Windows & Mirrors

L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E POETRY - A Retrospective

An interview with Charles Bernstein (2006-2007)
Aryanil Mukherjee

Nearly three decades back Charles Bernstein and others unleashed what we today call LANGUAGE POETRY. A contemporary critic announced "finally a true post-modernist proposal was put on the table". Bernstein proclaimed, "There is no natural writing". When I took my first peek at Language Poetry at the advent of the new century, it immediately occured to me that a lot of what LP has claimed and reclaimed over the years, sizeable portions of the kind of work Charles Bernstein, Ron Silliman, Bruce Andrews and others have done, will perhaps find soulmates in the writings of several 1980 (and 90s) generation Bengali poets in India. Attempting to understand the premise of LP and the poetry and poetics it advocates, I decided to interview Charles Bernstein. The following interview was conducted thru 2006-2007.
An important and prolific poet and poetry-speaker, Bernstein is the author of several books and anthologies on poetry and poetics. He is the Donald T. Regan Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania.


AM: When did you, Silliman and others conceive what we call L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Poetry today?

CB: I was first in touch with Ron Silliman in 1973 and started what has been a lifelong exchange, though our correspondence was most intense from the early 70s to the mid-80s. I met Bruce Andrews, with whom I edited L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, in 1975. By that point, a number of poets, dissatisfied with the Official Verse Culture of the time, with its blandness and conformity, and with its high-handed rejection of the historical and contemporary particulars in poetry that most motivated us to write, collectively explored alternatives, going back to radical modernist innovations while at the same time championing the work we found most interesting in the immediately prior generation. We actively exchanged ideas about ideology, arts, politics, aesthetics, and philosophy, expressing our engagements through intensive small press publishing of books and magazines. Deep friendships developed in the course of these exchanges, and lots of disagreements, collective engagements, and concerted actions.

AM: Why did the language poets choose to write "L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E"? Was it to emphasize that language is essentially an assemblage of signs ?

CB: “Language” was among a long list of possible names Bruce and I compiled in 1977 – based on conversation with several of our friends and collaborators – and as Bruce and I began to settle on Language we did want something to make it stand out both from the generic word from the title of the journal of the Linguistics Society of America, not to mention Jack Spicer’s great book of that name. We knew we needed to use some kind of punctuation or visual mark between the letters, and we again cast about for ideas about what would work best. Bruce and I decided on the equal signs, though I don’t recall any conversation in which we explicitly discussed what those equal signs between the letters meant. But it looked good and, at the time, that was good enough for us.

AM: Did this generation of poets feel that they were caught up in literary fiasco of some sort?

CB: Any countermovement within poetry verges on fiasco. Without a sense of humor about the context and consequences of literary tempests, even in large stewpots, you risk becoming what you most abhor: the blowhard literary functionary (and those come on all three sides of any coin). My essays always border on, if not actually celebrating, intellectual fiasco, or perhaps frisson or miasma or bedlam. To bedlam and back, my friend: TOURS TO THE OTHER SIDE OF THE MIND & HE LIVES TO TELL THE TALE! I’ve always loved those movies about the small, slightly disorganized gang trying to pull off a heist, and succeeding, against all odds.

AM: What were some of the real problems young poets were facing then ? How did LP address those?

CB: If you say “real” problems, then I would point to our rejection, in the U.S., of the policies that led to the Vietnam war, that led to the incarceration of a large part of the young male African-American population, that led to poverty and unemployment as a means to fuel “economic growth.” Poetry addresses that in the sense that it literally faces it, in Stevens’s sense of the “pressure of reality.”

AM: How were Language Poets reacting to mainstream American poetry in the early eighties?

CB: I don’t want to generalize about, or speak for, “Language Poets” since the term means different things to different people. What we are talking about is a great many poets who questioned mainstream literary values but who did not necessarily have a style or politics or poetics in common. In L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, the magazine I edited with Bruce Andrews from 1978 to 1982, we suggested many “other” ways of writing poetry. But, moreover, we were interest in a critical poetics, that is, an engagement with poetry that articulated an alternative to the often anti-intellectual cant of voice, self, humanism, emotion – an alternative, that is, to an “official” practice that was problematic because – in the name of voice – it excluded most voices and the possibility of variant voicings and in the process made assumptions about the self that were troubling. The problem was never voice or self or emotion but the dogmatic way these terms were used to regulate poetry. So that you end up limiting poems to representing a self that was hollowed out the very particularity of humanness that makes a person not a universal idea but particular-in-formation. Or thinking that emotion in poems is limited to prefabricated sentiments rather than opening up to a volatile field on sensation. I didn’t want to write poems that said what I felt but rather that made feeling present in the words. Emotion is not something I represent in a poem but make in the process of writing.

