Charles Bernstein (1950 -)

Life and Works


Charles Bernstein has pointed out that his poetry and poetics show a clear "aversion to conformity." Instead he used new forms and approaches with which to agitate and provoke individual action to affect society. This intention can clearly be seen in his primary works like: Veil, Islets/Irritations, Senses of Responsibility, Disfrutes, Stigma, The Absent Father in Dumbo, Rough Trades or Dark City; and of course in the concepts developed in his essay works: Content's Dream or My Way. His work reflects the direction of his thought over these past decades and how he has acted as a catalyst in the socio-cultural changes he has been involved in. His innovative poetry, as I call it, rather than categorizing it exclusively within the l=a=n=g=u=a=g=e group, is active within the literary field, but also adorned with political motifs, taking us through sometimes undecipherable lines to stimulate reflection and enthusiasm for both personal discovery and social implications.

Photo by Susan Bee



The American critic Hank Lazer suggests there are two large areas in American poetry that are overlapping at present. "The first is the dissemination of the 'subject,' accomplished variously by formal innovation, theoretical argument, and multicultural studies. The second is the politics of poetry as resistance to appropriation: resistance to the official verse culture, the marketplace, the dominant culture, and hegemonic ideologies." Bernstein participates in both currents, distancing himself from official verse and introducing multicultural and social issues, with special emphasis on the role of the Other. His position might be seen as a continuation of the long-lasting opposition between the rationalist Enlightenment and Medieval scholasticism or Romanticism and neoclassical ideas, recently seen in Modernism giving way to Postmodernism. The intellectual route taken by poets like Bernstein is radical in its mistrust of a methodology that has found "the truth" instead of an open, less definitive discussion. It could even be said that his approach to humanism is not based on ensuring continuity but rather on testing out and potentiating variety, favoring inclusion instead of discrimination and exclusion. His intellectual career responds to an impulse to show how things and ideas are related and how they are made up. He keeps to no linear direction in this, rather paying attention to the lyric of bounds which we are obliged to consider as part of an everyday experience.

Charles Bernstein was born on April 4th, 1950 in New York City. His father worked in a factory as the head of a dressmaking company. Charles grew up near Central Park in Manhattan and attended the Bronx High School of Science. Educated at Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1968-1972, he took his A.B. in philosophy (Phi Beta Kappa). Of this period I should highlight his contact with philosopher Stanley Cavell who will exert an enormous influence on his theoretical approach to language. After graduating he won a William Lyon MacKenzie Fellowship that enabled him to study at Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada, 1973-1974. This was an enriching period, since he took a seminar on Emily Dickinson taught by Robin Blaser, and refocused all his attention onto innovative poetics. Then he worked as a technical editor in Santa Barbara, California, within a community-based health program. In 1977 he married painter-photographer Susan Bee Laufer, who has often collaborated with him at both editorial and artistic levels. They have two children: Emma and Felix.


  Charles Bernstein and daughter Emma


His first two books were self-published, Asylums with no date listed and Parsing in 1976. The first thing everybody learns about American innovative poetry is that some decisive change occurred in 1978. Exactly what that change consisted of is more debatable. This is the year when Bernstein began editing, joining with Fordham political scientist and poet Bruce Andrews, one of the most influential little magazines, L=a=n=g=u=a=g=e. This journal would have to look beyond for new poetic models. I simplify, but I don't think I distort unduly, when I say that they propitiated a change that led to focus on language itself --that is, discussing the correspondence between the signifier and the signified, decentering of the self, knowledge as uncertainty, ruining the illusion of stable poetic forms, and continual search for a certain teleology of writing. This little magazine insisted that the critical activity is essential in poetry and quickly became the official organ for the new poets who became known --for better or worse-- as the language poets.

Precisely in 1978 Bernstein also published his volume, Shade. Here he found the chance to introduce some of the formal features of his former work, basically short lines with mysterious and powerful shades since each line serves to recontextualize the meaning of the previous and the next. The question is this: How far is the reader's response to this work of jumps, confusions, and disjunctions due to arbitrary factors? Two other works, Poetic Justice and Senses of Responsibility were published in 1979.



Both were supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. In these two books he participates of an extreme experimentalism with sounds, like in his prose poem "Azoot D'Puund": "iz wurry ray aZoOt de pound in reduce yap crrRisLe ehk nugkinj sJuxYY senshl," or re-asserting that poetry is poetics, "I'm doing that/ holds up, in an intellectual/ way, disturbing inner problems." Definitely it was with Controlling Interests (1980) and The Occurrence of Tune (1981), a collaboration with his wife Susan Bee), Disfrutes (1981), and Stigma (1981) when his poetic work reached a larger audience. All this work shows that he didn't like any form of description. He assumes that writing if full of conventions and reveals his desire to rediscover the unfinished relationship of the individual, the world, and the poetic text. In this sense, his poetic production is difficult to categorize as normative, as reading is an experience free of mannerisms, requiring one to find out why and how it was written. This has implications for individual interpretation and its social aspects. His intellectual position allows one to read the Other and start a debate about its differences from the self. This is one of the reasons this poet thinks that the strongest emerging force in current American poetry is indeed multiculturalism with its clear effects on issues of race, gender, and social class. In this sense, poetry and poetics for Bernstein also involve matter and transcendence, both appear with changing forms determined by social and political factors.



