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From: Charles Bernstein
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(Presented at the _enough_ reading and launch at the Bowery Poetry Club on
March 9, 2003. *** _enough_: an anthology of poetry and writings against
the war, ed. Rick London and Leslie Scalapino [Oakland: O Books, 2003])
In these difficult times, let us not draw away from our poetics in an
attempt to redress the ominous possibilities of future U.S. government
policies or the onerous effects of current government policies. As poets,
we need to pursue our own forms of ethical and aesthetic response rather
than engage in the sort of pronouncement by fiat and moral presumption of
President Bush and his partisans.
In his "State of the Union" message on January 28, 2002, Mr. Bush said,
"America's purpose is more than to follow a process; it is to achieve a
result." This statement alone provides sufficient evidence to oppose his
policies. What our America stands on, its foundation, is a commitment to
process over results, to finding by doing, to thinking by responding.
Solutions made outside of an open-ended process compound whatever problems
If this statement does not seem forceful enough, if it appears too
uncertain or insufficiently categorically, so be it. If we are to talk of
"poets" against the war, then what is it in our poems -- as opposed to our
positions as citizens -- that does the opposing? Perhaps it might be an
approach to politics, as much as to poetry, that doesn't feel compelled to
repress ambiguity or complexity nor to substitute the righteous monologue
for a skeptic's dialogue.
At these trying time we keep being hectored toward moral discourse, toward
turning our work into digestible messages. This too is a casualty of the
war machine, the undermining of the value of the projects of art, of the
Art is never secondary to moral discourse but its teacher.
Art, unregulated by a predetermined message, is all the more urgent in a
time of crisis. Indeed, it is a necessary response to crisis, exploring the
deeper roots of our alienation and offering alternative ways not only to
think, but also to imagine and indeed to resist.
A decade ago, just after the previous Persian War, Leslie Scalapino, the
convener of today's session, sent _Dead Souls_, a series of searing
indictments of that war, to a number of newspapers, who declined to
publish, as editorial matter, a kind of writing they found inaccessible.
But the task for poetry is not to translate itself into the language of
social and linguistic norms but to question those norms and, indeed, to
explore the ways they are used to discipline and contain dissent.
Poetry offers not a moral compass but an aesthetic probe. And it can
provide a radical alternative to the outcome-driven thinking that has made
the Official Morality of the State a mockery of ethical thinking and of
international democratic values.
We all saw the effect of outcome-driven thinking in Florida during the
Fall of 2000, when the Republican National Committee launched a unilateral,
anti-democratic campaign, capturing the state power of the executive branch
from the winner of the popular vote for President. To achieve their goal,
Mr. Bush and his partisans had to turn against their own espoused belief in
states' rights. In the course of their righteous zeal to win at any cost,
the Bush faction turned against the will both of the Supreme Court and the
electorate of the State of Florida. The prestige and integrity of the
United State Supreme Court was collateral damage to Mr. Bush's determined
insistence that ends justify means. The Supreme Court, which we once
thought of as a guarantor or liberty, was exposed as a tool of the
ultra-right wing agenda of the Republican National Committee. This past
week, we have seen this same Supreme Court rule that 50 years of
incarceration is not cruel and unusual punishment for a string of three
petty crimes. Once again, we see the contempt the Chief Justice, Mr.
Rehnquist, and his Star Chamber cohorts, Justices Scalia and Thomas, have
for the shared meaning of our common language, shared meanings that are the
foundation for the system of laws to which we have given consent through
the Bill of Rights to the Constitution.
"Unilateralism" is not just the course the Executive Branch is pursuing,
with disastrous consequence, in foreign policy, but also the policy it
pursues domestically, in its assault on our liberties, on the poor, and
indeed on our aspirations for a democratic society.
So I come here this afternoon, to the Bowery Poetry Club, to say, with all
of you, ENOUGH!