Dear Ms. Emily:

I am a grad student at Peoria Tech doing a joint PhD in English and Engineering. Some people find that strange, I know, but I like the fact they both start with eng, which you no doubt already know comes from OHG inj, connection to VL igna meaning roughly up yours with an onager has not been conclusively disproved, derivative of Skt NnN*, probably from NN*, meaning speak up or alternatively, shut up and build something.

Anyway, as I was saying, I am a grad student, and the other day after finishing the latest issue of Current Issues in Engineering (their touching Human Resources issue), I turned to my toss-up fav mag, Critical Inquiry, to see what the intellectuals are up to. That’s where I came across an essay by Charles Bernstein, the new Bollingen Prize poet, called “The Body of the Poem.” Well, I got all excited about that and dug right in. But I have to tell you, I was seriously disappointed and shocked by its utter lack of serious content. I know some people think we may not be all caught up on the latest critical lingo here in Peoria, but having grown up on a farm not seven miles away from my current grad rez,  I know bullshit when I step in it.

When you boil all the b.s. out of the essay, I think all he says is he likes poetry that ordinary people find confusing better than poetry they think they understand, and precisely because it confuses them (he says rankles which is an ordinary word but here stands for an esoteric doctrine known as Russian Formalism) and it’s better if they are confused because maybe then they’ll understand they lead uncompensated lives. Don’t ask me what that means. Or that aesthetic justice thing he goes on about.

And on top of it all, nowhere in “The Body of the Poem” is there a single body – not one – not living, dead, imaginary, metaphorical, mythic, or ideological. Zero bodies. Zilch.

Fake title. 

Fake essay?

Anyway, my question for you has to do with the current standards of academic publishing. So what’s the deal with these intellectual journals? I thought Critical Inquiry was a serious publication. But if they will publish something as obscurantist and manipulative as this, I don’t even know what serious means anymore.


Perplexed in Peoria


Dear Perplexed,

Your letter tickles me nicely, and fills my head with a legion of responses. My new paramour, however, who I met right after the New Year on Elite Singles, the first time I have done the computer “dating thang,” is urging me to hold back as They are worried I might bore some of our less domesticated readers. 

By the way, I recently moved out to the west coast from Illinois. I lived about two and a half hours northwest of you, close to the Wisconsin border. If I still lived there, I would hop in my ’64 Impala lowrider this weekend and scoot down to visit you. I love the high-ceilinged brewpub in the converted rail station, there. 

(Stop lollygagging, They just whispered in my ear.) OK, so here goes my answer to you. 

First off, how can you be sure it’s not a joke? I’m serious. Crazy as it might sound, this thing reads like a sad crib of Alan Sokal’s Social Text hoax from those many years ago. I do think we need to keep in mind the possibility the piece is a species of strange joke, written in frustration (or feigned frustration?) right before the widely esteemed author got the Bollingen Prize and was anointed King Charles of Yale.

But I must say, what utter twaddle trying to pass itself off as some kind of avant poetry thinking. Wherever, my dear. to begin . . ..

My handsome friend suggests I start with the ridiculous authoritative claims CB fails to support with any kind of example. I might add he constantly reduces the entire field of English language poetry to simplistic exclusive binary oppositions between good guys and bad guys, he elides words with different meanings into each other to muddle things up and hide his vacuous tracks, and instead of saying right out what he means, he makes up ridiculous neologisms designed to obscure meaning rather than clarify it, all in the interest of trying to pass off some beat up old 70’s wreck of LangPo Theory as a new Tesla Roadster. Which, honey, it ain’t, believe me. No matter how much oatmeal you stuff in the transmission.

I really really don’t want to bore you, patient reader, with endless picky points like my dear old friend, Ralph Maud – gone now, bless his detailed soul – was famous for. But here are two doozies, just to give you some sense of depth and breadth of the Twaddle. 

Take this gem, right at the opening: “American poetry has been plagued from the start by an irreconcilable conflict between aesthetic illiberalism and aesthetic justice.” Oh, really? My sweetie is asking me which one Anne Bradstreet was, aesthetic illiberal or aesthetic justice warrior. And how about Edward Taylor and Michael Wigglesworth, or Their fave, Phyllis Wheatley (you’d never guess they work in the building trades, would you? you should see their pecs). If Mr. Bernstein has information regarding some other “start” for USAmerican poetry, he really ought to let the world in on the secret.

Of course, with him, there’s a problem of understanding what the words even mean. What in heaven’s name is “aesthetic justice?” Aesthetic as adjective refers to a concern for beauty or the appreciation of beauty. And justice as a noun refers to fair and reasonable behaviour or treatment. We are pretty sure, however, that “aesthetic justice” does not designate a concern for the beauty of fair and reasonable behaviour – although personally, I think that would be nice. Then what, you may be wondering, does it mean? 

