Sunday, August 16, 2020


It'd be interesting to have Charles Bernstein, an advocate for messily abstract poems seeking to save poetry by assaulting it's infrastructure, meet up with that master of plain speech, the brilliantly raconteurial  Steve Kowit .The aim would be to  see if they could find a middle ground in their misgivings of each other's poetics. It would be a heated exchange, though there is a worry that the matter would be so insistent on being right  that the reader with no dog nor wager in the fight might careless who "wins" . Let's place our wishful thinking in another direction. Bernstein and Kowit are excellent spokesmen for their respective positions, and I'd encourage anyone reading this to clink the provided the links provided and give a good read to their mission statements, gripes and prescriptions.
As Bernstein rails against the fact that National Poetry Month emphasizes a more accessible , "mainstream" style in order to secure an audience , all while sacrificing the brave work of more experimental, edgier, gutsier poets (like himself,as his expansive tone suggests), Kowit argues in his essay that the difficult, the avant gard and the abstract poem had taken over the poetry main stage and choked out more accessible poets as a result. Kowit favors a cleaner, leaner version of plain speak, an elevated conception of daily speech where the wonder of what the senses are restored; counter to Bernstein's obscurantist taunting, Kowit trusts humans and their language to bear successful witness to their experience and the rang of the joys and sadness they endure. What is needed is better writing, not more fanciful explanations as to why the chores haven't been done.

Each side seems to view it's aesthetic as an endangered species at the hand of their evil twin. Bernstein himself is a Language poet, a method that attacks the idea that traditional ways of writing about experience and ideas in poetic fashion accomplish anything like truth; in fact, Bernstein and friends would insist that traditional Western poetics are oppressive and express nothing but the hegemony of soul-crushing capitalism.Language poetry, and similar radical styles before and since, are by nature limited to a small audience, less because the means of distribution kill potentially high sales of the works of Zukofsky, Charles Olson or Ron Silliman, but more that the originality of the new styles are constructed precisely to challenge, baffle, and mock  the expectations of the general reader. Marginal poetry demand intellectual rigor, the argument goes, and those who stay the course and master the critical vocabularies will get "IT".

That might be the case, but the general audience instinctual dislikes being held in contempt by small bands of snobs, whether New Formalist conservatives or left-leaning Languagers, and the collective sensibility of the interested audience will seek things that don't precede on the premise that they're morons who need to be instructed by their betters.Poetry has been an elitist practice for decades, and the efforts to bring a larger audience into the fold and investigate the diversity of verse styles is a good think, regardless of the misgivings of the abstruse few. I doubt books will vanish, nor that experimental and radical writing will cease; more likely, such forms will most likely gain readers because of efforts to get buyers to invest in Dorianne Laux or Frank O'Hara instead of Mitch Albom or Dwayne Dyer. It's likely that exposure to poetry and the creation of desire for it where none existed before would eventually get a larger audience for things that are edgier, more experimental, strangely political. The anti-poetics that flourished in the last century might gain an audience not composed of other wayfaring artistes and institutionalized revolutionaries who nod and chuckle at each involuted pun and botched sarcasm.
Perhaps it would be an audience that might ask what it is Bernstein and a few of his friends are trying to do. Language poetry is an honest project, I admit, and I've been taken with it's peculiar power as a method, but there is a point where the personality has to surface undiluted with theory, which such a hypothetical readership would demand.


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