Penn professor Charles Bernstein publishes a new poetry collection.

Charles Bernstein at his desk in his office with a colorful painting by his wife on the wall behind him
Penn English Professor Charles Bernstein has just published his 15th book of poetry, "Near/Miss." 

The poetry in Charles Bernstein’s just-published collection, “Near/Miss,” defies convention in language and form. Mournful and comic, artistic and political, three words to hundreds, one syllable per line to blocks of text, the 80 poems are anything but standard.

“I try to have as many different kinds of poems as possible so that the different forms can push up against one another,” says Bernstein, the Donald T. Regan Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Pennsylvania. “They present a constellation of contrasting styles, so that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” 

Two people on either side of a barrier clutching bars is the book cover
Bernstein's wife, artist Susan Bee, painted the work of art that is the cover of "Near/Miss." 

Author of 15 books of poetry and five collections of essays, Bernstein has been teaching at Penn for 15 years. A leading voice in American poetry, he has lived in New York City most of his life, along with his wife, Susan Bee, an artist, writer, and Penn lecturer. 

Bernstein is known at Penn for his unconventional courses, including experimental poetry, using an experiments list he created to prompt new ways of approaching writing. This semester he is teaching two courses, including the "BLANK" Poetics Seminar, which has no syllabus and is based on the work and the concerns of the students.

Along with Al Filreis, director of Kelly Writers House, he is co-founder of PennSound, the internet’s largest archive of poetry readings, and editor of the affiliated Electronic Poetry Center

He’s also a founder of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, an avant-garde poetry magazine that ran from 1978 to 1981, which gave rise to a group of writers known as the “language poets.” 

“We were heretics. It is not a school or a stylistic imperative. It’s not telling you how to write but rather opening up the possibilities for writing,” he says. “We offered an alternative conversation. I’m still in that conversation.”

As “Near/Miss” hits the bookshelves, and he contemplates retirement from teaching in June, Penn Today spoke with Bernstein about his new book and about his views on poetry in America. 


What is the meaning of the title “Near/Miss”? 

Near/Miss is meant to suggest elegy, that is, being close to something which has gone missing. But there is also the meaning of common expression—just barely missing a target. The cover image (a painting by Susan Bee) is based on a still from Robert Bresson’s “Pickpocket: Two people separated by a grate, perhaps prison bars, as in the movie, or a confessional, or a fence—any kind of barrier—their hands clutching the bars. It could be the reader and the poems, separated by the text, the words on the page. The title and cover painting suggest that you are close to something, near, but at the same time separated from it. Absence in the presence and presence in the absence.

The poems in the collection are so varied. What was your thinking? 

Poetry is a space for thinking about how we use language, for considering the multiple, and often conflicting, aspects of language. The book includes poems that respond to works of visual art, poems of grief and loss, poems that address the ephemeral experience of everyday life, madcap poems, and sad sack poems. All the moods and textures brush up against one another, creating a space where imagination is ablaze.

What I want to do is to create something that weaves together contrasting tones, in an Emersonian fashion, where transition is supreme. The connection of one poem to another is not thematic but one of motifs, sound patterning, permutations of sensibility. The book teaches you how to read as you move through it. It is a journey into possibility that revels in flux and change. I created the book to be an experience in time and of time, like an opera or a movie, but one in which there is no beginning, middle, and end. but rather a continuous present-ness of thought dancing through language. 

What is the significance of the many forms of the poems? 

Every new form allows for a new thought, a new expression, and new experience. Rhythm in these poems is a way of making time’s passage visceral. By form I mean the syntax, the sound patterns, the vocabulary, as well as the shape. Different shapes of the line, different ways to break the words (sets of poems have line breaks in the middle of words), shifts of tempo, create a form that, as poet Robert Creeley insisted, is never more than an extension of the content; just as the content bends and warps the form. It’s all about metamorphosis, but not steady and smooth and symmetrical. I love the abrupt and unexpected too much for that. To say it again, meaning is inextricable from the form; the two can’t be separated. The form is the message and allows the content of the poem to be the experience that you get. 