AM: Did you see the Beats and/or the New York school or the Black Mountain poets as your pre-cursors? Or was that LP did not believe in growing out of a literary tradition?

CB: I have been as much involved in fabricating viable histories of American and non-American 20th century poetry as anything else. And certainly the work of the New American Poetry was crucial and informing, even as any “younger” poet must make her or his own path of difference. As far as the particular poetics that formed around L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, it was probably more involved with identifying a radical poetic tradition than breaking from the poetry of the past. Much of the effort of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, and my own projects in the years since, have been as historical as contemporary. In fact, reading poetry as historically and socially specific, not as universally true sentiments, is fundamental to L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E''s poetics. What might be harder to see from the present perspective in how contested the history of American poetry was; in 1980, it was still a struggle to put forward Stein or Zukofsky or Loy, Riding or Reznikoff. Things have changed. But Official Verse Culture is no less pernicious now than 25 years ago.

AM: Who were some of the early Language Poets? How did you think they were contributing then to the movement?

CB: If you are interested in the view from the late 70s and early 80s, I suggest perusing L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E or consulting several key anthologies: In the American Tree: Language, Realism, Poetry, ed. Ron Silliman; From the Other Side of the Century: A New American Poetry, 1960-1990, ed. Douglas Messerli; Language Poetries: An Anthology, also edited by Messleri; Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology, ed. Paul Hoover. My selection of poets were included in two anthologies: "Language Sampler" in Paris Review, (No. 86, 1982) and a few years later 43 Poets (1984), which was a special issue of boundary 2 (Vol. 14, No. 1/2, Autumn, 1985–Winter, 1986). Two of the magazines of the period I keep returning to are Roof, edited by James Sherry in New York, and Tottel’s, edited by Ron Silliman in the Bay Area. But just as important were presses such as Lyn Hejinian’s Tuumba and Douglas Messerli’s Sun & Moon. I don’t want to go back to 1975 and speak for, or from, that moment and anyway I don’t wish to speak for anyone but myself … and myself she is wobbly! I’d rather give a partial list of some of the poets I identified with in the 70s, who had started publishing at the time or up to a decade earlier, and who are still, thirty years later, doing work that fully engages me, that is, doing new work with which I am in an ongoing dialog: Bruce Andrews, Leslie Scalapino, Susan Howe, Michael Palmer, Clark Coolidge, Robert Grenier, Douglas Messerli, Rosmarie Waldrop, Bob Perelman, Keith Waldrop, Alan Davies, Erica Hunt, Steve McCaffery, Lyn Hejinian, Lorenzo Thomas, Ron Silliman, Fred Wah, Tom Raworth, Ted Greenwald, Ann Lauterbach, P. Inman, Nathaniel Mackey, Johanna Drucker, Tina Darragh, Nick Piombino, David Bromige, Michael Davidson, Allen Fisher, Norman Fischer, Diane Ward, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, and Rae Armantrout.

AM:Ron Silliman proclaimed "Let us undermine the bourgeoisie." You wrote that this kind of writing is "decentered, community controlled, taken out of the service of the capitalist project." What measures did the Language Poets take to defy, ignore and undermine the literary establishment ? We understand, you had to create small-presses in order to support your cause, but in a capitalist society, how do you make such small presses survive? What would prevent them from getting swallowed by the big fish?

