Symposium 4: Against Storytelling

UP Against Storytelling, for David Antin

In the aftermath of popular-vote loser Trump’s election, the search for blame began. On some accounts, the blame laid on postmodernists and poststructuralists who had so undermined

Amit Chaudhuri, Indian Road Sign, 2018

UP Against Storytelling, for David Antin1

Charles Bernstein


I told my
don’t want
any more
tell me what
you need.
I told
my husband, I
want any
more stories,
tell me what you
I told my
mother, I
want any
more of
your stories, just
me what
you want.
my father,
any more
your stories,
tell me
where I
went wrong.
I told my
rabbi, I
want any
more of your
stories, just
how to
get out of here.
I told
my friend, I
don’t want
more stories, just
tell me
going on.
I told
my professor,
don’t want
any more
just tell
me you’ll
told my president,
don’t want
any more
just get
your foot off
my face.

¶•§ BLT (#BigLieTrump)

In the aftermath of popular-vote loser Trump’s election, the search for blame began. On some accounts, the blame laid on postmodernists and poststructuralists who had so undermined truth that now a president is free to lie with impunity.2 As a professional sophist, I am used to the charge. Like the marshal said to the sheriff, it comes with the territory.

Questioning the essential truthfulness of stories – the jargon of storytelling – including journalistic stories, is always provocative and it’s best when it’s meant to be: not shutting down the views of others but getting more voices into the agora. (No, agora agora is not deep muscle pain treatable by Ben-Gay: Get real!) The opposite of Trump’s univocal embrace of the truth in my lies lies is the sophist’s lies in my truth, what Jerome McGann calls ‘truth in the body of falsehood’. For every Trump lie, chronicled by reporters, there is a Trump counterclaim of the ‘lying media’. This is Trump’s biggest trap, his claim to the moral high ground. Trump appropriates the mantle of truth, insisting that those who disagree are the liars because they deny the truth not only of his story but the truth of stories. Indeed, Large Sectors of the Massed Media (LSMM) find themselves on precarious ground in calling Trump out, given their almost religious devotion to the truth of stories. There is a history here going back in America from Chautauqua, the 19th- century platform for preachers, entertainers, and self-help gurus right up to today’s Ted Talks, and clones, which scrub away any narrative shards on NPR’s airwaves. But this American life is more than an endless drone of hyperfascinating stories.

Hyperfascination, as William Burroughs might say, is a virus, but not from outer space, from inner space.


15. Amit Chaudhuri

About a decade ago, I interrupted a talk I was giving to a small group of international writers and academics gathered in Delhi to say, ‘Fuck storytelling.’

My respondent, a British Asian literary journalist, later said, while commenting on my talk, how ‘shocked’ she’d been by my remark. It wasn’t the expletive she objected to, but my attack on ‘storytelling’, which had been so ‘empowering to peoples and cultures’. ‘Storytelling’ had, by now, become a sacred cow that you insulted at your own risk.

My discomfiture with the idea that ‘storytelling’ is a feature of non-Western culture, and a valuable resource, as a result, of a postcolonial politics that sets itself up against the Enlightenment. A glance at non-Western artistic expression reveals, however, a deep commitment to forms outside of what we now think of as ‘narrative’ (synecdoche, for instance, and other means of poetic elision). … Globalisation, by the turn of the millennium, had become a kind of narrative – a lateral, interconnected network from which there was no escape, and from which no one evidently desired to escape – and this privileging of a narrative that had no ‘outside’ (globalisation) led to the marginalisation of the poetic. … ‘Storytelling,’ with its kitschy magic and its associations of postcolonial empowerment, is seen to emanate from the immemorial funds of orality in the non-Western world, and might be interpreted as a critique of the inscribed word, and its embeddedness in Western forms of knowledge.3


The New York Times was soft on confronting the facts of the Cold War, successions of U.S. government invasions, the shift of capital to the one percent, the Bloombergization of Manhattan. The Times spent the 2016 election tip-toeing around Trump’s lies. Post election, they rolled out a slogan – ‘Truth. It’s more important now than ever.’ But you have to wonder why it wasn’t just as important before the election, or during the Iraq invasion. Then there’s another new Times slogan, ‘Truth has a voice.’ Is that what truth has? Yes, of course, the Times means it offers fact- based journalism, and as a lifelong devoted reader, I am grateful for that. But is that the same as truth? The most important thing is not ‘the fact itself’ (to echo Kant) but which facts and how they are constellated – an ensemble that creates both meaning and truth. Here’s how the Columbia Journalism Review put it:

We believe that the volume of reporting around fake news, and the role of tech companies in disseminating those falsehoods, is both disproportionate to its likely influence in the outcome of the election and diverts attention from the culpability of the mainstream media itself. … It seems incredible that only five out of 150 front-page articles that The New York Times ran over the last, most critical months of the election, attempted to compare the candidate’s policies, while only 10 described the policies of either candidate in any detail.4

In other words, despite its high-minded ads, the Times goes for soft-core ‘plot’ – story lines are addictive – over hard-core narrative.

