The Importance of Being Difficult: Charles Bernstein’s Attack of the Difficult Poems

Rachel Abramowitz

Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2011. 282 pages. $26.

Attack of the Difficult Poems: Essays and InventionsCharles Bernstein is no stranger to the “difficult” poem: as one of the co-creators of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry in the 1970s, Bernstein has made a career of discombobulation. In his new collection of essays entitled Attack of the Difficult Poems, Bernstein investigates not only the five Ws (and one H!) of poetic difficulty, but makes the argument that difficulty is not something to overcome in the search for a core nugget of meaning. Art gets its mystery and power from presenting problems that are not easily solved; as our modern world strives to streamline and clarify, Bernstein declares that difficulty is under attack.

Throughout his teaching career (he is currently the Donald T. Reagan Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Pennsylvania), Bernstein has witnessed the consequences of an educational system that values test scores over rigorous, stimulated thinking. He argues in the first section of Attack (a compilation of essays gathered under the heading “Professing Poetics”) that this shift in values has begotten a nation of shopkeepers, a nation whose anti-intellectualism has led it to act—or, perhaps more accurately, react—with a clarity available only to the unthinking. The humanities’ lack of core texts, and subsequent academic “democracy,” is both an advantage and, potentially, the source of its undoing: Great Books programs scramble to provide contours to the nebula of Culture, but the result of such “lip service” is that art and ideas are taught as lifeless things with no bearing on present and future culture. Furthermore, not only do such Great curricula train students to avoid “difficult” literature because it offers no clear answers, but, as Bernstein observes, our social, political, and economic systems has made it evident that future customers and government leaders don’t “need” to learn how to read poetry—in fact, such critical thinking is bad for business.

However, Bernstein argues, the price of such ease is great: “What sort of investment are we willing to make in the intellectual and cultural development of our citizens so that we can remain, as a country, innovative, vibrant, socially responsible? How can we prepare ourselves for the unexpected, the difficult, the troubling events that are sure to lie ahead for all of us?” Though Bernstein’s essays differ in subject, style, and audience (“Speed the Movie or Speed the Brand Name or Aren’t You the Kind That Tells” is what one might call a lyric treatise, one of the subtitle’s “inventions”), they are linked by this key argument: that far from being a frivolous, unprofitable pursuit, reading difficult poetry fosters an ability to dwell in those uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts that go by the nickname Life. And not just individual lives—the capacity to tolerate nuance is fundamental to the life and health of a nation. The liberal arts education was never meant to create consumers; since ancient Greece it has shaped enlightened, discerning citizens who are adept at questioning, at employing variations of thought and expression that allow a country like ours to evolve toward the ideals its founders set forth with exquisite foresight in their poetic prose. Attack of the Difficult Poems is a superb attempt to shore up the fragments of a modern education, to show and tell why the study of difficult poetry is vital to our humanity.

That’s great, you say, but how does one new to poetry begin to navigate its twists, turns, and trochees? Not for nothing does Bernstein title his book Attack of the Difficult Poems; not only can poems seem stubbornly self-contained, they can seem downright aggressive. A translation of Carlos Drummond de Andrade’s poem “In the Middle of the Way,” which provides Bernstein with his epigraph, dramatizes the experience of reading a difficult poem:

In the middle of the way was a stone
was a stone in the middle of the way
was a stone
In the middle of the way was a stone.

Forget the road less taken; one is thwarted at the outset and has stubbed a toe besides. What, then, is a reader or a student (every reader is a student) to do when confronted by stone in the midst of their reading? Thankfully, Bernstein can be as practical as he can be theoretical. In the essay “Creative Wreading & Aesthetic Judgment,” he outlines a “threefold plan” for immersing his bewildered students in the performance, experience, texture, logic, and sound of poetry as in a second language. To learn this new language, Bernstein has his students speak it, read and write (“wread”) it, break it and put it back together again backwards and inside out and know why they are now standing on their heads. No detached, expository writing assignments on “theme” or “meaning”—Bernstein encourages a relationship between the reader and the poem akin, amusingly, to a marriage, in which “smoothing over difficulties is not the solution.”

When one considers the technological possibilities for poetry today, however, many readers may prefer the solid stone in a single path to the layered rubble of digital worlds and virtual stones. Bernstein is fascinated by, and spills much ink, ironically, discussing the ways in which the technology of written and oral language has evolved through the telegraph, the telephone, the photocopier, all the way to computers, a development that has challenged our ideas of the “text” and the transience and memory of language. The speed at which language is constructed, disseminated, and absorbed is nothing new; it has always been bound up with technology, from cave walls to the Gutenberg press. What is new, Bernstein argues, are the ways in which language is modified by the “misrepresentation” of oral language into written, and from written into digital. These imperceptible mistranslations continually reshape consciousness, binding our evolution to mistake. We must be mindful, therefore, of the social and even metaphysical effects of the digital revolution: understanding these shifts is to understand the development of human civilizations, which is of course to shed light on our present and future.

While the essays in this collection are often brilliantly incisive and address a range of issues faced by contemporary poetics, it is at times unclear for whom this collection is intended. Many of these essays were originally papers given at conferences and conventions attended by poets, academics, and critics, and despite the semi-famous photograph of Katie Couric “kicking back” (as one photo caption describes Couric’s casual pose) with Attack, it seems unlikely that a reader new to poetry will grasp much beyond the first essay, “The Difficult Poem.” This essay, however, is an exemplary baptism in the waters of difficulty. Despite—or perhaps due to—the slightly tongue-in-cheek tone, Bernstein creates an atmosphere of camaraderie that is often missing from the study of poetry: “Many readers when they first encounter a difficult poem say to themselves, ‘Why me?’ The first reaction they often have is to think that this is an unusual problem that other readers have not faced. So the first step in dealing with a difficult poem is to recognize that this is a common problem that many other readers confront on a daily basis. You are not alone!” And then he gently eviscerates Billy Collins, which is always welcome.

If you know a poetry greenhorn, buy this book for him or her and let them spiral towards it, slowly, over the course of his or her artistic education. Let it be a reminder that Life, friends, is difficult. We must say so.

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