the phonograph record, the microphone, and radio. Bernstein gives us some excellent pages on James Weldon Johnson’s “Under the Bamboo Tree,” Paul Robeson’s performance in Porgy and Bess, and especially the great blues artist Charlie Patton, who “overlays his singing with various noise effects that interrupt any continuous melodic production: talking, grunts, inhalations, interjections, improvisatory rather than formulaic repetitions, variations, extensions, and rephrasings, incommensurable switches of tempo, pitch, volume, and tone” (150).

Let me conclude on this noisy note by citing Bernstein’s “Theolonius Monk and the Performance of Poetry” (1988), with its argument that the corporal presence of sound matters as much to poetry as the semantic, social, and literary contexts of the poet’s language. The conceptual coherence between Antin and Bernstein on the importance of making art present hardly needs to be underscored at this point, although the two have debated the formal nature of the sounds that poets make, with Bernstein inclining toward, and Antin against, the analogy of music.[30] Thus Bernstein:

To perform a poem is to make it a physically present
acoustic event, to give bodily dimension — beat — to what is
otherwise spatial and visual. Poems, no matter how short,
necessarily involve duration, & writing as much as performing
is an act of shaping this durational passage. In
performance, it becomes possible to lay down a rhythmic
beat, a pulse, that is otherwise more speculative or tenuous
in the scoring of words on a page. For me, this pulse is
constructed around “nodal” points of pauses or silences or
breaks — a point I want to put as technically as I can to
distinguish this from notions of breath or speech rhythms or
other notions of an unconstructed or unimposed reading style. (My Way, 21)[31]

Notice that this reads at first like a conference paper with intermittent linebreaks, but after a pause Bernstein “performs” the kinds of pulses, beats, or “nodal” points he has in mind:

In my
performances, I’m interested in employing
several different, shifting tempos
& several different intonations (voices)
that pivot
& spin around these nodal
points. These blank spaces —
silences or
intervals — serve as ful-
crums for making audible
the rhythmic pulse & phrasing
played out, at the same
time scissoring
the syntax of the language (that is, cutting
expected breaks of the
grammatical phrase or unit of
breath). Given these interests, the sound I am
laying down
not simply that of a
person reading words
in any “straightforward” way
but playing
as if a
note or
chord on
the piano, with slight
pauses creating unexpected
spaces between words, allowing phrases
to veer off into
unexpected sequences of wobbling
sound. I
no more take for
granted how to do this than I assume
the syntax
or prosody of a
poem I am
writing, it is a highly constructed, albeit
improvised process, based on choosing
from a variety of different tonal,
rhythmic, & phrasal possibilities. (My Way, 21–22)

In his introduction to Close Listening, a collection of essays by various hands on the acoustical and visual performance of poetry, Bernstein called “for a non-Euclidean (or complex) prosody,”[32] for the point is not so much to produce patterns as to break them, “creating unexpected / spaces between words” and “unexpected sequences of wobbling / sound” — recall Antin’s stand (or move) against “persistence,” or Robert Morris’s “nomadic” itinerary through the art world, or Allan Kaprow’s Happenings, in which an everyday human action confounds its identity by being performed out of context, framed by an alien environment, as when brushing one’s teeth on an urban street, or staging a piece of theater without an audience.[33]

Of course, Bernstein’s idea is that for a performance poet an audience is essential to the corporal existence of the poem, even if only in the reading of it. For reading is a form of collaboration, one not basically different from that of a translator’s — perhaps especially in the case of “homophonic” translations in which the reader, not understanding the meaning of the original, simply renders the sound into English, as in Bernstein’s translation of his own “Johnny Cake Hollow” as “Empty Biscuits”:

Johnny Cake Hollow

Xo quollen swacked unt myrry flooped
Sardone to fligrut’s swirm, ort
Jirmy plaight org garvey swait ib
Giben durrs urk klurpf.

Empty Biscuits

Ceylon’s ox slaked Mary’s gourd
Cycloned to flagrant dawn, sat
Jimmy’s plight on gravy sprain as
Gibes in fairies lorn. (With Strings, 27; 69)

One hardly knows what more to say. A line from Gertrude Stein rings in one’s ears: “his words made a sound to the eyes.”[34]



1. Cited by Willoughby Sharpe, “Lawrence Weiner at Amsterdam,” Avalanche 4 (Spring 1972): 71. See David Antin, “Lawrence Weiner: As Far as the Eye Can See,” Artforum 46, no. 1 (September 2007): 156, a retrospective exhibition of some of Weiner’s work at the Whitney Museum, 2007–2008.

2. Recall the story of Robert Rauschenberg’s erasure of a drawing by Willem de Kooning, which he later exhibited as a kind of monochrome. Interestingly, Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning (1953) is owned, but not currently exhibited, by the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

3. Bernstein, Attack of the Difficult Poems (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 174.

4. Antin, Radical Coherency: Selected Essays on Art and Literature, 1966–2005 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 55–57. See Drucker, Sweet Dreams: Contemporary Art and Complicity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), for a spirited defense of artworks that locate themselves within non-esoteric (popular, commercial, waste-product) spheres of material culture.

5. The Daley Plaza Picasso has recently been upstaged by a piece of pop-sculpture on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile, namely a statue of Marilyn Monroe, or more accurately a statue of an iconic image from one of Marilyn Monroe’s films, “The Seven-Year Itch.” As it happens, the Monroe piece, erected in the summer of 2011, will only be allowed to stand until the spring of 2012.

6. Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 121.

7. See Terrie Sultan, ed., Inability to Endure or Deny the World: Representation and Text in the Work of Robert Morris (Washington, DC: The Corcoran Gallery, 1990), the volume of essays and reproductions that accompanied the Corcoran Exhibition, esp. Barbara Rose’s essay, “The Odyssey of Robert Morris”: 6–10.