The publication of Resistance and Islets/Irritations in 1983 solidified Bernstein's poetic career. Particularly the latter book received critical acclaim in Los Angeles Times Book Review, "As the book's title implies, Islets/Irritations is frustrated with personal isolation --but also irritated with "eyelets," or any tight limits imposed from the outside. Bernstein attempts to create an inclusive and universal space by transcribing the transpersonal and instantaneous chunks of matter... that surround us in contemporary human society every day." I think one of the more crucial books to substantiate his leading role in the contemporary American scene was the publication of Content's Dream: Essays 1975-1984 in 1986. Here, he collected his critical writings making the readers feel that innovative poetry was not an illusion but a tendency profoundly re-reading philosophy, art, and especially Modernism. This book instrumentalized the ontology of language and the question of ideology for measuring poetry.

In this revisionary view of Bernstein's primary work I should mention The Sophist, published in 1987, where he tries to develop a dialectic game between humor and the consciousness that language is not given. This dialectical consciousness mediates the distance between what the reader knows and what the poetic text appears to know. Consequently, this structural process brings the reader to a continual performance of decision-making that runs parallel to the ideological framework of his poetic art. To deal with it in praxis, this author wrote an essay-poem, "Artifice of Absorption," originally published as a single issue of the little magazine Paper Air in 1987. Here he perfectly exemplifies writing as discourse and reaction, and also the hierarchization of author/reader involving "structure, social context, genre method, politics," as he had explained in Content's Dream. In this same year, Xexoxial published his book, Veil, whose copyright is curiously enough 1976. It consists of a series of unreadable poems composed of overlapping lines in which opacity, erasure of meaning, and contingency of thought are continually exposed. The only clear reference comes from the epigraph at the beginning, which is taken from Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Minister's Black Veil. These poems are always haunted by the terror of uncertain signs, but the real thing is that the reader is involved in the unceasing labor of re-articulating potential meanings.

Nude Formalism (1989, again in collaboration with his wife Susan Bee) consists of only 18 pages. Certainly some revelations have to do with his daughter Emma, his mother, or friends, although there is, to be sure, the poet's growing awareness that poetry cannot expose an answer to puzzles it sets, "Poetry has its lower limit insincerity and its upper limit dematerialization."

If there is a significant date in Bernstein's biography this would be 1990, when he was appointed to the David Gray Chair at the State University of New York, Buffalo. Here he developed a very successful teaching career until 2003, being appointed SUNY Distinguished Professor in 2002, and becoming Director of the Poetics Program, which he co-founded, with Robert Creeley. In 1995 he became the editor of the Electronic Poetry Center at SUNY, Buffalo, and the moderator of the Poetics List, an e-mail discussion group, opening up new perspectives on poetry research and exchange. But previous to this, in the 1970s and 1980s Bernstein had been a writer-editor on healthcare and medical topics, with a break to serve as Associate Director of the CETA Artists Project (the largest postwar American public employment program for artists). He also was a visiting lecturer at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, 1986, and at the University of California, San Diego, 1987; Visiting Professor, Queens College, City University of New York, 1988; faculty member and series coordinator, Wolfson Center for National Affairs, New School for Social Research, New York, 1988; Lecturer in Creative Writing Program, Princeton University, New Jersey, 1989 and 1990; and Visiting Butler Chair Professor, State University of New York, Buffalo, Fall 1989.



In 1990 he published The Absent Father in Dumbo, published by Zasterle in the Canary Islands, and the next year Rough Trades, where he follows the same strategy of encoding language as a discursive formation along with jokes a la George Burns, or references to Maoist thought. Dark City (1994), The Subject (1995), Little Orphan Anagram (1997), and Log Rhythms (1998) (these last two titles in collaboration with his wife Susan Bee) complete this significant decade in his literary career, achieving an international recognition, as demonstrated by the over hundreds of readings and lectures/talks all over the world, including France, Finland, Denmark, Italy, Portugal, The Czech Republic, Germany, Austria, Serbia, Spain, Canada, Cuba, Brazil, England, Sweden, Argentina, New Zealand.



The year 2000 saw the publication of his collected poems, Republics of Reality: 1975-1995, which was praised by the influential Publishers Weekly for its great diversity and lyric qualities of Bernstein's poems, "the volume as a whole presents as many promises as it does relevant problems, as many beauties as it does strange new imaginings." Other Bernstein's primary works in these early years of the 21st century include titles like With Strings (2001), Let's Just Say (2003), and Girly Man (2006).

Since 1993 Charles Bersntein is Donald T. Regan Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, where he has continued working with a growing excitement in the development of poetry. In this sense, he is the co-founder and co-editor, with Al Filreis, of PENNsound (writing.upenn.edu/pennsund); and he has been host and co-producer of LINEbreak and Close Listening, two radio poetry series.

