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Poetry in a savage age
Using Theodor Adorno’s well-known statement regarding lyric poetry after Auschwitz as an epigrammatic springboard, Kent Johnson offers “eleven submissions to the war” — eleven pieces of writing which exist in a peculiar no-man’s-land, a region not unlike the war-torn Baghdad so much of the writing focuses on. Rather than poems, Johnson’s “eleven submissions” might be best understood as discourses which explore the purpose and import of contemporary poetry in relation to the war in Iraq.
The first discourse titled “By Way of Preface” is an open letter from Johnson to Campus Watch, a conservative organization committed to monitoring Middle-East studies in North American universities. Here Johnson responds to “the diatribe on poet and activist Ammiel Alcalay”(7) published March 4, 2005 in The American Thinker, an article initially written by Alyssa Lappen for the Campus Watch website. The article Johnson refers to maintains that Alcalay — along with Amiri Baraka, Alicia Ostriker, Marilyn Hacker and Tom Paulin — is part of a much larger group of academics “with one foot in Middle Eastern studies and one foot in literature and poetry” that “declare their allegiance with ‘Palestine,’ and implicitly, with terror.” Instead of defending Alcalay, Johnson boldly requests that Campus Watch include his own name among those American academics currently under surveillance. A list of qualifying credentials follows the request: Johnson’s inclusion in Sam Hamill’s Poets Against the War; his literacy work in Nicaragua while the Sandinistas were in power; his work as founder of the Milwaukee Central America Solidarity Coalition. Also included among the credentials Johnson hopes Campus Watch might take into consideration is the 2004 online publication of “Lyric Poetry After Auschwitz” by Blazevox, the poem after which the collection is titled:
This poem may be of particular interest to you, since (in addition to the fact that it is accompanied by photographs and the music of Dean Martin) Ammiel Alcalay himself saw fit to send it abroad for possible translation into Arabic, Hebrew, and Bosnian. (8)
Given the Yasusada affair — which Marjorie Perloff, among other firmly established poets and scholars, has called a literary hoax similar to Kenneth Rexroth’s Marichiko — and more recently, the publication of The Miseries of Poetry: Traductions from the Greek, a work which Johnson claims to have translated with Alexandra Papaditsas, it is difficult to determine what is real and what is not, what is satire and what is sincere statement. Did Alcalay really endorse Johnson’s work? Did he write the blurb printed on the back of the book? Indeed, The Miseries of Poetry includes fourteen pages of blurbs, several of which are clearly authored by someone other than the writers to whom those blurbs are credited.
To further exacerbate my own suspicions, an English translation of an electronic exchange between Ammiel Alcalay and Bosnian poet Semezdin Mehmedinovic was circulated by email and posted to several poetry blogs. In the exchange both Alcalay and Mehmedinovic speak enthusiastically of Lyric Poetry After Auschwitz. Mehmedinovic praises the book, calling it “beautiful, humorous, very painful and intelligent.” Alcalay asks Mehmedinovic for permission to quote from the exchange in order to counter “a controversy raging on various poetry blogs now about kent’s book....” Again, credibility becomes an issue. Was this exchange just a cog in the wheel of another much larger mischievous scheme engineered by Kent Johnson, a scheme which might this time involve Ammiel Alcalay, a living breathing scholar already dealing with the frightening vicissitudes of being placed on an academic blacklist?
In an effort to find out whether Alcalay endorsed Johnson’s poem, then wrote a blurb for the collected “submissions,” and finally engaged in a dialogue with Semezdin Mehmedinovic regarding Johnson’s book, I contacted Alcalay himself via email and was shocked by the response:
anyways, yes, i did write the blurb to kent’s book and, yes, semezdin did respond & I did translate those texts that were posted. i’ve never met kent — i was a judge for the PEN translation awards a few years ago & he co-translated a book that was one of the winners (3rd prize i think, or something like that). anyways, i saw the abu ghraib poem on blazevox & was totally knocked out by it & i sent it around to some poets i know from the arab world & i proceeded to e-mail kent about it, pretty much out of the blue, as an appreciative reader. when i heard the book was coming out i was very excited about it & eager to help it get out there — little did i know it would lead to the kind of infantile stupidity that has been on display.