8. Compare this to Morris’s “Blind Time IV: Drawing with Davidson” in Have I Reasons: Work and Writings, 1993–2007 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008), 41–50, graphic works on paper with citations from the work of the philosopher Donald Davidson. See also, in this same volume, Morris’s “The Art of Donald Davidson” (1995), 51–60.

9. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 19. Cf. Pierre Joris, A Nomad Poetics: Essays (Middletown CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2003).

10. Gertrude Stein, Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein, ed. Carl Van Vechten (New York: Vintage Books, 1972), 516.

11. Antin and Charles Bernstein, A Conversation with David Antin (New York: Granary Press, 2002), 96–97.

12. For the sake of contrast, see Joris, “The Seamlessly Nomadic Future of Collage,” in Justifying the Margins: Reconstruction (Cambridge: Salt Publishing, 2009), 7–23.

13. Antin began doing his “talk poems” in the early 1970s. His most recent talk pieces appear in john cage uncaged is still cagey (San Diego: Singing Horse Press, 2005), the title poem of which is reproduced in Radical Coherency, 331–43, and i never knew what time it was (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005). Still more recent is “hiccups,” Critical Inquiry 37, no. 4 (Summer 2011): 754–67. Naturally, given Antin’s objection to “persistence,” some will wonder whether these poems are not a performative contradiction. Meanwhile, for the fun of it, see Charles Bernstein’s poem, “From Talk Alone You Don’t Get a Poem” in With Strings: Poems (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001):

It’s your turn, Roger. The whole world’s not nuts!
You earn your eye and the vastness vanishes
under the brick of an oily blanket,
only the doodles don’t dare crack the count-
ing houses. Setting in motion something like
actuarial imbrications (hor-
tatory lamentation), as if bal-
looning bulbs. Say slither in the case of
presumptive hitherance—you know, the
tuck around the tootle, mickey mousing
with the last brass lunge. There are barbells in
the pantry, second shelf above the sag,
then a pound or two later all alone
with just your motor bike for a conscience.
I’ve two of those & a speaker for a
light. (13)

14. See William Burroughs, “The Cut-Up Method of Brion Gysin.”

15. Radical, 262. See Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative, trans. Kathleen MacLaughlin and David Pellauer, vol. 1 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984).

16. The spirit of Gertrude Stein rather than Freud or any dream-theorist inhabits Antin’s conception of narrative. Recall “Composition as Explanation”: “In beginning writing I wrote a book called Three Lives. … In that there was a constant recurring and beginning there was a marked direction in the direction of being in the present, although naturally I had been accustomed to past, present, and future, and why, because the composition around me was a prolonged present. A composition of a prolonged present is a natural composition in the world as it has been these thirty years it was more and more a prolonged present” (Selected Writings, 517).

17. Antin, talking at the boundaries (New York: New Directions, 1976), 8.

18. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe (New York: Macmillan, 1953), §87.

19. See, for example, “is this the right place?” (c. 1974):

when i was asked what I wanted to talk about     before i came here
      i picked up the telephone    in san diego and     bill miller
from the Philadelphia art museum    spoke to me on the phone
      said “what are you going to talk about?”     and     i had
about     five seconds     to decide    (talking at the boundaries, 27)

20. Antin, Selected Poems: 1963–1973 (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1991), 65.

21. Antin, tuning (New York: New Directions, 1984), 84.

22. Antin, what it means to be avant-garde (New York: New Directions, 1993), 81.

23. Bernstein, All the Whiskey in Heaven: Selected Poems (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2010), 36.

24. Listen to Bernstein’s “performance” of “Amblyopia” on PennSound.

25. Bernstein, My Way: Speeches and Poems (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), 25–26.

26. Mikhail Bahktin, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays by M. M. Bakhtin, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981), 273.

27. See Bernstein’s “Comedy and the Politics of Poetic Form”: “For I am a ventriloquist, happy as a raven to preach with blinding fervor of the corruptions of public life in a voice of pained honesty that is as much a conceit as the most formal legal brief for which my early education would seem to have prepared me. If my loops and short circuits, my love of elision, my Groucho Marxian refusal of irony, are an effort to explode the authority of those conventions I wish to discredit (disinherit), this constantly offers the consoling self-justification of being Art, as if I could escape the partiality of my condition by my investigation of it.” A Poetics (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992), 223. Henny Youngman (1906–1998) was a stand-up comedian famous for his one-liners (“Take my wife, please”).

28. Compare Bernstein’s “Play It Again, Pac Man,” an essay composed for a catalog accompanying the American Museum of Moving Image’s 1989 exhibition of videogames, “Hot Circuits.”

29. Eduardo Kac, ed., Media Poetry: An International Anthology (Chicago: Intellect Books, 2007), 131)

30. Antin and Bernstein, A Conversation with David Antin, 77–88.

31. Bernstein composed this poem in response to a symposium on the music of the great jazz pianist Thelonious Monk. Contrast Antin, in his essay on “the return of collage Modernism”: “It is possible that the weak point of this whole group of poets — Pound, Williams, Zukofsky, Bunting, Olson, Duncan, Creeley, etc. — is the metaphor of music itself, for the music they have in mind is based on a relatively conventional organization of pitches and accents” (Radical, 185). Where Bernstein and Antin come together is in their preference for the music of John Cage, with its openness to the sounds (commonly known as “noise”) that animate everyday life.

32. Bernstein, ed., Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 4.

33. Allan Kaprow, “Calling,” in Happenings and Other Acts, ed. Mariellen Sandford (London: Routledge, 1995), 195–201.

34. Stein, Selected Writings, 186.