Nonfiction: Technocrats of the Mind

Charles Bernstein, Girly Man (University of Chicago Press, 2006)

Charles Bernstein is a merry punster of a very high order, a versatile writer who keeps his audience pleasantly off balance as he serves up an array of readerly pleasures; satires of intellectual complacency, playful appropriations of banal forms of writing, surprising juxtapositions of popular cultures philosophical musings, and penetrating inquiries into the ideological functions of language. Author of more than 20 books of poetry and criticism, Bernstein is one of the principal figures of the Language Poetry scene that emerged during the 1970s and ’80s, which he helped put on the map with both his writings and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, the influential magazine of poetics that he and Bruce Andrews founded and co-edited from 1978 to 1981. Like most labels that bundle a group of writers into a “movement,” Language Poetry is misleading because of the sometimes conflicting styles and agendas of the poets that have been classified as card-carrying members. As Bernstein himself has pointed out, thinking of Language Poetry as a well-defined “school” is problematic because these writers tend to be wary of idealizing specific approaches, favoring instead openness to all sorts of unconventional methods of writing. What they do share, however, is an aversion to what Bernstein calls “official verse culture,” the network of mainstream literary venues and institutions that perpetuate unquestioned assumptions about description, narration, and the role of the authorial “I” in lyric poetry.

In Girly Man, Bernstein continues to challenge expectations that poetry should bare the self by delivering frequent vaudevillean jabs: “Don’t ask me to be frank. I don’t even know if I can be myself.” This borscht belt one-liner appears in “Sign Under Test,” a long series of aphoristic assertions that reads like a burlesque of Wallace Stevens’s “Adagia,” though Bernstein interweaves egregiously bad puns with serious delineations of both his poetics (“Poetry is patterned thought in search of unpatterned mind.”) and politics (“The politics in a poem has to do with how it enters the world, how it makes its meaning, how its forms work in social contexts.”). In “Slap Me Five, Cleo, Mark’s History,” which may be the book’s funniest poem, Bernstein pushes comedy far beyond the humble pun. (You can listen to Bernstein’s entertaining recitation of the poem on the book’s website: http://epc.buffalo.edu/authors/bernstein/books/girly-man.) In this elaborate parody of art historical analysis, he assumes the persona of Michael Anthony—the actor who distributed million-dollar checks to bewildered guests on the 1950s TV show “The Millionaire”—in the role of a museum docent guiding his charges through a ludicrously digressive interpretation of a painting. While Anthony sounds like an annoying stand-up comic (“Cleopatra and Antony / look very youthful for 39 and 53—and this / is way before vitamin supplements”), Bernstein smuggles in theoretical reflections on the production of meaning: “a painting is never just about its ostensive / subject, but always contains within it another, / often unseen, often contradictory, subject, / played out in its form or figured in its / imagery.”

Partly as a result of its humor, many readers will find Girly Man more accessible than Bernstein’s previous work, though this is not to say that he has retreated from his commitment to experimentation. The book includes poems written in the anti-poetic form of questionnaires; paired columns of seemingly random words that loop back upon themselves; minimalist fragments written in collaboration with artworks by Richard Tuttle and Nam June Paik; disjunctive sentence sequences; and lists of various kinds—all of which disrupt conventional reading practices, producing what Bernstein calls “anti-absorptive” poetry. Even so, Bernstein clearly has accessibility on his mind:

This is a totally accessible poem.
There is nothing
in this poem
that is in any
way difficult
to understand.

Thus begins “Thank You for Saying Thank You,” a playful defense of the avant-gardism half-hidden behind the plain style of William Carlos Williams’s well-known poem, “This is Just to Say.” Addressing mainstream critics intolerant of “obscurity and enigma,” Bernstein says, in effect: You want an accessible poem, I’ll give you an accessible poem about accessibility—one that poses no surface complexities but nevertheless subverts its ostensible message:

This poem has no intellectual
pretensions. It is
purely emotional.
It fully expresses
the feelings of the
author: my feelings,
the person speaking
to you now.

With elegant simplicity and indirection, Bernstein demonstrates how a poem that claims to be “purely emotional” is not, how conventional poems written in the mode of the confessional lyric may purport to “fully [express] / the feelings of the / author,” but may in fact conceal the writer’s emotions just as effectively as an irreverent avant-garde poet steeped in poststructural theories of authorial effacement.

Girly Man may include a greater number of “accessible” poems than his earlier books, but it is no less provocative. One of the most transparently written sections is “Some of These Daze,” a collection of emails and postings to a listserve written on September 11, 2001, and the days following the attacks on New York and Washington. With admirable restraint and thoughtfulness, Bernstein describes what it was like to experience these events in straightforward prose that seems to contradict his advocacy of “impermeable” textuality:

I find myself walking around making up arguments in my head, but when I try to write them down they dissolve in a flood of questions and misgivings. I value these questions, these misgivings, more than my analysis of the situation.

Although his reflections on the World Trade Center’s destruction foreground an uncertain political posture, Bernstein ends the book with the title poem, The Ballad of the Girly Man, which packs an unambiguously polemical punch, as this excerpt shows:

Thugs from hell have taken freedom’s store The rich get richer, the poor die quicker
& the only god that sanctions that
Is no god at all but rhetorical crap

So be a girly man & take a gurly stand
Sing a gurly song
& dance with a girly sarong

Written in response to Governor Schwarzenegger’s infamous 2004 speech in which he derided the Republican Party’s opponents as “girly men,” the poem looks like another paragon of accessibility. Here Bernstein takes on the role of a political troubadour, appropriating the sing-song cadences of a ballad to give voice to an angry populist resistance. His humor seems to have withered in the process, yet it can be glimpsed in the sarcasm of the “girly man” refrain. Embracing the homophobic taunt, the girly poet writes a girly poem, transforming the term of abuse into a rallying cry of empowerment. Bernstein concludes his book on this very Brechtian note, entertaining his audience with a public form of poetry that seeks to jostle readers out of their private emotional sphere so that they may actively respond to what has happened to their country:

A democracy once proposed Is slimmed and grimed again
By men with brute design
Who prefer hate to rime.

And as Bernstein says, these “remarks / are not pickled hearing.”

Contributor

Gordon Tapper

Author of The Machine That Sings: Modernism, Hart Crane, and the Culture of the Body.

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