CB: Much of the small press activity of the 70s and 80s has now migrated to the web, though there remain crucial print publishers. Poetry of the kind I have been engaged with has so far shown little risk of absorption by the big commercial media companies – the material is too small scale to generate profits. Our tiny market share has saved us from too much compromise! Probably my best answer to this question overall is an essay called “Provisional Institutions: Alternative Presses and Poetic Innovation.” With the Electronic Poetry Center and PennSound the point is still to provide commercial-free zones for poetic exchange that do provide a counter to the market economy. These sites are noncommercial and not-for-profit: there are no paid advertisements and we offer not samples of work but full texts and complete readings. Still, nothing remains wholly outside the market and it is as important to acknowledge our complicities as pursue our resistances. Anyway, the point is not to remain outside, above, below, or beyond the market or mass culture or even official verse culture; purity is not only overrated, it is counterproductive. I have always been a pragmatist: you do the best you can under present conditions. I would like to see more of the poetry that I most care about enter into public spaces, get reviewed in the newspaper, win prizes, sell copies, be included in classrooms from elementary school or graduate school. When that happens, I don’t feel the edge has been lost but rather that the work is finding its home in the world. However, there are surprisingly strong forces in U.S. culture that stand in the way of this happening and what’s worth focusing on these forces, rather than on the isolated merits of one poem versus another. That is, I am interested not just in preferences or taste but also in the criteria for the taste and also the social, cultural, historical and economic forces that inform those criteria. That can make for exchanges across various divides: it is what makes possible the kind of international exchange we both would like to see, and that we are provisionally forming at the International Exchange for Poetics Invention (, which Ton van 't Hof and I started earlier this year. If I see any problem in the U.S. scene today, it is that there is not enough institutional and ideological critique; the assumption too often is that we are in a kind of talent contest in which everyone is free to participate. But Official Verse Culture, by definition, always includes a variety of styles and approaches in order to ensure it’s legitimacy. John Ashbery may very well be America’s most honored poet but his work stands in opposition to the Cold War values of Official Verse Culture, which is constructed on the radical containment of the work of Frost, Bishop, and Lowell; ironically, even these three poets’ work is not safe from the very Official Verse Culture that sacralizes it. Even if I were to become, or am now, a part of Official Verse Culture myself (if nominated I will swerve; if elected, somersault), it wouldn’t change the basic state of affairs that I critique nor make my critique any more or less true.

AM: Was there any support, encouragement from the other side of the establishment – the academic world?

CB: The university is not the same as the literary establishment. The sphere of literary taste represented by nationally distributed publications, prizes, and the like is quite distinct from the literary academy (literature departments), though more closely aligned with some Creative Writing Programs. English departments – more than poets outside the academy may sometimes realize – have, by and large, only a peripheral engagement with contemporary poetry. Those of involved with poetry often focus on the exceptions, including the places I have worked, SUNY-Buffalo and the University of Pennsylvania; but these places are not typical. I started to teach at Buffalo in 1989, and at Penn in 2003; before that my connection to universities was slight, at least after I graduated from college in 1972, where I had teachers who were of tremendous importance to me, including Stanley Cavell and Rogers Albritton, both philosophers. Early on in my life as a poet, I was in contact with several scholars who were not just supportive but really more collaborators, fellow thinkers. In this respect I would mention Marjorie Perloff and Jerome McGann in particular. The poets I knew who worked at universities were also remarkably generous and encouraging, from David Antin, Jerome Rothenberg, and Michael Davidson at the University of California, San Diego, to Robin Blaser at Simon Fraser University, Wystan Curnow at the University of Auckland, Eric Mottram at Kings College (UK), to Robert Creeley at Buffalo. They gave me a sense you could be a poet working in the university but with an orientation toward the new poetry and poetics being created and exchanged outside the academy.

AM: Some younger American poets who are believed to have imbibed a lot from Language Poetry, say that – Language poets, are, for the most part, intensely interested in literary theory and have been instrumental is removing poetry further and further from the common reader. In America today, academia seems to safe-haven poetry thus strengthening the theory that poetry is a sub-culture now. How would you face these charges ?

CB: Poetry is not a form of mass-culture; every variety of poetry, from that written by those who would like to reach the broad masses to that written by those who are happy enough with a small circle of friends, is tiny taters compared to blockbuster movies or reality TV or pop music. The issues about accessibility, populism, elitism are important aesthetic issues about which many poets take passionate positions. But these positions take place within the small-scale world of poetry, not on the stage of mass culture. That is not my preference, or any poet’s choice; it just reflects the historical circumstances for the genre in this time and place. This state of affairs is neither positive nor negative; much mass-audience art is pretty bad just as much small-audience poetry is pretty bad. In the U.S., in the early 21st century, the really pernicious elitism is the elitism of market share, the widespread assumption that the only real value is market value and market share. One of the values of poetry in our time is to prove that wrong, spectacularly wrong. I am not concerned with making my work accessible to those without any interest or engagement in poetry, but I suspect that exactly this is the most important quality of my work that might interest such a person. The kind of poetry I like has a linguistic, acoustic, and conceptual complexity and richness that I find no where else. Lots of the discussion of accessibility in poetry assume that readers are dumb not just in terms of their ability to read but because of their choice not to read poetry. I must be dumb too because I find little to interest me in some of the poems that are trying their darndest to be EZ, the sort of thing the chief functionary and propaganda czar of the AWP (the organization of creative writing programs) toots his tin horn about. No one has an obligation to read poetry and if someone prefers prose that’s cool by me. Poetry is not a moral obligation; it’s not the wheat germ of literature. Pandering only makes poetry seem pathetic but then again pandering administrators of Poetic Orthodonture can be pretty funny, in a Monty Python kind of way.

