I can't tell you how pleased and proud I was to discover that one of my high school classmates has become a famous poet. I can't tell you because The Post frowns on bald-faced lies. The fact is, I wanted him vaporized, or at least rendered dyslexic in a tragic poetry-machine accident. Sorry.
It's not merely that Charles Bernstein is a full three times as hot as I am, as certified by the nationally recognized thermometer of fame, Google hits. And it's not merely that back in high school, Charles was the Rich, Handsome Kid Who Wore Jackets and Ties and Probably Scored a Lot, whereas I was the Nerd With the Bad Hair and Thick Black Glasses Who Definitely Didn't.
It's mostly this: When I went out and bought some of Charles's highly acclaimed poetry (he's written 20 books), I realized to my horror that . . . I couldn't understand it! Charles is a founder and exemplar of Language Poetry, a controversial literary movement so willfully opaque that even some experts can't quite explain it. Here's an actual opening line from a Charles Bernstein poem:
gOP thItS biG GOBBie bucket, seLls lik reiNdeEr haRwAre bUj thAz's na thwat poont, flin ferg juS brEaGinG ab gez laSto flubper. (It's titled, of course, "egg under my feet.")
When I learned recently that Charles would be at Georgetown University to read his poetry, I invited him to lunch. Because I was intimidated, I brought along a copy of our senior yearbook, which seemed reassuringly equalizing. It reminded Charles that he had lost his copy--possibly, he said, when he sold his personal papers to the University of California.
Me: Please share for my readers your most intimate memories of me and our time together in high school.
Charles: They are so intimate I cannot share them. Actually, they are so intimate I have repressed them. One of the reasons I went into poetry was to forget things. Maybe I have gone too far. It may be irreversible.
Me: You don't remember me at all, do you?
Charles: Not really.
Me: Being a highly literate and sophisticated person, I understand your poems perfectly, of course. But for the sake of my readers, some of whom do not share our sophistication and may actually be stupid, could you explain this one? You'd do it so much better than I.
I place my arm on the armoire.
The minister frowns. The miser
recollects his days in Nice, mak-
ing creases. Slowly the gas leaks
from the plane. From the plane the gas
leaks slowly. The gas from the plane
slowly leaks. Polly puts the kettle on
what? But Pharaoh did not lis-
ten to Moses.
Charles: I think it really speaks for itself.
Charles: It always comes back to the pharaoh, doesn't it?
Me: You have said, in interviews, that Language Poetry has no recognizable syntax, subject matter, vocabulary, structure, form, style or message. In this medium, you are an acknowledged genius. My question is, this is quite a gig you got going, no?
Charles: I am interested in the experience of incomprehensibility and confusion. Poetry does not need to purify and filter this experience out. To go through everyday life, we all operate in this realm of uncertainty. Rather than explain confusion or bewilderment, we can explore its features.
Gene: What was with the damn jackets and ties, Charles?
Charles: It was a mistake.
Gene: You seemed stuck-up.
Charles: I was very conservative and shy. Stuck-up is the other side of socially maladroit. If you act stuck-up, it looks to others as if you have agency, as opposed to that you just can't do any better.
Gene: In my college apartment, I had a really, really stained and ratty sofa. In concept, it embodied the opposite of "pompous." I stenciled a name onto the back of it: "Charles Bernstein." I was employing irony. A poetic device.
Charles: I was unaware of the way I was perceived.
Gene: I apologize. The truth is, we were much more alike than I knew. Poetry's about telling the truth, right?
Charles: No, poetry is about unmasking false claims to the truth.
Gene: You are not easy.
Charles: Thank you.
After our lunch, I felt strangely elated. It was as though some old poison had drained from me, or as Charles might have written, soMe old vetch, bitter VEtch, retch, stretChEd gone goon farbloot Jell-O Sea jealousy no MorE.
That night, I attended Charles's poetry reading at Georgetown. The room was filled with bodacious young coeds who listened, rapt, and applauded heartily.
They all wanted him. I just know it.
Gene Weingarten's e-mail address is email@example.com.
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