Charles Bernstein: Rita Dove said ‘no thanks.’

Who can argue with Robert Pinsky that poetic rhythms are not therapeutic?  That poetry can’t be a caring social glue?  Pinsky is a cheerleader for poetry and we have to love him for that.

Marla Muse: But he has a lisp.

Oh, Marla, how can you be so cruel?  Pinsky has three poems in the Dove anthology, which puts him in a pretty good crowd.  Lucille Clifton has four.  Michael S. Harper has four. Derek  Walcott has five.  Amiri Baraka has four.  Countee Cullen has four.  Langston Hughes has four.  W.H. Auden has two.  T.S. Eliot has three.

Marla Muse: Charles Bernstein has none.  Dove said she didn’t have time for his “nonsense.”

Did she say that?

Marla Muse:  What are you looking at me for?  …Maybe.

Here’s the Pinsky poem for Round One:

Samurai Song

When I had no roof I made
Audacity my roof. When I had
No supper my eyes dined.

When I had no eyes I listened.
When I had no ears I thought.
When I had no thought I waited.

When I had no father I made
Care my father. When I had
No mother I embraced order.

When I had no friend I made
Quiet my friend. When I had no
Enemy I opposed my body.

When I had no temple I made
My voice my temple. I have
No priest, my tongue is my choir.

When I have no means fortune
Is my means. When I have
Nothing, death will be my fortune.

Need is my tactic, detachment
Is my strategy. When I had
No lover I courted my sleep.

Marla Muse:  Why “Samurai?”  Is Pinsky a Samurai warrior?   If not, the title just implies he stole some of his poem from an ancient text.

Yea, I don’t understand the title, either.  The choices and connections are admirable, though the presentation, the form, the style, is stiff and pedantic.

Marla Muse:  Maybe that’s why he felt compelled to put “Samurai” in the title.

It’s troubling.  This poem is like a big guy who can rebound but can’t handle the ball.  He’s as tall as wisdom itself, but has no style.

Marla Muse:  What do we have for Bernstein?

Does it matter?

Marla Muse:  Well, let’s have some of his nonsense.  See how it does against Pinsky.

All The Whiskey In Heaven

Not for all the whiskey in heaven
Not for all the flies in Vermont
Not for all the tears in the basement
Not for a million trips to Mars

Not if you paid me in diamonds
Not if you paid me in pearls
Not if you gave me your pinky ring
Not if you gave me your curls

Not for all the fire in hell
Not for all the blue in the sky
Not for an empire of my own
Not even for peace of mind

No, never, I’ll never stop loving you
Not till my heart beats its last
And even then in my words and my songs
I will love you all over again

What is this?  What’s going on here?  If this is nonsense, I prefer Lewis Carroll.

Marla Muse:  Agreed.

Quietude wins.   Pinsky 80, Bernstein 47.



  1. PhilStein said,

    March 21, 2012 at 10:14 pm

    Awful, both of them.

    The Bernstein poem is far worse, and a good example of how reading poetry primarily through “reputation” can go horribly awry.

    Is this supposed to be Warholian? Is this supposed to be okay because he went to Harvard?

    • thomasbrady said,

      March 22, 2012 at 12:21 am

      It’s supposed to be okay because he studied with Stanley Cavell—who studied with J.L Austin, British Intelligence. Austin’s philosophy is similar to Stanley Fish’s—there’s no truth, only power. Words are acts. Thus, it creates the illusion in the ‘poet’ that his words don’t reflect any kind of reality but rather ‘makes things happen’ on a level far above ‘meaning.’ This explains why Bernstein writes terrible poetry which he and his friends think is ‘good.’ They have convinced themselves that reality is something which it is not. “I won’t write good poetry,” Bernstein thinks; “I’ll write poetry which exposes the falsehood of ‘good’ poetry.”

      • PhilStein said,

        March 22, 2012 at 7:37 am

        What could it possibly mean to be above meaning? Sounds rather mystical…Fascinating stuff, Thomas.

        “Performative utterances are not true or false, that is, not truth-evaluable; instead when something is wrong with them then they are ‘happy’ or ‘unhappy.'”

