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Penn professor wins one of literature’s most prestigious prizes

Winning the prize, which carries a $165,000 cash award, is "disorienting in a happy way," he said.

Charles Bernstein, a professor and poet at Penn, has won the prestigious 2019 Bollingen Prize.
Charles Bernstein, a professor and poet at Penn, has won the prestigious 2019 Bollingen Prize.Read moreCourtesy of the University of Pennsylvania

Charles Bernstein of the University of Pennsylvania has won the 2019 Bollingen Prize, one of the most prestigious awards in American literature.

“It’s very disorienting in a happy way," Bernstein said Wednesday, following Tuesday’s announcement. "I’m delighted at the response on social media and in emails. I’m trying to adjust to that.”

Established in 1948 and awarded every two years, the Bollingen Prize is administered by the Yale Collection of American Literature at Yale University’s Beinecke Library and brings a cash award of $165,000.

The prize recognizes either the best poetry book of the previous two years or a poet’s lifetime achievement. Bernstein’s award is something of both.

In a statement, the judging panel of three prominent poets — Ange Mlinko, Claudia Rankine, and Evie Shockley — praised his 2018 book, Near/Miss, and wrote that Bernstein “has shaped and questioned, defined and dismantled ideas and assumptions in order to reveal poetry’s widest and most profound capabilities.”

New York born and Harvard educated, Bernstein, 68, has been publishing books of poems since 1975. From 1978 to 1981, he and Bruce Andrews edited L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, a literary journal often credited for helping begin the era of “language poetry.”

That term means many different things, many of them controversial. It is often associated with radical experiment, breaking old rules and forms and creating new ones. A very wide variety of very different poets, from satirists and political poets to rappers, have been called language poets.

Bernstein taught at the University at Buffalo from 1989 to 2003, when he came to Penn, where he is now the Donald T. Regan Professor of English and Comparative Literature. The Bollingen joins many other honors on his resumé, including a Guggenheim fellowship and a National Endowment for the Arts creative writing fellowship.

He has also won awards for his teaching, which, like his poetry, has featured a taste for experiment and technical innovation.

One student, Daniel Finkle, Class of 2020, said by email that Bernstein “encourages students to approach poems as living organisms: fluid, interactive, and filled with urgency. Studying with him opens the door to becoming funnier, more thoughtful, more curious, and above all more receptive to poetry in all its profound, immaculate weirdness.”

In 2005, with Penn colleague Al Filreis, Bernstein founded PennSound, a free online poetry archive, now with more than 1,500 recordings. (Full disclosure: They include a few by this writer.) PennSound is also a 24/7 streaming radio poetry show and a podcast.

“Charles is incessantly innovative and enormously generous,” Filreis said by email. “His is the most effective combination of biting wit and solicitous caring of any poet I know.”

Bernstein’s poetry is questioning, elusive, and witty. A line from his poem “Recalculating,” from the 2013 book of that name, reads, “It’s what I’d like to undo that keeps me up at night.”

He says the point of poetry is to orient ourselves to a world that is constantly changing — but not because it helps us keep our balance. “It a way to move on without one’s balance," he said, "to find new kinds of balance.”

To illustrate, he quoted a passage from “Me and My Pharaoh …” from Near/Miss:

“Poetry has / no purpose / & / that is not / its /pur- /pose.”

It’s the kind of self-unwinding statement for which his work is known.

Bernstein joins a heady company of Pennsylvania-linked poets awarded Bollingen Prizes.

Ezra Pound, a Penn M.A., won the first Bollingen in 1949. Reading-born Wallace Stevens won in 1950, Bryn Mawr graduate Marianne Moore in 1952, and Theodore Roethke, who taught at Lafayette College and Penn State, won in 1959.