Reception Poetry?

from A Correspondence Between John Kinsella and Charles Bernstein

Dear Charles

I concur with your note [about “groups” and “individuals”] and feel one should view such “anti-group” notions with suspicion. My problem is when the group becomes an amplifier for the individual (masking “I”-intent) and consequently becomes a smokescreen for the lyric voice. You’d be familiar with this modus operandi, I’m sure. The other concern is the rejection of alternative accents in the evolution of a group idiolectical (though maybe “ideolectical” is more appropriate!) language. At the moment I’m involved in a few skirmishes regarding the “Australian” voice. God forbid! For example, with the Poetics list (either the US or English versions) one can participate as part of the international community of poetic discourse, but there’s always a kind of post-colonial tag that suggests you’re outside the discourse. This is why I admire your writing Ń it is entirely geared towards a restructuring and even abolition of centre-periphery paradigm/s. Actually, it’s about replacing the language of such a discourse with one that may be decoded in a variety of non-prescriptive modes of poetic “expression”. This is what has made the Language movement an exciting one for me Ń it IS the word itself that “matters” Ń and there has been necessity for “community” to combat the self-righteousness of lyricism (not in my mind about individuality but pastoral propaganda dressed up as “spirit”{as song}). It’s funny though, I’m constantly under attack for not belonging to a school of poetry. How can I Ń the group isn’t armed with the key to decode me, and the lyricists profoundly distrust me. As they should! I’m about subversion, language as a thing-in-itself, and red shift. From the “formalist” Australian poet’s point of view Ń say for example that of the Canberra poet Alan Gould Ń my “experimental” work “lacks charm” (as he recently wrote in Quadrant).

[ … ]

Dear John

I can’t easily say how this work is viewed outside the US, but from where I sit I am struck by the intensely international quality of some aspects of the project. In contrast to much regional or anyway US-framed poetry, the work that has come up in and around L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine has had roots in European art and poetry and had rejected the sort of anti-European and anti avant-garde attitude that is prevalent not just in the mainstream of US poetry but also in some of the alternative traditions that come out of Williams, for example. Then again, in L= and other places I and others have tried to make active links to other English-language poetries that seemed resonant with our projects, say in Canada, UK, New Zealand, and also Australia Ń so you actually have a great deal of exchange, cross-publishing, etc. & then there has been interest in the work in France, especially, and lots of exchange there, but also Spain, Italy, Yugoslavia, China &c; and then also the extraordinary intensity of interaction with some Russian poets, esp the Dragomoschenko-Hejinian connection but well beyond that.

It’s a sunny day in New York.

Dear Charles

Spontaneous reaction to a sunny day in New York…


Ode to Buffalofor Charles

Gotham decay elevating the up and down
like allocation, art deco subverting
ethnicity in the trashed and deserted
station, neglected cross-over that might
become the Polish Community Centre,
out of the grid, names naming names
in the city’s litigation — alterity —
as romanesque towers offer asylum
or disparity in the language, cognating
in pools of heavy mist done in drift-down
from the Canadian side of the border,
Niagara THAT big and negotiating
administration as if neo-classical
stood for restraint in the travelling view,
ignited and driven in slave cylinders
for downtown that won’t decline the ruin,
and the organ’s stops are all out
and atmosphere is a fugue, or optimism,
built on dead turkey or canola oil,
not catering for the group’s hunger
despite the critics closing in — each
armed with their very own megaphone
(circa 1950s), inevitability the Georgic
call to hard work because work is good
and makes you feel lousy with bone ache,
Susan Howe determined to see them
stop the flow towards the falls
with one fell swoop of basic English,
rearranging in units of Rockefellers,
just as Modernity is in the drainage,
this carbon copy of a fen project,
as swamps are of the cycles of philanthropy,
and students might be driven into
an artificial lake and not find it
grotesquely humorous, riot’s all about
hubris anyway so what the Hell? Ah,
but the rhetoric of enclosure and a nature poet
like John Clare discovering his bestiary
is built on layers of dead lions and buffalo,
it’s true, like the dog with whirling legs
unable to get loose, supposing it would
want to: cheesecloth and defrost
and the apathy unstrung in the query:
should the Trojan Horse feed on the jargon
of the raw and the cooked, the supplementary
obligations of intonation and subtext,
the swirls of darkening stone?


Dear John

Here is a better formulation [of earlier points]:

In the 1990s, the problems of group affiliation (the neolyric “we”) pose as much a problem for poetry as do assertions of the Individual Voice (the lyric “I”). If poems can’t speak directly for an author, neither can they speak directly for a group. Just as a poetry may wish to question the authorial voice, it also may wish to question all forms of group affiliation Ń national, state, linguistic, ethnic, and, indeed, aesthetic. Each poem speaks not only many voices but also many groups and poetry can investigate the construction of these provisional entities in and through and by language.

If individual identity is a false front, group identity is a false fort.

But saying that I also want to acknowledge that the suspicion of many kinds of collective action or identification in poetry, that is the stigmatization of groups, does torque the equation, so that active exchange, shared interests, and concerted activities that run counter to the BIG GROUP consciousness of rugged individuality will get targeted as a sinister and anti-poetic “party” (in the bad sense) organization. I’m for a poetry that neither sheds its identities nor uses them as shields against the poem-in-the-making nor, for that matter, selves-in-the-making nor society-in-the making. But also that does not hide behind bland assurances of human or national generality in refusing the necessity of partiality or highly particularized commitments that acknowledge the manner and matter of allegiances, affiliations, identifications, markings, separations, shivers, splinters, remnants, fragmentations. The parts are greater than the sum of the whole.

& here is a poem:


AnaffirmationI am not I
when called to account—
plaster over, dumbly benched
the corrosive ardency
of blinkered identification.
To affirm nothing, a veil
of asymptotic bent,
prattling over-
tunes in the striated
ecstasy of a turned-
around spade. Sprain parkway
gulls its titular
horizon, & my growling
Zebra knows me just
enough to tip
her hat.


first published in Imago (Autumn 1998, Vol 10, No 1)

for Glen Phillips on the work of John Kinsella