Fri 27 May 2011
America has known a lot of great vocal stylists: Patti Smith with her girlish, demure speaking voice erupting into volcanic fusillades from hell when she starts to sing; George Carlin’s loopy, hippie lilt, eventually crackling into the idiosyncratic, linguistically obsessed crank of his later years; Marilyn Monroe’s whispered “Happy Birthday” to JFK in Madison Square Garden, her only hit single, but a wonderful translation of the decidedly constructed ditzy-sage demeanor of her films; Johnny Carson’s nasally, Midwestern twang, crisp as freshly ironed slacks, punctuating jokes, good or bad, soft-balled from the guest couch; Allen Ginsberg’s mischievous Jersey Jewish channeling of Blake and Whitman in “Howl” and UCLA Alum James Franco’s equally mischievous Jersey Jewish channeling of Gisnberg in Howl; Axl Rose’s noxious screech, Kurt Cobain’s gargly drones, Bob Dylan’s messianic yawps, and Al Jolson’s Jolsonesque “Mammy” in blackface in the first talkie; Ronald Reagan’s authoritarian jocular basso profundo pouring forth casually from a throat swathed in white cravats, while William F. Buckley lisps complaints from a couch in WWOR-TV Studios in Secaucus, NJ, and Jimmy Carter retreats into the 90s; Henny Youngman and Lenny Bruce, Paul Robeson and James Earl Jones, Montgomery Clift and James Dean, Maya Angelou and Oprah Winfrey, all pairs all connected by osmotic DNA over the reach of years (and telephones); Eddie Murphy doing Eddie Murphy receiving a phone call from Bill Cosby chastising Murphy for using dirty words on stage, Murphy then doing Murphy calling Richard Pryor and Pryor saying to Murphy: “Tell Bill next time to have a coke and a smile and shut the fuck up!”
Charles Bernstein—who, by the way, is the Donald T. Regan Chair in the Department of English at the University of Pennsylvania; the publisher of something like 12 full-length books of poems, most recently All the Whiskey in Heaven, his selected poems published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux; the author of several collections of essays such as Content’s Dream (published right here in Los Angeles in 1986), A Poetics, which contains his oft-cited, seminal essay “Artifice of Absorption,” My Way, which contains one of my favorite essays of his, “Poetics of the Americas,” and most recently Attack of the Difficult Poems, of which no doubt today’s performance will be a substantial new salvo; editor or co-editor of countless volumes, journals, and digital archives such as L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine in the 70s with Bruce Andrews, the PennSound archive at the University of Pennsylvania, and a recent edition of the poems of Louis Zukofsky for the Library of America with its distinctive light cerise/puce cover; television and movie actor in such film as Finding Forrester where he played Dr. Simon and a series of hilarious Yellow Pages commercials with Jon Lovitz (where he school Lovitz on the art of improvised comedy), or as himself articulating the literary virtues of the latest postmodern post-author literary fad, the telephone book (R.I.P.); a prolific librettist, having composed three operas with Ben Yarmolinsky and most recently an opera based on the life of Walter Benjamin called Shadowtime with British composer Brian Ferneyhough; Director and Co-founder of the Poetics Program at the SUNY Buffalo, where he taught from 1990 to 2003; father, husband and Jew, this latter apparently contested category according to a fantastic long essay in Attack; and lastly, perhaps leastly, but not insignificantly the creator of several audio works that he recorded spontaneously over the years (all of which are collected on ubu.com) such as a now infamous one in which he reads the numbers 1 to 100 in order and quite dramatically, which I invite you to check out—is a different matter entirely. But I’d rather not tell you what he sounds like, you’ll learn momentarily.
As for Charles’ importance as a poet and theorist, I can only say that writings of his have had immense importance to me as I was “growing up” to be a poet. For instance, when in high school and college, Ezra Pound was really my guide, my “master” if you will—creator of crystalline poems, writer of daring, timely and certainly confident essays that I could use to chart out Modernism and basically all that came before (I was just some kid in the Jersey suburbs, my mother raised during the Korean War, quasi-working class, certainly no one around me was going to help). Pound’s anti-semitism, the radio broadcasts, or his generally complex conservative / libertarian politics never registered as anything I had to deal with—it was all aesthetics—and when they did I was quite troubled for a time. Pound became this big roadblock historically—you had to have an answer about Pound to make sense of all that came after: his generosity to younger poets, the profound flood of new forms that proliferated in the wake of the Cantos, etc.. Anyway, it was actually an essay of Charles, “Pounding Fascism,” that appeared in Artifice of Absorption that kind of did the trick for me; if anything, the essay permitted me—poets are all about the “grand permissions”—to assimilate Pound’s contradictions (the overdetermination of his political views with what seemed like an indeterminate poetics), his unfortunate crossing over into “history” proper—poets won’t try that anytime soon!—and the fecundity of his artistic ideas.
I think many of us poets in the academy have something of Charles’ “program,” if you will, within us. There’s tremendous anxiety among poets in the academy that they’ve sold out, are living in some other universe that can have no bearing on the “world,” partly because so many of our friends—some of whom we consider better poets than ourselves!—are working day jobs, are largely unrecognized by the literary world, are working only very slowly due to insecurities and lack of critical attention, etc. I think this is another problem that Charles has helped me solve, which is that he’s turned the academy itself into a subject—he works within it, critiques it, activates it, acknowledges its place in the world and hence is able to articulate its potentialities. To quote from one Charles’ essays, the job of the teacher is to work in the “vertical of the social not the horizontal of tradition.”* I think he does that all the time—which is why he, and his poetry, are so damn difficult.
* I actually couldn’t find this quote in Attack, where I thought I had read it. Someone might have written it about him, and this might not be the exact phrasing; nonetheless, Charles approved the quote before I read the introduction, so we’ll just consider this a collaboration.