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 cold, impersonal creep, well i knew that we always knew that, what the fuck is with you, i was nice 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 shit, 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— yours 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 masquerade 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 it. The article paints a picture of its author as seething with jealousy & egomania--hopelessly out of touch with the material that is his putative subject. The thing then to watch the spectacle without being sucked up in 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 permission 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 hay 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 nothing to lose but loss. The view I am going to suggest I hope in less obscure language is related to this.
Language, Truth, and Logic
I. 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? II. 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 I’m I’m saying it’s it’s it’s it’s your it’s it’s it’s it’s your fucking it’s your fucking it’s your fucking fault fault it’s your fucking your fucking fault fucking fault I I I I don’t I I don’t I I don’t need don’t need to hear hear I don’t need to hear don’t need to don’t need to hear to hear hear all all all all that all that don’t need to hear all that extra all that extra stuff stuff I don’t need to hear all that extra all that extra all that extra all that extra all that extra stuff stuff all that extra stuff so that’s that so that’s that’s so that’s so that’s it it that’s it so that’s it it that’s it so that’s it I don’t I I don’t I don’t need I I don’t need don’t need to hear all that extra extra stuff all that extra extra stuff it’s it’s it’s your it’s your it’s your your fucking fault your fucking fault fucking fault it’s it’s your fucking your your fucking your fucking fault it’s your fucking fault
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.