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   Feature: The Poetry of Response link Contents List

Kent Johnson

Imitation, Traduction, Fiction, Response

para Andrés Ajens

This piece is about 15 printed pages long.

paragraph 1 

It was John Dryden who said


Those great [poets] whom we propose to ourselves as patterns of our imitation serve us as a torch, which is lifted up before us, to illumine our passage and often elevate our thoughts as high as the conception we have of our author’s genius.


No idiosyncrasy, that conviction: The spirit of “response” or imitation—from forms of free “translation” of the classics, to matter-of-fact plagiarism and theft—was unashamedly practiced by most great writers of the English Renaissance, Restoration, and Augustan eras, from Wyatt, Shakespeare, and Jonson, through Herrick, Pope, and Johnson. The great Greek, Latin, and Provencal poets had behaved, and avidly, in like manner, so why not?


Nor was the propensity some kind of loosely Western predilection: Chinese, Arabic, and Vedic poetries, among others, had been grounded for centuries in such gestures of “imitative” tribute and reverence.


In English-language poetry, Romanticism, of course, largely subsumed the old principles, replacing the passed-on torch of deference with the projecting lamp of vatic vision. And despite Modernism’s partial recovery (Pound, notably) of classical practices of imitation, and a few salient examples since (Lowell, perhaps most famously), the assumption that poiesis and its orders beam outward from the individual writer comfortably dominates our contemporary scene, including—waning theoretical claims notwithstanding—among our so-called post-avant, where gestures of intertextuality and citation seem most often proffered not in homage to and extension of what has come before, but in proof of the Poet’s encompassing purview and authority—Romantic ontology with a postmodern twist, as it were. If Harold Bloom is right about anything (and he’s certainly right about a lot), it’s that our age is still working through Romantic ideology. Broadly speaking, really, it might be productive to think of the American and British avant line—the New American poetry on—as an evolutionary adaptation, via random meme mutation, out of Romantic-Transcendentalist ancestry, where Language, as “material field,” has come to assume something like the status of Nature...


Not that there is anything wrong about that, since plenty of good poetry is getting made by the sub-species. But I’m convinced that the old attitudes and approaches to Imitation can well bear to be actively re-entered and tested again, that our poetics can only be enriched by it, that a whole realm of conceptual and even fictional surprise awaits there, that translation (and where would poetry be if not for translation?) is to be explored there, along the vast, barely investigated range of its red-shift spectrum.


With the late Alexandra Papaditsas, I’ve tried my hand at Imitation, and I share some of our modest results here— these being “traductions” from the ancient Greeks, produced sometimes by holding the torch high, to trace fairly closely the contours of the source, other times snuffing it out entirely to proceed rapidly and by feel in the dark, but in no lesser spirit of reverence. The poems were included in two furtive editions, both titled The Miseries of Poetry (Skanky Possum, 2003; CCCP, 2005), so likely few readers have seen them. For context, and because they touch, however eccentrically, on the collection’s nature and its interface with the animus of Imitation, I also share the two troubled prefaces to the book: the first by me, the second by Papaditsas.


Though the circumstances for the production of these traductions (shall we call them “responses”?) have differed, and while the sources have been both true and false and in between, I’d see each example (if I may speak for Papaditsas) as at least aspiring to the spirit of Petrarch’s lovely epistle on imitation to Boccaccio:


An imitator must see to it that what he writes is similar, but not the very same; and the similarity, moreover, should not be like that of a painting or statue to the person represented, but rather like that of a son to a father, where there is often great difference in the features and members, yet after all there is a shadowy something— akin to what the painters call one’s air—hovering about the face, and especially the eyes, out of which there grows a likeness.... [W]e writers, too, must see to it that along with the similarity there is a large measure of dissimilarity; and furthermore such likeness as there is must be elusive, something that it is impossible to seize except by a sort of still-hunt, a quality to be felt rather than defined.... It may all be summed up by saying with Seneca, and with Flaccus [Horace] before him, that we must write just as the bees make honey, not keeping the flowers but turning them into a sweetness of our own, blending many different flavors into one, which shall be unlike them all, and better.


