Experimental Confessionalism: The Personal Turn in American Post-conceptual Poetry

1 August 2018

Experimentalism, confessionalism and trauma

Confessional poetry in the work of Plath, Lowell, Sexton and Berryman often dealt with personal trauma, including madness, addiction, mood swings and most notably suicide. Language poetry and conceptual poetry tended to react against poetry as the vehicle for such personal revelations. But the question still arises exactly how experimental poets deal with trauma when it erupts in their lives, whether they explore it in their poetry and if so how. Do they ignore it, try to write about it in a way that is distinct from lyric or elegy, or fall back into some of the tropes and conventions of lyric poetry?

I want to consider this question by looking at the work of two generations of experimental poets, Charles Bernstein and his son Felix, who have different ways of confronting the personal. In particular, I want to explore the way they both engage poetically with the tragic suicide of Emma Bee Bernstein, Charles’ daughter and Felix’s sister, in 2008 at the age of 23. My argument is that while there are some similarities between Charles’ and Felix’s approaches to the subject matter – particularly in their desire to eschew conventional elegiac modes – there are also differences because Felix’s work seems to adopt a more confessional mode while also interrogating it.1

As a leader of the language poetry movement, Charles Bernstein questioned the idea of poetry as direct personal expression. Summarising this influential point of view in his recent book, The Pitch of Poetry, he says:

The poem was imagined not as the fixed voice of a self-contained ego conveying a predetermined, or paraphrasable, message but as a collage or constellation of textual elements: not voice, but voicings. The expression in the poem is not in the message of the poet’s autonomous lyric voice but in the process of an affective and dynamic compositional field. While the conventional lyric of the time stated or named its emotional content, this new poetry enacted its affective state. The move was from emptied-out emotional behaviour to a new linguistic sentience. The self was not something assumed in such poems but found in the act of collaboration with the language of the poem and the reader’s response. (C. Bernstein 2016,68)

The language poem, then, in theory, did not jettison affect. Expression would arise in the composition of the poem as an array of affects, not from the communication of pre-conceived emotional states. In practice, while this was entirely possible and did occur, emotional intensity could sometimes seem like an endangered species in language poetry because of its repression of the personal.

Charles Bernstein is a poet who is constantly developing, and who is prepared to challenge some of his own previous positions. The question of voice and its relationship to the personal, so fundamental to language poetry, becomes particularly acute in Bernstein’s volume Recalculating, the title of which hints at the poet’s need to rethink his life trajectories and poetic agendas (Bernstein 2013). In the volume he alludes to his daughter’s death from time to time both directly and indirectly, such as in, ‘I was the luckiest father in the world/until I turned unluckiest’ (158).

In particular, the title poem ‘Recalculating’ (172-178) is significant for the way that Bernstein incorporates his response to his daughter’s death. He does this by retaining the idea of voicings, while at the same time sometimes allowing a voice to emerge that is overtly autobiographical. The poem is in a style that is typical of Bernstein, the discontinuous prose poem composed of short fragments including aphorisms, throwaway lines, philosophical insights, linguistic play and some more discursive passages. There are frequent changes in tone: sometimes more serious, sometimes more humorous. Such poems are based on a fundamental logic of untidiness in that everything in the poem does not necessarily tie up thematically or formally. We may find ideas that recur or resonate with each other. But there are also items that are deviations, or dead-ends, drawn together only by the grand sweep of the poem.

In ‘Recalculating’ some of the entries refer to Emma by name. These entries elide real life and text life (Smith 2000, 50-53). They include meditations on Bernstein’s response to Emma’s death, but Bernstein also moves beyond the usual lyric or elegiac conventions. For a start, his daughter’s death is not projected as a central focus, and the passages about her do not necessarily have more weight than other fragments. There are also huge oscillations in tone and affect, from the seemingly flippant to the more intense. This produces a multiplicity of affects or affective intensities in the poem rather than a sustained emotional trajectory (Deleuze and Guattari 1994, 163-200)— I have in previous work discussed the distinction between creating affective intensities and more cohesive emotional states (Smith 2009). As I will show, there is a structural and affective arc in the poem as it moves into ruminations about Emma’s death and then moves away from them.

