Might even be an unpopular one too.
Let's get to it. There's poetry to discuss.
From The Front List
All The Whiskey In Heaven: Selected Poems by Charles Bernstein. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Poetry. Hardcover. ISBN: 9780374103446. 300 pps. $28.
Really, FSG is not paying me to do this. It just so happens that I have read two collections of poetry published by FSG in the last few weeks. You'll probably be able to take my word on that.
It is ironic that following the veiled ire I displayed for the ivory tower last week I would bring forth one of the tower's more accomplished ministers. Charles Bernstein is a poet, philosopher and scholar whose academic residences are manifold. He is also a talented poet and ironic choice for a National Poetry Month selection.
Mr. Bernstein has written at humorous length about his reservations when it comes to the contrived month of poetry that is NPM. His Against National Poetry Month As Such is a mildly evocative piece that conveys much of the frustration that poets have surrounding their art. It is well worth reading and I will bring it up again in this Friday's post.
Bernstein is also one of the founding editors of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Magazine and a luminary of that movement. As a poet his subjects are diverse and not always as purposefully alien as other Language poets. This makes for wonderful poetry, as reading Bernstein requires you to break a literary sweat but not exert yourself too much. Two things by the way, that the supposed readers manufactured by National Poetry Month find encouraging. If there are such readers.
All The Whiskey In Heaven is a collection and as such it touches upon every era of poetry produced by Bernstein but does not scratch too deeply beyond the highlights. It is yet comprehensive enough to give an accurate portrait of the poet over time.
Perhaps the most singular aspect of Bernstein's voice is its consistency. He is a monotone writer. Beyond his earliest work, Bernstein has a steady almost unchanging voice that becomes familiar to you. You almost begin to know where he is taking a poem merely by reading the title and first stanza. Punctuation therefore plays an important role of changing pace and, well, volume.
This is perhaps the most fascinating aspect of his poetry: that he manages to utilize tone and imagery to create familiarity while at the same time implementing the attention grabbing style of the Language poet tradition. This is perhaps best displayed in poems like "The Bricklayer's Arms" and "Amblyopia". The latter of which we encounter a physical specimen of manhood who is yet morally and creatively insignificant.
He was a moral dwarf in a body as
solid as ice. Everywhere he looked
he felt fear and
evasion. No notice
no location bore any resemblance to the true
form of these cinders:
In "The Bricklayer's Arms" we have a very recognizable stereotype set before us. The barrel-chested and gruff construction worker. The language at times relies on the fact that we will read into it correctly based on the prior knowledge of the stereotype. At other times however, the language becomes more tenuous to hold to the original image and therefore more thought provoking.
The bricklayer's arms
are the imperfect extension
of the bricklayer's sight.
No sea contains them, no
forest is as deep or sky as
boundless as the bounded
continent of the bricklayer's
arms. The bricklayers arms
signify nothing, but never cease
to mean. Even the smallest
grain of sand tunes itself
to their contours. *
*Accountant's Note: part of line is left out as it forms a new statement
It is a style that is wry and direct. Charles Bernstein never rails against this or pines for that. His romantic poetry is clever but certainly not his strong suit. Bernstein is at his best when writing with a direct and philosophical tone. He is an analyst, breaking down the mystique that surrounds the most banal of items and people.
At times his poetry slides into aphorism and in the case of some poems is entirely constructed around a string of succinct statements as in "War Stories" where a parade of aphoristic statements constitute the poem's entirety.
War is the first result of scoundrels.
War is the legitimate right of the powerless to resist the violence of the powerful.
War is delusion just as peace is imaginary.
This also brings up the other most noteworthy aspect of the poetry of Charles Bernstein. It is largely devoid of nostalgia or at least that dangerous brand of nostalgia that colors so much of bad poetry. Bernstein may be as far away from Rupert Brooke as one can journey and I am sure we are thankful for that. (More Rupert Brooke bashing in a moment.)
It is a statement that might annoy such a seminal poet in the Language Poetry movement but I will write it nonetheless.
Charles Bernstein is a very accessible poet. His imagery is clear and his verbiage creative. I hope for no nasty emails concerning these statements. Poets can be so sensitive.