The pervasive focus on Trump’s lies by the mediocracy, including late-night comedy – the more outrageous the lies, the more attention – distracts from his government’s actions and positions, including deregulation, the crippling of workers’ rights and safety nets, and the wanton abandon of environmental care in the service of transferring wealth and power from the many to the fewer and fewer; as well as the U.S.’s shameful incarceration rates, especially for African- Americans. This focus on Trump’s lies also has another effect – echoing the lies, all the while galvanising Trump’s base. And yet the mediocracy is trapped, by its own protocols, into not only reporting but also highlighting whatever Trump and his Republican Party enablers say. To echo David Antin’s old friend George Lakoff: The repetition of a lie, even when it is labelled a lie, reinforces it.

There is an undeniable, and totally justified, urge to defend the mainstream media against Trump’s assaults, to see it as us against them (and I include myself in this). But this elides the media’s (and my own) no doubt unintended, complicity with Trump. When we fail to consider our own structural faults, Trump chalks up another win.

Trump plays P.T. Barnum to mainstream journalism’s all-day sucker. And the social media chorus spreads the virus like zombies in Dawn of the Dead.

‡‡∞§§. If Socrates Was a Poet

One of my multiple and conflicting commitments as a writer is to collage as reframing. I am drawn to unexpected swerves that heighten contradictions. In my poetics, disjunction is a means to more intense connections. Interruption and disruption heighten the experience of the verbality of language, so that you are not just subjected to rhetorical devices but get to see and hear them pop, like firecrackers on Independence Day.

David Antin’s suspicion of collage, parataxis, and metonymy allowed him to create an essential body of work that pushed back against the reflexive use of parataxis. I share with Antin the sense that collage is a troubled legacy of modernism (as are all legacies). Antin’s disapprobation pushes me to make sure that my use of my favourite poetic devices doesn’t fall prey to the arbitrary and entropic, sugared by the lure of an attractively dissonant surface. The kind of poetry I want averts the asemic in pursuit of n-dimensional semantic hedonia (n/SH).

I value poetry that has the transformation Antin finds in narrative, that often goes missing in story or plot. Antin’s counter-intuitive distinction between story and narrative is similar to the difference between fragmentation as an end in itself (‘isolate flecks’, to use a phrase of William Carlos Williams) and what Walter Benjamin calls constellation. I prize poetry and essays, such as Antin’s, in which the parts resonate with one another, beyond just logical or metric connection. But I also want poetry and essays that realise an echopoetics by apparently anti- narrative means.5

In a March 26, 2003, talk poem for the Poetics Program at Buffalo called ‘War’, archived by PennSound, Antin makes a strong case against metonymy and elision, what he calls in the talk ‘edge to edge relations’, using as his example then-President Bush’s linkage of ‘9/11’ with ‘weapons of mass destruction’ with ‘Saddam Hussein’, to justify the recent invasion of Iraq:

if … you imagine that metonymy connects things that are associable with each other and you can imagine that metonymy is what governs the principle of collage you are assuming essentially that all the things next to each other obtain their meaning from their juxtapositions but is that true? … are they related to their referential character or to their significational character? … synecdoche works on very different principles than metonymy metonymy is part-to-part relations and the other is part-to-whole relations part-to-part relations can be an infinite chain you know, like butter milk churn my aunt Tilda … bees I was stung a bear at the blueberry bush you know all these things could come up one after another in a metonymic chain and contact between them seems to be missing although it seems to be filled with the possibility of narrative interpolation it may be that that is what makes it work so, I guess when George Bush uses metonymy to connect Saddam Hussein with 9/11, what he imagines you will do is fill it with a scoop of desperadoes all under Saddam Hussein’s order [My transcription.]

Jews/parasites, the Nazi Big Lie, is the locus classicus of this type of malefaction, where ‘Jews’ can readily be replaced by any designated threat. Trump’s signature series – Hussein/Obama/Birther – is a terrifying example. Elision erases the connective tissue of discourse – how you get from one place to another. ‘You can drive a whole army’ through the gaps, says Antin. It is not that he is advocating the logical relation of each element in a narrative, but rather that his talking cure insists on visceral contiguity over and against deliberate discontinuity, erasure, and jump cutting.

In Antin’s great talk poems, digression, anecdote, and association are favoured over disconnection, fragmentation, and dissociation. The gaps in the talk poems mark pauses in an improvised talk (a bit like Charles Olson’s ‘breath’ lines). Antin’s gaps eschew erasure and allow for rhythm, allowing for what he calls ‘radical coherency’. Above all, like many of his fellow New American poets, and following Dewey, Antin valued process over craft and revision. As Antin famously put it, ‘if robert lowell is a poet i dont want to be a poet if robert frost was a poet i dont want to be a poet if socrates was a poet i’ll consider it.’6 Antin’s talk poems invite you to think with them, in dialog, as they are being composed. They don’t convey a fixed, predetermined meaning or plot or story. Rather, they allow for what Chaudhuri calls ‘deliberate irresolution’.7

Still, there is a fundamental difference between eliding the gaps and accentuating them; that is, between ‘Big Lie’ metonymy and metonymy used to break such viral associations. Just as there is, for Antin, a crucial difference between story (a logical series of plot points) and narrative (which averts closure as a means of grappling with experience). Consider, for example, Ron Silliman’s exemplary articulation of disarticulations in Ketjak and Tjanting. Silliman does not naturalise his disjunctions but rather brings the structure of disjunction into view. He is using ‘non-narrative’ or para-narrative means to narrative ends, as McGann puts it.