The opening of the poem consists of aphorisms, statements of a general kind and reflections on the nature of poetry. So, the entries, ‘You can’t be part of the problem if you don’t see how you’re part of the solution’ (172) or ‘Postmodernism: modernism with a deep sense of guilt’ (172) jostle with reflections on what a poem is: ‘The poem is a constant transformation of itself’ (172). There is little preparation for the fact that Emma’s death will appear except for some references to loss, ‘As if all we are and do revolves round a hollow center’ (172) and ‘Language is an albatross, a sullen cross, a site of loss’ (172).

This last line segues into a group of entries that seem to refer to the death of the poet’s daughter, beginning with Emma’s dream-like appearance:

I think of Emma climbing the icy rocks of our imagined world and taking a fatal misstep, one that in the past she could have easily managed, then tumbling, tumbling; in my mind she is yet still in free fall, but I know all too well she hit the ground hard. (172)

This leads into the kind of reflections that one might find in an elegy – the difficulty created by looking back, ‘the endless if onlys, the uninvited what could have beens’ (173). But at the same the poem deflects its own elegiac overtones by linking poetry and mourning in a more general way:

… how poems become sites for mourning—not in fixed ritual repetitions (prescribed liturgy) but as mobile and specific areas for reflection and projection, holding areas, havens. Not words received for comfort but works actively discovered in the course of searching. (173)

Bernstein does not want to reify poems as sites of mourning into a genre such as the elegy, but stresses the dynamic process of poetry. For him poetry is not therapy, or a site of personal healing. In the face of a disabling loss, he puts his faith in stamina:

Each day I know less than the day before. People say that you learn something from such experiences; but I don’t want that knowledge and for me there are no fruits to these experiences, only ashes. I can’t and don’t want to “heal”; perhaps, though, go on in the full force of my dysabilities, coexisting with a brokenness that cannot be accommodated, in the dark (174).

In other words, he defies many of the restorative gestures one might traditionally associate with elegy, ‘sometimes I am disturbed even by my ability to function. I feel at times, a shell of myself, a shell of a shell of myself’ (173).

This grouping ends with the poet musing on his daughter’s legacy. At first when Emma died he could not look at photos of her, ‘I felt each photo was a lie – flaunting her presence in the face of her being gone’ (174). But now he sees ‘the photographs are what she has left me – that she is present to me in the way these haunted and haunting works are present’ (174). Then the poem gradually moves away from the topic of Emma specifically, and perambulates many different areas including language, poetics, metaphysics and ideology. However, it does allude from time to time to loss, ‘Listening for inaudible songs in a sonic sea, I lost my bearings, falling, uncaring, into traps of my own despairing’ (175). One fragment touches on a question the poem raises: the role of the personal in experimental poetry:

The problem with teaching poetry is perhaps the reverse of that in other fields: students come to it thinking it’s personal and relevant, but I try to get them to see it as formal, structural, historical, collaborative, and ideological. What a downer! (174)

Provocatively, this downplaying of the personal’s supremacy is incorporated into a poem that folds in personal elements but does not allow them to dominate.

The poem, then, although it does allude to personal trauma, would not usually be regarded as confessional. The references to Emma are included as elements of the text, and cast a shadow over it, but they are not the sole focus. The poem expresses profound grief but also rebuts the idea of the elegiac as a healing process and steers clear of self-pity and excoriating self-searching. In the process, Bernstein invokes, but does not resolve (nor would he wish to), debates about the role of the personal in contemporary poetry.

  1. Pertinently, at a much earlier stage of his career, Charles Bernstein, like Trisha Low after him, also crossed over the idea of confession/the confessional in his poem/essay/talk ‘G–/’ (Bernstein 1986, 208-216).
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