Commentaries - February 2015

PennSound in 2005

Penn Current, January 27, 2005, pp. 1, 5. Another version is here.

Vulgar Beauty: Bill Berkson on Close Listening

Berkson & Bernstein, at Penn, by Thomas Devaney

Bill Berkson in conversation with Charles Bernstein on Close Listening (36:56): MP3
Berkson in conversation with Bernstein undergraduate seminar (34:49): MP3

February 10, 2014, University of Pennsylvania; recorded and edited by Bernstein.  Bill Berkson discusses unprincipled poetry, vulgar beauty,  the poetics of surface, the emergence of the New American Poetry, the trap of being too serious, and the possibilities of the unexpected.

Can poetry have a socio-political impact?

Image of Occupy Poetry logo.

While Auden famously wrote that “poetry makes nothing happen,” he offers a clarification: “it survives / A way of happening, a mouth.” It is one of the most basic questions in our field, and one that I often hear from students: does poetry matter, and, if so, how? Certainly poetry’s ability to “matter” does not rest on socio-political impact alone. Nevertheless, the question of poetry’s significance alludes to a long debate: is poetry always about poetry — l'art pour l'art — or does poetry serve a societal function. Put in Auden’s terms, what happens when we read or write poetry? — Katie L. Price 

Respondents: Brian Ang, Charles Bernstein, Michael HelsemRachel Zolf

A response by Brian Ang

Poetry can have a sociopolitical impact through how it constitutes communities toward forms of struggle adequate to acting on historical conditions. Within historical conditions, the totality of poetry’s social networks breaks down into overlapping communities defined by common aesthetic and political values, an expression of struggles within and between communities over those values.


My teaching this semester at NUI Galway includes a seminar on Contemporary Irish Poetry and a lecture on W.B. Yeats. In the lecture course, I'm placing three late twentieth-century/early twenty-first-century poets (Merrill, Rich, and Rankine) in dialogue with Yeats. But for the “Contemporary” seminar, I decided pretty quickly that I wouldn’t do an “After Yeats/Kavanagh” course and call that “Contemporary”: the notion of such a determinate genealogy casts recent poets in a frame that's not of their own making, and that comes problematically gendered and ambiguously politicized. I wanted to avoid that.

So the course on “Contemporary Irish Poetry” would have to have different variables. My idea was to make a syllabus that featured, as much as possible, poems from books published between 2012-2014 or so. I arranged those poems into groups that were neither strictly thematic, nor strictly formal, but rather categories that were sensitive to the material and political conditioning of poetic structures (I'll publish the syllabus in a later post).

Jerome Rothenberg & John Bloomberg Rissman: 'Poems for the Millennium, volume 5': The 'Table of Contents' (part two)

James Tilly Matthews, The Air-Loom Machine, c. 1810
James Tilly Matthews, The Air-Loom Machine, c. 1810

[What follows is the second half of the table of contents for Barbaric Vast & Wild: A Gathering of Outside & Subterranean Poetry from Origins to Present, which has been announced for March publication by Black Widow Press.  The first half appeared in Poems and Poetics on February 2, & numerous excerpts from the book-in-progress have appea