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Scottish Poems, Bernstein RSS
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Posted by Dr Lee Christine O’Brien on Jan 31, 2011 03:24PM

Marion Bernstein’s poems are of particular interest because they come out of the energized and vivid print culture of nineteenth-century regional weekly newspapers, which routinely made space available for poetry and put the short lyric poem at the service of often acrimonious and divisive contemporary debates. These poems raise fascinating questions of agency, and the nature of political authority and voice. The introduction to the collection itself, with its acknowledgement of Marion Bernstein’s presence in a number of print anthologies of Scottish verse, brings into focus the extent to which categorization (regional and gender subdivisions, for example) can give cultural and pedagogical space to some poets and poems, but also make difficult their inclusion in survey and foundational literature courses based on readily available, general print anthologies. Having such well-annotated and contextualized on-line selections of poems of the kind that A Scottish Dozen represents makes a much fuller range of poets teachable and accessible at the undergraduate and graduate level. At the same time, and more crucially, it enriches critical and cultural accounts of what nineteenth-century poetry is, and the kinds of rhetorical effects it can achieve.

These poems, and the account given of their cultural context, represent new perspectives on lyric production in the nineteenth century. The editor of the Glasgow Weekly Mail, Linda Fleming and Edward Cohen point out, often engaged in a dialogue with the poetry he printed, as well as that which he rejected, a cultural exchange of a type not readily available elsewhere and that serves to further decrease the distance between the lyric and the language of ordinary debate and critical engagement. Also, as Fleming and Cohen indicate, the type of readership of the poetry can be identified and, to an extent, defined, by the kinds of advertisements surrounding the verse, giving a sense of both a marketplace and a particular type of urban space that is not available for poetry in the more culturally distanced confines of the individual volume. The circulation of 150,000 copies per issue for the Weekly Mail -- which points to a minimum readership, given that one newspaper may be read by many pairs of eyes -- indicates a level of readership for the poetry the paper carried that dwarfs most individual volume sales, even of major poets. Poetry published in newspapers was probably the most widely read in the nineteenth century. People who wanted their hair restored, their blood purified, their windows covered with venetian blinds, who wanted to employ dyers, painters, boat builders, for example, wanted to read poetry, and, if Bernstein is any indication, appreciated poetic political discourse which drew on the emotive, expressive language the lyric can take for granted, and powerfully exploits.

 ‘The Govan Rivetters’ Strike”, for example is passionately anti-union and anti-strike. Bernstein is adept at mobilizing hostile, passionate language. The strikers play a spoiler’s game which puts the interests of a small group of workers above the rest. The poem turns on the idea of servitude. Workers must choose between competing masters: employers and trades-unions. The poem’s stance is uncompromisingly conservative, even reactionary, and its radicalism may be said to reside in the dialogue it sets going by its assertive insistence of the right of a woman poet to dictate how men should behave in the public sphere of work. Fleming and Cohen point out that the editor of the Mail felt compelled to distance himself from the stance the poem takes, allowing the lyric as polemic to complicate the political stance of the newspaper, a debate that spills over into another poem in response to Bernstein’s, and her further poetic response.

One of the most powerful poems in this selection is ‘The Pointsman: An Everyday Story,” in which a man is forced to work, directing trains, long past the point of exhaustion, finally succumbing to the dream shapes that flit before him, his lapse causing a train crash. The sensibility here is quite different from that of ‘The Govan Rivetters’ Strike”. A clear sympathy is evident for the individual at the mercy of a “system,” as well as controlled outrage against working conditions that Bernstein sees, in the most powerful line of the poem, as driven by a community sanctioned selfishness and foolishness that operate through “want”, “the poor man’s master”. Bernstein’s sense of hunger as an active scourge forms the political and imaginary basis of many of her poems. She calls it the “three-fold galling chain” in her poem “Robert Burns”: “want and debt and dependence.” She builds on a maternal sense of nurturance, thus locating her calls for political action inside a conventional and normative femininity. It is this aspect of her work that affords the clearest sense of a fugitive radicalism, one working within rather than against stereotypes, at least as a starting-off point for engagement.

The rhythms, register and simple but powerful rhyme schemes of the ballad mark Bernstein’s work, and one of the pleasures of encountering her poetry is building comparisons with other late nineteenth-century women poets. Rosamund Marriott Watson, for example, was profoundly influenced by Sir Walter Scott, and constructed a mode of subtly politicized discourse using a similar literary/historical base to Bernstein but inflected by a culture of aestheticism, and even more thoroughly influenced by the resources of the ballad. In vivid and telling contrast, Bernstein’s poetry is thoroughly enmeshed in precise and pressing historical events. Her poetry is so effective because it is grounded in the constructed and reflected historical present of Glasgow newspapers and Glasgow life. The ways in which women, the politically disenfranchised gender, were yet actively politically engaged through their poetry still remains to be fully explored, defined and articulated.

This selection of poems represents an invaluable resource that allows fine and detailed comparison between the work of women poets of the kind that has not been possible in the past. Poets such as Marion Bernstein were part of a complex and disruptive exchange that transformed the ways men and women functioned within their communities, and within their cultural, literary heritage.

Dr Lee Christine O’Brien
Department of English
Macquarie University
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