How do you create your poems?

I’m always writing, whether on paper or in my mind. All my life I have had a continuous verbal echo, play and flow accompanying my perceptions. So when I write, I tap into that. My experience with verbal language is visceral. For example, when I hear a verbal expression, I automatically I think of two or three other versions and reversals. Earlier today I heard a machine voice on a train saying, “Take your belongings” and I kept also hearing, “Take your belong,” “Where do you belong?” “Belong to what,” “Belongings are a kind of longing,” “Take your longing,” “Longing for belong,” and so on. That comes unprompted and is nonstop.

Are the poems about your life? 

My work is not autobiographical in terms of theme or plot. My poems do not describe my life; they chart my life. I don’t want readers to follow a plot line about what had happened to me. I want poems that allow readers to read in their own experience. My poems are meant to be sponges for reader projections. Or better yet trampolines. The poems are there not to tell my story, but to allow a reader to engage with their own sensations and responses. I believe this allows for a richer aesthetic experience. 

But there are many autobiographical elements in my work. As with my previous book, “Recalculating,” there are the echoes of my daughter Emma’s death, 10 years ago this December. If you know that, you can’t help but hear several elegies for her. But if not, just as well. Each reader will bring her or his own experiences to the book. 

“Fare Thee Well,” the last poem of the book, was written for Emma, but there is no dedication that makes it explicit. 

I don’t know whether we’ll meet again

Maybe we will, somewhere in hell

I can’t say how and I don’t know when

So fare thee well, fare thee well!

Many of your poems in “Near/Miss” are about poetry itself. 

The first line in the first poem, “Thank You for Saying You’re Welcome,” is:

This is a totally

​​inaccessible poem

This poem takes the fantasy many people have about poets, that they are trying to be difficult and are willfully obscure, and follows the logic of that into, but also beyond, absurdity, where the somewhat demented poet reveals that his or her insistence on inaccessibility is a kind of a spiritual quest. The poem turns the assumptions about inaccessibility upside down, and then takes it sideways. It takes the “absurd” logic of the premise to an extreme. And along the way, the poems address, and satirizes, many of fears and clichés about the incomprehensibility of poetry. Because, really, all we poets want is to be understood. But on our own terms!

Why is poetry important?

What’s the point of poetry? When somebody asks that, I feel like it’s like saying “What’s the point of thinking?” “What is the point of fantasy?” “What is the point of music?” “What is the point of pleasure?” “What is the point of sensation?” “What the point of laughter?”

Poetry is not a luxury, to quote writer Audre Lorde. The loss of poetry in our culture marks a loss of imagination. And you can’t have a democracy without imagination. Because imagination allows you think differently.

Poetry, the kind of poetry I want, the kind of poetry I write, heightens our ability as citizens who must necessarily live in a world with contradiction and difference and still feel grounded, as opposed to being befuddled or aggrieved or silenced when something doesn’t follow a preferred plot line, or when confronted by ambiguities or ambivalences. 

Much mainstream culture—journalism, poetry, popular culture—doesn’t allow for much complexity or ambiguity, and therefore diminishes the richness of feeling or aesthetic expression that is fundamental for the flourishing of democratic social space, which, in the U.S. right now, is woefully insufficient. Much of mainstream culture tends to hollow out thought and ideas until they become trite and anecdotal. That doesn’t allow for a space of exploration and the freedom of thought, the unexpected, the provisional, the odd, the difficult, the troubled. Emerson spoke of the need for an aversion of conformity—and this is what poetry, or anyway the kind of poetry I want, can offer. In order to have freedom of thought, thought must be free. Poetry can allow for new means of expression that new times demand. 

Better a near miss than to keep firing obsessively at the same target. And sometimes a near miss can be a close encounter not just with ourselves but the world we inhabit, perilously but chock full of possibilities.