∞=∩∇∉⊀≾. A House Is Not a Home

In the New Delhi ‘Against Storytelling’ symposium, Amit Chaudhuri made the distinction between a single story and a house, suggesting an even more fundamental distinction between a house and a home but also between story and history. A series of plot points, like a flurry of Tweets, might make a story but not the network of connected elements that is a history.

In his essay ‘The Beggar and the King’, David Antin argues for a fundamental difference between story and narrative.8 A plot or story, Antin says, is a ‘sequence of events’, while a narrative involves a ‘transformation’ – a transformation that, Antin intimates, entails an aversion of closure. Story or plot ‘is about making sense’, creating from its elements ‘a temporal whole’. In contrast, narrative ‘explains nothing’ because it makes present an ‘experiential’ dimension that defies ‘intelligibil[ity]’. Indeed, closure, the plot, may well obstruct narrative’s ‘incommensurability and unintelligibility’.

According to Antin, a story, as for example a news story, leaves the individual plot elements as is: it is a set of facts, real or imagined. Narrative transforms those individual elements into something else, something fundamentally different than in their initial articulation.

When story becomes narrative there is a reckoning and a price to pay. There is a ‘threat and terror of a / narrative which could if experienced transform’ one beyond one’s ‘own recognition’, as when a beggar become king or Oedipus recognises what he has done.9

Antin’s contrast of story and narrative is reflected in his preference for live improvised performance of a poem (the talk poem) over reading a set text (the poetry reading). The talk poem allows for what, in Sense of Walden, Stanley Cavell calls ‘the conditions of our present’. (Cavell’s readings of classic Hollywood films are a primer in how to read those works not simply as entertaining yarns but as narratives, in the sense Antin means.)

House/home, story/history, plot/narrative, fragmentation/constellation. Book, in Edmond Jabés’s sense. I think also of Freud’s contrast between melancholy, which obsessively seeks (and fails to find) rational intelligibility, and mourning, which acknowledges unintelligible loss.

David Antin, ‘Sociology of Art’:

… now in a written work    it would have been very easy to go back    erase the false step …               /       but the iliad is not a written work     and there are some things fundamentally different about an oral poem        one thing in particular      the technique of erasing     i mean in a literary poem theres a text and a determined reader can flip the pages back over and over again     and there is something of an illusion of spatial form the idea that you can have it there           all at once      lying under your hands         leading to the notion  of elegant spatial arrangement and its contraries         clumsy arrangements all based on fantasies of some spatial existence       that is the result of the minds deceiving itself into forgetting that it has itself constructed this ‘space’ and the ‘form’ that is an imaginary configuration within it        by mere flipping of pages and taking this synthetically derived memory        produced by constant reavailability     and confusing it with real memory           it is this   ‘constructed’ literal form which requires the mechanical operations of erasure and excision     the only way you can get rid of an object is to destroy it         but   an oral poem has no such problem     if you take a wrong turn     make a false start      you cant ‘erase’ it       but you can recover and you can obliterate it from memory           /              you can take advantage of the weakness   of human memory by extending through time some kind of           diversionary brilliance10

CVC. The Book of Ezekiel

The darkness has its secrets

which light does not know.

It’s a kind of perfection,

while every light

distorts the truth.11

‘At a certain point in history’, Chaudhuri said at the ‘Against Storytelling’ symposium – it can be dated to the 1980s, at the time of globalisation – ‘people started saying, we are born storytellers. And they said it with an air of satisfaction. One began to hear that storytelling is the primal human and communal function. That we’ve been telling each other stories from the beginning of time. … No, we haven’t been telling each other stories from the beginning of time.’

The idea that Indian writers should tell ‘our’ own stories, as ‘we’ have always done, was, according to Chaudhuri, an invention of (literary) globalisation:

In India ‘regional’ [and associated languages possess] a sort of authenticity that, say, a foreign or colonial tongue such as English doesn’t. To my knowledge, the ‘regional’ isn’t discussed in India … in conjunction with what it has actually been inextricable from in that country – the modern, the modernist, the avant-garde, a particular intimation of strange. The perceived defeat of the regional literatures by Indian writing in English after globalisation is seen, depending on which side you come from, either as a defeat of ‘authentic’ India, or the coming into its own … of the postcolonial nation – but not connected, as it might be, to the retreat of avant-gardes and modernisms everywhere. … The ‘regional’ … is hardly ever seen in India for what it has often been – an elite, high, counterculture project, imperiously overturning the conventions of nationalism and identity. (Origins of Dislike, 247)

By reducing Indian writing to personal, not to say nativist, authenticity, the imperative for stories undercuts, for Chaudhuri, the rich and complex history of West Bengali modernism, aesthetic innovation, and intellectual inquiry that is foundational for his work. The mandated production of first-person stories scented with local colour for the export market undermined the validity of work stigmatised as aesthetic and difficult. Chaudhuri provides an early 19th century example of this Orientalism in a riposte from Calcutta-based Anglo-Indian Henry Meredith Parker:

So the English critic complains that we are not Oriental enough, and your master begs that our lucubrations may henceforth be lighted by lamps filled with uttr; that we will compose in bowers of gul, growing green and thick under the shade of the tamarind and the pepul; that we will abstain from all food but kubaubs and pillaus; that our bread may be Bakhir Khana, and our drink sherbet of rose apples, while we tinge the web of our story with all the henna and soormah of the East.12

