—and, by words
Which speak of nothing more than what we are ...
WORDSWORTH, 'THE RECLUSE'
The ordinary is always elusive—"near is / and difficult to grasp"—even as it is the most present actuality. And my sense, when talking about the ordinary, is always how extraordinary it is. Paradoxically, any attempt to fix the ordinary pulls it out of the everydayness in which it is situated, from which it seems to derive its power.
The problem with transparent language is that it aims to create a semblance of the ordinary, a spectacle of the ordinary. But that is the opposite of what you may want to achieve. Instead of creating an experience of, or in, the ordinary, you have created a representation of it. Transparency, in trying to picture the ordinary, at the same time removes the reader from it.
In a society of the spectacle, such as American society, much of ordinary life is constructed by consumer culture. In this sense, the mall is the most ordinary environment and shopping the most ordinary activity. Yet, this kind of ordinary may be quite opposite to the everydayness a poet might want to evoke.
For me the question of the ordinary breaks down practically and philosophically into three separate, interrelated, but not entirely commensurate elements. One is the representation and objectification of everyday life, which I have just barely touched on now. Another is ordinary language philosophy (not only Ludwig Wittgenstein but also Michel de Certeau and Stanley Cavell). But there is a third issue, which is crucial in terms of poetry: the transcription of spoken, everyday language, which can be considered as a problem of poetic diction, or of the vernacular, or indeed of dialect.
In the American poetic tradition the question of diction takes several forms. First, there is the insistence that a poetry of the everyday be written in American, rather than British, English—a development most often linked to William Carlos Williams. Vernacular diction is not, however, the same as the transcription of spoken English. In fact, spoken American English has a very complex structure, and there is no simple or single method of presenting it in writing. If you transcribe everything I say, including the pauses and hesitations, you'd get a very dense, Joyceian text. Any attempt to reduce speech to a particular literary style of representing speech, in order to claim that style as "ordinary," is always a move away from the ordinary. Indeed, such an "ordinary" poetic diction has fetishized as ordinary what is in fact a literary style. The tension between the spoken—the vernacular or dialect—and the literary representations of it, going back to Dante and earlier, produces new poetic dictions but never the erasure of poetic diction, never an absolutely "ordinary" diction. This dialectical movement is one of the most important features of English poetry, not just since Wordsworth's "Preface" to Lyrical Ballads, but going back to Old English.
But the relation of the ordinary to speech is not necessarily one of transcription, idealized or empiricized. Take Gertrude Stein's poetry as an example. Stein is not interested in the transcription of the spoken language, but she is committed to using everyday words. Stein makes a syntax for them; that is, she invents new word orders rather than following the conventions of received grammar. She works with ordinary American words and with everyday objects. She repeatedly uses words like "this," "a," "one," and "the" or "belly" or "button" or "tender" or "shutters," and rarely uses anything but such everyday words—but not as a way of representing anything. Stein is emphasizing the everydayness of the vocabulary rather than emphasizing what the words are used to represent, the everydayness of their referrent. If you compare Stein's poetry from the first two decades of the twentieth century with the carefully wrought, eloquent diction of one of Robert Browning's monologues from the middle of the nineteenth century, or more generally, with Victorian poetry, Stein's poetry is stripped of all its literariness, as marked by high poetic diction, a certain set of themes, metrical conventions, even the look of the poem on the page. Indeed, the prose format of Tender Buttons is more ordinary than the verse format of a sonnet. So the work is certainly a move toward the ordinary and away from the literary. But because it is not representational in a conventional way, it seems odd or opaque. It does not appear to be ordinary, yet its aim is to present the ordinary. William Carlos Williams is more representational, but often the thinness of his subject matter has a similar effect of grounding the poem in vernacular experience and in stripped down vernacular language (what emerges in Robert Creeley's work as the common fact of each word).
Indeed, we can move toward the use of slang or dialect, especially associated with African American writing and Caribbean poetry in English. The attempt to capture the sounds of dialect by deforming the words has a very political and charged quality. It is ordinary in the sense that this work beckons to the way people speak. But because of the spelling, the poetic text often looks strange, even when a new orthography for the dialect words is established (which itself is a move away from the ordinariness of the sound of the words). That is, there is a tension between the dialect orthography, which may look odd, even to the people who speak the dialect, and the putatively naturalizing effect of the "spoken." For instance, some of the postwar Caribbean dialect poems, say of Michael Smith or Louise Bennett, are highly performative. When they are performed, the sounds produced do not raise the question of the nonstandard orthography, because the audiences do not see them written down. But such works may appear to be incomprehensible for people who are not part of that particular speech community. So my point is that even for the speakers of the dialect, dialect poetry seems odd, because they are not used to seeing dialect in a literary context; and for nondialect speakers, the very ordinariness of dialect is what makes it apparently exotic. Consider for a minute the African American dialect poetry that Paul Laurence Dunbar wrote at the very beginning of the last century. This dialect poetry is written in iambic pentameter. Dunbar creates this strange mélange between nonstandard, "ordinary" uses of the language and high literary form, a kind of stylistic oxymoron. This is also true of much current rap music. I don't think there is any way of getting outside of these tensions. The interest of works like Dunbar's is precisely the tension between the literary form and the live performance (not only of the poem but of the language itself).
