My parents enjoy listening to sports on the radio, baseball in summer, (American) football in winter. When I was a kid summer afternoons and evenings usually meant the San Diego Padre game was on somewhere in the house. One of the announcers, I no longer remember his name, when he got excited about a play would shout, “Oh doctor!” It became his thing, his trademark, and Padre fans would perk up their ears when they would hear “oh doctor!” come from the radio. It’s funny how one remembers things like that from childhood, and how, years, and years later they come back, seemingly from nowhere. Because when I sat down to begin telling you about Charles Berstein’s book, Attack of the Difficult Poems, the first thing that popped into my head was, “Oh doctor!”
That’s not to say that all of the essays, lectures, speeches included in the collection were home runs for me, they weren’t. Some of them left me scratching my head or yawning, or groaning because the attempt to be funny didn’t quite work for me. But not every at bat needs to send the ball over the fence in order to win the game.Bernstein is kind of like The San Diego Chicken for difficult poetry, a sort of mascot who takes poetry seriously but provides entertainment and thoughtfulness and encouragement to make it all that much more interesting. Bernstein loves difficult poetry, he thinks that good poetry should be difficult, not for the sake of difficulty, but because it is difficult poetry that is often innovative and striving to say something meaningful. Difficult poetry is often the kind of poetry we go back to over and over again because it offers us something new each time.
Bernstein isn’t shy about saying what he thinks of the poetry establishment in the United States. He finds the kind of poetry that tends to win the Pulitzer Prize not very interesting. He is not kind to Billy Collins. And National Poetry Month is a joke and a detriment to good poetry:
National Poetry Month is about making poetry safe for readers by promoting examples of the art form at its most bland and its most ‘morally positive.’ The message is: Poetry is good for you. But, unfortunately, promoting poetry as if it were an ‘easy listening’ station just reinforces the idea that poetry is culturally irrelevant and has done a disservice not only to poetry deemed controversial or difficult to promote but also to the poetry it puts forward in this way. ‘Accessibility’ has become a kind of Moral Imperative based on the condescending notion that readers are intellectually challenged, and mustn’t be presented with anything but Safe Poetry. As if poetry will turn people off to poetry.
What Bernstein is interested in is complexity, innovation — even if, and especially if it fails — ideas, intelligence, originality. He is
particularly interested in the ways that inventive poetries can be disruptive not only to forms of poems but also to reading habits, audiences, and distribution systems. And how a poetics of invention can be seen in contrast to a poetics of refinement — not one better than the other, but one with radically different aesthetic and social concerns in a given point in time.
If you prefer poetry to be easy reading, if you like poetry to be soothing or inspirational or comforting, if you think Strunk and White’s three C’s — clarity, concision, and coherence — are the end-all be-all of writing, if you think you should be able to understand everything about a poem in one, two or three readings, if you think that a poem can be taken out of time and context and read as a “text,” or if you like poetry explained to you, then Charles Bernstein is not for you. He will make you angry at every turn; you will not find his antics funny nor his discussions thought-provoking. Instead you will feel as though you had been sleeping with the enemy.
However, if you like to be challenged, if you enjoy a good digression, if you think even vaguely that there is something unsatisfying about National Poetry Month or the way poetry is taught (or not taught) in universities and/or discussed in cultural settings, if you like provoking ideas and a personality that doesn’t mince his words, then give Attack of the Difficult Poems a whirl. And if you don’t say, “Oh doctor!” at least once while reading it, I’ll put on a chicken suit and cluck your favorite poem.