A Crystalline Confusion: Charles Bernstein’s The Sophist
For still she prospers, yet mopes and sprawls
A crystalline confusion to confer these Stalls,
Which I not willing, stored,
What could I, a piece of chalk, but scribble
In determined fright, or stand enmazed?
Charles Bernstein, The Sophist
In his introductory essay to The Sophist, Ron Silliman speaks less about the substance of the poetry in the collection than he does about the features of the poetry’s arrangement. Silliman deals mostly with the book as a whole: the unrelatedness of the poems to one another, the book’s arrangement in contradictory arguments, the lineage of the book (in other words, its literary predecessors). He creates lists that the reader can see for him or herself by opening the book (thus the lists appear quite useless, except to reinforce his main point about Bernstein’s collection: the poems don’t have shared features, they are a hodgepodge.) In short, the introduction seemed to me to be a deflection. Silliman mentions Bernstein’s “constant display of jaw-dropping devices,” but he never mentions what those devices are. In fact, he spends more time talking about Zukofsky’s A and William Carlos Williams’ Spring And All than he does in extolling the merits of Bernstein’s book. But then, what do you do when a friend, a colleague, a person you respect, asks you to read his book and pen an introduction to it? Yet when you get in, you realize that the work resists you? That the poems don’t fit together? That they don’t make sense? You focus on what you can grasp. Gee, this book’s arrangement is such and such, or my, look at how the poem looks on the page! Perhaps that’s not what Silliman was doing, but it sure seems like he needs to give this extensive summary in the beginning of all of Charles Bernstein’s publishing credits. Silliman appears to have the need to convince the reader of this book that the person who wrote it is THE Charles Bernstein, whose “reputation as a major American poet has never been in question.” Otherwise, you might just pick up this book and say, “What the fuck?”
Perhaps it is true that the arrangement of The Sophist has more to say than the poems themselves. Who am I to disagree? But I also tire of the Langpo movement’s constant fighting of a battle that to me, seems to have been put to rest. Yes, at one point, poems had to be a specific form to be considered poems. Yes, there were certain rules and norms governing the poetry of “the day.” But even Silliman’s treatment of the enemy of “traditional poetics” doesn’t mention work past the 80’s. To me, language poetry’s constant rehashing of the days they brought down “the Canon” and “the mainstream” feel a little bit (a lot) like an old man rehashing his glory days from the Second World War or an ‘80’s pop singer basking in the light of an ancient hit. Remember Sinead O’Connor’s new songs? Neither do I. In short, The Sophist was re-printed in 2004, long after the “mainstream” had become free verse poems splayed all over the page, conspicuous in their absence of rhyme and remarkably bereft of “literary effects.” Now, works like The Sophist are mostly read as historical documents, a throwback to “the day.” Language poetry set out to reduce words to their literal meanings and thus began to strip words of any meaning. Meaning itself was under attack. But once meaning is destroyed or rearranged so much, it can’t seem to find its footing again. Language poetry seems to have one mission, one gimmick, and once that gimmick has been used and reused, continuing to read it is literally “beating that dead, one-trick pony.” Language poetry is great for those who have never been exposed to the genre. College students who are just coming into their own, seeing this show for the first time, are enthralled by it. It makes them feel superior to the rest of the readers of poetry without exposure, or without a college education. And who doesn’t like that feeling of understanding something that no one else gets? Even if “understanding” it means to realize there’s nothing to really understand. Too much of it, though, and one begins to feel isolated. Silliman alludes to the excitement of first discovering what he calls the “langpo Kool-Aid.” But I wonder, can Langpo ever truly be mainstream if its “message” is so obscure? Can it succeed if it continually devours itself? In a sense, Language Poetry of Bernstein’s type is hypocritical. It strips poetry of all meaning while trying to deliver its own meaning. And critical theory on the work must be delivered in common, no-nonsense language in order to entice readers to digest its message. Because of this, it depends, in fact, on the meaning of words more than any other poetry. In many ways, it feels exploitative and self important. Not to mention Bernstein’s glut of Latinate words making it impossible for you to read the work without having a dictionary nearby. Even if you look up the word, though, it won’t divulge itself of meaning via its syntax. The fact is not lost on me that the only poets generally introducing Langpo poets are other Langpo poets. The whole movement has become an isolating/isolated environment that has difficulty holding its own. Langpo poets teach classes and require students to read other Langpo poets. They have become a mini-capitalistic system which also appears contrary to what they are purporting. Langpo is the mainstream in California colleges, despite its claim to being the “underdog.” In this way, it reminds me of Christians who control the mainstream, who claim 90 percent of American people in their faith, and yet still claim to be “persecuted” every time another point of view tries to claim a piece of the social pie. All this, and I haven’t even started to talk about The Sophist yet.