I’ll give you three guesses, and the first three don’t count. Surprise! You no doubt thought it had something to do with aesthetics and justice. But it turns out it has nothing to do with either of them. It apparently means “resistance to morality [sic] in pursuit of the aesthetic.” How illuminating! (I do want to get to the author’s hopeless confusion about morality, but hold on for a sec.) Next he will tell us that rhetorical obscurantism means have a nice trip to Peoria. 

Aside from the fact that words do actually have empirically tethered, if inconclusive, meanings (something of an historical blindspot for that old junker, LangPoetics), that’s just a sloppy syllogism, defining aesthetic justice in relation to a relation to aesthetics . . . but wait!! it’s no longer aesthetics. A little verbal legerdemain and aesthetics presto-chango becomes the aesthetic, a very different kettle of fish for most people than aesthetics (but that’s probably because most people are attached to the idea that words have meanings), which now seems to have become a stand in for the political/social status quo. Except when it’s aesthetic justice. Then it’s a box-full of fabulous treats, aka (permit me to coin a word) pataquackical.

Well sweeties, what follows is true to form. I could go on and on. But lucky for you, my friend here has strong hands which They have now applied to my neck and shoulders in a gentle massaging motion which has returned my blood pressure to something like normal.

One more, though, please? Just one, I promise.

“Poems can be read as imaginary and symbolic––rhetorical––constructions that we read against everyday life, in a dialectical manner––rather than as representations of everyday life.” 

Rather than? Is there some rule I don’t know of that says a poem can’t include both? As my old friend Gilles Deleuze once reprimanded me (lovingly, dear) over Pastis at a cute little place on the Left Bank when I used the word “or”: “And and and,” he said. “Always and and and.” I am of the school, dears, that says poems are things made out of words and as far as poetry is concerned anything you can do with words is tickety-boo. The more the merrier. The only question is, does the sonal intellection swing? Someone should tell that poor Bernstein fellow that he can stop feeling anxious about being contaminated by representations. A representation or two isn’t going to familiarize his defamiliarized poem. In fact, given how weird everyday life is around here these days — what with alien/angelic messages circulating everywhere, the weather in Winnipeg — well, everywhere, actually, — not to mention those hideous orange Typhonic eruptions on the convex side of the 9th sphere — I’m not sure you could tell the difference between everyday life and Mr. B’s aesthetic justice constructions.

And, now that my friend has brought it up, someone should ask Mr. B what he thinks representations of everyday life meant for the Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Nicaraguans of the 70s and 80s when they wrote poems in the jungle in between gun battles with The Donald T. Regan Contras. He has the gall to propose that “the kind of poetry I want is as averse to expression of solidarity and community as it is to univocal self-identity.” My dusky, gorgeous friend has something to say. Go ahead, sweetie. Try to be nice.

“Yoohoo, Chuckie, don’t look now, but your white privilege is showing.”

They have a point. In my experience, whenever people get together to resist oppression, the wealthy and empowered always come up with some critique of their solidarity: oh, heaven forbid, it’s a mob. How horrible. They chant together. They don’t understand the aesthetic. 

At the center of the poor man’s argument is his most nefarious (and stupid) confusion—mixing up moralism, a system of dogmatic codes (kind of like Write this good way, not that bad way), with morality, an Orient-ation based on respect and responsibility for/to Who looks back at you. My goodness. That’s almost as bad as confusing a morel with a moral. One has to wonder, does this principled aversion to morality in writing mean that we should shun Horace, Sterne, Swift, Juvenal, Milton, G. Eliot, Woolf, Melville, Emerson, Whitman, Twain, Dickinson, Vallejo, Pound, H.D. and on and on, because their art reflects a moral standpoint? 

But I admit, it’ s heartbreaking to read the list of tribulations Professor Bernstein has had to suffer: he is apparently mocked and jeered (who would do that?), excluded as degenerate and decadent, and his poor soul (soul? did he really invoke his soul?) is ripped asunder. Ah, poor CB, mocked and jeered all the way into the Endowed Meta-Imperialist Chair of Donald T. Regan at Penn, big corporate cash flows for his Poetry Warehouse and Media Center, regular book deals with Harvard and Chicago, AND 165,000 good old Yanqui smackeroos from Andrew Mellon’s ill-got dragon hoard.

Obviously the Official Poetry Officials are out to marginalize him and his merry band of Poetix disciples!

Are you sure it’s not a hoax?

Write us again, darling. Let’s all get together and have a drink. I’ll drive—or They might if I have too many— and you can teach me anything you want about tractors and combines. 

Oh, and etymology.

As for your question, to rephrase an old saw: Honey, you are looking for thinking in all the wrong places.

–Emily Post-Avant