AM:You and other Language Poets have professed that grammar structures tend to support the power structures of Western societies. Could you explain that with an example?

CB: Grammar, vocabulary, diction, form, and style reflect the power relations in a society. You can’t change the society by changing your grammar but any radical social, economic, or cultural change must necessarily come to terms with its rhetorics and its metaphors.

AM: In our world, parallel Bangla literature, there are senior poets like Barin Ghosal, Swadesh Sen, Kamal Chakraborty, Amitava Maitra, Ranjan Moitra, Dhiman Chakraborty, Shankar Lahiri, Swapan Roy, Jahar Sen Majumdar, Pranab Paul and an entire generation of younger followers who have seen conformist linguistic practices and language traditions as a demon-deity that represents the establishment. They have attacked this language or these modes of writing in an attempt to unshackle it. However, these poets have shown a deep distrust for academic pursuits. An academic essay to them is the ninth essay born from eight previous ones. Many of them, especially Barin Ghosal, have written “open essays” in support of their poetry and language-experiments that have original intent and are largely free from academic indoctrination. Did the Language Poets see language as the establishment itself or as an instrument of the establishment ? Academic institutions are often thought of as the nursery of language, but aren’t these establishments on their own ?

CB: I am not familiar with these writers so can’t make any useful comparisons. But I do think that the standard, professionalized academic essay is a problem, and not just for poetry, for the literary academy as well. The problem with the professionalized academic essay is that it emphasizes rationalization over exploration. And rationalization means smoothing out inconsistencies and ambiguities, reigning in variations in tone, modeling authorativeness rather than rattling authority. These are all things I say so much I worry either that I am turning ever bluer in the face (I am, so much more blue that 25 years back) or that I am falling into my own rote routine. Rationalization allows us to exploit ideas rather than think with them. It’s a struggle to avoid it, though; maybe that’s the reason it has taken me so long to reply to your questions. I had to stop every time I felt I was just recycling “ideas,” even ideas I like very well or, anyway, well enough. Institutions are pervasive and exist as much in intimate relationships as on the job or in the poetry or art worlds or at a university. And yes institutions reproduce themselves through language. Schools indoctrinate more than they teach. Perhaps the best we can do, here’s my pragmatism again, is try to recognize that indoctrination and hold it up for discussion. Language is neither the problem nor the solution, it’s the means.

AM: Language poets, as we know them, can be seen today as radical revisionists of the poetic form. While they seem to emphasize on the “new sentence”, they have a strong element of rejection in their literary theory. They tend to reject traditional forms, lyricism, narrative, subjectivity, and representational writing. In Bengal, roughly similar poetic values came into existence in the eighties that picked up momentum in the nineties. Barin Ghosal has termed this brand of poetry as “Atichetanaar Kabitaa” (Poetry of the Extra-Consciousness) and other latter modes and their variations as “Natun Kabita” (New Poetry) . When we came to know about LP, we seemed to find a mirror image of our beliefs, despite the numerous cultural/linguistic/political differences. Most of us from the younger generation, however, seem to reject the “element of rejection”. Proscriptive rejection, as we believe, prevents reinvention. We would like to invite your comment on this.

CB: It’s hard to disagree that any proscriptive credo would limit invention; that tends to be my assumption too. But then you’d have to be leery too about proscribing “rejection.” Negativity is one of the most powerful forces in poetry, as when one insists “I will not do that” or “This approach I simply cannot abide.” I can’t comment about the circumstance for you and your friends, but from where I come from there is altogether too much complacency, acceptance of dominant or reigning values, fear of questioning or rejecting. I have never said that any kind of poetry can’t be written and have written many kinds myself. But I think it’s still possible, and valuable, to articulate your preferences, to advocate what you care about and to come to terms with what you reject. Oscar Wilde once wrote, “Only an auctioneer admires all schools of art.” The current wave of neoliberal pluralism (or you could call it compulsory pluralism) may take the high ground of refusing to be limited by taste or the even higher ground of seeing connections where others have seen differences. But more often it just reflects an “end to ideology” – that it all boils down to a talent contest or differences in preference, as if we all on American Idol. The fact that different poetries clash is a value for poetry. And around here the idea that one should not rule out any style of writing is almost always applied in the wrong direction, that is, not against those who accept only traditional and conventional forms, but against those who are trying some different. If you question the dogmatism of dominant literary values, naturally you are accused of being dogmatic. “Round up the usual suspects.” If anything, my problem is that I am too complacent.




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