Since emerging some thirty years ago as a protagonist and central thinker of Language poetry, Charles Bernstein has been many poets to many people—or so he would have us believe. As he proclaims in the 1999 poem "Solidarity is the Name We Give to What We Cannot Hold":
I am a Buffalo poet in Providence, a London
poet in Cambridge, a Kootenay School
of Writing poet in Montreal….
I am an experimental poet
to those who value craft over interrogation, an
avant-garde poet to those who see the future
in the present.
Of course, Bernstein is at once all and none of these things, or, more properly, none of these things alone. But if these different labels rely entirely on context for their salience, such contingency would seem Bernstein's point and, further, it is the fundamental paradox underlying All the Whiskey in Heaven, a new selection of his poems dating back to 1975. Typically such a retrospective volume would be intended to offer a clear course through an author's career, giving it an apparent coherence and thus narrative depth and force. But from the outset of his career Bernstein has devoted himself to upsetting precisely this project in literature, which subsequently makes All the Whiskey, however accurate its portrait of the poet might be, seem a composite of so many different exceptions: Styles and techniques that range widely over time subvert any straightforward sense of continuity and, for that matter, of consistency. As such it offers a catalogue of Bernstein's writing but also, and perhaps most accurately, a far-reaching, perpetually unsettled and unsettling meditation on the potential of poetry since the 1970s to be an instrument of abstract ideas—of both subjective and social observation—even as it investigates the properties of language in concrete detail.
In part, to make this assertion is only to call Bernstein's project self-reflexively political—a quality underscored by his poetry's repeated implication of language as a primary vehicle of social convention. The first poem in this collection, in fact, revolves around this notion. Consisting of a cut-up of Erving Goffman's Asylums (1961)—"mostly focusing on the last few words of a sentence and the first few words of the next, and then constellating these clips into a field or array," Bernstein explains in a recent interview with Bomb critic Jay Sanders—the piece takes up the theme of such a controlled environment and, using radical disjunction and enjambment, creates subtle correlations among linguistic structures, as well as architectural, behavioral, and societal ones. The poem's lines are scattered across the pages and this formal property seems echoed, for instance, in one isolated synechdochal line ostensibly describing the inmates' "movements, postures, and stances"; as their most personal aspects are informed by societal structure, so the reader's path is guided here by the words. (Notably as well, the poem's observation that "of being 'in' or 'on the inside' does not exist apart" speaks to the same sense of contingency and interdependency Bernstein claims for the schools of poetry mentioned above.)
Over the course of the nineteen books represented here, such sociological allegories are both extended and continually bifurcated by Bernstein, with individual texts presented bearing ever-clearer inscriptions of their cultural moment's evolving technology (interrupted, say, by what seems a computer's flat pronouncement, "Disk directory full") and economy (with the rise of the service industry inevitably "changing the way we wrote poems" even while creating "Poetic/ opportunities.") Among these passages are others more overtly political in subject, whether referencing Ollie North in passing or contemplating war at length. (Of the latter, consider lines from one serial poem: "War is capitalism testing its limits./ …War is Surrealism without the art.") For the purpose of such interlinking of syntax and culture, Bernstein is apt to use what seems found language—words are they are used in everyday life, ringing of idiom and cliché, and as they are turned to the ends of advertising and the mass media more generally. Perhaps most effective (and humorous) in this regard, however, are his forays into genre, where the high tenor of poetic diction succumbs to a kind of materialist deflation. To wit: Near All the Whiskey in Heaven's conclusion, Bernstein appropriates the language of Arnold Schwarzenegger in order to contrast—in a ballad verging on limerick—the enterprise of poetry with that of "men with brute design/ Who prefer hate to rime" and then implore of his readers, "So be a girly man/ & take a gurly stand."
For Bernstein, this technique of deflation would seem resoundingly philosophical and, in fact, throughout the selection one finds long streams of rumination interrupted as the poet suddenly stands back from his own conjecture, taking the reader aside with him. Significantly, these moments typically arise when Bernstein is reflecting on the idea of poetry itself. Indeed, his occasional use of misspelling in works such as "A Defence of Poetry" to render words barely intelligible—forcing the reader to be aware of his or her own devices of perception in the creation of meaning—is arguably an example of this technique at its most compressed. (As Bernstein writes: "these poems you call nonselnse is not/ sense-making itslef but…./ the simulation of sense-making.")
But here again Bernstein offers us a paradox with a purpose, as theoretical examinations inevitably give way to—or better, create the very possibility for—words grounded in human proportion. In "Dark City," the poet writes: "truth is the ground of reality's/ appearance but reality intervenes/ against all odds." So it is that Bernstein's exceptions circle back to give us a sense of presence: Programmatic approaches—in society, in poetry—might be collapsed, but only to create space for the personal, palpable, quotidian observation. Ironically, reality intrudes, but only to give us again fleeting glimpses of truth. An unusual feat in contemporary literature, this revelation is only one of Bernstein's many such achievements that set All the Whiskey in Heaven among the most important books of poetry to be published during the past decade.
Tim Griffin is the editor-in-chief of Artforum.