Charles Bernstein is many things: an inventive poet, a writer of libretti, a translator, a collaborator, an archivist, and, since 2003, a distinguished member of Penn’s faculty. Bernstein, Donald T. Regan Professor of English and Comparative Literature, will retire from the Department of English at the end of the spring 2019 semester.
He is the author of numerous books of poetry, including Near/Miss, which earned him the 2019 Bollingen Prize for American Poetry, awarded by Yale University. Bernstein’s most recent collection of essays is Pitch of Poetry. Along with Bruce Andrews, Bernstein co-edited L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, an influential journal of radical poetics that ran from 1978 to 1981. He is editor of the Electronic Poetry Center and, with Al Filreis, Kelly Family Professor in English, co-directs PennSound, an extensive archive of poetry recordings.
Bernstein was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2006. Other awards and honors include the Janus Pannonius Grand Prize for Poetry, the Münster Prize for International Poetry, a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship, and a National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship.
After Abraham Ibn Ezra
At my birth the stars played me crooked
If I’d sold candles, it would never get dark
If I’d tried to be a big shot, it woulda been blank
If I made shrouds, everybody’d live forever
If I had a furnace store, you’d never need heat
If I went the ocean to swim, the seas’d part for me
If I were an arms dealer, there’d be world peace
WHAT MAKES A POEM A POEM?
My lecture is called “What Makes a Poem a Poem?” I’m going to set my timer.
It’s not rhyming words at the end of a line. It’s not form. It’s not structure. It’s not loneliness. It’s not location. It’s not the sky. It’s not love. It’s not the color. It’s not the feeling. It’s not the meter. It’s not the place. It’s not the intention. It’s not the desire. It’s not the weather. It’s not the hope. It’s not the subject matter. It’s not the death. It’s not the birth. It’s not the trees. It’s not the words. It’s not the things between the words. It’s not the meter. It’s not the meter-…
It’s the timing.
“My Luck” and “What Makes a Poem a Poem” appear in Near/Miss. “My Luck” is a translation of the 12th century Hebrew poem “Misfortune,” by Rabbi Abraham ben Meir Ibn Ezra. “What Makes a Poem a Poem” is the transcript from Bernstein’s 2004 performance at Penn Arts and Sciences’ 60-Second Lecture Series.
To listen to the PennSound archives, visit writing.upenn.edu/pennsound
Click here to listen to our OMNIA Podcast, "You Can’t Hurt a Poem, and Other Lessons from Charles Bernstein," in which Bernstein recounts his high school days as a theater buff and activist, how a poetry movement grew out of a trip to the Canadian rain forest, and the importance of audio archives.