Despite the ruffled feathers that might be found in Blogland USA, Johnson clearly didn’t forge the blurb. Nor did he forge the dialogue between Alcalay and Mehmedinovic.
But what does this say for the work itself, for Lyric Poetry After Auschwitz? Perhaps Johnson, in light of the magnitude of the Yasusada affair, has cried wolf one too many times. It is also possible, however, that Johnson has simply decided to pursue and explore other issues in Lyric Poetry After Auschwitz, issues apart from the “four-dimensional” hyper-authorship he often discusses whenever asked about the legitimacy of the Yasusada poems. While each of the discourses within Lyric Poetry are, in one way or another, related directly to the current war in Iraq, many of these pieces also address the relationship between American poets and the war in Iraq or, more accurately, the broad chasm between American poets and the war. Issue is taken with the self-deceiving insularity found in contemporary American poetry, a poetry safely distanced from the atrocities of war.
In an author’s note preceding “The New York School (or: I Grew Ever More Intense)” Johnson brazenly states:
The following poem represents the first instance of a new poetic form. I have christened it the “Mandrake” (the name used for the mayapple [Podophyllum peltatum] by various 16th- and 17th-century English poets). Those who would attempt the form in the future must adhere to the following guidelines: (22)
The guidelines are given. The first fourteen stanzas of this daring new poetic form are divided into two primary groups, “flowers” and “fruit” arranged in counterpoint fashion. The flowers must make reference to “one or two poets of a preceding generation” and must “exhibit some sense of parallelism in theme and syntactic logic to its companion flower stanzas.” On the other hand, the fruit stanzas must be totally dissimilar in theme to the flower stanzas and be comprised primarily of cited material. The fourteenth stanza must make some allusion to “the mayapple’s seasonal companion, the morel mushroom (in any of the morchella species).” Lastly, each “Mandrake” proper must begin with a “hollow” introduction aimed at “propping up the contrapuntal dissonances of theme and tone which the prosodic grid outlined above will inevitably proffer.” (22) The result, as found in the example following the author’s note, is both hysterical and acutely painful. The juxtaposition of inwardly peering, self-absorbed stanzas driven by poetic experimentation (flowers) against stanzas composed of various quotes from people experiencing tremendous suffering in war ravaged or economically depressed regions (fruit) underscores the central theme which runs throughout the entire collection — the absurd distance between intellectuals in America and civilians devastated by the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq.
Here, for example, are several passages from various flower stanzas included in the “The New York School”:
I grew ever more intense. I turned over the aftershave and Ted Berrigan came out... (24).
I grew ever more intense. I squeezed the toothpaste and James Schuyler came out (24).
I grew ever more intense. I turned the button on the deodorant stick and Joseph Ceravolo came out (25).
I grew ever more intense. I turned over the mouthwash and Kenneth Koch came out (26).
Each of these prose passages are punctuated by fruit stanzas much like the following:
I couldn’t help it. I thought of this: “One day, a fortnight or so after my mother’s death in Shishido, I was up in the hills playing with some friends. Suddenly one of them said, “Look, the baby’s hands are swollen.” I touched the baby, which was still strapped to my back and screamed — it was stone cold. My friends began to panic and jump up and down, shouting “It’s dead, it’s dead.” It felt awful having something dead tied to me...” (23).
It is here, beneath the hilarity of Johnson’s peculiar new poetic form, beneath the humor of this self-effacing critique of contemporary poetry in America, that the deft subtleties imbedded deep in the writing are revealed. In each of the flower stanzas a writer within or associated with the New York School can be found emerging from a hygiene product, products relegated to the world of cleanliness, a sanitized world wherein filth is washed away rather than acknowledged and examined. Yet, while immersed in an ecstatic self-deceiving state of poetic vision and experimentation, in a state of growing “ever more intense,” in finding American poets in or near hygiene products, the narrator relates at the beginning of each fruit stanza, “I couldn’t help it. I thought of this...” In comes the world. In comes global conflict and widespread suffering. Each ecstatic flower stanza wilts with the coming of every fruit, with the encroachment of the outside world and the onslaught of suffering it brings. Experimentation, the avant-garde, suddenly becomes something barbarous and ineffective. To write poetry after Auschwitz, after Abu Ghraib, after the Downing Street Memo, lacks civility and sensitivity. To write poetry in the face of war, even poetry against the war, is a savage act involving some measure of absurdity.
