[I wrote this for a class this semester and decided, hey, I kind of like it, why not stick it up?]
Where do I get my ideas about schools of poetry? For the longest time, I thought the Beats were losers, the confessionals solipsists, and the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets a bunch of drab Marxists deeply concerned with the Ethics of Poetry.
The one nice thing about harboring such terribly wrong impressions is it turns every reading into a revolution, from Plath to Ginsberg to Charles Bernstein. With Bernstein, I knew I was wrong the moment I started listening to the Penn Sound recording of him: his reading style (decidedly energetic) elicited background laughter throughout the whole of its forty-five minutes, and his sardonic humor carries through in his texts.
“The Lives of the Toll Takers,” for instance, satirizes economic pragmatism by advertising poetry with business-speak:
however, do not fall into your lap, at least
very often. You’ve got to seek them out, and when you find them
you’ve got to have the knowhow to take advantage
The admonition “you’ve got to,” combined with the jargon of “opportunities” and “advantage,” conjures no one so much as an American Polonius, some suited-up busybody for whom expressions like “do not fall into your lap” and “you’ve got to have the knowhow” summarize the tenants for a life well-lived. Rather than mocking such triviality to its face, Bernstein keeps his straight, pushing the speaker closer and closer to absurdity. The benefits of poetry tick off like bullet points on a PowerPoint: “you’re less likely / to get in an accident if you’re home reading poems,” and:
(studies show higher levels of resistance to double-bind
political programming among those who read 7.7 poems or
more each week
None of this joking, however, precludes a more serious register. Bernstein follows the spatial and tonal levity of the preceding lines with a block of text whose import is as heavy as its mass: nothing less than a post-structuralist assault against the “‘plain sense of the word’” and its ability to obfuscate political agendas. “Genocide / is made of words like these,” writes Bernstein. But it isn’t long before the register broadens, skips a beat, enters nonsense [“These are the sounds of science (whoosh, blat, / flipahineyhoo”)], and remerges as yet another speaker who, whatever he (she?) is, may be Marxist, but definitely not drab.