Bernstein, Charles

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Nationality: American. Born: New York City, 4 April 1950. Education: Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1968–72, A.B. in philosophy 1972 (Phi Beta Kappa); Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, British Colombia (King Fellow, 1973–74). Family: Married Susan Bee Laufer in 1977; one daughter and one son. Career: Writer on medical and health topics. Faculty member and series coordinator, Wolfson Center for National Affairs, New School for Social Research, New York, 1988. Since 1990 David Gray Professor of Poetry and Letters, and director, poetics program, State University of New York, Buffalo. Visiting lecturer, University of Auckland, 1986, and University of California, San Diego, 1987; visiting professor, Queens College, City University of New York, 1988, and City College of the City of New York, 1998; lecturer in creative writing program, Princeton University, New Jersey, 1989 and 1990; Visiting Butler Chair Professor, State University of New York, Buffalo, fall 1989. Editor, with Bruce Andrews, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, New York, 1978–81, and of poetry anthologies for Paris Review, 1982, and Boundary 2, 1987. Awards: National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, 1980; Guggenheim fellowship, 1985; University of Auckland Foundation fellowship, 1986; New York Foundation for the Arts fellowship, 1990, 1995; Roy Harvey Pearce/Archive for New Poetry Prize of the University of California, San Diego, 1999. Address: Poetics Program, Department of English, 438 Clemens Hall, State University of New York, Buffalo, New York 14260, U.S.A.



Asylums. New York, Asylum's Press, 1975.

Parsing. New York, Asylum's Press, 1976.

Shade. College Park, Maryland, Sun and Moon Press, 1978.

Poetic Justice. Baltimore, Pod, 1979.

Sense of Responsibility. Berkeley, California, Tuumba Press, 1979.

Legend, with others. New York, Segue, 1980.

Controlling Interests. New York, Roof, 1980.

Disfrutes. Needham, Massachusetts, Poets and Poets Press, 1981.

The Occurrence of Tune, photographs by Susan Bee Laufer. New York, Segue, 1981.

Stigma. Barrytown, New York, Station Hill Press, 1981.

Islets/Irritations. New York, Jordan Davies, 1983; New York, Roof Books, 1992.

Resistance. Windsor, Vermont, Awede Press, 1983.

Amblyopia. Elmwood, Connecticut, Poets and Poets Press, 1985.

Veil. Madison, Wisconsin, Xexoxial, 1987.

The Sophist. Los Angeles, Sun and Moon Press, 1987.

Four Poems. Tucson, Arizona, Chax Press, 1988.

The Nude Formalism. Los Angeles, Sun and Moon Press, 1989.

Senses of Responsibility. Providence, Rhode Island, Paradigm Press, 1989.

The Absent Father in Dumbo. La Laguna, Islas Canarias, Spain, Zasterle Press, 1990.

Rough Trades. Los Angeles, Sun and Moon Press, 1990.

Islets/Irritations. New York, Roof Books, 1992.

Dark City. Los Angeles, Sun & Moon Press, 1994.

The Subject. Buffalo, New York, Meow Press, 1995.

Little Orphan Anagram, with Susan Bee. New York, Granary, 1997.

Reading Red, with Richard Tuttle. Köln, Walther Konig, 1998.

Log Rhythms, with Susan Bee. New York, Granary, 1998.

Republics of Reality: Poems 1975–1995. Los Angeles, Sun and Moon Press, 2000.


Blind Witness News (opera libretto), music by Ben Yarmolinsky (produced New York, 1990).

The Lenny Paschen Show (opera libretto), music by Ben Yarmolinsky (produced New York 1992).


Content's Dream: Essays 1975–1984. Los Angeles, Sun and Moon Press, 1986.

Artifice of Absorption. Philadelphia, Paper Air, 1987.

A Poetics. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press, 1992.

My Way: Speeches and Poems. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Editor, with Bruce Andrews, The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book. Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press, 1984.

Editor, The Politics of Poetic Form: Poetry and Public Policy. New York, Roof, 1990.

Editor, Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word. New York, Oxford University Press, 1998.

Translator, The Maternal Drape, by Claude Royet-Journoud. Windsor, Vermont, Awede Press, 1984.

Translator, Red, Green, and Black, by Olivier Cadiot. Windsor, Vermont, Awede Press, 1984.