        “In his most recent collection of essays, Philosophy the Day After Tomorrow, Cavell makes the case that J. L. Austin’s concept of performative utterance requires the supplementary concept of ‘passionate utterance’: ‘A performative utterance is an offer of participation in the order of law. And perhaps we can say: A passionate utterance is an invitation to improvisation in the disorders of desire.'”


          • thomasbrady said,

            March 22, 2012 at 7:39 pm


            There are words in books, and then words in life.

            “I now pronounce you man and wife” are words spoken in life which have the force of an action.

            Poetry belongs to the realm of ‘words in books.’ There are smart-asses who attempt to bring the significance of ‘words in life’ to the enterprise of poetry and they always fail in this folly.

            Religious words tend to have the force of “I now pronounce you man and wife” to those who are devoted to that particular religion.

            But you can’t force religion on poetry. One belongs to life and the other to books.

            Of course it gets mixed up, because you have religious books and you have devotees who attempt to make poetry their life.

            Words of law, words of passion can both exist in the two places, one “in life,” and the other in “books.” The demarcation is really one of convenience, only. Or, one might call them sun and shade, light and shadow.

            Words of life are finally what we want—even those of us who dwell in the sad land of books.


            • PhilStein said,

              March 22, 2012 at 11:07 pm

              Yes, I love the idea of word become flesh when I read it in the Bible, but when I put it into a political, or more intimate context – I am skeptical.

              The ‘power’ of words do not make them true.

              It is tempting to think this, esp if one is a poet or politician.

              And Cavell has written a lot on the Transcendentalists, who were also formed at Harvard.

              “Another alternative meaning for transcendentalism is the classical philosophy that God transcends the manifest world. As John Scotus Erigena put it to Frankish king Charles the Bald in the year 840 AD, “We know not what God is. God himself doesn’t know what He is because He is not anything. Literally God is not, because He transcends being.””

              As you have delineated here so many times before, the Gothicks were suspicious of these characters from the beginning:

              “Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote a novel, The Blithedale Romance, satirizing the movement, and based it on his experiences at Brook Farm, a short-lived utopian community founded on transcendental principles. Edgar Allan Poe wrote a story, “Never Bet the Devil Your Head”, in which he embedded elements of deep dislike for transcendentalism, calling its followers “Frogpondians” after the pond on Boston Common. The narrator ridiculed their writings by calling them “metaphor-run” lapsing into “mysticism for mysticism’s sake”. and called it a “disease”. The story specifically mentions the movement and its flagship journal The Dial, though Poe denied that he had any specific targets.
              In Poe’s essay “The Philosophy of Composition” he offers criticism denouncing “the excess of the suggested meaning. . .which turns into prose (and that of the very flattest kind) the so-called poetry of the so-called transcendentalists.””

              But the Transcendentalists were an outgrowth of Romanticism, no?

              “Notably, the transgression of the spirit, most often evoked by the poet’s prosaic voice is said to endow in the reader a sense of purposefulness. This is the underlying theme in the majority of transcendentalist essays and papers–all of which are centered around subjects which assert a love for individual expression.”

              Ha. Ha. Well I’ll have to look further than wikipedia to sort this all out.

              • thomasbrady said,

                March 23, 2012 at 2:53 am

                Romanticism certainly had its follies and excesses, of which transcendentalism was one. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of not keeping things in perspective. There are two paths of American literature: transcendentalists v. poe.

  2. Des said,

    March 22, 2012 at 12:47 am

    I think Bernstein communicates in all manner of interesting forms and styles, but there’s always an overiding sense of the one voice. I first heard him read in Dublin five years ago, and after this stumbled across his 1994 essay I Don’t Take Voice Mail: The Object of Art in the Age of Electronic Technology.

    I was very impressed. What struck me the reader was how intelligent and creative Bernstein is. His effect can be very slight, and in some cases effects outright hostility. It evokes an intellectual joy in the certain class of critic, and a source some are blind to.

    What’s interesting in the context of this site, is that Bernstein is responsible for being ahead of the curve and creating what happened online at the first and biggest online poetry list – Buffalo.

    I’ve not read the whole list, of course; but in the first few years of what was in effect Bernsteins creative experiment, there’s a trajectory that’s mirrored in all later online poetry forums. At the beginning it is just Bernstein inviting a few chief collaborators to communicate in a then totally new and unique ‘real time’ form that Bernsteins captures most eloquently in the essay I mentioned: “At every point receivers are also transmitters. It is a medium defined by exchange rather than delivery; the medium is interactive and dialogic rather than unidirectional or monologic. At this moment, the most interesting format on the internet, apart from the basic electronic mail function, is the listserve: a series of individuals join a list — any post to the list address is immediately delivered to all list subscribers.”

