Pitch of Poetry
University of Chicago Press (Footprint), $49.95 pb, 352 pp, 9780226332086
When Viktor Shklovsky, in his famous 1917 essay 'Art as Technique', asserts that the fundamental task of the poetic function is one of 'making strange' the reader's customary perceptions, he is arguing for more than just the avoidance of linguistic cliché. Through the medium of poetic form, the accepted conventions of our habitualised view of the world can be defamiliarised: the political implications of this approach directly influenced Brecht's Verfremdungseffekt, and in turn underwrite Roland Barthes's structuralist unmasking of societal 'mythologies'.
The Russian Formalist critics – and their counterparts in practice, the avant-garde Futurist poets – are frequently cited as precursors by the American poet and critic Charles Bernstein, along with Wittgenstein's similar explorations of the manner in which our perception of the world is shaped by language. (Bernstein's undergraduate dissertation, later published as Three Compositions on Philosophy and Literature , linked Wittgenstein's 'linguistic turn' to the textual experiments of Gertrude Stein.) Yet the political claims made for their often wilfully 'difficult' poems by Bernstein and his associates in the burgeoning international field of 'Language' practitioners have often been contested: as a somewhat perplexed Chinese interviewer puts the question to Bernstein here, 'L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E is generally regarded as a renegade brand, but in what way is it rebellious?' Or, as the poet Jackson Mac Low once asked: 'What could be more of a fetish or more alienated than slices of language stripped of reference?'