Translator, with others, Selected Language Poems=Mei-kuo yu yen pai shih hsuam. Chengdu, China, Sichuan Literature and Art Publishing House, 1993.


Critical Studies: Charles Bernstein issue of Difficulties (Kent, Ohio), ii, 1, 1982; "L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Poetry in the Eighties" by Marjorie Perloff, in American Poetry Review (Philadelphia), May-June 1984; "Edit Is Act: Some Measurement for Content's Dream" by Larry Price, in Line, 1986; "The Crisis in Poetry," in Missouri Review (Columbia), 1986, and "Chalres Bernstein's Dark City: Polis, Policy, and the Policing of Poetry," in American Poetry Review (Philadelphia), 24(5), Sept/Oct 1995, both by Hank Lazer; "Pattern as Qualitative Infinity: The Unit as a Book, the Book as a Unit" by Leslie Scalapino, in Poetics Journal, 1987; "Private Enigmas and Critical Functions, with Particular Reference to the Writing of Charles Bernstein" by Jerome McGann, in New Literacy History (Baltimore), 1990; Language Poetry: Writing as Rescue by Linda Reinfeld, Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1992; "Reappropriation and Resistance: Charles Bernstein, Language Poetry, and Poetic Tradition" by Christopher Beach, in ABC of Influence: Ezra Pound and the Remaking of American Poetic Tradition, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1992; "The Music of Construction: Measure and Polyphony in Ashbery and Bernstein" by John Shoptaw, in The Tribe of John: Ashbery and Contemporary Poetry, edited by Susan Schultz, Tuscaloosa, University of Alabama Press, 1995; "(Mis)Characterizing Charlie: Language and the Self in the Poetry and Poetics of Charles Bernstein" by Paul Naylor, in Sagetrieb (Orono, Maine), 14(3), winter 1995; Twenty-five Sentences Containing the Words 'Charles Bernstein', Why Write? by Paul Auster, Providence, Burning Deck, 1996; "Charles Bernstein: A Dossier" edited by Paul A. Bove, in Boundary 2 (Pittsburgh), 23(3), fall 1996; "'Rough Trades': Charles Bernstein and the Currency of Poetry" by Kevin McGuirk, in Canadian Review of American Studies, 27(3), 1997.

Charles Bernstein comments:

The sense of music in poetry: the music of meaning—emerging, fogging, contrasting, etc. Tune attunement in understanding—the meaning sounds. It's impossible to separate prosody from the structure of the poem. You can talk about strategies of meaning generation, shape, the kinds of sounds accented, the varieties of measurement (of scale, of number, of line length, of syllable order, of word length, of phrase length, of punctuation). But no one has primacy—the music is the orchestrating these into poems, the angles one plays against another, the shading.

My interest in not conceptualizing the field of the poem as a unitary plane: that any prior principle of composition violates the priority I want to give to the inherence of surface, to the total necessity in the durational space of the poem for every moment to count Writing as a process of pushing whatever way, or making the piece cohere as far as I can: stretching my mind—to where I know it makes sense but not quite why—suspecting relations that I understand, that make the sense of the ready—to hand, i.e., pushing the composition to the very limits of sense, meaning, to that razor's edge where judgment/aesthetic sense is all I can go on (know-how).

*  *  *

Lyn Hejinian published Charles Bernstein's book Senses of Responsibility, indeed printed and designed it, on her Tuumba Press in 1979. It is written in a style that could only strike Hejinian as in accord with her own suspended style of discourse, a language intended never quite to touch earth or to assemble in a final pattern of unified meanings. Instead, Bernstein, like Hejinian and vintage John Ashbery, particularly in his double monologue "As You Know," tends to make poetry stand still and accumulate sound, not expository sense. The juxtapositions of sound phrases owe their invention to Gertrude Stein, who stood poetry on its ear in 1914 with the publication of her teasing book Tender Buttons.

But there is a doleful, somnolent quality to Bernstein's long lyrics. They seem rooted in American symbolist meditations, the sort T.S. Eliot wrote in the teens, including "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," "Preludes," and "Portrait of a Lady." The poetry tends to explore the discord of a speaker's mind, the ravaged emotions and confused thinking brought on by an unnamed crisis or impending disaster.

