“A word:” An Imitation of Charles Bernstein’s “This Line”

“A word”


This word means something. 

It is a word that tells, 

tries, describes, can capsize.

It is a word; it is 

singular. It has no relations. 

It has no contenders.

It is a word, plentiful, rife with 

superstitions about itself.

It takes up as much 

space as its letters can 

ward. Word is that it 

holds hostage or claims to, 

an archaic entomology, 

a pitter-patter on its curving 

arches; a steady drow.

It is a word. Word. It is

grammatically unbound.

It is on the offensive, going

doorbell to doorbell robbing

minds of their elasticity, better not 

believe the word is more 

than a word that must 

have a talking to.

For it is but a word.


I have been awaiting this week’s school, the Language Writers. Perhaps it is because of their expanded inclusivity – writers, not just poets— that I find myself more attracted to them. Or, more likely, I find myself enjoying the deconstruction of language, the, as Hejinian mentions in Simon Perril’s article, discovery of “structure, distinction, the integrity and separateness of things” (Perril, 222). I also feel myself pulled toward this idea of refusing to make work transparently refer to the world outside the poem. These poems seem to exist as small cosmos and we, the reader, are asked to stay inside them.

Charles Bernstein

I choose to imitate the poem “This Line,” by Charles Bernstein because of how non-referential the poem is, how fully bound to the world of language it is. What caught my attention in Simon Perril’s article, “Language Poetry,” is what Charles Bernstein said about reading a text, about not seeing a written text solely for the images/pictures that arise in your head as your reading, but for the language too, and that, in reading, one should be aware of the language and how it works. The entire poem of, “This Line,” resists meaning. It focuses on the language of “this line,” in its relation to the poetic verse of the line itself, and then, too, to its relation to the poem. Perhaps, in my imitation, I added a bit more referential material than the Language Writers would have been ok with. But isn’t the deconstruction of language, and a hyper-fixation of this deconstruction —I am imagining here, and, for the sake of free association (though free association is not what the language poets are about), will write down the intrusive image: I am imagining a biologist dissecting a fresh corpse, a suitable image for October— part of language poetics? Or perhaps my word play (oh, not this again!) is too transparent, too self-referential. (Too on the nose?) Or perhaps this is all a part of language poetry’s agenda. Part of this agenda, as I understood in Perril’s article, is the focus on language and form as a means in itself, not, as Olson claims, an extension of content.

In my imitation I felt the need to claim meaning. Bernstein’s poem, “This Line,” tells the reader that there is no meaning in “this line,” and yet each time I read it I felt myself resisting that claim. By claiming no meaning, by referencing the meaningless state of an abstract concept, the poem forms its own meaning. “The Line,” doesn’t refuse “reality,” it is reality, especially within the reality of its own structure. Though I’m sure this is all a part of Bernstein’s intention, I still felt the need to respond with a more on the nose version, starting the poem with, “this word means something.” 

Who is right? Olson or the language poets? Are they both right? Can we study poetics through the lens of both schools and come to separate conclusions about what a poem does through its use of language? I personally would like to see scholarly criticism of Hejinian’s work through the critical lens of Olson’s projectivism in “Projective Verse.”

One Response to “A word:” An Imitation of Charles Bernstein’s “This Line”

  1. Prof VZ October 12, 2022 at 8:39 pm #

    I love the punniness here (capsize!) and the humor of your imitation. I couldn’t help but hear the pop-cultural use of “word” alongside the biblical resonance of The Word. The word is a great subject here as it embodies the ultimate emblem of parataxis (it has no connection on its own) and integrity (the dream that singular words have singular references) even as every word, already, resonates through what Hejinian calls the verticality and horizontality of associations. Also, Bernstein was committed to reference, and resisted efforts by some language poets to be anti- or post-referential. He was most comfortable playing with reference, teasing us with it. Thanks for sharing your work!

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