From One Side


an      outline
a person               a face

to represent        in outline

from one side
to be defined       in outline

against a background

I found Bernstein’s method of poetry profiling overwhelming; it is “limitless” in a way that actually can be restrictive. We can add and add terms to his list until we end up reducing the work to our own personal dictionaries. I wonder if I would have seen it this way if the word had not been “profile” or if I had not thought of how there is something off and restrictive about that word. Lately I’ve been interested in how the definition/history/sound of a word affects it in practice; how we can use definitions to understand how the body is systematically, but mostly physically/mentally defined/confined. So before reading the instructions for the profile, I pulled phrases and synonyms from a few definitions of “profile” and came away with the poem above.

from one side
to be defined

Bernstein uses a list for his poetry profile. This list is quite expectant of the poem/the poet and our reading of each. It posits that there are some (many) characteristics or features of a poem. Are these necessities? I know he’s not saying each poem has to be understood under each and every one of these terms, but a list—


barriers        enclosing

below            the other

enlist    for



It’s definitely important to frame work (especially “difficult” work) or else we’d have no access point–no lens through which to approach it. However, most of Bernstein’s list is related to technique. His 1-10 numbering system is odd; it’s scoring for effectiveness. What does effectiveness say about subjectivity? While we all end up with different ratings independent of each other, we have been made to understand numbers as absolute.

Another question about Bernstein’s list is whether it puts “difficult” poetry into categories that these poets are often trying to escape from. When I read poetry, I’ve thought of the process more as collecting. Rather than profile or outline—seeking out preconceived categories/definitions/terms—collecting is more of a collaborative process. It’s accessing a collective consciousness—being in the act of taking and giving simultaneously. We can collect words and note omissions and pay attention to the feelings that are lived within us personally while at the same time examining the text for what the poet has made an effort to convey.

Collecting individual words or lines of interest and looking at them together–even while temporarily ignoring the rest of the poem—often yields a type of understanding that I would not get looking at the whole. Collecting is an act of separating–of parsing through. Bernstein’s profiling feels like an intrusion on the poet and the page—tracking exactly where religion, gender, anger, pain crop up when the religion could be the existence of the poem, the gender could be an absence, the pain could be the poem itself.

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4 Responses to From One Side

  1. Erica Mena says:

    Yes yes yes – this had me cheering. I agree entirely that the “profiling” method has a lot of assumptions and expectations tied up within it and I’m so glad that you were able to identify exactly what made you respond it that way. Ranking and rating as a kind of reduction – exactly. A poem cannot really be reduced, so what are we reducing when we enumerate and rank our response? I think we’re reducing our own possibility of co-inhabiting the space of the poem.

    I love the idea of collecting. I do this already as part of my reading practice (on Tumblr, actually) collecting phrases, words, ideas, responses, associations, etc. as I’m reading. That we build a world of responses around a poem, from the place where the poem and the reader intersect. And that place can (and should!) change as the reader does.


  2. akerslw says:

    Shayla!! I had a very similar reaction to the poem profile. I found myself getting weirdly and emotionally defensive/ protective of the poems. How can I rate a love poem on a scale of Radicality? How can I rate an account of suffering on a scale of Originality? It just didn’t seem like my call at all. I really like the way you think about the word “profile” as reductive in and of itself. What are we missing when we only view something in profile? What exciting, revelatory, terrible things could be hidden on the other side?
    I also think “intrusion” is a really apt word to talk about the kind of violence I felt my profiling (a super loaded term in and of itself!!) was doing to the poem. I felt like I was trying to impose, not even my own, but somebody else’s order onto another human being’s creative expression. Even as I type this, the language I find myself using becomes more and more evocative of the kind of real world manifestation of “profiling” that plagues POC in almost every aspect of public life. No matter how fully you try to flesh out a poem–or a person, if you are doing it strictly according to your terms, your value judgements, and your measure of value, you will still miss a whole lot.

    See you in class!! 🙂


  3. stefaniahgomez says:

    I also struggled with Bernstein’s “profiler” methods. I used it to analyze a Harryette Mullen fragment and found it difficult to assign numerical values to how much the poem did or did not fit in particular categories. For example, how can I rate how “political” the poem is? From the perspective that considers the content of the poem to be various pork puns, the “rating” is 0. From the perspective that the piece is about the commodity of Blackness in US Empire, the rating is 10. Or, like, 1,000. If the poem is “about” the latter “subject,” what is its rating of Angriness? “Ethnic/Racial”-ness? of Coolness? Its Neatness?
    Further, I felt the system was specifically suited towards a particular type of poem– one that could give clear ratings for how “Courageous,” “Wacky,” or “Dreamy” the piece is. What kind of vocabulary does the system consider to be “unusual,” I found myself asking. What does it mean for a poem to be “tasteful” or “intelligent”? To portray a “persona”?
    Finally, in clearly interpellating a poem that didn’t cause these fissures, does Bernstein’s profiler thus reproduce such a poem, or even the conditions under which such poem is considered a poem, and other poems are not?


  4. Pingback: Class Notes Thurs 10/13 | Experimental Poets of Color

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