Bernstein explores the sense of disaster obliquely, but at bottom he is working his way toward a consciousness of the Holocaust. As a Jewish poet he is haunted by the past and the terrors of an unfeeling, inattentive society that could allow such horrors to befall an entire race of citizens. In his prose collection Content's Dream he carefully dissects the meaning of film as a window through which a passive, protected audience can witness all manner of violence, horror, and sexual degradation without feeling responsible for any of the events. The inconsequentiality of television and movies and the automatism of writing in general make Bernstein's linguistic inventions seem an escape from the conditions in which other holocausts are likely.

Under Bernstein's surface of syntactical disjunction and casual wordplay lies a more urgent script. Following the lead of Stein's earlier prose experiments, in which ordinary experience leaps to life as strange, animistic fields of events, Bernstein reformulates lyric discourse, sending it down logical pathways it has not gone before—to startle, disorient, wake us from moral slumber, and make us heed the precise wording of our social contracts, our information mills, our avalanche of propagandized prose. He means for us to be on the defensive, to be alert, and his poetry is constantly fooling us out of our assumptions so that we pay closer attention:

   That's the trouble around here
   through which, asking as it does
   a different kind of space, who
   much like any other, relives
   what's noise, a better shoe, plants
   its own destination, shooting up
   at a vacant—which is forever
   unreconstituted—wedding party,
   rituals in which, acting out of
   a synonymous disclosure that
   "here" loses all transference falling
   back to, in, what selfsame
   dwelling is otherwise unaccounted for.

Many of Bernstein's speakers are trapped in situations from which there is no escape; they kill time by letting their thoughts range over a tedious catalog of subjects that convey something of the atmosphere of horror waiting to happen. Hannah Arendt made the now famous observation that evil is banal, but reality is merely banal on the surface. Below throb forces and powers that can either mark the way to paradise or purgatory, depending on one's vigilance.

Poetic Justice bears fingerprints on its cover to suggest the booking of a prisoner. It is another of Bernstein's prose sequences on a waiting man, whose resources of language allow him to delicately dissect his every sensation and turn of thought.

Listen. I can feel it. Specifically and intentionally. It does hurt. I like it. Ringing like this. The hum. Words peeling. The one thing. Not so much limited as conditioned. Here. In this.

Spurting. It tastes good. Clogs. Thick with shape. I carry it with me where ever I go. I like it like this. Smears.

In Parsing the final fifteen pages are a list of familiar objects, each beginning with "my." The list is preceded by a quote from Swami Sachnananda—"Count the number of things you call mine. This is the distance between you and enlightenment." Bernstein's poetry suggests the need to purge oneself of corrupt emotions and habits, dull senses buried under the tawdry wares of a civilization gone to seed. Words are magic, and according to Bernstein they lure one into the remotest intellectual landscapes and cause worlds to turn or be reborn. Bernstein's language poetry, which became a substantial movement in the post-World War II era, argues two issues at once: that the death of language is the death of morality, spirit, and soul; and that the renewal of language is the birth of freedom.

Like Hejinian and Ashbery, Bernstein is a parodist of older styles of writing, The intention is not always satirical but can be affectionate, a subtle form of nostalgia for less complicated worlds, less self-conscious modes of expression. Sometimes, when the tone is light and precise, the effect of merging his voice with those of the past can be haunting:

   There is an emptiness that fills
   Our lives as we meet
   On the boulevards and oases
   Of a convenient attachment. Boats
   In undertone drift into
   Incomplete misapprehension, get
   All fired up inside.

In Rough Trades Bernstein's parodic skills take on whole passages of lyric in paraphrase, with the result that the sound of much of his phrasing, while saying one thing, or nothing, recalls something else, however unrelated. This happens in "The Kiwi Bird in the Kiwi Tree," where we hear scraps of Omar Khayyám:

   … The tailor tells
   of other tolls, the seam that binds, the trim,
   the waste. & having spelled these names, move on
   to toys or talcums, skates & scores.

From 1978 to 1981 Bernstein edited L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, the bimonthly journal of poetics and poetry that brought together poets and prose writers attracted to semantic and linguistic experiments. The journal initiated a movement among many interested in turning a reader's concentration to the medium of words instead of the meanings to be abstracted from them. Writers in the journal seem to agree that the language of art has been too well appropriated by others for political and commercial ends and that only by distorting and experimenting with its syntax and grammar can it be renewed for artistic use.

—Paul Christensen