Might such “elusive likeness” be one opening for poetry’s return to fiction, its old and forgotten home? I think so. And innovative poetry in particular, banging its harnessed head now so repeatedly against the bolted gate of Authorship and its attendant institutions, might do well to consider the many experimental paths that possibility holds forth.


In any case, here, then, the materials from The Miseries of Poetry: Traductions from the Greek...

Prefatory Note


Alexandra Papaditsas died, under still unsolved circumstances, in her native mountain village of Thylakis, in May, 2002. She was 42. A victim of the rare syndrome Cornuexcretis phalloides, wherethrough a large keratinous horn grows from the head, she spent most of her life sheltered in a small Gnostic monastery outside the port city of Patmos.1 When she courageously returned to live in her village in 1998 (courageous, for her horn approximated the size and shape of a billy goat’s), she was shunned, regarded as a witch, and on more than one occasion, stoned by villagers. This was how I met Alexandra, in fact, happening upon her cowered form (this was January, 1999, on my first of three trips to Thylakis) behind a taverna, shortly after a group of teenage boys had assaulted her.


Though it disturbingly reveals the paranoia and mental anguish she suffered in her last days, I have, after deliberation, chosen to publish, without emendations, the introduction she wrote for this small book. It is clear —frayed and matted to a semantic felt by suffering though they are— that these words were written with intent that they be published alongside our co-translations. I cannot decipher what meaning is attached to the epigraphs she chose from Virgil, Goethe, Lacan, and Dickinson.


There is not much more, frankly, that I wish to explain. Enough hurt and misunderstanding has taken place. Thus, I offer her introduction here, verbatim, even though its wild claims may put me in a suspicious light, no doubt engendering further rumors about my person, as if there weren’t enough already. And perhaps, who knows, I deserve any opprobrium that may come my way. Let the gods decide.


In addition, I have let her final bracketed insertions within the poems stand, marks of  delirium though they may be. Perhaps in some sense these marks are also mine, her pain having some Archaic source in me, though I barely understand the wherefore. Perhaps, indeed, her textual eruptions should be seen (may the reader forgive me) as bony knobs sprouting from the heads of such minotaurish translations as these— weird but extrinsic appendages of the ravaged body in which they root, pathetic onyxian projections of love’s ultimate excrescence into misprision and sorrow.


In three thousand years, may her curling horn be found within the layered strata of asteroidal debris.

— Kent Johnson


1. The monastery is one of the important sites of the Gnostic Order of Greece (Authentic Synod), a small syncretic sect founded in 1874, which centaurishly fuses traditions of ancient Greek paganism with Eastern Orthodox Christian practices. Percy Bysshe Shelley, depicted in church frescoes in Patmos with human torso and goat legs, is one of the sect’s saints. The Gnostic Order is most influential in the Northern Aegean, particularly on the islands of Chios, Lesbos, and Samothraki, where it counts with modest but long-standing congregations. It was in the Patmos monastery, in collaboration with a “Brother Kallikteros,” that Alexandra labored unsuccessfully for years to crack the code of Linear Script A, an extinct second millennium B.C. language inscribed on scores of clay tablets and fragments that have been excavated around the Mediterranean over the past century. Linear Script B, a later and distantly related archaic Greek dialect, was famously decoded by the epigrapher Michael Ventris in 1952.



But now we are in the cavern. Begin your song.

Be bold, bold without rein, and great men and women will come to your aid.

Well, when I was a young psychiatrist in Paris, when the City was innocent yet, the man-boy Artaud was a patient under my care. It was a difficult case (imagine treating a patient who has written on the walls in his own shit, “People who come out of nowhere to try to put into words any part of what goes on in their minds are pigs.”): In the end, electro-shock was the only way in. He was blue and stiff as a kite in a Chinese wind. “He is LIKE A GOD!” screamed Dali in Spanish, standing behind me, his bony fingers clutching my hips, while Michaux, in turn, clutched those of him clutching mine (we had, the three of us, with our respective disciples, only just that week severed resolutely with the execrable Breton) and were inseperable, like peas in a pod... Yes, it was as if he, Artuad, were (oh, his gauze-filled mouth) a kilometer up in the air, attached to a taut and humming string, and we holding fast to him.
    —Jacques Lacan

You have so far to go in your poetry, and it’s going to be hard for you to get there, but maybe you can do it if you try very, very hard. Will you try?
    —Jim Chapson(spoken to my dear love, Kent Johnson, in Axel’s Bar, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, ca. 1978)

Hold fast to me, my whore; let us parasail into the paratext.
    —Emily Dickinson



I am very happy to at last present these traductions of poems drawn from glorious antiquity. Some of these poems have been translated before, even many times, by scholars whose hands and skulls are luminous with the gold leaf of glory. We (me and the Dead Translator who has ravaged me) have poured now more mystery into them. Beware immediately: Buds of pussy willow will break out under the reader’s arms.


