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“Poetry Month Will Come a Little Late This Year”: Charles Bernstein on That April Ritual

Nearly two decades ago, poet Charles Bernstein offered a contrarian and spirited take on the April ritual of poetry month, “Against National Poetry Month as Such.” Curious whether he still shares the same opinion, we reached out to Bernstein for his current perspective, which we’re excited to share here as “Poetry Month Will Come a Little Late This Year.”

Poetry’s freedom, which to say poetry’s essential contribution to American culture, is grounded in its aversion of conformity and in its resistance to the restrictions of market-driven popularity. Indeed, contemporary American poetry thrives through its small scale and radical differences of form. There is no one sort of American poetry and certainly no right sort—this is what makes aesthetic invention so necessary.

Free verse is not a type of non-metrical poetry but an imperative to liberate verse from the constraints of obligatory convention and regulation. In that sense, free verse is an aspiration and its stuttering breathlessness is a mark of its impossibility.

I want not just a politics of identity but an aesthetics of identity.

While some may choose the straight path of self-righteousness, do not give up hope that they will return to the crooked roads that have no certainties.

The goal is to find wilderness in bewilderment. Or is that the process?

I am the shell of the person I once was. The shell of the shell. But then the person I once was is a shell of the person I now am.

“The more realistic a poet is, the more distant from reality.”  (Abraham Sutzkever)

I cannot make it decohere.

The world doesn’t make sense; we do. (Sense is of the word and in the world. The nonhuman is also beyond the human.)

Assisted living. As opposed to what?

Poetry is reacquired taste.  (after David Bergman)

Nearly touching are the ethical realm of our obligation to others and the aesthetic world of our freedom from such obligations. (for Rachel Levitsky)

“The loss of a public is in fact the artist’s withdrawal from his public, as a consequence of his faithfulness to his art. The public is lost to art because they are readying themselves for war, for life by the gun. They are also lost because of art, because art maintains itself against their assaults, and because, almost against its will, it unsettles the illusions by means of which civilized people conduct themselves.” (Stanley Cavell, “More of The World Viewed”)

Those ardent in their beliefs and certain of God’s will are the faithless ones.

The thing is: life is a one-way street.

God needs us more than we need them because without us they would not exist but without them we do.

I am for a single prayer initiative: God loves those who think for themself.

 “Owning Words.” Cavell’s phrase connects to his conviction that we must mean what we say, that we are implicated in meaning beyond our ostensive intentions and mercurial inventions. —If we do own our words, own up to them, it is because they own us and we are in their debt.

            But owning words is also owing words.

            ––The debt we owe to language is paid not to words but to one another.

Physical distance / social intimacy: a kind of poetry.

How the music learned to write.

The poem that is true for all people and all times is true for no one and no time.

I never met a person who cried “fire” when confronted by a snowball.  But there are many today who cry “freedom” when confronted with tyranny.  My aggrievement may be absolute to me but that does not make it greater than yours. My freedom is only that to the extent it guarantees yours. Anything different, to the extent of the difference, is not liberty; it is oppression.

Like a memorial except we’re all alive.  Or we imagine we’re alive even though we died weeks ago.

The fight for truthfulness is a fight against the claim of a single truth. At best, science and poetry both move toward truth through an insistence on truthfulness; religion and politics, sometimes; demagoguery, never.

The temporary loss of our physical commons is devastating. But the commons needed now is imaginary not territorial.

Language is a wilderness that, unlike others, can never be conquered, or exhausted; but it can be made to accommodate: to submit, assimilate, compromise, deny. In contrast, I correspond for a poetry that dwells, without disavowing—that is, that dwells in ways that may make readers anxious—not only on the resplendent and difficult to contain, but also on the disturbed, confused, broken, awkward, difficult, dark. This is a poetry committed less to opposition than composition—a com(op)posing that values inquiry above representation, resistance over adjudication. For a stubborn aversion to the conventions of expression, even for the sake of the aversion, can be necessary relief in a society that confuses palatability for communication, packaging for style, tiny bytes of message for meaning. (for Jerome Rothenberg, from My Way: Speeches & Poems)

Those who know God’s truth won’t say; those who say don’t know.  (after Abraham Sutzkever)

Injury to the imaginary is trauma. The imaginary commons is art.

Photo by Alan Thomas

Copyright notice: ©2020 by Charles Bernstein. This text appears on the University of Chicago Press website by permission of the author. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. and international copyright law and agreements, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that Charles Bernstein and the University of Chicago Press are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of Charles Bernstein.