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This issue of JACKET is a co-production with SALT magazine



Charles Bernstein

Poetry and/or the Sacred

Every time I hear the word sacred I reach for my check book. Every time I reach for my check book I get a warm glow that haunts me with the flow of international capital. In God we trust - all others need a major credit card. I’ll give you credit for that - just don’t bank on it. Is nothing sacred anymore? Of course nothing is sacred: some things never change. But I’d put it is this way: at least nothing is sacred. That’s a start. Either nothing is sacred or everything is. If the sacred is the hot air inflating a poem, it doesn’t mean the poem won’t fly, though just as likely it may snore. Now is the allusion there to a blimp or to Blimpie’s. No more priests - in every sigh of every woman, child, and man. Not something to rise up to but something in which to descend, the gravity Simone Weil talks about that is a condition for grace.

The sacred as opposed to what? Against the priestly function of the poet or of poetry I propose the comic and bathetic, the awkward and railing: to be grounded horizontally in the social and not vertically in the ethers. My motto would be a revision of Calvalcanti: "for the sacred is such a thing that if it is portrayed it dies".

Lately I’ve been thinking about the distinction between moral discourse and ethical reciprocity. Morality as a fixed system telling you what is good or good for you: the sacred can sound a lot like that, even if it’s supposed to be something deeper or more experiential or exceptional. I think of ethics as intertwined with aesthetics, as dependent on context, judgment, shifting situations. Ethical reciprocity involves recognition and acknowledgment - a process of registration - rather than states such as feeling spiritual (as if it were a goal). I’m for conversation not conversion. I would worry - for me worry is the only sacred giraffe - about all the things not sacred . . . Well, that old song - and dance.

In the Jewish mystical tradition, there is the idea that everything is holy - an idea given a particularly forceful spin in the coda to Allen Ginsberg’s Howl (the spatuta is holy, the tuxedo is holy, the mud is holy, the tumescence is holy, the misquotation is holy, the parody is holy, my jacket is holy - but I just bought a patch to fix that). Ginsberg’s famous Whitmanian lines extend a crucial tradition in American poetry away from the allegorical and high-literary and religious and toward the ordinary and the detail. William Carlos Williams and Gertrude Stein are the paradigmatic modernist poets of the ordinary. Just as Williams found the poetic, and possibly the sacred, in the back-lot "cinders // in which shine / the broken // pieces of a green / bottle", so Stein found the poetic in the materials of the poem, "actual word stuff, not thoughts for thoughts", to use Williams’s formulation.

This brings to mind again that the crucial focus for Jewish mysticism is on language, in its material form: not what language represents or means or signifies, but what it is in itself.

Poems are no more sacred than the use to which they are made, any more than you or I or Uncle Hodgepodge is. They are scared and looking for cover, scarred by the journey. They may be good company but more likely resemble the man in the train compartment who never stops talking. What time is it now? Are we there yet? What do they call this town?


Presented at the keynote panel - "Poetry and the Sacred" - at the 17th Annual Tucson Poetry Festival, March 27, 1999. Other panel members were Robert Bly, Jane Hirshfield, Ramsom Lomatewama, Pat Mora, and David Shapiro. & with thanks to Adrienne Rich.


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This issue of Jacket is a co-production with SALT magazine,
an international journal of poetry and poetics, edited by John Kinsella
PO Box 937, Great Wilbraham, Cambridge PDO, CB1 5JX United Kingdom ISSN 1324-7131

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