>>--> Rick Burkhardt responds
I read with enthusiasm William Gillespie's "Is Charles Bernstein a Political Poet?" in ebr11. One detail I think is important: the recent Bernstein poetry collection from Sun and Moon, Republics of Reality, is not "nearly comprehensive" (the word "comprehensive" is ambiguous - I think William said what he meant by it). To avoid confusion: Republics of Reality only includes those Bernstein poetry books which are currently out of print, or only available in small chapbooks. Therefore it focuses heavily on Bernstein's 1970's work and very recent (as yet uncollected) work. The 80's and 90's are underrepresented because Bernstein's major books of poetry from that time (including at least Islets/Irritations, Controlling Interests, Rough Trades, The Sophist, Dark City) are still in print. Because they are still in print, they have been among Bernstein's most influential works - the most anthologized, the most assigned in classes, the most read. Republics of Reality constitutes less than half of Bernstein's output; it fills in gaps beautifully, and that's obviously what it was meant to do, not to provide a comprehensive sample of Bernstein's poetry.
That's important to me for the following reason: one of the cruelest clichés about Bernstein, and about many artists that I respect, is that their theory is "better" than their art. It's typical of the cliché's appearances that it's repeated often in Kostelanetz's diatribe without a single ounce of explanation, nor a single example from Bernstein's writing, that could possibly justify its inclusion in a magazine called "book review." [Note: Kostelanetz's essay appeared in The American Book Review 21(4), eds.] Is Bernstein's poetry lacking in some way that everyone/anyone agrees upon? If so, why is it not necessary to name that lack?
I don't see it. And while I respect William's ability to stay above the fray in writing his article, I want to rush in and defend Bernstein from Kostelanetz's charge that he isn't a good or "distinguished" poet (to say nothing of the charge that he resembles fascists in any way at all, a charge which when levelled at a Jewish writer becomes insensitive to a rather violent degree). I love Bernstein's writing, poetry, and theory. I love his performances. Those mid-80's poems (I'm thinking particularly of "Controlling Interests") say things about those mid-80's that don't get said in most poetry. They describe and demonstrate the Reaganization of language and speech, the market forces that shape and are shaped by language, the suffering and ingenuity of speakers who must use this language to try to understand a world. They deserve and reward attention.
To say that Bernstein is a political poet should be understood not as a label of the "style" or "purpose" of his work, but as two of the highest compliments: in deeply unfriendly circumstances, Bernstein finds a way to write poetry and a way to engage the political. Bravo.
P.S. - In all artistic and political movements, outsiders who wish to "join" (either in the direction of the movement or only in its available resources and success), often find that they disagree with the premises of the movement. How odd that they always accuse the movements with whose premises they disagree of having "excluded" them, rather than simply admitting that there exists a difference in premises. (And why shouldn't there, for Pete's sake - that's what a movement IS.)
(Further discussion of Charles Bernstein can be sent to ebr.)