The issue of ordinary language—dialect, or the nonstandard, second—remains one of the most politically charged issues of the time. Black English is reviled by the conservative mainstream as deformed English and celebrated by Afrocentrics as the mother tongue. What's sanctified as ordinary for one group is derided as spurious by the other. The very ordinariness of black English is what makes it seem of self-evident value to its speakers (and rightly so), but this ordinariness is a red herring to conservatives because it is not ordinary to them. The problem is that there is no one ordinary language, but many ordinary languages. And all languages are social constructions—black English as much as standard English.
The politics of the ordinary plays a crucial role because of the paradoxical conflict between the ordinary and the conventional, between the dialect and the standard, between the normal and the spoken, between the intelligible and the vernacular. It's the ordinary versus the really ordinary. Conventional, standard English derives its authority from being perceived as the normal, the intelligible, and also the transparent. "It must be ordinary 'cause it's what I understand." Dialect, however, casts the conventional or standard as artificial or other or learned or imposed—"it's not my ordinary"—while sometimes claiming to be authentic or natural or spoken.
What the poetics of the ordinary can hope to show is that authenticity and normalcy both misconceive the dynamic and essentially rhetorical or trop(e)ical social fact of language. Black English is just as rich a language as standard English, just as valid (all languages are equally valid). The point is not to go from fetishizing (or naturalizing) the standard to fetishizing (or naturalizing) the authentic, but to acknowledge the multiple possibilities, and different social valances, of language. And to recognize that the ordinary lies not in any one type of language but in the between.
Charles Baudelaire is a crucial poet in terms of what we could call the modern history of the representation of the everyday. Baudelaire wants to take French poetry down from the lofty subject matter traditionally thought of as appropriate for poetry: the beautiful, the expensive, the royal, the mythological, the important, and, crucially, the uplifting. But the problem is that, in "À une mendiante rousse" ("To a Begging Redhead"), for instance, Baudelaire casts himself as a bohemian—a poet freed from the chains of daily life. He can sit in a café and gaze out at the ordinary folk, as Peter Nicholls notes in Modernisms: A Literary Guide. In short, Baudelaire objectifies his ordinary subject. He gazes upon her from his own point of detached privilege. The problem of objectification is intimately connected to the problem of representation. Baudelaire is important because he identifies with the ordinariness around him. But he cannot get away from this objectification. This issue of representation as objectification is crucial for any consideration of the poetics of the ordinary: it is the fly in the ointment of transparency. For objectification is antipathetic to the poetics of the ordinary because it removes that which is objectified from the flow of the ordinary, from its location in the everyday. I am interested in a poetics of the everyday that attempts to break down this objectification of the ordinary. That requires a kind of writing that tries to break down the relationship between seer and seen, the observer and the observed. And this is where we can see the great importance of some of the poets with us this weekend.
Like Wittgenstein, we must understand that the everyday is in fact a practice, not a style. It is something in which we are engaged. Take, for instance Michel de Certeau's example, in Arts de faire, of a worker putting his or her timecard in backward as a way of creating a small space of her or his own: this is a practice that interferes with the everyday; it is not a literary style, it is not a form of representation, it is a way of proceeding. And this procedure, this practice of the everyday, is where the issues can be most richly and dialectically confronted. As it is by Guy Debord and the other Situationists, such as Asger Jorn, who were interested in creating a method of breaking down the barrier of art and the everyday, where art, in its stylistic fixations, was understood as adding to the spectacle of commodity culture. I want a critique of the ordinary (to echo Henri Lefevre's title) that also is a critique of market value. One wants a practice that counters the alienation from the ordinary rather than that domesticates or naturalizes this alienation.
The relation of Marxism to the poetics of the ordinary is fundamental, but I would suggest that poets such as Louis Zukofsky, George Oppen, Charles Reznikoff, Lorine Niedecker, who are often together called, for all their differences, "Objectivists," offer a path radically different from socialist realism, even while sharing some of its political premises. Oppen and Zukofsky were both committed to socialism. Oppen was working with the Commuunist Party in the thirties and after, during which time he stopped writing, possibly because he could not reconcile his politics with his poetics. His first book, Discrete Series (1934) is very difficult, very abstract at one level. At the same time, its absolutely ordinary words, its series of concrete observations, are permuted one after the other without any literary flourish at all. In fact, Oppen and Zukofsky are the most radical in their disaffiliation from any sort of literariness and aestheticization, also from a kind of bombastic and hyperpoetic work that might be associated with the European futurists and surrealists. Their writing is extremely low-key. They are both coming out of Jewish immigrant families where English was not the first language spoken, but they are choosing to write in English, to be a part of an international modernism. So there is a strain of secular internationalism in them. But, at the same time, they are committed to the particular, to the detail, rather than to the general or metaphysical. In this way, they are very much against the symbolic or allegorical use of the particular, which is contrary to social realism, or more conventional kinds of poetry of the everyday, where the individual is meant to represent something larger. They want things to be what they are.