In The Arimaspia, Thomas McEvilley traces the classic origin of this pernicious trope to Megasthenes (4th century BCE Greek historian): ‘I come to suspect that it is a racist projection, to the effect that dark skinned peoples can’t deal with abstraction, that they are associated with the instincts, and so on.’13

Meanwhile, in a kind of self-colonialisation, a.k.a. blowback, the West has internalised its own supremacist imperatives for the natural and virtuous and against artifice and the cosmopolitan. The result is compulsory storytelling as shibboleth, based on sacrosanct authenticity – the jargon of storytelling, to adapt Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno’s ‘jargon of authenticity’. Intersectionality, which is the acknowledgment of possibly incommensurable identifications, is airbrushed into the fiction of a holistic single, seamless identity.

But, as Chaudhuri tells it, the story is more complex than that. Following Deleuze and Gramsci, we may think of the relation of major to minor, high and low, centre to periphery, in terms of hegemony or mastery. Chaudhuri shows how the transvaluation of minor to major can fall into Orientalist traps of their own, while giving insight into why Indian poetry in English seems formally conservative and overly Anglophilic to an American attuned to the radical modernists and the New American Poets, such as Antin, but ignorant of India. In ‘Nissim Ezekiel: Poet of a Minor Literature’, in The Origins of Dislike, he casts Ezekiel (1924-2004) as the iconic modern (post-Independence) Indian poet writing in English.14 English in India, as Chaudhuri stresses, is marked by being the colonial language among many local tongues but also, for Ezekiel, a cosmopolitan, rather than regional, language. Ezekiel’s first language was Marathi.

Ezekiel radiates double-consciousness, and in more than one way. He averts the role of the authentic storyteller who rejects European aesthetic innovation. He’s local but not just local and his work engages different kinds of locality and foreignness; Chaudhuri’s discussion of his work shows that such binaries are better understood as situational than as fixed, as conflicts within a poetics rather than points of policy. Ezekiel sets the stage ‘In India’ and in his Biblical diasporic poem, ‘Lamentation’:

. . . Here among the beggars,

Hawkers, pavement sleepers,

Hutment dwellers, slums . . .

Suffering the place and time,

I ride my elephant of thought,

A Cézanne slung around my neck.

(‘In India’)

My lips lack prophesy

My tongue speaketh no great matters

The words of the wise are wasted on me

Fugitive am I and far from home

A vagabond and every part of me is withered


In his ‘Very Indian Poems in English’ and ‘Goodbye Party for Miss Pushpa T.S.’ (below), Ezekiel perverts the nativist demands made on Henry Meredith Parker:


our dear sister

is departing for foreign

in two three days,


we are meeting today

to wish her bon voyage.

You are all knowing, friends,

what sweetness is in Miss Pushpa.

I don’t mean only external sweetness

but internal sweetness.16

In these ideolectical poems, Ezekiel averts mastery, turning the tables on both authentic storytelling and Orientalist condescension, while risking censure for making fun of (rather than with) very distinctively non-King’s-English pidgin. Or is Ezekiel, like William Carlos Williams on LSD, making present in poetry the languages of the ear, creating an Indian English as distinct as Williams’s American English.17

Chaudhuri writes about Ezekiel’s work not as the truth of the subaltern but as minor poetry aware of itself, that is, as minor and as accommodating; his characterisation of Ezekiel echoes ‘Prufrock’: ‘outwardly timorous, seemingly unconfrontational, and at once “politic, cautious, and obtuse”.’18

‘In this case of the minor poet writing in a minor tradition, there is no possibility of grand failure; there is only the inconsequentiality of decorum’, Chaudhuri says (p. 226), going on to quote an 1830 poem of Kashiprasad Ghosh, one of the first Indian poets to write in English:

To spin such verse out I’ll dare.

And please the public ear again

With such discordant, silly strain (p. 226)

Chaudhuri admires Ezekiel for his recognition of himself as a sometimes ‘comic player’ – ‘a poet-rascal-clown’, as Ezekiel describes himself, which Chaudhuri interprets as a poet who resists grandiosity with delight, and, I’d add, a welcome irony bordering on sarcasm. ‘The wise survive and serve’, writes Ezekiel in ‘Background, Casually’.19 ‘Here are the two aims of the minor writer and his tradition’, Chaudhuri comments, ‘to not challenge, to not ask for independence or mastery, and thereby to continue to be able to write, to produce, to “survive”’ (p. 234).

My morals had declined.

I heard of Yoga and of Zen.

Could I, perhaps, be rabbi saint?

The more I searched, the less I found.

(‘Background, Casually’)

What does it say that polar opposite poets, David Antin and Nissim Ezekiel are both Jewish (Ashkenazi and Bene Israel, respectively), born just seven years apart?

—‘Fugitive am I and far from home.’

I dreamed that

Fierce men had bound my feet and hands.

The later dreams were all of words.

I did not know that words betray

But let the poems come, and lost

That grip on things the worldly prize.


I have made my commitments now.

This is one: to stay where I am …

In some remote and backward place.

My backward place is where I am.

