[Wgcp-whc] minutes--Charles Bernstein visit, 2-28

Richard Deming richard.deming at yale.edu
Wed Mar 19 21:14:49 EDT 2014

Dear Friends,

 I wanted to offer a brief review of the recent visit of the poet Charles Bernstein to the WGCP.  Bernstein joined us on Friday, February 28th to discuss his work with us, with a particular emphasis on his latest collection of poems, Recalculating. Thirty members were in attendance.

As there are a number of poems that are either “conventional” translations as well as radical experiments in translation (including homophonic translations), the practice of translating was a recurring trope that framed the conversation.  Indeed, Bernstein argued that any use of language is an act of translation because it brings experience into language.  Moreover, any use of language is interpreted by auditors or readers (listening/reading are acts of interpretation), and they in turn translate what they hear/read into their domain of experience and understanding.  Interpretation is a form of translation, and translation is a form of interpretation.  But then writing is always an interpretation of the meanings of words and grammatical forms. For that reason, Bernstein sees no qualitative difference between his “original” poems and any translations that he makes. The inclusion of both of these kinds of poems in his collection then starts to make that case, and push against the insistence that a collection of poems is the expression of a single, authoritative “voice” of an author and his/her experience.  Instead, Bernstein reveals the seams and the weave of the texts that he assembles. Bernstein is striving to reveal the clash of voices within a text—and presumably within as well as between text and audience.

He indicated that his continual use of wordplay is a way of disrupting the flow of expectations to reveal that expectations direct and even overdetermine interpretation. He himself misreads clichés and idioms all the time, and so manages to work these into the texts he writes to invert and subvert passive attention to skims over the surfaces of familiar words. He also indicated that for him the music of poetry often is found in its sonic edges.  Thus, he works for a disruptive syntax or the use of banal or even “ugly” language (certainly language that seems out of place in a traditional conception of the pleasing aesthetics of a lyric poem) to make edges present and explicit in the texts.  This also allows for the use of irony, which is important to Bernstein’s work.  Irony allows for a multiplicity of meanings that also takes into account overlapping contexts, expectations, and the discussion texts have with other texts, contemporary events, and history.

We discussed, too, the ways that his recent work, particularly the collection’s title poem, incorporates some more directly personal articulations in regard to personal tragedy.  Bernstein admitted he was conflicted with the inclusion of those moments because they might be seen as having the autobiographical dictate the poem as a whole rather than being seen as a possible mode included amongst all the others that inhabit this long poem. Bernstein worried about the ethical dimensions as well—would the inclusion of references to family tragedy in some way transform the events?  If there were an intense empathy or some sense of catharsis, would that in any way redeem the events—in this case, the death of a loved one.  Bernstein did not explicitly discuss the ethics of this, but made it clear that there could be no transformation or changed perspective that could be possible without negating the tragedy itself.  The poem—as poem—instead leaves open an resolvable paradox, which may be the only way to encounter such loss on its own terms.

One last thing--at an earlier session, there was some discussion of Bernstein's list of formal experiments.  That can be found here: http://www.writing.upenn.edu/bernstein/experiments.html

As is evident, the discussion was wide-ranging and ambitious, with a marked sense of the personal, political, and ethical stakes of poetry.  We are very grateful to have had Charles Bernstein visit us once again; he was one of the first visitors to the group’s discussions (almost 10 years ago) and is our first repeat visitor.  This pair of sessions will be our only meetings this semester (alas!).


Yours truly,

Richard Deming, Group Coordinator


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