Poetry as rhetoric

Charles Bernstein has been a major figure in American poetry since 1978, when he coedited the influential magazine L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E. “One of the things that interested me was poetry that was eccentric, that diverged from the norms, that was weird and queer and extreme and very self-conscious about how its forms were provisional and imaginary and invented,” Bernstein said in an interview. Since the 1970s, Bernstein has published more than thirty books of poetry, essays, and libretti.

Bernstein read to a large audience on Sunday, February 14, at a reading sponsored by the Renaissance Society. He was in Chicago for the opening of his daughter Emma Bee Bernstein’s show “Masquerade: A Retrospective,” which runs until February 27 at DOVA Temporary. (Emma was a graduate of the University of Chicago; she died in 2008.) At the reading, Bernstein read selections from his forthcoming selected poems, “All the Whiskey in Heaven”; translations; a poem of Louis Zukofsky’s in a deep New York Jewish accent; an essay by Emma from her book “Girldrive,” which was published in October; and recent poems, including a moving series dedicated to Emma.

“I think of poetry as a fundamental activity within our culture, marginal though it is—as a historical, cognitive, philosophical, aesthetic project that can do an enormous amount in terms of reflecting on the culture we’re in,” Bernstein said. At times in his career Bernstein has been seen as an antagonistic figure, criticizing “official verse culture” and events like National Poetry Month; in our interview, he took a more conciliatory tone. “I always find it amusing in the agonism over poetry that the refusal to be dogmatic and to have principles is routinely described as dogmatic and intolerant but the only thing that seems to be tolerant is absolute intolerance: which is neoliberalism at its heart.”

“Poetry allows us to work out and to think through conflicts and agonisms in a space that isn’t directly involved with macropolitics,” Bernstein said. “One of the roles that poetry can have is to question the nature of how language is used to normalize, to regulate, to suppress expression.” At the reading on Sunday, there was plenty of laughter expressed in the room. In Bernstein’s work, the serious ambitions of poetry are conveyed with plenty of irreverence and humor. “For me poetry is a form of sophism and of rhetoric rather than of truth and sincerity.”