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Canadian Review of American Studies/ Revue canadzenne d'etudes amhtcames Volume 27, Number J, 1997, pp. 205-214 'Rough Trades': Charles Bernstein and the Currency of Poetry Kevin McGuirk 205 I began this essay with a heuristic suggested to me by the topic of the conference where this article was presented, by the title of a book by the American "Language" poet and theorist Charles Bernstein-Rough Trades (1991)-and by Bernstein's frequent appearances in literary venues in Canada . Bernstein's work might be read, I thought, as a response to the question: Is poetry marked by trade? The question is a rhetorical one (the answer is supposed to be yes); and it is also a counterquestion to a prior rhetorical one (which would also suppose the answer yes): isn't poetry's trademark, indeed, its selling point (where it does sell), its very freedom from trade? In the late nineteenth century, the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins elegized an England "seared with trade" in his famous sonnet "God's Grandeur," while poetry assumed the paradoxical sccial role of antidote to the trademarked world. It's this role that various critical movements within poetics have been trying to shake off this century. The critic Hank Lazer notes in a recent long essay that Bernstein's trnme typically functions as a metonym for "Language poetry," the mention of 206 Canadian Review of American Studies Revue nmadienne d'etudes ameru:ames which occasions "evaluation (or attack on, summary, or advocacy) of Language poetry, and his poetry recedes into a more general discussion of the sociology of American poetry-culture" (1995, 35). Lazer aims to examine Bernstein's latest book of poetry on its own terms, not as a symptom. But the ftrst problem, what makes Bernstein a potent trope for Language poetry, is the interesting one, not because it leads to discussions of the poetry scene, but because it leads to considerations of the nature of poetry and the poetic, the renovation of which may be Language poetry's main contribution to cultural knowledge. Language poetry, or sometimes "Language writing," is the name for work by a loose grouping of mostly American writers (and friends) which emerged 111the seventies on the east and west coasts, where they published poetry as well as theory in little magazines and small presses. It was based, negatively, on a rejection of the dominant voice model for poetry-that is, the expressive lyric organized around an individual and putatively authentic self-and related paradigms of authentic experience and unitary knowledge. Positively, it located itself in writing, the meaning-generating structures of language which are exemplified best in poetry, since poetry is the mode that above all displays its own materiality. Bernstein explains the position this way: "All writing is a demonstration of method; it can assume a method or investigate it" (1986, 226). Language poetry differentiates itself by investigating method aggressively, assaulting not just normal poetry but all normal discourse; other poetry, the stuff coming out of what Bernstein refers to as "official verse culture," merely assumes a method. Some of the theorizing was based on a critique of the sign as commodity under capitalism. According to this critique, the sign supposes transparency, and offers direct access to the "goods" of meaning, disguising its material existence as sound, mark, and historically delimited signifier. Poetry, Ron Silliman (1995, 61) suggests, might be "a model for unalienated worker," fully engaged with the production of meaning in language all the way along. The project had significant affinities with poststructuralist theories associated with the academy, even though it's only in the last half-a-dozen years that some of its best known practitioners have taken university positions or published with university presses (Bernstein's A Poetics was published by Harvard KevinMcGuirkI 207 in 1992; Bob Perelman's The Marginalization alPoetry with Princeton in 1996). Bernstein's role has been, like others, but recently more than others, not just that of a poet (i.e. someone who writes poems) but as a cultural worker. It is because of his cultural work that his is the name most closely associated with Language poetry in the academy. Since 1990, he has headed the...