And if there was any doubt as to Johnson’s conviction regarding poetry and war — Johnson of course fully aware of his own position as poet — the last stanza of the “Mandrake” cites a Japanese man considering the world at large several days after “morel hunting” with his son:
... I guess I’ve been pretty lucky after all, enjoying the pleasures of calligraphy and sake in all the surplus time the labor of others has more or less made for me. Some of us are like rain, and others of us are like thirsty ground, and others of us are like parasitical mushrooms, especially poets, and that’s just the way things have come to be (27).
This thought is developed further, again in a bitingly satirical manner, in the title poem, “Lyric Poetry After Auschwitz, or: ‘Get the Hood Back On’.” Six independent prose passages introduce six different American men and women speaking in the first person. Each greets what is presumably a detainee at Abu Ghraib. One speaker, for example, is “an American boy, former Homecoming King and now Little League coach and Assistant Manager in-training at Wal-Mart, which is providing jobs for low prices for our depressed area...” (36). Most of these characters appear to be from the Rust Belt or Bible Belt of America, not unlike the low-ranking soldiers implicated in the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. The last person to introduce himself, however, is an American poet:
HI THERE, MADID, I’m an American poet, twentyish, early to mid-thirtyish, fortyish to seventyish, I’ve had poems on the Poets Against the War website, and in American Poetry Review and Chain, among other magazines, and I have a blog, and I really dig Arab music, and I read Adorno and Spivak, and I’m really progressive, I voted for Clinton and Gore, even though I know they bombed you a lot, too, sorry about that, and I know I live quite nicely off the fruits of a dying imperium... (37).
Just as each of the other prose passages ended with each American implicating themselves physically or tacitly, actively or passively, in the Abu Ghraib prison scandal — each, that is, contributing to the scandal inasmuch as they support or refuse to resist the insular, insensitive dominant ideology which allows such scandals to transpire — the American poet also plays a role in the scandal, offering nothing more than a worthless gesture toward resistance and opposition to the war. The poet ends his statement as does the other Americans, in an uncontrollable fit of rage driven by desperation:
I’m going to box your ears with two big books of poems, one of them experimental and the other more plain speech-like, both of them hardbound and by leading academic presses, and I’m going to do it until your brain swells to the size of a basketball and you die like the fucking lion for real.. You’ll never make it to MI [Military Intelligence] because that’s the breaks; poetry is hard, and people go up in flames for lack of it everyday... (37)
Such an insight, albeit packaged in grim Pythonesque humor, is difficult to approach — especially for those that have devoted the totality of their lives to poetry, who sincerely believe in the necessity and efficacy of poetry. Such an insight is even more difficult to acknowledge when beliefs about the necessity and efficacy of poetry are propped up on a shaky foundation, on the narrow shoulders of doubt and uncertainty in a time of radical change, instability and transformation.
The work has garnered a lot of attention, both negative and positive. A firestorm of heated discussion has emerged in Blogland and elsewhere surrounding the issues raised in Johnson’s work, particularly those issues involving the import and efficacy of writing poetry in a time of war, suffering and instability. More than almost any other living poet, Johnson’s work consistently cuts to the bone and exposes fundamental yet unresolved issues simmering at the very core of contemporary poetry.
With Yasusada one of the central issues was authorship, Johnson maintaining in his usual unswerving fashion that poetry has yet to catch up with Einstein. With Lyric Poetry After Auschwitz the approach is the same, the results yielded are similar, yet the central theme drives further and digs deeper, questioning the very ethics of writing poetry in such a savage age.
 From an August 10, 2005 email message to the author from Ammiel Alcalay.
Richard Owens’ writing has appeared in Skanky Possum, House Organ, Maximum Rock-n-Roll, The Korea Herald and a small handful of other publications. He edits and publishes Damn the Caesars, a quarterly lit zine.
Kent Johnson’s author notes page gives more recent information about his work.
Jacket’s ‘author notes’ provide direct links to various pages in the magazine that feature more of an author’s work, reviews of their books, and interviews.
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