Charles Bernstein: 'Comedy and the Poetics of Political Form'
Bernstein begins his essay with two quotations from possibly invented characters:
For if a swan could sing we would not know what she was insisting. But we are not, or few of us, swans, and have no excuse. – Flo Amber
The Crooked shall be made Stright and the Straight sundered into a thousand Shards. – Ezekial Horn.
Bernstein responds by denying that a 'swan song' is needed for this, the last essay in the collection and thinking of what job he has to do describes the need to 'plug up some holes and still some more, calling the leaks poetry, the clogs excess' (235). More riddling phrases follow. Bernstein describes: 'An insistence whose luster [sic] is so much scotch–guard against spoilage, whose dethronements dissolve into valedictory reprise' (235). He offers the images of 'putting the cork back on the boat, the wheel around the spin' but finally concludes that his view imagines 'the formal dynamics of a poem as communicative exchanges, as socially addressed, and as ideologically explicit' (235).
In considering convention, authority, persuasion, rhetoric, sincerity and conviction, Bernstein writes: 'Conventions are made to be broken' (235). He notes that in challenging 'the conventions of writing, we are entering into the politics of language' (235).
Bernstein disagrees with 'standardization' of language describing it as a kind of 'arteriosclerosis' (236). For him, 'counterconventions' in poetry or elsewhere can improve communication. Bernstein believes that poetry challenges public language in such a manner. Of course, there is the problem of authority and it is sometimes thought that in order to make a challenge, one must stick to recognized conventional forms of authorised speaking. Bernstein considers 'the power of persuasion versus the coercion of physical force; vatic, or perhaps even fatuous, poetic authority versus the psychological and behavioural manipulation of advertising or behavioural engineering; the authority of the school system versus that of an army, the authority of money versus aesthetic innovation' (236–237).
Bernstein's answer is 'to act out, in dialectical play, the insincerity of form as much as content' (237). This kind of play 'collapses into a more ambiv_o_lent, destabilzing field of pathos, the ludicrous, schtick, sarcasm; a multidimensional textual field that is congenitally unable to maintain an eveness of surface tension or a flatness of affect. where linguistic shards of histrionic inappropriateness pierce the momentary calm of an obscure twist of phrase, before cant_o_ring into the next available trope; less a shield than a probe' (237). This would be 'anti–formalist' and 'un–Modern' (237).
Bernstein diverges from his subject a little here to discuss the reading of poems. For Bernstein 'the stylistic features of a work' are most important. He refers to Jerome McGann's work on Byron which suggests that Byron refuses the Romantic poetics of sincerity through close analysis of formal strategies. Bernstein is also anxious about historicisation and notes that history's 'master narratives need to be partialized as specific historical projections for particular ideological purposes' (238).
Bernstein worries about the fact that some forms of convention and authority hide their status as historical constructions. This is what Bernstein calls 'the phallocentric voice of truth or sincerity' centred on 'centrality, objectivity, or neutrality'(239). The problem with this voice is that it adopts 'expedience at the expense of depth, narrative continuity at the expense of detail, persuasion at the expense of conviction' (239).
The answer to this is not to adopt a private voice. Bernstein states: 'I am a ventriloquist, happy as a raven to preach with blinding fervour of the corruptions of public life in a voice of painted honesty that is as much a conceit as the most formal legal brief for which my early education would have seemed to prepare me' (239). He continues: 'If my loops and short circuits, my love of elision, my Groucho Marxian refusal of irony is an effort to explode the authority of those conventions I wish to discredit (disinherit), it constantly offers the consoling self–justification of Art' (239). Yet Bernstein emphasises that this must not be self–centred but an 'interaction' or 'conversation' or 'provocation'(240). Bernstein reaches towards the syncopated, the polyrhythmical, the heterogeneous, the offbeat, because fro too long what he calls male language makes people speak ' to those aspects of their consciousness that have been programmed to receive the already digested scenes or commentaries provided' (240).
Although Bernstein admits that public policy and poetry seem very far apart, he regrets 'the lack of poetic thinking as activated potential for all people' (241). Bernstein concludes: 'The political power of poetry is not measured in numbers; it instructs us to count differently' (242).
To begin, Bernstein quotes Adorno: 'truth is the antithesis of existing society' (qtd. in Bernstein, 242). Bernstein uses this to challenge the authority of convention. Bernstein wonders if a synthesis of existing societies could be truth, then rejects his own suggestion because it ignores the 'joke' of Adorno's comment. Bernstein desires something beyond irony: ' a mix of comic, bathetic, and objective modes' to produce ' an intercutting that undercuts the centrality of a governing narrative or prosodic strategy'.
He comments on comedy here:
'Anything that departs from the sincere or serious enters into the comic, but the comic is anything but a unitary phenomenon, and the range of comic attitudes goes from the good–humoured to the vicious, from clubby endorsement of the existing social reign to total rejection of all existing human communities: Poet as confidence "man", deploying hypocrisy in order to shatter the formal autonomy of the poem and its surface of detachment; the sincere and the comic as interfused figure, not either/or but both/and . We are pathetic and heroic simultaneously, one by virtue of the other, a vision of a human being that is the basis of the work of the other Williams, Tennessee.' (242)
Bernstein wants 'stylistic innovations' to be 'alternative social formations'(242) that receive a 'synoptic, multilevel, interactive response' (243). Bernstein explains that, 'the aesthetic and the political make an inseparable poetics' (243).
'Poetry can bring to awareness questions of authority and conventionality, not to overthrow them, as in a certain reading of destructive intent, but to reconfigure: a necessary deconfiguration as prerequisite for refiguration, for the regeneration of the ability to figure —– count —– think figuratively, tropically. The poetry of which I speak is multidirectional and multivectoral; for while some vectors are undermining others just keep on mining.
The interpretive and compositional model I am proposing, then, can be understood as a synthesis of the three Marxes (Chico, Karl, Groucho) and the four Williamses (Raymond, William Carlos, Tenessee and Esther).' (243)
'When convention and authority clash you can hear the noise for miles. And this social noise is a sound that poetry can not only make but echo and resound. And while the convention of permanent committees on the politics of poetic form is over, there is one last directive to pass on: Hold your own hearings.' (243)
'Comedy and the Poetics of Political Form'. The Politics of Poetic Form . Ed. Charles Bernstein. New York: Roof, 1990. 235–244. (Note to self: note the reversal between title of book and title of essay).