BAMA PANEL I: Charles Bernstein does NOT name the ‘Official Poetry Policemen.’
The first in a series of 5 articles on the 1984 University of Alabama Poetry Conference by THOMAS BRADY.
Charles Bernstein, Gerald Stern, and T.S.Eliot.
Gerald Stern: “Names…of the policemen.”
If this October 20, 1984 panel discussion had taken place in London or Paris, or one of America’s major universities, it might have struck a mythic chord in American Letters. If poetry mattered more to the American public, we might still be discussing the poetry session which took place 25 years ago this month.
Helen Vendler, Marjorie Perloff, Charles Bernstein, Denise Levertov, Kenneth Burke, Louis Simpson, David Ignatow and Gerald Stern put on a show in sleepy Tuscaloosa, as post-modernism faced off against modernism in a throat-ripping dog fight
Modern poetry’s factions exploded in the flesh, as po-biz insiders erupted in a spontaneous public quarrel.
The more dignified members of the panel probably regret their trip to U. Alabama in those controversial days of the 1980s culture wars. I’m guessing most of the participants would prefer this conference be forgotten, but we at Scarriet would hate to miss an opportunity to see big players like Helen (of Coy) Vendler and (Prince) Charles Bernstein naked.
We want to thank Annie Finch for finding the transcript of the panel discussion–we would have missed it otherwise.
Scarriet will do a series of posts on the ‘Bama Panel, as we observe its 25th anniversary. There’s too much great stuff here for just one post.
So here we are back in 1984. When asked a bland question by the conference host:
“What do you perceive the function of poetry to be, Charles?”
Bernstein, the unemployed ex-editor of the magazine, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, quickly got himself in a foetic tangle:
“[it] has to do with audiences, distribution, jobs, professional networks, things like that, which I think we tend to underrate. It seems interesting to me that professional academic poets are making this particular issue apparent in this context…”
“I think it’s unfair not to realize that it’s actually poets who are the policemen of official verse culture in the United States. And so from the perspective of a poet outside the academy and from the perspective of many people that I know who are not associated with academics, cannot get teaching jobs…”
Iowa Poetry Workshop teacher and poet Gerald Stern broke in:
“I don’t think you’re right, Charles. Who? What poets are the policemen? Would you like to name some poets who are the policemen?”
This was the defining moment of Bernstein’s career. Had Bernstein “named names,” backing up his claim that ‘policemen poets’ were oppressively enforcing ‘official verse culture,’ he might never have found a job in academia.
Bernstein replied, “Yeah, I’ll give you a group, I’ll give you a group.”
Stern was a bulldog. He would not let the matter drop.
“Names…of the policemen.”
Bernstein: I’ll give you a group. You want me to? No, I’m not going to, I’m going to give you institutional groups, I’m going to say those poets, those poets who…
Stern: I’ve got the names of thirty-seven hard, fast Communists in the State Department…McCarthy never named one…
Hank Lazer, ‘Bama host, and friend of Bernstein, attempted to smooth things over by leading the discussion back to the ‘function of poetry’ question. Lazer must have been thinking: ‘My conference is going to destroy the career of my friend!’
But Stern wouldn’t quit: “Would you tell me who the policemen are, please, Charles? Would you give me a list of names?”
Bernstein answered foetically: “Yeah, I’m talking about those poets who are involved in the award networks, the creative writing programs, and the major reviews.”
Charles Bernstein was explicitly talking foetry 20 years before Cordle and Foetry.com.
The only difference between Cordle and Bernstein was Bernstein was not naming names–and not naming names was, to the poet Gerald Stern, an even worse McCarthyist offense.
Stern had won the Lamont Poetry Selection 7 years prior, when Stern was 52: judges Alan Dugan, Phil Levine, and Charles Wright. Doors had obviously opened for Stern since then, leading to his job at Iowa, and his invitation to this conference.
Did Stern think Bernstein was going to name Dugan, Levine, and Wright? Who did Stern think Bernstein was going to name? Who did Bernstein have in mind back there in 1984?
In the end, after more McCarthyism talk from Stern, Bernstein saved his career and meekly mentioned one poet, a dead one:
Bernstein used another dead poet to save himself:
“I would give you as a central instance the person that William Carlos Williams called the great disaster for our letters, T.S. Eliot…”
Bernstein made a non-answer.
Eliot’s “officalizing role” as a poet is a truism.
Everyone knows Williams and Eliot shared many mutual friends, including Pound. Williams and Eliot both gained credentials by their accentuated differences: Williams’ obscure career was made to seem more ‘popularly American,’ while Eliot was assured high-brow points in the comparison to the Jersey scribbler. The whole matter is the very opposite of the played-out platitude in the po-biz press. Rather than shedding crocodile tears for Williams, was Bernstein instead playing on the opposition between revolutionary secular Jew and conservative Christian? This is more likely.
To the Eliot v. Willams charade, Ignatow said, “You’re right there.”
Bernstein: “Thank you.”
End of Part I.
Part II will examine Helen Vendler’s role in the same 1984 panel.