Like the music of minimalist Glass, much of the effect is in the shifting tones, the space between the lines, the comedically-timed, exquisite swerving what-comes-next of it all. But in maximalist manner. Bernstein combines (as no British experimental poet currently alive perhaps does - Empson did) the highest and lowest of registers, and the full range of verbal possibilities in his work - from silly pratfall music hall tricks to deadly serious matter.
As such, his poetics clouds minds, and befuddles issues, but makes something clear: no language is out of bounds for a poet, no matter who she is. I find his work bracing, tough, hilarious, sometimes totally out of line, and often inspiring. He's the future of poetry, now. It should be said, many students, fellow poets, and critics, take his oeuvre of manifestos, polemical writings, and texts, with utter seriousness.
And that's fine, and as it should be. He's one of the generators of that much-discussed, oft-misread "school", of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Poets - whose indeterminate refusals of complacency or empirical/lyrical traditional form extended the WC Williams/ Olson franchise, combining Yankee open form with (often French) other traditions, without becoming merely an annex or branch of Ashberyian abstract lyric postmodernism. I happen to believe, and this may surprise him, that his work, like Yeats,' will one day be read, with much of the scaffolding of the theory burnt away (just as the Occult and mythic elements of Yeats are often now), and enjoyed, as magnificently pleasurable poetry of energy, style, and high wit.
But for now, the work continues to have political and forceful social purposes in its refusals to be certain things to some readers - so the fascinating tension (even paradox) of his work, and figure, continues - how to be both avant-garde, and so darn entertaining. Not that Bernstein is simply some hipper, smarter Billy Collins, but that highly-theoretical (and often anti-lyrical) poetry has rarely been so stylishly presented.
He'll be reading in London with others on May 14, 2008, as part of the Openned series. If you can, go see him. Few readers make the oral occasion of the performance so richly-textured a part of the process of closely listening to words.
One More for the Road
Like comedy never strikes the same place
More than a couple of times unless you
Change costumes and dance with me, dance
Till the furniture turns to props and
All the mops are a chorus of never
Before heard improbabilities, honeyed alibis
For working too hard, mowing the Astroturf,
Cranking the permafrost, watering the microprocessors
On the kids’ conveyor belts. The bird never
Flies as high as an old-fashioned kick
In the carbonization. --They gave me till
Friday to let them know if the job would
Ever be complete. We’re getting there, just
Fall a little further behind by day
And after dark it’s a mule’s paradise.
from World on Fire
The poem above appears here with the kind permission of the author, and is from Girly Man.