    There’s a lot of theorizing in there. Bernstein projects into a near future making tentative suggestions, some of which were more accurate than others, and what captivated me about the essay, is its truth to thought quality.

    In the early days of the Buffalo list, there’s a real community of a few excited academics, critics and poets, communicating in real time in the world’s first open poetic debate. Although of course for the first year or two there was a collegiate agreement and understanding that it was invite only. As the conversation took off and evolved, the core group of Bernstein in New York, Creeley close by, Susan Schultz writing witty and wise missives from Hawaii and Majorie Perloff writing from Stanford, her first contribution, worth reproducing here to set tone and mood of the Buffalo Poetics forum at the very start, April 1994, when a cast of protaganists who went on to voluminous and continual blogging, began; 18 years ago, from rookies to seniors, the record shows Bernsteins first act was to circulate his “art object” in an age of electronic communication” essay that he later titles I Don’t Take Voice Mail:

    Wonderful to get Charles’s electronic piece and it’s not too long at all. Would that most of my e-mail were as interesting!
    The essay is right on! But depressing as well. Those images
    of the Barbara Streisand home show!. Is life no more than this?
    Meanwhile, my class is reading (this week) ISLETS AND IRRITATIONS and getting ready (next week) for a visit from Marjorie Welish and Rae Armantrout.

    Hello to all! Marjorie Perloff


    It starts to gather momentum over the first eight months. Joe Amato, Robert Kelly, Piere Joris and then Ron Silliman comes in seven months later and sticks around, a core group of communicants emerge and coalesce. Keith Tuama, also writing from Hawaii, and in December 1994 Sheila Murphy aka sheila e murphy, who I coincidently enough, found a five month online mystic partner to share poems with in spring summer 2005. The ebb and flow of long played out back and forth writing, some contributing lots for a brief time before slowing off and all the time the membership swelling, the success too big to contain and slowly the forum begins to change and reflect the increased numbers. Ira Lightman, Jeffrey Timmons, chris cheek the English conceptual poetry professor lecturing in Miamai enters the fray, Tony Green and Belle Gironda, Chris Stroffolino, Kali Tal, Thomas Bell, Loss Glazier, Mark Roberts and Tom Mandel, Rae Armantrout, Jorge Guitart, Carla Billitteri, Chris Stroffolino, Mark Nowak, Gary Sullivan, Maria Damon and Gwyn McVay, Burt Kimmelman, Rachel Loden. By mid 1995 there were hundreds of posts every month and gradually the original energy slowly, imperceptible to the protaganists, evaporated.

    Sometine in the latter half of the nineties, an ugly scene appeared in the form of a man whose name I cannot recall, came blundering in demanding change. You know the type. Rick Santorum. They wanted what could never be there’s. but being too thick to know it, and without shame, introduced the toxcicity we take for granted today but which at the beginning, in the Buffalo Poetic list forum; was absent in the early days when today’s titans were a tad tiddlier.

    Now there’s less time for

    , who I found one of the most interesting in this prose missive mix, Alice Notley

    • thomasbrady said,

      March 22, 2012 at 7:12 pm


      Thanks for that history.

      I don’t know how great it all was, because I haven’t read the Buffalo Experiment. If I know anything about those poets and thinkers, I probably would find most of it pretty tedious. I’ll put Foetry and Scarriet up against it any day.

      I can’t help but feel a bit cynical that Bernstein tried to pawn it off as a work of art.

      Also,where’s the democratic spirit now? Creeley came on to, scolding and humorless. Silliman shut down his comments. Blog Harriet shut down its comments. The general feeling in po-biz now is very different re: open discussion. You’ve got to walk the walk in good and in bad. You can’t play with your friends, and then when things get a little rough, take your ball and go home.


  3. Des said,

    March 22, 2012 at 1:15 am

    The judge/s are deaf, blind and not as intelligent as their sock puppet support group wants to believe it is.

    80 – 47?

