Poet's Choice

By Robert Pinsky
Sunday, January 28, 2007

Charles Bernstein writes both prose and poetry about poetry, sometimes brilliantly, in ways calculated to upset the middlebrow and thwart the bland. The more you like the poetic equivalent of a nice tune, easy to hum, the more Bernstein means to disrupt your complacency.

Nearly all his poems are about poetry. Some are mere donnish jokes, but sometimes his noodling gets at moral meanings on a broad social range. His new book, Girly Man, takes its title from the phrase used by California Gov. Schwarzenegger at the 2004 Republican National Convention, deriding pessimistic critics and the opposition. Because the phrase has become a comic cliché, repeatedly echoed, it no longer sounds offensive -- drained of resonance. The ugly, bullying term has been dulled by attention so automatic that it amounts to inattention.

Poetry does the opposite of that, peeling away customary dullness. Bernstein's "The Ballad of the Girly Man" takes the phrase and exposes it afresh, and dances a savage, mock-innocent burlesque with it, full of repetitions, corrective ridicule and parody, including the hurdy-gurdy refrain:

So be a girly man

& take a gurly stand

Sing a gurly song

& dance with a girly sarong

"Gurly," the Oxford English Dictionary tells us, is an old Scots word for "growling," and "gurl" is an old spelling of a word that once meant both "girl" and "boy." The poem's outspoken political language is sneakily mock-naive. Bernstein deliberately writes with the crudity of a beginner, and with an ironic distance from that crudity, though he means everything he says. That's a complicated process, and a complicated conception, but the poem's actual lines are immediate and -- phrase by phrase -- uncomplicated: "A democracy once proposed/ Is slimmed and grimed again/ By men with brute design/ Who prefer hate to rime."

The archaic spelling of "rhyme," like the form in general, indicates impatience with conventional modern poeticism, along with its political rage at "men with brute design."

Opposites meet. This poem by a distinguished academic may deliberately recall the willed roughness of rap music, high school earnestness, or a primitive old ballad. A different opposite is Bernstein's fellow-moralist Yvor Winters. Writing in 1933 about the rise of Fascism in Europe, Winters in "Before Disaster" compares international jockeying toward war with the then-new phenomenon of cars speeding down the freeway: "Evening traffic homeward burns/ Swift and even on the turns,/ Drifting weight in triple rows,/ Fixed relation and repose."

Like Bernstein, Winters is willing to use archaic language, broad abstractions and blunt gestures to make his point. For instance, Winters makes his overarching simile blatantly explicit: "Ranks of nations thus descend," he writes, "Watchful, to a stormy end." He is also willing to use large, sweeping moral terms:

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