Much of Reznikoff's work consists of quite short poems in serial forms about topics that do not even seem to be topics. They approach the ephemeral: like gum stuck to the pavement. These are also intensely urban poems, very much outside a literary ethos that is nostalgic for some other kind of life.
More recently, some of these approaches to the ordinary have been pursued by such writers as Creeley, Larry Eigner, Ted Berrigan, Lyn Hejinian, Leslie Scalapino, Ron Silliman, Robert Grenier, Bernadette Mayer, Hannah Weiner, and Kenneth Goldsmith. In my own practice, which, like my contemporaries, is of course quite different from these older poets I so much admire, there is a very strong critique of the institution of literature and a relentless look at how poetry operates at a social level, so that the everyday becomes an understanding of the social uses of language and the different registers of vernacular language.
I am less interested in talking about the aesthetics of the ordinary than participating in the fight for the ordinary. For the ordinary is always contested ground. For this reason, I have been very interested in understanding the problem of the politics of poetic form, rather than the politics of poetic subject matter. The politics of poetry has partly to do with its character of resistance, its recalcitrance, its awkwardness, understood as a crucial space for reflection and thought on the political realm, on values. Imagine the poem as an ordinary space not in content so much as form: I mean imagine the space of the poem itself, with its stubbornness or its erraticness—which would be odd as a literary style—as actually existing in and as the ordinary. What's ordinary is an enacted process, not the product.
Obviously, with the postwar period, poetry no longer is a medium of mass communication. If, as an artist, you are interested in galvanizing the broad masses, poetry would not be the best choice to achieve that.
By the very process of the ideological critique, the poetic work is flipped out of the context of the ordinary. It may not be standardized; it does not speak with an individual voice; it is abnormal. In fact, normalcy of language (that is to say, standardization) is not a natural fact of human being but a highly controlled social institution to which people are forced to conform. If you wish to unlearn normalcy, you will seek a level of inarticulateness which is very ordinary. Inarticulateness, stuttering, oddness are parts of the most ordinary experience, and in poetic language they may refuse coherence. The right will say that such an abnormal language is decadent, un-Christian, anarchic, or nihilistic; in other words, that it is an attack on logos (or anyway logos according to the ideological state apparatus). If you do not examine the values reproduced through grammatical structures, by diction, and via the norms of exposition, then you will find yourself constantly trapped in a controlled simulation of reality that limits any kind of political transformation. Of course, critique does not change the distribution of wealth, or end racial discrimination or gender oppression. Politics never dissolves at any one level, certainly not simply as a result of artistic work. But art does have a crucial social role to play.
What I am trying to do in my own writing is to produce an experience of language as a social material, evoking, in the process, material facts about language and rhythms within language that each of us knows as well as our own breath or the thud of our heart or the viscosity of our saliva. Such writing is often accused of being obscure, difficult, inaccessible, but this may be because preconceptions about what poetry should be like block out the very real experiences possible with language not tethered to stylistic conventions. In contrast, for poetry that advertises itself as directly or emotionally expressive, the very terms emotion and directness are caught within an ideological web of literary manners, forms, and structures that end up preventing direct expression. If a poet does not confront how these concepts of directness and emotionality are the objects of literary manipulations, then she or he is never able to achieve directness in poetry. Such a confrontation and resistance may be difficult at first because it requires questioning, even breaking with, the norms. In attempting to engage the ordinary it is necessary to explore, from a conceptual point of view, the effect of the structures through which the directness of the ordinary is to be expressed. Unfortunately, the politics of the everyday does not allow simple solutions. Social reality is too complex to be conquered or fully understood, but that does not mean we cannot alter or transform it. Our work is to engage with the complexity without losing contact with an ordinary that is our constant companion, our most trusted guide.
* * *
Adapted from "Pour une critique de l'ordinaire: Entretien avec Charles Bernstein" [Toward a critique of the ordinary: an interview with Charles Bernstein], by Barbara Abad, Thérèse Tseng, and François Paré, published in Études françaises (University of Guelph, Quebec), 33.2 (1997). Presented at the Séance symposium at the California College of the Arts, Red Cat Theater, Los Angeles, October 30, 2004; published in Séance, edited by Christine Wertheim and Matias Viegener (Los Angeles: Make Now Press, 2005). My translation of the opening lines of Hölderlin's "Patmos" is quoted in the first sentence: "Nah ist / Und schwer zu fassen [der Gott]"; see Friedrich Hölderlin, Hymns and Fragments, trans. Richard Sieburth (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), 88.
About the Author
Charles Bernstein is the Donald T. Regan Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the coeditor of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, the Electronic Poetry Center, and PennSound, and cofounder of the Poetics Program at SUNY-Buffalo, as well as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Among his many publications are three books also published by the University of Chicago Press: Girly Man, With Strings, and My Way: Poems and Speeches.
The University of Chicago Press