    It should be the other way round. The match has been incompotently assessed by the judge/s. It is either a fix or the judges are clearly not qualified and made a schoolboy howler of a mistake.

    Pinsky is all deep meaningful and dull imitation of the American Homeric style favored by your brightest bores who Bernstein wipes the floor with, in this round, I’m afraid, Judge.

    When I had no roof I made
    Audacity my roof. When I had
    No supper my eyes dined.

    Oblique, not straightforward, diffuse, one obviously tepid verb, ‘made’ has only one other to play of, ‘dined’, that thinly appear along with the few predicatble nouns, and combine to effect, not a lot. Totally opposite to Bernstein’s opening salvo:

    Not for all the whiskey in heaven
    Not for all the flies in Vermont
    Not for all the tears in the basement
    Not for a million trips to Mars

    There is so much going on here that the judges have embaressed themself, because what Berstein’s poem has is a sense of urgency speed and movement. The choice and arrangement of verb and noun are far more interesting than Pinsky’s, in my judges’ eyes. Pinsky’s lines lack clarity, aim for subtlety and fall short, whereas Bernstein’s are a class or two above. Notice the high skill he exhibits in the obliquely rhymed mont/mars. The guy’s a natural showman. Pinsky lost this round and the competition’s a sham if Bob’s bardic blamonge beats Bernstein’s brilliant conceit that runs from line one to the finish, suggesting it came out all of a whole. Bernstein didn’t have to labor for his gem, whereas one very much does get the sense with Pinsky’s poem, that it was mapped, plotted, drawn, halved, quartered, tapped, written, chisselled and polished to something those with poorer poetic taste, choose over the obvious best. Obvious to judges better qualified to deliver a truthful assessment.


    • thomasbrady said,

      March 22, 2012 at 7:20 pm


      If you’re impressed with “mont/mars,” which is not a rhyme, not even a half-rhyme—which consists of two random sounds…if you are seriously impressed with “mont/mars,” then there’s nothing more to say.

      You sound like someone who’s been brainwashed by MI6. You’ve been reading too much J.L Austin!

      Not for all the whiskey in heaven will you see.

      I agree the Pinsky is no great shakes, but you’re in need of a good Language Poetry purge, methinks.


  4. Mark said,

    July 19, 2012 at 4:18 pm

    Here’s a weird, old bump. I saw this a couple months ago (back when it was actually March…) and meant to comment but didn’t have a chance.

    I’m actually a fan of a lot of what Bernstein writes but “All The Whiskey in Heaven” is a really bad poem. I almost wish I could blame Tom for purposely picking a bad poem so as to eliminate Chuck from the running – but Bernstein is obviously (and head-scratchingly) proud enough of this poem to use it as the title for his recent Selected Poems.

    It’s like Bernstein thinks that by making a list poem he can put himself in the same legacy of populist (and popular) poets like Whitman and Ginsberg. It almost seems like a failed attempt to shake the ‘academic’ tag that always gets stuck on him. “I can do list poems too! I’m not just a creature of the academy!”

    That said, Bernstein’s ballad pieces are quite good – evidence that the ‘difficult’ signifier is unneccesary for anyone with even half a brain. The guy can write but “All the Whiskey in Heaven” is so lame and almost never clever. A well-deserved loss.


    PS – the comments from Des here are inane as usual.

  5. dpcoffey said,

    July 26, 2012 at 12:09 pm

    What exactly is nonsensical about Bernstein’s poem? I can’t find a single image that doesn’t make poetic sense. Tell me what makes “All the Whiskey in Heaven” lame – I’d like at least one example, besides Mars not rhyming with Vermont. I don’t think Bernstein’s trying to be clever here. He’s written a poem with so much music in it that it I find it more affecting than most other poems I’ve read over the last few years. Maybe this is colored by the fact that I’ve heard him read it aloud.

  6. thomasbrady said,

    July 26, 2012 at 3:16 pm

    I read somewhere recently that Bernstein’s poem is supposed to be a satire on effusive love-song-type ballads.

    Bernstein wants to have his cake and eat it. He wants to ‘write a love ballad’ but he also wants to ‘make fun of love ballads,’ in the same poem. He thinks he has done two things at once.

    But no, he has not done two things. He has merely done half-a-thing.

    He has merely written a bad love ballad.

    Bernstein’s math is wrong.

    Never get your math wrong.

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