Bernstein's "Enough!" by Kent Johnson
In his statement for the "Enough!" reading* held on March 9 at The Bowery Club, in celebration of O Books's anthology of the same title, Charles Bernstein proclaims the following:
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.
At first blush, any poet alarmed by the imperial policies of the new national security state could hardly disagree: Of course poets should honestly follow the paths of their own forms of ethical and aesthetic response… Poets of all different stripes are doing so, in response to the coming war, in inspiringly multifarious ways… And truly, yes, it is harmful to dismiss discourses other than your own through presumptuous decree…
But it soon becomes clear that the real, unnamed target of Bernstein's cry of "Enough!" is not the moral arrogance of the Bush administration, but the "righteous monologue" and "digestible messages," as he puts it, of the thousands of poems appearing at Sam Hamill's amazingly popular Poets Against the War site. And when one realizes this and pauses to reflect on Bernstein’s brief manifesto, one wants to ask: Has there ever been, in the young history of 21st century American poetry, a moral decree more astonishingly blind to the ironies of its own arrogance? The moral righteousness is so obvious, in fact, that one wonders if Bernstein is not perhaps pulling a trademark funny one on his audience.
Alas, he’s quite serious. Quoting Bush that America's purpose is to achieve "results," Bernstein retorts that such authoritative decree "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 we face."
Yes, indeed. But there's no room for "an open-ended process," it appears, when it comes to discovering the different kinds of poetry that might be fit and effective for the times—fit and effective for those different reading communities of citizens that make up our nation, not all of whom share Bernstein’s aesthetic tastes: For Bernstein, in fact, any poetic discourse against the impending war, if it is to be of value—or, even, if it is not to be complicit with the powers that be—must eschew the "language of social and linguistic norms" and demonstrate, instead, measures of "ambiguity," "complexity," and "skepticism" capable of exploring the ways such norms "are used to discipline and contain dissent"—as if these last three qualities were the exclusive domain of a particular literary current.
Those who have been following the discussion in "innovative" poetic circles about poetry's role in the current period should be able to see that Bernstein intends his statement, in part, as a response to Eliot Weinberger's talk of a few weeks back at the Poetry Project. In characteristically clear and pointed address, Weinberger reminded his listeners, not all of whom were happy to hear it, that nearly all great and lasting anti-war poetry (that of the Vietnam war, for recent and stirring example) is overtly political and written in language that approximates the "norm" (again, Bernstein's accusatory term)—a poetry, that is, that lends itself to ways of reading that are closer to the "norm" than those demanded by a poetics of abstract surface and self-reflexive speculation.
That this is so is quite simply a matter of history, and it's clear that this touches a nerve for Bernstein, since it runs directly counter to the claims of radical relevance that Language poetry has made for itself since Robert Grenier wrote "I HATE SPEECH". Indeed, the relative silence from old-guard Language poets in the present crisis (the younger "post-avants" they have often scolded for not being "political" enough are the ones now engaged in forging a poetics of activism) begins to suggest that their "ambiguous," "complex," "skeptical" and, increasingly, academically-contextualized poetics really has little to currently offer beyond prescriptive pronouncements like Bernstein's—pronouncements that fundamentally conflate ethics and aesthetics, and which, in so doing, preempt any idea of democratic dialogue and political unity within the multifarious poetic community. Thus does Bernstein, in his statement, show himself to be exclusivist and fundamentalist in his poetics, and—in his superior ideological dispensations—an ironic after-echo of the intolerant rulers he would oppose.
Times of quickening crisis famously clarify things previously obscured by cultural inertia. In this particular time, an "avant-garde" circle, long insistent of the vanguard nature of its theory and practice, is being shown to be more or less pulling up the cultural rear. And its members’ patronizing snipes against poets speaking out with courage and force are starting to sound like sour-grape complaints about being left behind.
To them, a simple suggestion: Enough.