(‘Background, Casually’)



My obituary for David Antin was printed on the inside cover of the program for a memorial event at the Getty in Los Angeles on February 4, 2017. For my talk, I presented a commentary on my obituary, adding to it and contradicting it, based on notes I made during the first part of the program. I came to the event not knowing what I would say. Among the first speakers was Barbara T. Smith, who asked each of us to cut a lock of hair, which she collected. This reminded me of the Jewish ritual of cutting a piece of clothing at a funeral, usually ritualised as cutting a tie. So I ended my talk with a reading of ‘Rivulets of the Dead Jew’, which makes a reference to this ritual. I gave my annotated program to Jake Marmer, who immediately followed me.

Marmer told us how Antin had talked to him about poems his grandfather read to him in Russian: Marmer gave a stirring reading of one of those poems in Russian (without translation, none needed).

Non-plot elements of verbal art

rhythm / tempo




accent / timbre






audible elements of the recording device





pattern / tone / tune




non-sensuous similarity (Benjamin, ‘Doctrine of the Similar’)











visual organisation (line breaks, visual poetry)

context of publication



vocables in liberty

the word as such (not ideas but ‘actual word stuff’ [Williams])

the unconscious


the particular not subsumed into (reified as) story, voice, theory


The history of the novel is replete with works that avert the jargon of storytelling in the pursuit of narrative (in Antin’s sense). There is certainly no shortage of ‘story’ writers who welcome multiple, competing versions, holding storytelling to an aesthetic fire. Chaudhuri will find company with Samuel R. Delany’s Motion of Light in the Water, Lydia Davis’s End of the Story, Raymond Federman’s Take It or Leave It, Laura (Riding) Jackson’s Progress of Stories and The Telling, Peter Straub’s The Throat, Ko Un’s Ten Thousand Lives, Thomas McEvilley’s The Arimsaspia, and Paul Auster’s 4321To name only a very few paradigmatic examples..

Aversive Thinking

  • Avoid frame lock, trouble consistency.
  • Proliferate competing frames the way Hendrick’s Gin proliferates botanicals.
  • Being moody is the inability to shifts moods (to paraphrase Emerson).
  • Virtue is for those who have given up on life and want to share their disapproval.

ºª•£¢®¥´´∑∑¬˚. More Fool You that Are Puzzled by It.
In a January 2017 conversation with reporter Mary Louise Kelly and NPR’s senior vice president for news Michael Oreskes, NPR News made clear that its policy is not to use the word ‘lies’ when referring to blatant lying by Popular-Vote-Loser Trump and his aides. There has been much commentary on how the mediocracy contributed to the Trump election coup and this admission confirms that NPR is using a conscious strategy of doublespeak.21

NPR News’s white-washing language abets and aids the Republican Insurgent Forces (RIF, also known as RIP), who, for their part, go on smearing anyone who opposes them as ‘crooked’ and liars. This is a central tactic of Operation Birther, the disinformation campaign of the RIF, aimed at using the mediocracy to broadcast their lies. In the NPR broadcast, Kelly deceptively used the Oxford English Dictionary to say that to accuse a liar of lying you need to know that they are intending to deceive. In the end all of this is just NPR’s refusing to accept the obvious point that it mandates the use of euphemisms for ‘lie’ even in the face of clear and present dangers to our democracy. The bait and switch of using ‘intent’ as an excuse for euphemism is dishonest as well as misleading.

[Kelly] says she went to the OED seeking the definition of ‘lie’. ‘A false statement made with intent to deceive’, Kelly says. ‘Intent being the key word there. Without the ability to peer into Donald Trump’s head, I can’t tell you what his intent was. I can tell you what he said and how that squares, or doesn’t, with facts.’

This implies that NPR News believes that the President of the United States might be legally insane, someone who does not know the difference between truth and lying, a pathological liar; that he is delusional and may believe his own lies even though he has been repeatedly told that they are lies. This accusation is far more severe than calling the Groper-in- Chief out on his political modus operandi. If NPR News considers this plausible, they would need to say, ‘Trump might be lying or he might be delusional.’ Where is the psychiatric justification that allows NPR to make delusion a credible explanation for Trump’s mendacity?
Indeed, the quoted definition for the OED — noun1/1a — points out that falsehood and untruth is a euphemism for lie, not a different meaning. The quotes for this first definition of lie stop in the nineteenth century. But even these belie NPR’s claim:

1791 J. Boswell Life Johnson anno 1781 II. 354 Johnson had accustomed himself to use the word lie, to express a mistake or an errour in relation … though the relater did not mean to deceive.

1834 F. Marryat Peter Simple II. xv. 264 All lies disgrace a gentleman, white or black.

1879 J. A. Froude Cæsar xx. 339 It was perhaps a lie invented by political malignity. Nor does NPR News consider OED definition noun/1b: ‘Something grossly deceptive; an imposture.’ The OED traces this ‘transferred sense’ of the word back hundreds of years. If one considers OED verb2/1a, NPR’s prevaricating is brought sharp against itself: ‘To utter falsehood; to speak falsely.’ Boswell, again, is exemplary of the double sense: ‘He lies, and he knows he lies.’ (One can also say, he lies, but he does not know he lies.)

As if possessed by the ghost of logical positivist A.J. Ayer, NPR News believes that the price of objectivity is the aversion of truthfulness. Truth lies waiting, just over the bend; a lie’s a thing that never ends.

A short play for NPR News:
Child steps on chair to reach cookie jar. Takes cookies out of jar and sits at kitchen table.
Parental Unit walks in, stage left.

