22.11.2015

A Poet among the Ruins of Language: Charles Bernstein Witnessing 9/11 by Tommi Kotonen

American poet Charles Bernstein was coming back from LaGuardia airport in September 11, 2001. He was one of the millions who witnessed the WTC attacks. During that day and after he wrote several poems where he reflected the moods in Manhattan, pondered the hate and differing personal and political reactions. As one of the so called language poets, Bernstein has for his entire career been opposing the presence of the lyric, first-person voice in poetry. When the “9/11” unfolds in front of his very eyes, he becomes an unwilling “witness to unspeakable”, to events which also affect his poetry. 

In the first poems after the attack a witnessing poetical “I” providing personal knowledge is present. The rest of the collection can be seen as a commentary to this “I” and his reflections; a commentary that refuses to impose a singular “I” as a connecting element but instead dwells on insecurities and ambivalences, and tries to talk with no “voice”. From the first reactions, and from their prosaic poetry to more distanced, formalistic pieces, Bernstein deciphered the events and their politics and, in the end, also the reader becomes one of the witnesses. 

In this article I analyze different linguistic tools and theories on language and communication Bernstein brings to the play when trying to register and deconstruct the American politics and mythology after the 9/11.