On Charles Bernstein’s Poem “12^2”

PythagorasRecently, one of my students expressed an interest in writing poems that had a certain number of words per line. I said that was cool, and then I suggested he write poems that had a certain number of syllables per line instead. Since he has math knowledge, I also suggested some forms he could use, such 3 syllables for the first line, 1 for the second, 4 for the third, 1 for the fourth, 5 for the fifth, etc. and following Pi out as long as he could. I think I might have also suggested using prime numbers as syllables: 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, and 13, and then coming backwards. I also suggested that he try writing lines that only have four stressed syllables per line or three stressed per line or whatever number. Then I remembered Charles Bernstein’s poem “122”. Unfortunately, for the first time in about thirty years I blanked on the term “Pythagorean triple,” which is what Bernstein’s poem is built on. I also remembered something I wrote about it about ten years ago. I wrote it mainly for me, but I did send it to the original journal, Slope, who published the poem. They quickly replied that they didn’t want it because they thought it was a conflict of interest or something weird like that. I scratched my head. And kept the essay tucked away until today, when I remembered I had it. I sent it to the student, too. Maybe he will like. Maybe not. But maybe you will. So here it is. The poem first and then my comments.


   the swollen flotsam
   lies face down


   incident catches
   stolen cues
   when faces drift


   encroachment of care
   muffling shame
   hardened moment


   like flies in summer
   switching tenses
   touched absence


   totally wasted
   in shadows


   uncertain future


   neither this nor that
   bombs away
   total fright


   even if it
   will also pass


   my elbow against your
   burns like wax


   endlessly fog


   counting now to five
   next to three
   then up till four


   going back to form
   a promise
   always broken

The Best American Poetry 2002“122,” as it appears in The Best American Poetry 2002 (shown above), is a poem in a form that is new to this reader. On first reading, it appeared to be something like haiku – tight and minimal. On second reading, I realized the significance of the title through a question: Is the title to let us know how many syllables are in the poem? Yes, 144. I also noticed another aspect of this poem’s shape and how it is born out of squares. It is born from a Pythagorean triple like a2+b2= c2  or, more specifically, 52=32+42 (the simplest and most recognizable triplet), and for this poem, the form is based on that numeric substitution: the first line of each stanza has 5 syllables, the second line has 3 syllables, and the third line has 4 syllables. This bears weight upon stanza 11, which seems to be telling the reader the form of the stanzas: “counting now to five / next to three / then up till four.” (Please note, there is no punctuation in this poem.) This is a poem of counting, this stanza implies, as one may expect with the “mathy” title and the “mathy” form.

As a result of this stanza form, each stanza should have 12 syllables, and as there are 12 stanzas, there should be 144 syllables in the entire poem, 122=144. However, as I counted the syllables, I kept tallying 145 syllables. In fact, there are 2 stanzas with 13 syllables (stanzas 5 and 8) and one with 11 syllables (stanza 7), which explains the accounting discrepancy. But why would the poem deliberately do this? It seems a fairly easy fix to get one of those stanzas to 12 syllables (if not all stanzas), but obviously there must be a point. I think it is best explained in stanza 12: “going back to form / a promise / always broken.” The poem lets the reader know it was done intentionally. It almost has an underlying suggestion that formed poems are promises and that they can’t be fulfilled, perhaps because of their difficulty; or formed poems are quite often almost close to being true to form, but they often don’t arrive in order to gain or create meaning. There will be more on this.

The poem also breaks the form in other ways in this stanza. But before I illustrate that, I believe there is another aspect to this form – no superfluous adjectives or adverbs (which is just a good rule in general). How many sonnets can we think of where there is an extra adjective or unnecessary adverb or an article? This poem’s form or rules seem to not want to have articles either. Just as some poets use an “a” or “the” or “and” to get an unstressed syllable, despite the fact that an “a” or “the” or “and” is not necessary, the same is true to this form and it can cause a loosening of the form. By eliminating articles, the poet must work closer with the language. That is, if the poet is to avoid an artificial “articleless” quality to the poem or the language. The poet must reinvent perceptions and ways of presentation. In addition, articlelessness keeps a lazy mathematician from just adding these small filler syllables to get from 11 syllables to 12. I believe the same can be said of “to be” verbs in this poem. There aren’t any.

However, back to form breaking, there is one article, “a”, and it appears in the broken promise stanza, but what does the poem gain by doing this? The form has already been broken 3 times (see above) and this is the fourth and as result turns into the fifth break, for it is the “a” that is the extra syllable. Without it, the “a”, the poem keeps true, at least on this point, to the form and the math: 122=144. So as a result, he destroys the biggest promise with the smallest syllable. As a result, he makes a certain theory of math come true. That is, some theoretical mathematicians have posed and shown that 2+2 doesn’t always equal 4 in certain constructs, and here is an example by extension. Further by doing this, the poem rids the algebraic approach to reading poems. I will expand.

For much of the 20th century, we were taught to read poems in a manner similar to solving an algebra equation. (This image represents that philosophical notion, the path less traveled is a metaphor/equivalent for life – or as a mathematician might say: a plug-and-chug equation for life –, etc.) What this poem does, then, is to invite that type of thinking, string that type of reader along, and then smash the reader over the head with the faulty math equation. The reader is then confronted with the poem as a poem, and the reader experiences each stanza. For really, each stanza is a place to meditate or laugh. Each stanza is a moment in time.

As for the lines that separate or isolate the stanzas, I refer to McCaffery: “Wilhelm Reich was to declare form to be frozen energy, opening a path to a new conception of form as the aggregate of departure not arrivals, the notion of the de-form as a thawing of the constrict, a strategy of release, of flow” (88). Thus, what we get with the separator lines is frozen energy, or potential energy. That is, each stanza has a form, the 5-3-4 syllabic form, and as the poem proceeds to the end it becomes an aggregate of potential energy, like a rock on the precipice of a cliff. When the poem reaches its end, the potential energy become kinetic (the rock falls of the cliff) and kinetic is released because the overall form/form has been destroyed. There is an energy departure with the 145th syllable. All energy is converted. The poem becomes ecstatic instead of enstatic. The lack of a separator line at the poem’s end also suggests and reinforces this idea of departure. The poem becomes liberated at the end. The reader, thus, arrives and departs. (A doubling of energy?—Potential energy becomes kinetic.)

This poem then presents a new form and breaks it a number of times. By breaking it, however, it does not create new meanings other than how to approach a form poem, or a poem in general. The poem teaches the reader how to read the poem. The form is the medium to carry the language or present language, images, and ideas, and to read meaning into the form is somewhat superficial at this point in poetry’s history, where each form has already been manhandled in numerous ways. Here, Charles Bernstein’s poem “122” is just ecstatic.

Works Cited

Bernstein, Charles. “122”. The Best American Poetry 2002. Eds. Robert Creeley and David Lehman. New York: Scribner Poetry, 2002. (7-9).

McCaffery, Steve. “Sound Poetry.” The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book. Eds. Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein. Carbondale, Ill: Southern Illinois U P, 1984. (88-91).

On another level, however, the poem is teaching the reader how to read the poem. It is a bit paradoxical. Each stanza is to be its own meditation but accumulating to overall effect. That is the poem wants to read as exploration of its own form – be aware of the syllables, count them, note their structure – but don’t mind that, concentrate on the content between the lines.//

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