A Self-Help Guide in Bernstein’s “Self-Help”

“Self-Help” by Charles Bernstein is an emotional whirlwind on each line. It reads to me as, “oh my gosh disaster!” Then, “oh, well, it’s actually not so bad”. Bernstein has created a poem that personifies people we all know and can be read many ways. We can read this poem as two friends in conversation with each other. A person experiences a potentially devastating event and talks to a friend who can find the greener grass in every situation. This poem can also reflect a person who has an astounding resolve. A person can process despair and take it in the chin to keep pushing. This poem is also a guidebook with advice on how to change your perspective on a dime. In the end, Bernstein basically has all the answers to life’s major setbacks in one poem.

Bernstein uses very informal language in “Self-Help”. There is no sentence structure. The lines are clipped, but his messages are precise and right to the point. There is punctuation, but the lines of the poem are not complete sentences. They are not complete, but Bernstein can convey his point with just enough words. Bernstein writes, “Marriage on rocks.-Nothing like Coke” (line 4). In this line, like many others, he is using simple direct language and you understand the deepest meaning of his statement. The marriage is not doing well and there is nothing happy about it. Coke is a sweet, thirst-quenching beverage that can make anyone happy, especially served cold over ice. Clearly, this marriage is cold as ice, but not as delicious as a serving of Coke.

“Self-Help” shows conflicting moods, both the light side and the dark side of life’s perspectives. Bernstein writes the darkness on the left and the light on the right side of his poem. The left reflects very real, everyday scenarios people experience. This makes the poem relatable. More than likely, every reader can find a scenario mentioned in this poem they have experienced. Bernstein says, “Severe stomach cramps all morning.-Boy are these back issues of Field and Stream engrossing” (line 19). This very common function of the body has distressed many people, otherwise, there wouldn’t be so many medications for it… He uses an incredibly embarrassing bodily function and finds some humor in it.

This poem is very personal with absolute opposite and grand scale optimism that is decided with every obstacle in the road. No matter what, the persona on the right will find the sun parting through the clouds. Bernstein says, “Hard drive crashes and novel not backed up.-Nothing like a fresh start” (line 18). Personally, I would be incredibly devastated, as this is one of my biggest fears. But, let Bernstein tell it, just start fresh! Everything will be okay! He also writes, “Hurricane crushes house.-You never seemed so resilient” (line 20). This is a moment that can challenge anyone’s resolve. Proving yourself resilient is a testament to your ability to stay encouraged in the face of adversity. He also writes, “Missed last episode of favorite murder mystery because you misprogrammed VCR.—Write your own ending!” (line 23). First of all, yeah right. If I still had a VCR and I missed my show (because ‘back in the day’ if you missed the showtime, you just missed it) I think I might shed a single tear. Bernstein describes it as a murder mystery. We must find out whodunnit! I guess we’ll have to read tomorrow’s newspaper… But this is a key element to “Self-Help”. No matter what, there is a silver lining.

In “Self-Help”, the despair, no matter the gravity, will not overtake this person. Bernstein uses this poem to address the state of mind of people. It personifies a conversation you can have with yourself when challenges arise. Someone can genuinely use it as a self-help manual if you need to see the light at the end of your dark tunnel. He expresses it with conflicting moods of despair and effervescence. This question and response poem meets problems with enthusiasm. For example, a comatose brother-in-law looks relaxed. You can eat a great pizza while your car gets fixed. If the FBI watches what you get from the library, just order from Amazon. There is always a brighter side with this poem and Bernstein has developed attainable solutions to everyday thoughts and concerns.

Bernstein ends his poem with, “Self-Help.-Other drowns” (line 40). It is a declarative statement. You have a choice with your perspective. You can lie in the misery, or you can move along to more optimistic thoughts. Help yourself to more positive reflections of your situation. Otherwise, you will drown in the darkness.





One Response to A Self-Help Guide in Bernstein’s “Self-Help”

  1. Prof VZ October 12, 2022 at 7:18 pm #

    This is a fascinating poem, indeed. You seem to read this poem as a sort of re-packaging of the self-help genre, pushing its themes to absurd lengths, but remaining confident in the “silver lining” message. But given how ironic and sardonic and slippery Bernstein can be, what else is going on here? The most authentic line seems to be the last: self help–other drown. What’s the message there? And how does it reflect the varieties of self-help logic cycled throughout? In a poem so neatly divided into dyads around that central em dash, one wants to sense the variation in each, the critical potential in each. Let’s linger on this one a bit longer…

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