Language Poetry and Social Justice

When reading Charles Bernstein’s “Lives of the Toll Takers,” I found that although the poem is chaotic throughout, streams of thought near the end seem to coalesce around the theme of societal injustice, especially pertaining to the Holocaust.

On page 172, Bernstein connects Jewish culture to passivity: “self-reproach, laden with ambivalence, not this or this either . . . whose only motivation is never offend, criticize only with a discountable barb,” and then makes the bold statement: “Genocide is made of words like these . . .” It seems incredibly harsh to blame language used by the Jews for mass murder clearly inflicted on them by another, dominant culture and government. But Bernstein explains his pronouncement somewhat in his reference to Nietzsche, on whom Hitler based some of his ideas, and Pound, who was anti-Semitic: “Pound laughing (with Nietzsche’s gay laughter) all the way to the cannon’s bank . . .” Here, he portrays dominant Western (literary) culture as one that favors literature made up of language that can ultimately be terribly destructive. (I think that Bernstein intentionally references authors known for their iconic literary/philosophical works more than for Holocaust connections)  I think that Bernstein is not blaming any one kind of language, used by any group or author, but rather holding the ways in which our entire society uses language accountable: language is the way in which human beings communicate with one another, and therefore a driving force in every aspect of society. Drastic change in the way that language is used is therefore necessary for creating a culture in which genocide cannot happen.

In “Barbarism, Hejinian also blames language structures for creating a society that could bring about the Holocaust. She says in response to Adorno’s statement that poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric, “Poetry after Auschwitz must indeed be barbarian; it must be foreign to the cultures that produce atrocities.” (326) This statement twists Adorno’s words to assert that language must change in order to change our culture, and claims that the task of poetry should be “not to speak the same language as Auschwitz,” (326).

Hejinian also lists a wider set of cultural goals for Language Poetry as “premises,” (322) of their outlook on language and society. Hejinian includes in her list, “racism, sexism, and classism are repulsive,” (323) and “institutionalized stupidity and entrenched hypocrisy are monstrous and should be attacked” (323). According to Hejinian, these societal issues are within the realm of language because “language is preeminently a social medium” (323). Disturbing the linguistic structures of a culture that allows for “racism, sexism, and classism,” is therefore necessary in order to end those problems.

As Holly explained in a post, a phrase in quotations in Bernstein’s poem, “Daddy, what did you do to stop the war?” (117) recalls a propaganda poster from World War I in which a child asks, “Daddy, what did you do in the Great War?” I think that this phrase in the poem serves two purposes. First, Bernstein uses it as an example of how a statement can (and should) be altered with only a few word changes from a statement promoting and glorifying war to one that encourages peace. Second, by claiming that “Daddy” did not successfully stop “the war,” it also implies that a previous generation could not have prevented war because they were using language from a tradition that historically caused many wars.

How important do you think a social justice/cultural change agenda is to Bernstein? Where else in “Lives of the Toll Takers” is it visible? How “social” is the writing of the other Language Poets that we read over the past few weeks?

Revising Language in Crisis

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.