I’d be wrong not to extol some of the virtues of Language Poetry. It has a myriad of uses. If one does not consider the myriad meanings and possibilities of words, Language Poetry is great for opening that door. Every poet should know what is possible. Also, in Bernstein’s case, the sheer rhythmic beauty of some of the poems would be missed if not read aloud. But I’m not the only one who feels that Language Poetry isn’t the Alpha and Omega of all poetry. In his October 2008 interview with The Writer’s Chronicle, Dick Allen is asked the following question by Leslie McGrath:
“What are your thoughts about the fragmented, elliptical, “difficult” poetry written by many young Amerian poets today?” to which he answered, “If you’re talking about Language Poetry, I don’t consider it “poetry” but faux poetry, fauxpo, done by theorists. That’s fine and enjoyable in the head, just as Dada was fine and enjoyable, but it’s not poetry.” While I defy any attempts to define “poetry” as inclusive of some styles and exclusive of others, Allen further sheds light on why Ron Silliman may have been unable to comment on the actual substance of Bernstein’s poems when he goes on to say that, “poetry is an emotional art, which may contain a great deal of reason, but without emotion, without strong ties to understandability, fragmented, elliptical, “difficult” writing of that sort is just words in arrangements.” Aha. Perhaps this is why Silliman was forced to focus on the “arrangement” of the poems in Bernstein’s book. By stripping words of their emotional content, as Langpo so often strives to do, there is no emotion, no poetic meat, on which one may comment. This is a result of the traditional Language Poetry view of form over content. Content, they argue, is exclusive (of new genres and experiments) by being too inclusive (drawing readers in through their emotions via the poem’s “message”). Although Language Poetry may have won the struggle against the “Mainstream” poetry of Keats and Ben Jonson, and Shakespeare and whoever else, it still struggles against the human’s need for the syntax of language and language’s purpose as a vehicle for emotions. The meaningfulness of language, even if it is artificially imposed by the humans using it, is necessary to show us both how we do and ought to perceive the world. It helps us to feel less alone.
I have found small windows of access into The Sophist. I did not choose the title, “crystalline confusion” simply because I was confused upon reading the work. I chose it because within those lines, I did find a small hole through which to wiggle. The passage I quoted is found in the play, “Entitlement,” (which Silliman calls “daft”). In the 6th section, Milton (yes, the John of Paradise Lost) says, “A crystalline confusion to confer these Stalls, /Which I not willing, stored,” thus pushing me into a crevasse where was stored a chest of multiple meanings. “Stalls” causes one to envision a stable, with compartments in which one might keep or “store” things. This fits with a definition of “confer” as in the giving of something or the placing of items. Yet, as Bernstein points out in the next line, Stall also shows a reluctance to move forward, as is designated by the phrase, “Which I not willing.” Upon consideration, the words turn upon themselves changing their meanings depending on the angle from which the object is viewed. It takes on a certain physical shape. However, there is no emotion in these lines. Even the lines themselves encourage one to view them as an object refracting light. There is sibilance also, in the lines: multiple S sounds building upon one another. Prospers, mopes, sprawls, stalls, stored, scribble, stand: all sound satisfying when strung together. Those can be interrupted also by the hard C sounds in crystalline, confusion, confer, could, chalk, and even scribble, which effectively combines the two sounds. There are also phrases that are similar to other phrases and give one the idea of déjà vu of having been here before. For example, “Batty as the day is thronged,” sounds like, “Crazy as the day is long” or “stand enmazed” could be heard “stand amazed.” In this way, Bernstein plays with mondegreens and mishearings, giving them new meanings based on the reader’s perceptions.
Regarding emotions, even the short, blocky poem, “Romance” seems to favor the mundane to the emotional. Fra Angelica is “disspirited” and “enjoys” the goose, but there is nothing romantic or overtly emotional in the piece. I think that such was Bernstein’s point. Yet, Bernstein does want to be understood, it seems. Even he realizes there must be some craft or point to the work he is producing. For example, directly after Bernstein allows the reader a syntactical reprieve with “Romance,” he breaks again upon the scene with “I and The,” a sampling of which is below:
I and the
to that you
it of a
know was uh
in but is
this me about
Without context, this poem seems self-congratulatory and alienating. Bernstein’s addition of a footnote brings the reader inside the text somewhat. Even Bernstein isn’t immune to the human’s need to actually communicate. The footnote explains that the poem was, “compiled from Word Frequencies in Spoken American English by Hartvig Dahl (Detroit: Verbatim/Gale Publishing, 1979)” whose “sample was based on transcripts of 225 psychoanalytic sessions involving 29 generally middle class speakers. . .” The transcript method was also used by Kenneth Goldsmith in his books Weather and Traffic. These books are not intended to be read, but rather appreciated as conceptual art. Perhaps Bernstein intends the same with The Sophist. I have no doubt when I read The Sophist of Bernstein’s love for words, or his raw wit and latent sarcasm, though sometimes, I confess, I find more emotion and soul in the pages of the American Heritage Dictionary.
©H. K. Rainey, 2010