PU: I told you not to take the cookies.
C: I did not take any cookies.
PU: What is in your hands?
C: There is nothing in my hands.
PU: Don’t lie to me. I can see the cookies in your hand.
C: You are the liar … these are not cookies, they are berries.
PU: You are lying and you know it.
NPR report: PU incorrectly identifies the child’s statement as a lie since PU cannot truly know what is in the child’s mind. We recommend telling the child that PU has cause to question the child’s statement, which appears to be inaccurate.

‘He can walk fast enough when he tries, a good deal faster than I; but he can lie yet faster. He’s some white operator, betwisted and painted up for a decoy. He and his friends are all humbugs,’ as Melville put it in his iconic The Confidence Man: His Masquerade.

‘More fool you that are puzzled by it.’

††† After Thoreau and Goffman

There are nowadays many storytellers, but it is admirable to tell because it was once admirable to live.

…………… .

783. The Unreliable Lyric

Lyric S(h)ame

First shun
then say
by the
ones whose
punk puns
stung your
Shame game
is a
vain pain:
a sucker
plein air.

In Lyric Shame, Gillian White shames those who question the jargon of authenticity in lyric poetry. White claims that active skepticism toward Romantic Ideology is a form of shaming. White fights this phantom shame with her critical shaming.22

If story’s other is narrative, what is lyric’s other? Lyric is so generic that it’s difficult to find a term to contrast with it, unless one moves to another genre, typically epic. Even so, the hegemony of a single-voice, ‘scenic’ lyric, the Vampiric heart of Romantic Ideology, has been contested since Blake, Byron, Swinburne, Poe, Dickinson, and the slave songs, in the 19th century, and Stein, Loy, Williams, Pound, Eliot, Tolson, and Riding in the early 20th. The conventional lyric’s American other in the 1930s was the ‘objectivist’ poem, in the 1950s ‘Projective Verse’ and the ‘serial poem’. In the 1960s, Antin and Jerome Rothenberg suggested ‘deep image’ and Amiri Baraka and company, ‘Black Arts’. There was a time in the early 1980s that poets advocated against the scenic lyric with terms such as ‘analytic lyric’ or ‘transcendental lyric’. Ron Silliman’s ‘new sentence’ and Antin’s ‘talk poems’, as with ‘language-centred’, specifically presented themselves against the vanilla lyric.

Not voice, voices; not craft, process; not absorption, artifice; not virtue, irreverence; not figuration, abstraction; not the standard, dialect; not regional, cosmopolitan; not normal, the strange; not emotion, sensation; not expressive, conceptual; not story, narrative; not idealism, materialism.

For binary oppositions to intensify their aesthetic engagement, and not become self- parody, it helps if they fall apart, so that you question the difference, confuse one with the other, or understand the distinctions as situational, as six is up from five but down from infinity, diction so low its high, solipsism so radical it dissolves into pure realism.

Narrative and story are made of the same cloth, share a genre, might, paradoxically, be the same, the way a broke clock is right twice a day but always impecunious, but on a lonely night in Georgia the clock’s not right any time, because the morning refuses to come. For the longest time I thought signified was a crypt term for signified, but then I learned to tango to the music of the Pragmatics in the House of Lost Spades.

Or such is the confession of a high functioning fyslecic {dyslecic} {dusleci} [dyslexic]. There is no left or right just degrees of left and right in relation of other points in space. [Hey! Who are you calling a point in space!]

To be against binary oppositions is what it’s against. Dedualize, yes, in the sense of always dialecticize and historicize. Which is to say, don’t neutralise conflicts in pursuit of reconciliation: the rhetorical heightening of conflict is the sine qua non of an activist poetics.

It’s de rigueur for those poetry practices formally known as the avant-garde (PPFKAAG [Brit. /ˈpʌfkɔːg/, U.S. /ˈpəfˌkɔg/]) to be shamed for a lack of lyricism, emotion, humanity, even if those poetry practices reject the whole God-damn avant-garde schtick (as I have done).

Even those in the PPFKAAG hate it and there is nothing they hate more than other sectors of PPFKAAG or those whose work they most envy in their own sector.23

A tried and false path to transient official verse culture acceptance (TOVCA) is to attack the avant-garde for its lack of virtue (LoV) and total affect failure (TAF). Transient because it is unable to form a stable relationship.

Hatred of the avant-garde / opens doors / that slam / behind you.

But what do I know? I am just an unreliable lyric poet peddling tales, singing the same song all the day long.

And into the night.



Charles Blow, who has offered the best New York Times commentary on Trump, notes BLT’s sinister usurpation of the rage of black nationalism in the cause of white supremacism. He quotes a prescient 2015 comment by rapper Ja Rule:

Trump is very entertaining. He speaks very openly and candidly about what he feels. I think it’s a breath of fresh air for everybody to hear it. It’s not always the politically correct thing, but I think that’s what people are enjoying about Trump being in the running. … He has always been an outspoken person. I’m not shocked by anything that comes out of his mouth at all. He’s like a rapper.24

Trump is a master storyteller, shooting out plot elements via Twitter as if Tweets were bullets in a demonic machine gun. He distracts from his own distractions: sucker punch followed by sand in the eye, then iron boot to the balls.

