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Charles Bernstein returns for "UB Poetics at Two Decades"

Three pieces in Charles Bernstein's "Attack of the Difficult Poems" (University of Chicago Press, 2011) bear immediate relevance to this (Friday) evening's "UB Poetics at Two Decades" Roundtable Discussion and Poetry Reading at 7:30 p.m. at the Western New York Book Arts Center, 468 Washington St. (at Mohawk St.) in Buffalo.  The event is free and open to the public.

In "Poetry Scene Investigation," a 2002 conversation with critic Marjorie Perloff, Bernstein responds to a question about the formation and first decade of the program by pointing out that it was a particular response to the situation poetry found itself in during the late 1980's and early 1990's: ignored and dismissed (except as a curiosity) by the mainstream print media, self-marginalized by what Bernstein had already famously derided as "the Official Verse Culture," and segregated into separate poetry reading and poetry writing curriculums and cultures at most colleges and universities.

"Poetry is too important to be be left to its own devices," he observes in the interview, and pointedly adds, "Maybe close reading  [i.e., reading that demands the full attention of the reader, but does not presume the hegemonic authority of the text] would get a better rap if we called it PSI: Poetry Scene Investigation.  Of course, that would mean treating the poem as crime, but maybe it is: a crime against mass culture."

In his essay "A Blow Is Like an Instrument: The Poetic Imaginary and Curricular Practices," Bernstein points out that the roots of the Poetics Program can be traced back to UB English Department of the 1960's , where then chairman Al Cook hired Leslie Fiedler, Robert Creeley, Charles Olson and a list of other literary artists too long and illustrious to be included here, not primarily to teach creative writing courses, but rather to teach literature classes, and, in particular, literary classes in a Ph.D. program.  

After Bernstein and Susan Howe--who had been scheduled to participate this evening's 20th anniversary event, but had to withdraw due to illness--joined Robert Creeley on the UB English Department faculty in 1989, they sought to formalize the creation of a  Ph.D. program in Poetics that did not force students to chose between becoming either poets or scholars (however much of a professional double bind that may imply), but rather, suggested as Bernstein writes, "that the one activity may enhance the other, for those so inclined."

In "The Practice of Poetics," an essay that does not refer specifically to the UB Poetics Program, but can be read as a justification for foregrounding the study of poetics in any liberal arts curriculum, Bernstein observes that "Poetics is an ethical engagement with the shifting conditions of everyday life."

Contrasting ethics ("a dialogic practice of response in a civil society") with morality ("a fixed code of conduct and belief"), he writes: "Ethics is ironic, morality sincere.  Ethics secular, morality religious.  Poetics is the ethical refusal of morality in the name of aesthetics."

The essay opens with two paragraphs that speak directly not only to Bernstein's influence on the UB Poetics Program, but also on the larger community of Buffalo area writers and artists his ideas have had a significant role in shaping over the past two decades:

While poetics brings to mind a long history of laws of composition, poetics can also stress poiesis--the actual making or doing: poetry as process.  Every doing carries the potential of something new, emergent, something not already predicated by poetics.  Practice overtakes theory, practice changes theory.  And not just writing practice but also performance.

To practice poetics is to acknowledge the inevitability of metaphor, the linguisticality of perception, the boundlessness of thought, the passion of ideas, the beauty of error, the chains of logic, the possibilities of intuition, and the uncanny delight of chance.  In contrast to the syllogistic rationality of expository writing, poetics is situational, shifts with the winds, courts contradiction, feeds on inconsistency...

While tonight's round-table discussion was originally intended to provide a colloquy between Bernstein and Susan Howe on their perceptions and observations about the UB Poetics Program at age 20, in Howe's absence, UB Gray Chair Professor in Poetry Steve McCaffery and former director Professor Myung Mi Kim will join Bernstein for the discussion and subsequent reading.

--R.D. Pohl

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