Although it can be difficult to draw connections in or make sense of Charles Bernstein’s poem “The Lives of the Toll Takers,” I was drawn to one phrase in particular. On page 177, in the middle of the page, set off from the rest of the text, Bernstein includes a quotation: “‘Daddy, what did you/ do to stop the war?’” This phrase is reminiscent of a propaganda poster in the First World War:
The poster is meant to incite men to join the war effort by showing a man sitting safely at home but looking miserable and guilty for shirking his wartime duties as his little girl asks him what he contributed for his country. The previous stanza supports this war-time reading. Bernstein’s use of the world “bellicose” is significant as it denotes an inclination to war or fighting, and the “doddering/ demise of diplomacy” can be interpreted as the complicated alliances that characterized European politics just before the war broke out in 1914.
I was interested in the reference to the war because I’ve been studying the limitations of language in describing the painful experience of the trenches in the First World War. Elaine Scarry argues that pain “does not simply resist language but actively destroys it” because pain strips people of their ability to communicate what they are feeling in any effective, sharable way (4). Instead, people in pain revert to primitive screams and cries. The limits of language are expressed in the next few lines of the poem, which are just a series of letters, symbols, and numbers that seem to have no particular order whatsoever. These lines do not communicate any meaning, just as it is impossible for words to translate pain in an understandable way.
If Scarry is correct, then the Great War is a very relevant moment for the Language Poets to reference because it threw the boundaries of language into question. We discussed the Language Poets as experimenting with meaning by putting words together in new ways and playing with connotation and expectations of certain words. The First World War can be seen as a watershed moment for the breakdown of the meaning of language. In “Two Essays on Poetry and Society,” Theodor Adorno asked how we could write poetry after Auschwitz – how could people express themselves after such a universal, total cultural crisis? Similarly, the Great War made people ask how we could express truth after such a hugely destructive world event. How could language work? I see this same question earlier in Bernstein’s poem, when the speaker asks, “Then what can I believe in?” (176). If language has been robbed of its expressive ability, then how can we derive meaning from anything?
In his book The Great War and the Language of Modernism, Vincent Sherry argues that the war was the Modernist moment, and that the language of Modernist writers such as Woolf, Pound, and Eliot changed to meet the unimaginable destruction of the war. The linguistic tools of the previous generation were not able to meet the challenge posed by a completely new, completely destructive type of warfare, so the Modernists had to create a new way of using language in order to express themselves in the shadow of the war. Bernstein acknowledges the need to rework and revise language after times of crisis, as well. Following a mention of the Jews and anti-Semitism, an allusion to the atrocities of the Second World War, he writes:
There is no plain sense of the word,
nothing is straightforward,
description a lie behind lie;
but truths can still be told. (172)
This passage accepts the limits of language in accurately representing truth – there are no plain meanings because nothing is as straightforward as it seems. These are the conventions that the Language Poets experiment with, as did the Modernists. In that inability to pinpoint meaning, however, truth can still be told. Effective communication is still possible, but there must be a revision of language in order for this to happen.
Scarry, Elaine. The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.