December 29, 2008

Charles Bernstein Recants



Selections from Charles Bernstein's “Recantorium (a Bachelor Machine, after Duchamp after Kafka)”:

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I was wrong, I apologize, I recant.  I altogether abandon the false opinion that National Poetry Month is not good for poetry and for poets.  I abjure, curse, and detest the aforesaid error and apostasy.  And I now freely and openly attest to the virtues of National Poetry Month in throwing a national spotlight on poetry, so crucial to keeping verse alive in the twenty-first century.

     I was wrong, I apologize, I recant.  I altogether abandon the false opinion that only elitist and obscure poetry should be praised.  I abjure, curse, detest, and renounce the aforesaid error and aversion.  And I now freely and openly attest that the best way to get general readers to start to read poetry is to present them with broadly appealing work, with strong emotional content and a clear narrative line.

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     I was wrong, I apologize, I recant. I altogether abandon and renounce the false opinion that poetry is a social and ideological construction and not the expression of the Pure Feeling of the Poet (PFP) and declare, The Sovereign Human Self (SHS) is the sole origin of authentic expression and meaning.  In full recognition and acknowledgement of my error, I hereby declare and swear, to all present company, that I must not hold, defend, or teach in any way whatsoever, verbally or in writing, the said false doctrine.

     I was wrong, I apologize, I recant.  I altogether abandon the false opinion that official verse culture, through prestigious prizes awarded for merit and reviews in nationally circulated publications selected for major importance, and including the appointments of the poets laureate, does not represent the best and the finest, the most profound and significant, the richest and the most rewarding, poetry of our nation.  And now that I myself, in my person and through my work, have ascended into this Exalted Company, and joined the rarified and incorrigible company of official verse culture, I do here cast stones and sticks and call an abomination and curse and scorn and repudiate any who would not cherish and adore both the process and product of that official verse culture that has embraced, with trepidation and embarrassment, and with noses tightly pinched and earmuffs in place, my unworthy ascent.

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     I am with regret fillèd and by errors o’erwhelmed, having chosen the broken path over the righteous, the warped over the erect.  I cant and recant.  I altogether abandon the false opinion that advocacy or partisan positioning has any place in poetry and poetics.  Poetry and poetics should be reserved for those who look beyond the contentions of the present into the eternal verities, the truths beyond this world that never change, as represented in the Books of the Accessible Poets.  I further stipulate that I recant, categorically, that poetry is an activity of the intellect and herewith and hereby declare and proclaim that true poetry is an affair of the heart and only the heart.

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I was wrong, I apologize, I recant.  Like a rat seeking a dark cavity to eat its hapless prey, I succumbed to the dictatorship of relativism, a state of profound confusion in which I could not recognize anything as definitive and based my judgments solely on my own ego and desires.  In this graceless state, I falsely believed that the real tyranny was intolerance to those who do not adhere to the aesthetic values of honesty, coherence, clarity, and truth as revealed to all with a moral conviction and a commitment to the timeless human story.  I repudiate this gutless indulgence toward benighted and fallen ideas and commit myself to the dictatorship of obedience.

     I was in error, I apologize, I recant.  I altogether abandon the false doctrine of midrashic antinomianism and bent studies, which I have promulgated in writings, lectures, and teaching, with its base and cowardly insistence on ethical, dialogic, and situational values rather than fixed and immutable moral laws.  I loved language more than truth, discourse more than reality, and so allowed to spread, in myself and others, an intellectual virus that uproots the plain sense of the word.

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The full “Recantorium” appears in the January 2009 Harper’s and the Winter 2009 issue of Critical Inquiry, both behind pay-walls.  A video of Bernstein reading “Recantorium” is available here.

5 comments:

oystershells said...

As someone on Bernstein's "side" (and it appears he does see it that simply) this piece is obnoxious. I appreciate the energy with which he keeps up his good fight, but his charge has never been cast in such childish, shallow and unsympathetic terms. His argument has every bit of the elegance one would expect from a moody teenager. He mocks a straw man.

Edmond Caldwell said...

Foolishly, I did not realize that Bernstein's piece was an "argument," and therefore to be read and evaluated according to its effective (or not) deployment of the rhetorical strategies appropriate to that mode ("straw men," etc.). I read it -- and alas, I confess, enjoyed it! -- as a SATIRE, which, you know, employs other rhetorical means, such as, say, hyperbole . . . But thank you for opening my eyes!

oystershells said...

Looks like you were given the gift of satirical wit too -- how fortunate for you. Argument is not a genre, and therefore the fact that something is a satire does not also mean that it does not contain an argument. I mean only that Bernstein's piece is trying to make a point. Additionally, that fact that hyperbole may be used explicitly or self-consciously does not preclude it from being obnoxious. I've read a lot of his work, seen him read, and met him briefly. He can be quite funny. He can also be very intellectually astute (sometimes while also being funny). Here he is neither and it is the unfavorable reflexive glance that this piece casts (for me) backward unto the rest of his work that makes it so unfortunate. It is with a tinge of irony that one considers how his much-belated and overdue increase in public profile comes at a time when his project seems to be getting a bit stale. Just my take, of course.

Edmond Caldwell said...

Well then, as far as the 'argument' of Bernstein's piece goes, maybe it's different in the field of poetry and he overstates his case, but it really resonated for me here on the prose side of the street, where philistinism rules more or less unchecked (and not only in the "establishment" but in much of the so-called "underground," which is often just a reverse mirror-image of what it purports to resist).

Also, I thought it was amusing, and I wanted to share it with some folks I know are out there who would be sympathetic to it but would not have occasion to see it on their own web-peregrinations, because of the unfortunate divide whereby the prose folks don't always check out what the verse folks are up to (and vice versa?) . . .

oystershells said...

Nothing wrong with enjoying it, nor in posting it. In fact I'm glad this thing made it into Harper's. I just watched the video actually and had a much more favorable response (though I dont presume that you care a great deal either way what some internet stranger thinks of it). I seemed to have forgotten what a strong reader/presenter he is in person. My initial reaction was probably in large part a result of my own growing disillusionment with Bernstein and whether or not his avant garde is a vital/meaningful one. I do think his voice has been an important one in contemporary poetry (more as critic/fan than poet) but I question whether his project has a real next step after just saying "down with the moon" ad infinitum. Best of luck with your writing.