Award Ceremony Laudation for Charles Bernstein Janus Pannonius Grand Prize for Poetry, 2015
Presentation Speech given by Enikő Bollobás
Member of the International Jury
Janus Pannonius Grand Prize for Poetry Foundation
Pécs, Hungary
August 29, 2015
Esteemed Laureates, Mr. Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen,
Charles Bernstein’s is a poetry of attention, a poetry attentive to language, a language poetry. Bernstein has been writing, for the past forty plus years, in the intellectual field of force marked by philosophers and poets with radical thoughts about language. During this time he published over forty volumes of poems and essays. In an uncompromising way, he demonstrates that language is not a transparent medium of self-expression and communication. Nor is it possible to engage with the world without engaging with language itself. He has found ways of foregrounding language as material, something to be perceived by the senses: visible, audible, tangible, with words that can be smelt and tasted even, as Whitman suggested in An American Primer.

He is a true artistic provocateur, writing innovative-experimental poetry with serene determination. For Bernstein innovation, an “aesthetic necessity,” is what constitutes tradition, while it is also the only valid response to it. In his innovative language poetry, Bernstein allows language itself to take control over the creative process and develops radical poetic techniques, among them, the creation of new words, agrammatical structures, ellipses and visible traces of ellipses, the dismemberment of words into sounds and letters, sound mutations, syntactic doubling, and what he calls “imploded sentences.”

Bernstein’s poetry is of wide embrace, rich in boundary crossings of all kinds. He invites his readers in his philosophical poems to participate in the creative process he calls “wreading.” Using quotations, near-quotations, textual residues, resonances, and ekphrases, he zigzags between his own texts and those of others. This self-reflexivity and intertextuality is perhaps his most pervasive method; indeed, we can hardly find a single poem where other texts, fragments, or bons mots, whether from literary texts, business leaflets, advertizing materials, are not referred to, cited, echoed, or parodically reclaimed. This discursive polyphony will serve as the source of Bernstein’s distinctive humor.

A poet attentive to the processes of consciousness, he captures special states of mind with precision especially in his recent lyrical-elegiac pieces. Not allowing the traditional “lyric self” to take over his poetic topography, he concentrates on the state of mind itself. This is a Dickinsonian legacy in his poetry: for much like the 19th century anatomist of pain, Bernstein also distances his jubilant or suffering self from joy or pain, tracing instead the sources, objects, and processes.

In his death poetry he suggests, together with Dickinson again, that in order to accept death one must first accept darkness, and in order to know death one must also know darkness. But knowing darkness can only stem from not knowing, and the acceptance of not knowing. He captures this not knowing in a particular language: a language of linguistic darkness, pregnant with his distinctive dysraphisms and imploded sentences. For only in this language is it possible for him to reach out into the unknown, the great unknown of the physical and metaphysical alike.

Dear Charles Bernstein, your poems are always unexpected, radical, provocative, complex, dexterous, and contemporary. Some are hilarious, uncovering all that is absurd, or at least clumsy, in life; others are disturbing and moving, penetrating deeply in our human core. You have taught your readers to value innovation above all, to tolerate disorder (nay, chaos too), and to bless even our darkest moments. You have challenged us to think in new ways about poetry and the world.

Please step forward to receive the 2015 Janus Pannonius Grand Prize for Poetry from the Chairman of the Janus Pannonius Grand Prize for Poetry Foundation, Géza Szőcs.

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