From The Back List
Barrack-Room Ballads by Rudyard Kipling. Best available edition is found in The Complete Verse by Rudyard Kipling. Poetry. Trade Paperback. Anchor Books. 864 pps. ISBN: 9780385260893. $20.
One of my most prized possessions is a complete set of the works of Rudyard Kipling. The Seven Seas edition. Signed by the Nobel Laureate on the half title of the first volume. So while it may be somewhat of a stretch to place Kipling's songs and poetry of soldiering here in the back list I am yet going to make that stretch.
The connection I am going to make today concerns the HBO miniseries The Pacific. If you are unfamiliar with the series two of the main characters are old friends from well-to-do families in Mobile, Alabama. The slighter, more delicate friend is named Eugene Sledge and in a somewhat telling scene Sledge gives his friend a copy of Kipling's Barrack-Room Ballads before he ships out.
Sledge is a romantic soul who believes there will be a connection between the soldiering of Kipling's day and the kind that lies ahead of himself and his bosom companion. Indeed, as we know today, World War II forever changed the conception of war. Any vestiges of chivalry that escaped WWI were of course obliterated by the second.
So what of Rudyard Kipling's verse? Did it die along with the cavalry and phalanx firing line? Thankfully, no.
Kipling's name and books have appeared in three episodes of the mini-series so far and one reason for this is no doubt the famous World War II novels of James Jones. From Here To Eternity and The Thin Red Line both take their names from Kipling's verse and Jones quotes liberally from the writings of Kipling.
The fact is, Kipling was a soldier and a visionary writer. The obsession with the differences in the "plain speech" of socially and ethnically diverse people in his novels, stories and poetry lay foundational work for such writers as Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner and James Joyce. The use of multiple languages and vernaculars fascinated Joyce and Faulkner while the ability to capture plain speech and make it literary influenced Hemingway.
Too often is Kipling thought of as a children's author. The fact is Kipling was a very complex writer who sought to write with the real, spoken language of the common soldier, whether with Irish brogue or Cockney cant. The broken English of his Indian characters demonstrates language differences but not intellectual ones. Kipling was an imperialist. He believed in the right of the English way. But he was also one who wrestled with his racism and managed to win as much as he lost to it.
No poem demonstrates the complexity of Kipling's struggles better than the most famous offering in Barrack-Room Ballads. "Gunga Din" offers up one of Kipling's many memorable lines but perhaps it is also the most recognizable one too. You'll know it when you read it.
Gunga Din is an Indian attendant who runs water and does small tasks for a platoon of English soldiers. He is often the butt of jokes and generally looked on as inferior. This all changes when after saving the English soldier narrating the poem Gunga Din is shot. In the final stanza the soldier changes his tone from deriding the Indian coolie to praising him not as a servant but as a person.
'E carried me away
To where a dooli lay,
An' a bullet come an' drilled the beggar clean.
'E put me safe inside,
An' just before 'e died,
'I 'ope you liked your drink,' sez Gunga Din.
So I'll meet 'im later on
At the place where 'e is gone-
Where it's always double drill and no canteen;
'E'll be squattin' on the coals
Givin' drink to poor damned souls,
An' I'll get a swig in hell from Gunga Din!
Yes, Din! Din! Din!
You Lazarushian-leather Gunga Din!
Though I've belted you and flayed you,
By the livin' Gawd that made you,
You're a better man than I am, Gunga Din.
There is still much of the imperial world-view in the poem. Yet we also must find remarkable the transformation that occurs when the soldier realizes that Gunga Din's humanity far exceeded his own. Din is capable of a compassion and care for his fellow man that the soldier will never attain and in then end the soldier deems this paramount.
So while the stories told in song and verse are of a very much bygone day and much of the chasteness is naive by today's standards, Kipling's poetry stands the test of time, both artistically and via its power of intuitiveness. These are real humans that are conveyed, not chivalric automatons representative of the way it ought to be.
To read Kipling's verse is not to be equated with reading outmoded or overly romantic poetry. It holds up well and maybe most so in the case of his poetry of soldiering.
Even the most jaded of modern reader will be surprised at what can be found in the writings of Rudyard Kipling.