There is no narrative transformation to Trump’s plot lines, but there is a continuing (and fraudulent) story of aggrieved authenticity, a frame that is reinforced with each Tweet. No one plays aggrievement better than Trump because he understands it as a stunt, a scam, a performance, a taunt – a confidence game. Trump goes out of his way to make his lies as blatant as possible, because his lies are the guarantors – the jargon – of his authenticity. The problem with Trump is not that he is ‘post-truth’ or ‘fake news’ but that, as a storyteller, he seems more real than his most frequent detractors, albeit this is a hyperreal siren’s song that is almost impossible to tune out. The storytelling is compelling, even for those who disdain it. As shipwrecks pile up on the rocky shores of the real, I remain hooked on the story feed, powerless as any junky lying on the side of the road.

If the story is believable the facts don’t matter. To be a truth teller has nothing to do with facts but with the perceived authenticity of the teller. The genuine, based on the fundamental truth of aggrievement, is the Trump card, his Dark ace in the hole.


«««««»»»». After Pound and for Shklovsky’s Plotless Prose
Never use any word that contributes to a plot.
Even the absence of narrative had to be narrated.


‘The disjointed and superfluous are what preoccupy Tagore at the end of the nineteenth century’, Chaudhuri explains. He quotes Tagore on the propensity to filter out what doesn’t fit from our stories, so that ‘only a small fraction’ of the ‘tremors’ and ‘comings and going’ of perception are acknowledged. ‘This is chiefly because one’s mind, like a fisherman, casts a net of integration and accepts only what it can gather at a single haul: everything else eludes it. [The mind] has the power to move all irrelevancies far away from the path of its set purpose.’25

The task of poetry is to bring the nets into view. A task anyway …

√∫˜µ≤≥÷≥÷. Eulogy for David Antin in English English

∆…÷≥≤µΩ≈√. Techniques of Erasure

‘Roseland’ is one of my earliest poems. It is the last poem in Parsing (1976). ‘Roseland’ samples phrases from Antin’s signal talk poem, ‘Sociology of Art.’ It is a collage poem that erases much of Antin’s talk poem, creating a network of motifs that extend and contest Antin’s active thinking and his resistance to erasure. The opening page of ‘Roseland’ is reproduced below (from Parsing), followed by a compilation of the phrases I took from Antin’s ‘Sociology of Art’.26 The phrases, highlighted in orange on the printed text of Antin’s ‘Sociology of Art’, were excerpted to compose ‘Roseland’. I used the excerpts mostly, but not entirely, in the order found in the Antin’s talk poem (for example the first two highlighted phrases occur in the middle of ‘Roseland’). I have hand corrected a few places where I miscopied the Antin’s original. All lines in ‘Roseland’ are taken directly from Antin’s talk poem.

the file above is just a part of one long jpg. full file;

⇑⇡⇡§&. The Last Time I Saw David was on December 4, 2014

Ellie and David were going to come to dinner the day after David’s Poetry Project talk, for which I had made a video that is on PennSound. In the Parish Hall at St. Mark’s, David laid himself bare, turning the talk poem onto his physical movement in the space, as he walked away from the podium to show us, as if he were Yvonne Rainer, the way his Parkinson’s debilitated his bearing. In the talk poem, almost David’s last, he pushed hard against the Parkinson’s diagnosis. His thought and his body were one and yet at odds with each other. Antin was making present an experiential dimension that defied intelligibly, being there, in that space, as fully present as any poet can be, standing alone before an audience. No, not alone. Next to us.

The following morning David called me. He spoke in a whisper.
He said he couldn’t come to dinner.
That he was no longer able to speak.
That he had lost his voice.


Charles Bernstein and David Antin. Photo © Alan Thomas. May 15, 2011.

1 The first version of this work was presented at the ‘Against Storytelling’ symposium on February 24, 2018. The symposium was organised by Amit Chaudhuri and held at the India International Centre in New Delhi, sponsored by Ashoka University and the University of East Anglia (UK). A sound recording of my talk, entitled ‘Against Storytelling / Before Time, for David Antin’ was published by Obieg (Warsaw) in Art & Literature: A Mongrel’s Guide edited by The Book Lovers (David Maroto and Joanna Zielińska) The recording concludes with a coda called Now Time – a sound version of the final section, made especially for this publication. Obieg also published the handwritten cards I used as my notes for the talk. In presenting the talk, I shuffled the cards to create a disjunct order, meant to interrogate Antin’s distrust of parataxis. At a memorial event for Antin at Artists Space on March 27, 2018, I presented another version of the talk, this time with PowerPoint slides randomly arranged, called ‘Up Against Storytelling’: and also archived at PennSound. Thanks to Peter Middleton, Marjorie Perloff, and Amit Chaudhuri, Susan Bee, and Julien Bismuth.

2 See, for example, Thomas Edsall’s summary, ‘Is President Trump a Stealth Postmodernist or Just a Liar?,’ New York Times, Jan. 25, 2018 Just to be contrary, I only italicise Times.

3 Posted at the ‘Against Storytelling’ website (2018): [the mission statement can be accessed here]. In his statement, and also in his talk at the conference, Chaudhuri debunks the claim that ‘storytelling’ is an essential feature of third world cultures, characterising this claim as a form of romantic primitivism, fostered by postcolonial politics, which makes a false opposition between authenticity and Enlightenment.

