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Bernstein's Razor

I think that readers of Attack of the Difficult Poems can safely assume that Charles Bernstein does not think that poems are best served by sincerity, description, or traditional craft - he writes as much: "Not being particularly interested in sincerity, description, or traditional craft ..."; all those readers who wonder why film, radio, and TV drama, along with prose, have long surpassed poetry in the affections of common folk, need look no further.  For here, in a nutshell, is Bernstein's Razor.

Poems improve, and hew to the modernist design, when they shave away sincerity, description, and traditional craft.  Indeed, poems are improved by insincerity (or an awareness of artifice), a lack of empirical observation, and new formal procedures.  Readers and poets puzzled by the great divide between the so-called mainstream and the experimental are able to grasp the struggle for poetry here.  And, as Bernstein argues, the constant definition of poetry is part of the poetics that generates worthwhile critical and creative thinking about poetry - and poetics is/are generative too.  As he also writes, the best poem is the one about to be written (that is actually something I wrote but he basically makes the same strong claim).  Now, I like Bernstein the man, and I like Bernstein the poet; and I enjoy Bernstein the critic.

As I said in an earlier post, I needn't agree with him in toto.  However, his Razor does away with too much that makes poetry worth living for.  My argument, which I am developing in a book of criticism, can also be summed up briefly: sincerity and artifice can be combined in the same poem, wonderfully.  Indeed, I would claim that the key modernist credo that Hart Crane, Yeats and Eliot and Auden and Dylan Thomas observed was that feeling and thought could be fused in poetry; this is what I would like to call emotional irony, or ironical emotionality.  FT Prince is a master of it, as was Tasso.  I don't need to remind readers of the thousands of years of poems, in all languages, that contain some element of sincerity, emotionality, description, and craft, and are delightful and necessary.

I assume Bernstein would not want us to stop reading Dante, or Donne, or Hardy, or Keats, or Dickinson, or Frost.  I am much interested in their poems, because they think things through, but they also feel.  Poems that do not tangle with the observable world, or the felt word of emotion and compassion, love and fear and desire, and do not enjoy the full range of poetic and linguistic formal options, are impoverished poems.  There are great experimental poems.  Some of them avoid emotionality in favour of cognitive or aesthetic procedures remote from the human heart.  But the greatest palpitate as much as innovate.  Indeed, we need a Poetry of Palpitation.


Editor's Note: Charles Bernstein sent me this to clarify his position - reprinted with permission:


"Much appreciate your continuing engagement. But I think you mistake my view in one respect. The kinds of poetries I want allow for the greatest possible range of affect and emotion. I feel the sort of muted poetry that is, literally, prized as accessible diminishes affective and emotional range and expression. So add that to your razor. (Hart Crane is always my hero.)"
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