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The Transcendental Friend




Charles Bernstein in the 20th Century, A Brief Revue of Poetic Values

Mike Kelleher

As the century's Great Irony Machine grinds out its final revolutions, having been recently acquired by the Japanese, who plan to convert its clunky, oversized gears into a whirring, purring exemplar of high-tech 21st century efficiency, perhaps it is time to take another look at one of the great irony producers of the age - Charles Bernstein - in the hope of (re-)discovering the value(s) of a throwback item such as the poem as it enters this brave new millennium.

One of my professors in college professed the assessment of poems by means of the following three questions: What does the author say? What does the author mean? And is it true and beautiful? The last being the final determination of poetic value. I think that if we simply alter the terms of these questions to suit the needs of the current poetical economy, we can derive a set of criteria by which to assess the value of 20th Century American Poetry such as that practiced by Mr. Bernstein. We should ask instead: What does the poem produce? How does the poem produce it? And does the poem make the most efficient and profitable use of available resources?

It is the first of the three questions which presents the most difficulty, for before we can ask what does this poem produce?, we must first ask, what does a poem produce?, what does any poem produce? I think I am safe in saying that a poem produces, primarily, Meaning. Even if one counters that some poems mean nothing at all, I say that a poem that means nothing means nothing. Concerns such as images and sounds, emotions and ideas, form and content, all fall into the categories of reproduction and verisimilitude, or at the very least can be said to be sub-categories of Meaning, so I will dispense with any attempt to deal with them directly. A poem produces Meaning, and so in order to assess the value of the poem we must concern ourselves with that.

This does, however, present some difficulty in terms of our criteria, for if a poem produces Meaning, are we to judge it solely by the quality of the meanings produced, or by their quantity? In the age of so-called Late Capitalism (I hesitate to use Jameson's term, considering how well the system appears to be running in its supposed twilight, but sometimes you just have to say "what the fuck" for the sake of your metaphors), it is tempting to say that the poem must be judged solely by the quantity of meanings it produces. I'd like to throw a wrench into the works by suggesting that it might be possible to judge the value of a poem by considering both the quantity and the quality of the meanings it produces.

A brief glance at Bernstein's poem, "Today's Not Opposite Day," will reveal that it contains a surplus of possible meanings. Lines stolen from, imitating, mocking, revising, questioning, taunting, twisting, torqueing, turning in and out of nursery rhymes, children's games, headlines, disclaimers, banal conversations, patriotic speeches, renaissance dramas, clichés and so on, force the reader into a state of perpetual motion, as the belts of the poem crank out meaning after meaning - so many meanings that they become impossible to count. In fact, any attempt to quantify the meaning-value of the poem will lead firstly and directly into the second question: how does the poem produce meaning? and soon thereafter into the third: does the poem make the most efficient and profitable use of available resources? To ask of a poem by Charles Bernstein what it produces is really to ask not what meanings it produces, but how it produces them. If we can answer this question sufficiently, we will find that how meaning is produced in the poem is in fact the same as what meaning it produces, and that quantitative meaning and qualitative meaning are one and the same (see M.A.P. below for elucidation).

What makes Henry Ford the father of the 20th century is not that he did not invent the automobile while receiving all the credit for it, but that he created the remarkably efficient means of production known as the "assembly line." From then on, replicas of the same product could be produced and reproduced in astoundingly high quantities over shorter and shorter periods of time with no significant loss in the relative qualitative value of any of the individual products. If one imagines the poem as a machine (as some have), one finds oneself a throwback stuck in the19th century - in awe of internal combustion, in love with cogs and gears and steam, without a union or an HMO. But if one imagines the poem as an assembly line, one finds oneself smack dab in the middle of the 20th - overworked (& -weight), underpaid (and -appreciated), unable to choose one's own doctor.

Analogously, Bernstein's great poetic achievement is in having created a streamlined and efficient Meaning Assembly Process (M.A.P.). What gives this poem or any of his poems their value is not the individual meanings they produce in the act of making or mocking meaning, but the fact that the many meanings they make carry the same meaning-value as one another. By creating a system of meaning production in which infinity is the quantum of value, Bernstein has raised the Dow Jones of poetry into the stratosphere. He has created a poetry whose qualitative value is its quantitative value. And since this value is infinitely produced and multiplied by the process of which it is the product, it can be said with confidence that Bernstein's poems are of the highest value.

(Read Charles Bernstein's Today's Not Opposite Day)





Issue No. 11 Copyright © 1999 The Transcendental Friend. All rights revert to the authors upon publication.