Since the late 1970's and 1980's to be 'experimental' in American poetic parlance meant in some real way to be a Language Poet. Or at least to worship at the Altar of the Langpo Mafia. The whole experimental tradition of Pound, Zukofsky, Olson, HD, Ponge and more came together in Langpo.
Being a Post-Language Poet or better yet a New York Post-Language Poet was the preferred mode for publication and influence. The Godfather of this Movement is Charles Bernstein (and Bruce Andrews but Charles is a better Don Corleone). and he has retained his place as Capo until today.
Langpo has been called many things, "word salad" "anti-poetry" and it has spawned reactions, Neo-Formalism is a reaction to Langpo and it is even said that Dana Gioia's Goebbelesque piece "Can Poetry Matter" was written in response to Language Poetry. For this we all respect Bernstein because if he can piss off Dana Gioia we are proud of him and he is one with us.
Most poets writing today who are considered experimental are children of Langpo and its antecedent's and that is why Charles Bernstein's new book "Girly Man" from the U of Chicago Press is so interesting and in some ways so disturbing.
Bernstein in many ways is wearing someone else's clothes here and his book has detached experimental poetry from its moorings. I must say that Charles' life is a poetic wet dream for many poets who are not academics. Here is a man who does not have the academic pedigree but who was able to crash into academia and really shake things up- all non academic poets dream of this unreal reality. Poets who are outside the academy look at Charles as a lodestar in this regard. But Girly Man is something else a betrayal? a chastisement? or I just don't know?
The book is filled with these sing songy poems- with lines like "Got Cancer, Have a Warm Bath" (paraphrase), "home team losing, time to change sides". And as satire they work and they are funny but they leave one the way a Chinese meal does two hours later- hungry and wishing there was more meat and less wasted carbs. We get a good line and then a throw away line and I would ask myself why can't CB sustain himself? Why can't this tension continue? Why does it have to break this way?
It has been written by some great reviewer/poets that Postmodernism and Irony were dead after 9/11 but Charles' has redeemed these things with Girly Man. I have to disagree with this assertion. Charles Bernstein is a fine and seminal poet but his is a voice formed in the New York of the 1960's and 70's a world that is as far away from our own as the Byzantine Empire is from today's problems.
We live in a time that requires seriousness and from many American poets today we get allot fluff and 'flarf" masquerading as irony and critique. Is there room for humor? Is their room for the kind of New York Hipster irony that fills so much of Girly Man? I think Poet's need to reevaluate their project because we are really in a new world a world that needs poetry to do its job.
In the named poem "The Ballad of the Girlie Man" A formal- and assertively non-Langpo poem Bernstein puts a period on the end of a poetic epoch. This poem has everything, rhyme schemes, irony, and satire the best line is
Thugs from hell have taken freedom's store
The rich get richer, the poor die quicker
Here are lines that rank with some in the Wasteland and Mauberley as critiques of an age and when we think that we are going to get a whole sustained poem we want the tension and energy we need for our sick world Charles' gives us these following lines;
& the only god that sanctions that
is not god but all but rhetorical crap
which are flaccid and lose the energy of the work. He uses this stanza twice in the poem and like the air leaving a balloon is disappoints. I wanted more tension and more challenge not some throw away line and the use of the word "Crap" which is really crap. Unlike many reviewers I do not believe that Girly Man is a triumph. I think it is a missed opportunity with some great lines looking for more great lines and that the work consistantly loses energy.
My Way, Bernstein's collection of essays and poems is perhaps the greatest book on poetry written in the past 50 years. My Way is Bernstein's masterpiece in the future Girly Man will be known for something else. Girly Man signals the end of the Langpo Mafia and its grandchildren's hold on experimental poetry. Many younger poets now have taken what the Language Poet's and their Grandchildren have done and what Charles Bernstein in particular started and have recombined it with earlier traditions and new technologies.These younger poets are better equipped to address poetically a world that is rapidly heading from a need for hipster irony to a need for screaming.