Seriously playful poetry

Poet Charles Bernstein comes to town, reading at the Henry Art Gallery.
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A recent collection of Charles Bernstein's poetry

Poet Charles Bernstein comes to town, reading at the Henry Art Gallery.

Poet Charles Bernstein, who reads in Seattle tonight (Jan. 7), is seriously playful. His poems show how the language of the culture we swim in subtly constructs the ways we think and thereby constructs each of us. “Fish are last to know water,” says the proverb, and Bernstein heaves us ashore where we can take a dry perspective on it.

He mixes language from commercials, pop songs, lit-crit, self-help, business plans, bad poems, and the speeches of politicians like Arnold Schwarzenegger — the title of a recent Bernstein collection is Girly Man.

Former Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky describes Bernstein’s work as “calculated to upset the middlebrow and thwart the bland. The more you like the poetic equivalent of a nice tune, easy to hum, the more Bernstein means to disrupt your complacency.”

In the poem “There’s Beauty in the Sound” Bernstein declares, “I’ve tried / to be an American.” He confesses that he’s “had trouble with / sincerity” but has “been / better in groups & / started feeling comfortable / sharing / my high-medium / cholesterol level.”

The trouble with quoted excerpts is that they can make Bernstein sound merely smug. But he’s fun. Watch online as he tells why the Yellow Pages qualifies as a modern epic poem, or as he recants, renounces, and apologizes for his many prior sarcasms about National Poetry Month and accessible poets, in “Recantorium.” He writes more “poetic” poems, too — “Pompeii” is a nice one.

Tonight Charles Bernstein reads his poems and riffs on contemporary culture, musingly and amusingly, at the Henry Art Gallery auditorium on the UW campus, 15th Avenue Northeast and Northeast 41st Street, 7 p.m., free.


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