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World Poetry Portfolio #38: Charles Bernstein

photo by Alan Thomas

Charles Bernstein was born in 1950 in Manhattan. Bruce Andrews and Bernstein published the first issue of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E in 1978. It ran till 1981. In 1990, Bernstein was appointed to the David Gray chair at the State University of New York at Buffalo. At Buffalo, where he worked with Robert Creeley and Susan Howe, he co-founded the Poetics Program. In 1995, with Loss Pequeño Glazier, Bernstein co-founded the Electronic Poetry Center. In 2003, Bernstein moved to the University of Pennsylvania, where he was appointed Donald T. Regan Professor of English and Comparative Literature. At Penn, he co-founded, with Al Filreis, PennSound. From 1974 to 20011, Bernstein published 13 full-length collections of poetry along with a selected poems, with 23 additional pamphlets and artist’s books, four collections of essays, and two books of libretti. His most recent books are The Attack of the Difficult Poems (University of Chicago, 2011) and All the Whiskey in Heaven (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2010).


(a sequence of poems)


What Is It

1: The cause, what’s the cause?
2: What do you mean?
1: The cause.
2: The what?
1: The cause, that which is the cause, the cause
2: The course?
1: that which is the cause, the cause, that which is the cause
2: what are you saying?
1: the cause, the cause, what’s the cause
2: the cause?
1: the cause
2: the cause of what?
1: that which is the cause, what is the cause
2: don’t you know?
1: what’s the cause, the cause
2: you know, don’t you know, oh you know
1: the cause, that which is the cause, the cause
2: can’t you say it?
1: the cause, what’s the cause?
2: is this a test?


      i’ve gotton word
            that you just don’t
         care anymore, that
 you’re saying i’m a
                      impersonal creep, well i
        knew that we
                   always knew that, what the fuck is
                                with you, i was
                                      to you, i was kind,
              i was care-
                     ful to do my share of the
                                  dishes, i listened
                       to what you wanted to
                               do, too
                                  and then this
                                       this this,
                                what’s the cause,
                                     who’ve you been
                                             talking to,
                  you know
                          you can’t believe
                                      them, you know,
                                          i mean,
                                            who the fuck—

                                                              and forever,
                                                        roy roastbeef,
                                                        king of slipshods

The View from Nowhere

"Zip it up--I don't care--you listen
to me."  Proscriptive or prescriptive: the weight
of tradition or
a tradition of weights.  Just
waiting to get the go ahead from my friends on
the force.  Blanked
out on parry when route
has found alternative to clown-out, suction.  Running
to meter the lawn in consequence of which
showers departure.  "Chill
off!"  Confining
to detail, touching
promise until you've fingered
the figures out of it, out of
yourself.  &
yelling behind the truck, inaudible
to the exhaust,
like some nasty duck pounding against a pond.
The view I am going to suggest, I hope in
less obscure
language, is related to this.
Essentially, there are three
types of problems.  Sometimes
with hardly a notion that she has
heard a word.  Blue & blue-
black.  For what's the point of having
different words if they mean the same
thing?  Something made me
want to get out of the house.  I
couldn't understand that money was going
to be burned
when people was
in need.  But the issue
is different if we return
to the question posed at the beginning.  In
addition to the question of objectivity is
the question of
scale.  The importance of this
point will emerge when we see how complex
a psychological interchange constitutes
the natural development of sexual
abstraction.  I felt
bad.  I
felt cold.  I felt
completely out of
The article
paints a picture
of its author as seething with jealousy
& egomania--hopelessly out
of touch
with the material
that is his
subject.  The thing then to watch the spectacle
without being sucked up
it--for there is
a danger in finding yourself dictating
defenses to crimes not only not committed
but really just the opposite
of crimes--what
is left to be done.  Of course, what
many have regarded as a liberating
to write in otherwise unsanctioned ways
will provoke professional sanction-takers to see
only red.  Because
of casuistical problems
like this
I prefer to stay with the original
unanalyzed distinction between what
one does to people
& what merely
happens to them as a result of what one
does.  Notions
for a September day, lying in the
of tumultuous enfolding.
All this
is as clear as day
right now.  The crow
slides low over the abandoned
mine, looking for correspondence &
twine.  While in Gaza
the rioters have
to lose
but loss.
The view I am
to suggest
I hope in less obscure language
is related to

Language, Truth, and Logic


Why did you steal
that money? You

know you acted wrongly
in stealing. Stealing

money is wrong. You
shouldn’t do it,

shouldn’t have done it,
not what you

did. And  you promised
you wouldn’t. You 

ought to keep your
promises. Really should

keep your promises, when
you say you

will, when you promise.
Promise? You know 

I took what you
said as a 

promise. I mean, you
promised, didn’t you?