We cannot separate his creative work from his role as a significant essayist on recent American poetry. His critical books Content's Dream: Essays 1975-1984, A Poetics (1992), and My Way: Speeches and Poems (1999), reflect his intellectual capacity and sophisticated persuasions to approach poetry. These books illustrate how Bernstein has combined his concerns as a writer and his duty as a teacher, and not simply making gestures of admiration towards a range of works and disciplines. He addresses various issues ranging from Modernism to postmodernism, from ideology to visual poetry, from cultural projects to the status of the little magazines and the Web.



The moment of truth comes when he reads and analyzes such poets as Louis Zukofsky, Charles Reznikoff, Laura Riding, Ezra Pound Allen Ginsberg, Gertrude Stein, and his contemporaries like Lyn Hejinian, Ron Silliman, and Susan Howe. Within this context of exciting approaches, Bernstein defends that his poetry an poetics fall naturally within the American tradition beginning with Modernism, though appreciating philosophical sources from Ludwig Wittgenstein or Stanley Cavell, visual art, and political science.

Another aspect in Bernstein's literary career is his editorship. He co-edited with Bruce Andrews the little magazine, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, which was anthologized as The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book (1984).



And other books like The Politics of Poetic Form: Poetry and Public Policy (1990); Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word (1998), and Louis Zukofsky: Selected Poems (2006); or special issues of academic journals, "99 Poets/1999: An International Poetics Symposium," a special issue of Boundary 2; and Live at the Ear (Elemenope Productions, 1994), an audio poetry anthology, have included a number of scholars and poets determining what new writing should be presented to the reading public. Along with this, he also has extended his collaboration and written some librettos like Blind Witness News, the Subject: A Psychiatric Opera and The Lenny Paschen Show, with composer Ben Yarmolinsky, and Cafe Buffe, by Dean Drummond. Shadowtime, on the work of Walter Benjamin, was written for composer Brian Ferneyhough and premiered in May 2004 at the Munich Biennale. Similarly. he has collaborated with Richard Tuttle on a poem/sculpture and an essay/poem on Tuttle's work, and collaborated with Susan Bee on several artists books. In 2002, he curated Poetry Plastique, with Jay Sanders, at the Marianne Boesky gallery and co-edited the catalog.



It would be impossible to detail all Charles Bernstein's literary contributions to little magazines, small presses, or the many places where he has published. Let's say that since the mid-1970s, Bernstein's poems and essays have been published in over 500 magazines and periodicals. His poetry and essays have appeared in translation, as well, in over one hundred anthologies and periodicals in Mexico, Argentina, Cuba, Brazil, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Italy, France, Germany, Austria, Serbia, Montenegro, Greece, Spain, Portugal, Russia, China, Korea, and Japan. His work has been often anthologized by academic and commercial presses. And over 400 essays and reviews on his work have been published in the most significant academic journals either in the United States or in other foreign countries.

Among the numerous prizes and professional recognition ha has received, I should mention the 1999 Roy Harvey Pearce/Archive for New Poetry Prize of the University of California, San Diego --established in 1995, the Pearce Prize is awarded biennially to an American poet-scholar in recognition of his or her distinguished lifetime contributions to poetry and literary scholarship. He also was honoured with the Dean's Award for Innovation in Teaching in 2005 at the University of Pennsylvania. And in 2006, Bernstein was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.

To conclude, Charles Bernstein has developed a substantially productive literary career, constantly presenting varied examples of how poetic texts can be altered, enriched, and where discoveries inextricably incorporated. The formal and subject matter framework Bernstein operates in is clearly eclectic, characterized by inclusion and operating from and beyond literalness. We might describe his technique as assemblage, but of course it is clearly ex-centric, a term he uses often when he repeatedly associates the impact of his poetry as intimately linked to ethnic, linguistic, racial, class, sexual and regional issues. Its common nexus is rooted in challenging the conventional. The formal network is usually complex in Bernstein's work. We need do no more than take a glance at Controlling Interests, The Sophist, or Islets/Irritations and observe the formal varieties that resist any defining categorization. Long and short poems, arbitrarily split lines, some in prose, and empty spaces or capitals to attract more attention, configure a poetry superficially considered as just an aesthetic object intended to seduce, but which really has a more complex nature. We are speaking here of absorption and the non-absorptive object and by extension of tensions between institutions and the institutions and the self who breaks down the limits. If there was a narrative in these poems it would not be telling one story but many, through monologues and dialogues that seem chaotic and make us advance and retreat in reading them, so as to continually discover new approaches. The poem cannot be allegorical in the symbolist or surrealist sense, of course it may be self-revealing but not to construct the psyche, rather to follow the direction of Gertrude Stein, Louis Zukofsky, Laura (Riding) Jackson, Samuel Beckett or Robert Creeley, akin to what can be described as the alteration of form and where writing projects a worldview.


Manuel Brito (Universidad de La Laguna)