March 12, 2003
Charles Bernstein: Enough!

[Here's Charles Bernstein's statement for the reading for the Enough! anthology -- I've posted a few poems from the book on Circulars already -- that took place at the Bowery Poetry Club last Saturday. It's already caused some controversy; a short response by Kent Johnson can be found at Skanky Possum.]

In these difficult times, let us not draw away from our poetics in an attempt to redress the ominous possibilities of future U.S. government policies or the onerous effects of current government policies. As poets, we need to pursue our own forms of ethical and aesthetic response rather than engage in the sort of pronouncement by fiat and moral presumption of President Bush and his partisans.

In his “State of the Union” message on January 28, 2002, Mr. Bush said, “America's purpose is more than to follow a process; it is to achieve a result.” This statement alone provides sufficient evidence to oppose his policies. What our America stands on, its foundation, is a commitment to process over results, to finding by doing, to thinking by responding. Solutions made outside of an open-ended process compound whatever problems we face.

If this statement does not seem forceful enough, if it appears too uncertain or insufficiently categorically, so be it. If we are to talk of “poets” against the war, then what is it in our poems -- as opposed to our positions as citizens -- that does the opposing? Perhaps it might be an approach to politics, as much as to poetry, that doesn’t feel compelled to repress ambiguity or complexity nor to substitute the righteous monologue for a skeptic’s dialogue.

At these trying time we keep being hectored toward moral discourse, toward turning our work into digestible messages. This too is a casualty of the war machine, the undermining of the value of the projects of art, of the aesthetic.

Art is never secondary to moral discourse but its teacher.

Art, unregulated by a predetermined message, is all the more urgent in a time of crisis. Indeed, it is a necessary response to crisis, exploring the deeper roots of our alienation and offering alternative ways not only to think, but also to imagine and indeed to resist.

A decade ago, just after the previous Persian War, Leslie Scalapino, the convener of today’s session, sent Dead Souls, a series of searing indictments of that war, to a number of newspapers, who declined to publish, as editorial matter, a kind of writing they found inaccessible. But the task for poetry is not to translate itself into the language of social and linguistic norms but to question those norms and, indeed, to explore the ways they are used to discipline and contain dissent.

Poetry offers not a moral compass but an aesthetic probe. And it can provide a radical alternative to the outcome-driven thinking that has made the Official Morality of the State a mockery of ethical thinking and of international democratic values.

We all saw the effect of outcome-driven thinking in Florida during the Fall of 2000, when the Republican National Committee launched a unilateral, anti-democratic campaign, capturing the state power of the executive branch from the winner of the popular vote for President. To achieve their goal, Mr. Bush and his partisans had to turn against their own espoused belief in states’ rights. In the course of their righteous zeal to win at any cost, the Bush faction turned against the will both of the Supreme Court and the electorate of the State of Florida. The prestige and integrity of the United State Supreme Court was collateral damage to Mr. Bush’s determined insistence that ends justify means. The Supreme Court, which we once thought of as a guarantor or liberty, was exposed as a tool of the ultra-right wing agenda of the Republican National Committee. This past week, we have seen this same Supreme Court rule that 50 years of incarceration is not cruel and unusual punishment for a string of three petty crimes. Once again, we see the contempt the Chief Justice, Mr. Rehnquist, and his Star Chamber cohorts, Justices Scalia and Thomas, have for the shared meaning of our common language, shared meanings that are the foundation for the system of laws to which we have given consent through the Bill of Rights to the Constitution.

“Unilateralism” is not just the course the Executive Branch is pursuing, with disastrous consequence, in foreign policy, but also the policy it pursues domestically, in its assault on our liberties, on the poor, and indeed on our aspirations for a democratic society.

So I come here this afternoon, to the Bowery Poetry Club, to say, with all of you, ENOUGH!

Presented at the Enough reading and launch at the Bowery Poetry Club on March 9, 2003: Enough, an anthology of poetry and writings against the war, ed. Rick London and Leslie Scalapino (Oakland: O Books, 2003)

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