They say I excuse
you. Excuse me!

I can’t excuse you
for acting wrong.

Stealing money is wrong.
You acted wrongly

in stealing the money.
I took what

you said to be
a promise. You

promised! You ought to
keep your promises.

Promise! Why did you
steal that money?


You’re mistaken.
I shot the horse accidentally.

¬– There was no mistake.
It was no accident.

I mean I shot the horse by mistake.
It was an accident
that I shot the horse by mistake.
I did not mean to shoot the horse. 

– Mean it or not
your mistake is no accident.

It was the wrong horse that I shot.
I was mistaken.
I accidentally made a mistake.

– The only mistake you made
Is no accident.

You’re mistaken.
Make no mistake about it.
The horse was shot by accident.
I held the gun but I was not aiming for the horse.

– So you’re saying it was an accident?
That you shot the horse by mistake?

I admit to my mistake.
It was an accident.

A NOTE ON THE POEM: The first part relates to the central argument in A.J. Ayer’s Language Truth and Logic (1936): “The presence of an ethical symbol in a proposition adds nothing to its factual content. Thus if I say to someone, ‘You acted wrongly in stealing that money,’ I am not stating anything more than if I had simply said, ‘You stole that money.’” The first section of the poem also refers to David Ross’s discussion of the statement “You ought to keep your promises” in The Right and the Good (1930). The poem’s second part takes up J. L. Austin’s distinction, in “A Plea for Excuses” (1956), between accident and mistake. Ayer goes on to say: “In adding that this action is wrong I am not making any further statement about it. I am simply evincing my moral disapproval of it. . . . It merely serves to show that the expression of it is attended by certain feelings in the speaker. . . . If now I generalize my previous statement and say, ‘Stealing money is wrong,’ I produce a sentence which has no factual meaning. It is clear that there is nothing said here which can be true or false…. We can now see why it is impossible to find a criterion for determining the validity of ethical judgments. … And we have seen that sentences which simply express moral judgments do not say anything. They are pure expressions of feelings and as such do not come under the category of truth and falsehood.”


so what
so what
so what I’m
what I’m saying
so what I’m
so what I’m saying
I’m saying
it’s your
it’s your fucking
it’s your fucking
it’s your fucking fault
it’s your fucking
your fucking fault
fucking fault
I don’t
I don’t
I don’t need
don’t need to hear
I don’t need to hear
don’t need to
don’t need to hear
to hear
hear all
all that
don’t need to hear
all that extra
all that extra stuff
I don’t need to hear
all that extra
all that extra
all that extra
all that extra
all that extra stuff
all that
extra stuff
so that’s
so that’s
so that’s
so that’s it
that’s it
so that’s it
that’s it
so that’s it
I don’t
I don’t
I don’t need
don’t need
don’t need to hear
all that extra
extra stuff
all that extra
extra stuff
it’s your
it’s your
fucking fault
your fucking fault
fucking fault
your fucking
your fucking
your fucking fault
it’s your fucking fault

For M.G.

All this time me on he leadéd
With false pretence of care
Not for me, too late I learnéd
But what I, for him, might dare
(Which now I do foreswear)
Yet then I do think  –
Not this the man I once beholdéd
And calléd friend
What see I now near shell
Of what was he before
Fears and Jealousies so bold
Frightened ’way what parts of him
Promise nearly tolled.
Now a mind of gossip filléd
Where ideas once gently grazed
Betraying youth’s feckless tare
By always wanting to be rare.

Not on My Watch

Then on whose?


“What Is it” (Bee/Bernstein: a chat) and “r––” are both from 1973. The poems were first published in a section of Susan Bee and my time in Ruskin, BC, near Vancouver, as a feature in The Capilano Review (3:12, 2010), which includes other early poems, pictures by Susan, and an interview with us.
“The View from Nowhere” is from Dark City (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1994)
“Language, Truth, and Logic” is from Girly Man (Chicago: Univeristy of Chicago Press, 2006).
“Morality” first appeared in onedit #12 (2008)
“For M.G.” first appeared in 1913: A Journal of Forms #5 (2011)
“Not on My Watch“, previous unpublished, will be part of a public art project: at Shreiner-Concord Cemetery, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, at the grave of radical abolitionist and civil rights advocate, Congressman Thaddeus Stevens.
©2011 Charles Bernstein. Reprinted with the permission of the author.

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