4 Duncan J. Watts and David M. Rothschild, ‘Don’t blame the election on fake news. Blame it on the media,’ Dec. 5 2017

5 See Jerome McGann’s discussion of ‘anti-narrative’ versus ‘non-narrative’ in his essay ‘Contemporary Poetry: Alternate Routes’, in Politics and Poetic Value, published as Critical Inquiry 13:3 (1987). McGann situates my work as anti-narrative, actively opposing the convention of narrative, in the tradition of Blake.

6 David Antin, Radical Coherency: Selected Essays on Art and Literature 1966 to 2005 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), p. 273.

7 Amit Chaudhuri, The Origins of Dislike (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018) p. 62.

8 Antin, ‘The Beggar and the King,’ in Radical Coherency. Initially published in Pacific Coast Philology, 30:2, 1995. I cite pp. 261-64, 266, and 270.

9 Antin, ‘The Price,’ in How Long Is the Present: Selected Talk Poems of David Antin, ed. Stephen Fredman (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2014). Antin first staked out the difference between story and narrative in this 1986 talk poem.

10 David Antin, ‘Sociology of Art,’ in Talking at the Boundaries Boundaries (New York: New Directions, 1976).

11 Nissim Ezekiel, ‘Hymns in Darkness: XII,’ in Collected Poems: 1952-1988 (Oxford University Press, 1989), p. 224. Stanza break between lines three and four elided.

12 Parker quoted in The Origins of Dislike, p. 238.

13 Thomas McEvilley, The Arimaspia (Kingston, NY: McPherson & Company, 2014), p. 228. Perhaps this is echoed still, albeit now valued as positive, in Yeats’s ecstatic 1912 introduction to Tagore: ‘The work of a supreme culture, they yet appear as grass and the rushes’; quoted in the introduction to Name Me a Word: Indian Writers Reflect on Writing, ed. Meena Alexander (New Haven Yale University Press, 2018), p. xx.

14 In A. Raghu, The Poetry of Nissim Ezekiel (New Delhi: Atlantic Publishers, 2002), Raghu calls Ezekiel ‘the cultural tzar of English poetry in India’ (p. 1). Raghu’s study begins by signalling troubling gender politics in Ezekiel’s poems and goes on to make an unconvincing case against Raj Rao’s critique of Ezekiel’s naturalising, not to say, primitivising woman in one of his best-known poems, ‘Poet, Lover, Birdwatcher’, which begins ‘To force the pace and never to be still / Is not the way of those who study birds / Or women. / The best poets wait for words’ (Raghu, pp. 40-14). In The Origins of Dislike, in his discussion of the minor poet’s affect, Chaudhuri cites this passage, emphasising the final line (p. 232).

15 Collected Poems, pp. 132 and 72.

16 Collected Poems, pp 191-92. See Irshad Gulam Ahmed, ‘Nissim Ezekiel’s Critical Nationalism and the Question of Indian English’ in Indian Literature 53:2 (2009).

17 I discuss ideolectical poetry in two linked essays, ‘The Poetics of the Americas’ in My Way: Speeches and Poems and ‘Objectivist Blues’ in Attack of the Difficult Poems. Ezekiel dedicates a 1953 poem to Williams: ‘I do not want / to write / poetry like yours / but still I / love / the way you do it’ (Collected, p. 46). Williams, of course, also had an ‘other’ language, also a colonial one, Spanish.

18 The Origins of Dislike, p. 228. The internal quote is from T. S. Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.’

19 ‘Background, Casually’ in Name Me a Word, pp. 123-24.

20 From Amit Chaudhuri’s new ‘Indian Road Signs’ series, included in the catalogue to The Sweet Shop Owners of Calcutta and other ideas, an exhibition created and curated by him at the Harrington Street Arts Centre, Kolkata in August 2018.

21 Richard Gonzales, ‘NPR And the Word ‘Liar’: Intent Is Key,’ Jan. 25, 2017 way/2017/01/25/511503605/npr-and-the-l-word-intent-is-key

22 Lyric Shame was published by Harvard University Press in 2014. Lytle Shaw takes the book on in ‘Framing the Lyric’ in American Literary History History 28:2 (2016). My poem first appeared in b2o, April 20, 2017.

23 See my study Avant-Garde Self-Hatred (Brooklyn Free State: Hungadunga, Hungadunga, Hungadunga, and McCormack, 2018).

24 Charles Blow, ‘Trump, “He’s Like a Rapper,”’ the New York Times, July 23, 2018, p. A19. Paul Krugman’s commentary is also exemplary

25 ‘Unconstitutional Spaces,’ in The Origins of Dislike, , p. 200-201. The Tagore passage is significant for Chaudhuri as he also cites it in the introduction to Clearing a Space: Reflections on India, Literature and Culture (Oxford, UK: Peter Lange, 2008), p. 26

26 ‘Roseland’ was first published in Parsing Parsing (New York: Asylum’s Press, 1976. A full mark-up ‘Sociology of Art’, together with ‘Roseland’, is online at Antin’s talk poem was included in his 1976 collection Talking at the Boundaries and collected in How Long Is the Present.

Charles Bernstein’s most recent books are Topsy/Turvy and Pitch of Poetry. In 2018, he was awarded the Bollingen Prize for Poetry. He lives in Brooklyn.