Scott Wilkerson

Review of Attack of the Difficult Poems, by Charles Bernstein

(University of Chicago Press, 2011)

Charles Bernstein’s splendid essay collection, Attack of the Difficult Poems, is both a propitious and revelatory moment in our literary culture. We need this book. And we need Charles Bernstein. There is perhaps no one better at scanning the horizon for evidence of hostile advances on all things new, experimental, contentious, adventurous, and, therefore, central to the future of art, and particularly of poetry. Attack of the Difficult Poems is thus an heroic book, a dazzlingly informed, elegantly imagined, gallant act of exegetical aesthetics.

Of course, for those of us who regard “difficulty” as a virtue and often a sign of rigorous inquiry, Bernstein’s book is a delightful affirmation of the poetic enterprise at its core. And while the Bernsteinian prose voice, like that of his of his poetry, is a shifting mosaic of tonalities: now comic, now wistful, sly, wry, and polemical, his critique is tilted not toward indictment but logical persuasion:

“American Official Verse Culture operates on the premise that innovation and originality are not criteria of aesthetic value, and while not an absolute barrier to quality, are something to held against a work, as if there were something unpleasantly immodest about any poetry that trades in the untried, something that smacks of elitism or arrogance or vulgarity.”

This formulation of the problem in contemporary poetry is both proportionally correct and factually unassailable. The Language Poets, of whom Bernstein is a founding member, have made clear their philosophical commitments and yet are still charged as accessories to some indeterminate metaphysical crime, as though poetic legibility and accessibility are manifestly congruent with Truth and Justice.

To be sure, any instantiation of “the difficult” in poetry must presume a concomitant critical reflex. Or to put it another way: we are being watched. Fortunately for us, Bernstein is staring right back and making his case in plain view. I am pleased, for instance, to find Donald Davidson taken decisively to task for suggesting, in a 1953 article, that parataxis in poetry erodes causality and is thus politically irresponsible. Looking to point out a fallacy in composition, Davidson commits the Fallacy of Composition. This is provocative enough coming from a philosopher (whom we love, incidentally), but to see contemporary poets of “American Official Verse Culture” tracing that same invidious chalk-outline around the corpse or corpus of whole aesthetic paradigms is worse than political irresponsibility: it is the aesthetic equivalent of investing in derivatives. Bernstein doesn’t make exactly that point, but he is unequivocal in his declarations defending experimentation, play, risk, and yes, straight-up complexity.

Attack of the Difficult Poems is a radical book in that its subject is nothing less than the search for meaning, however we construe that term. Although Bernstein’s intellect is formidable, his mind and methodology are equally animated, and enchanted, by a sense of poetic experience:

“I want a visceral poetics that articulates the value of the particular over and against the rule of the universal; that refuses to sacrifice the local in the name of the national or corporate; that is dialectical rather than monologic, situational rather than objective; and that prizes knowing and truthfulness more than knowledge and truth.”

With this book, Bernstein saves the world, not from difficulty but from its own dangerously simplistic view of difficult things.