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The Politics of Poetic Form

Charles Bernstein has been the most influential U.S. poet-critic for two decades. His literary career began with a small magazine, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, that he edited with Bruce Andrews in the 1970s. This publication drew together a relatively large group of young writers who since then have been known as the Language writers. Most of them are poets, but I say “writers” because they all write in experimental forms, many of them in prose. These writers developed literary doctrines, some of which were in play among academic critics engaged with literary theory, and these doctrines continue to be closely considered by young writers today. That is, the ideas about poetry that Bernstein advocated in the 1970s and later have had real staying power. First among these ideas is the notion that the individual experience and sensibility of the poet is not so important and valuable as many of Bernstein’s contemporary seemed to presume. He has argued that the properties of language itself are of greater significance than the feelings of a single person, even of a poet. Second is the notion that the play of language occurs in a social context, that we all live in language together, and that work at the edges of a language community’s practices bear a genuine relationship to all its language practices, that even experimental poets are engaged with the meaning-making of their contemporaries.

Having said that, I should add now that Charles Bernstein is unusual among poets in that he is a writer with a wonderful sense of humor, and a genuine passion of poems and people too. He is the author of too many collections of poems and essays to list here. For years he published with small avant-garde publishers. Now his poems are published by the Farrar Straus: All the Whiskey in Heaven appeared in 2011. University of Chicago Press publishes his critical essays: most recently, Attack of the Difficult Poems (2011). When he began his literary career, he was a technical writer, I believe, a writer of instruction manuals, say. He did not foresee becoming an academic. Nonetheless he and the poet Susan Howe built up a very distinguished Ph.D. track at SUNY Buffalo known as the Poetics Program. He was the David Gray Professor of Poetry and Letters at Buffalo. Now he is the Donald T. Regan Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, where he helps oversee a wonderful on-line archive of recorded poetry readings. Charles Bernstein is a distinguished academic who did not mean to become a professor, and a highly regarded poet who was first a technical writer. He is a person of surprises.

-Robert von Hallberg, Professor of Literature, CMC