Some are traduced in the first time. This has occurred with astonishing thanks to the Montazah Palace find of 1998, where over four hundred philosophical and poetical papyri were discovered, perhaps, I believe, saved from the Alexandria library as it fell burning by Roman hordes. Of course, it is possible also, as he used to say dreamily, his head prepositioned between my lap, that this may be the anachronistic collection of a noblewoman from the Byzantine.


And therefore this book, fragile as a locust screaming its last, it follows such a love affair of the most sandpapered troubles, like a child whose face has been scraped in and out, rawly, in a meat, against the rock, the rough one laid out for me. A man saved a woman so falsely (he saved me on the thistled hilltop, I was driven there by my head-keras,1 the stone throwers kissed their sleepy children goodnight in Thylakis). Then he traitored her, cracked her four-handled cup (cipa mezoe tiriowee weke)2 one would say in phrasing from Linear B —though Mr. Ventris’s translation is probably inexact — left her singular on the macadam, by the housing project (Ghettoi). Yes, the situation is ancient, but that doesn’t make me feel any better.


Yet it’s strange, I am ecstatic at his death, my co-translator, the false one, oh the hole of all his buttocks, which gave me heroin just for traduction favors. I loved him and I hate him, bastard, perambulator, like all my doctors in Patmos, the shockers with dead seas in the eyes (I saw them through my gauze and rubber taste). I loved him and he at one season loved me, his Doric locks. I know it, he bathed my body in rose mallow and honey-thyme, his little goat feet. He grabbed my horn and his eyes went white. Something huge passed overhead. Try...


Dionysus!! There was no time: Our bones touched, our Thesauri caught fire by themselves. The priest who married us looked like a giantess with her long beard, his swinging and smoking thing and all the icons, so orthodox around us.3 The sea lapped into our brains (so erotic!), we greased our bodies and crossed it. Oh, Athena  [Here the pencil has been pressed so hard and insistently in cross-out that there is a darkly haloed four inch long by two inch wide hole. KJ]  papyri folded into origami under our thought. “Look, imagine it,” he said, fanning himself with an intricate waterfowl, “No one has the foggy West idea what translation is.”


And then he departed from me and died, he stepped into a Ferrari, I think, on purpose, in Turin. WHY Hipponax? HOW COME, Anacreon? FOR WHAT Attalyda? POR QUE OR POR QUA Alkaios? HEY Alkman? HUH Kentopholous? WHY Tantalos? His death is a snuff-flick of me. Someone, please, call my mother immediately.


[77] 51-93-03 4


Even though I know that poetry is much more than Poetry, I know these are Poems we did in another time, when we were happiest before the terrorist brown color covered everything. I am going to go away now. I am going to go away, like antelopes roaming from Uruguay, where he lived as a boy. The annotations about what is gone in the moths are mine, after his death. I am sure he would disagree. But fuck him, still. Fuck him in the mouth with a great velocity. Minor lying god.
      —Alexandra Papaditsas  (March, 2002)


1. “Keras”: The Greek word for horn. KJ
2. Phonetic rendering of phrase from Linear Script B. KJ
3. See the Appendix. KJ
4. Her Mother’s phone number in Patmos. I have altered it for obvious reasons. KJ


On Imitation


Splay the oozing Theophrastus1 on a catapult.

Pull the pus-covered cart to the Pellaen2 walls,
and cut the tensed rope.

[Brownish-reddish hole, as if a figure had been rocketed outward.]

Let the assholes of Assus3 preach about Truth and Form:

In the real world, a philosopher flying over a burning city is
strangely beautiful.

And strange beauty sings that poetry is not bound by imitation.

 — Ammonides, Athenian soldier and poet, friend of Leonidas of Tarentum, he fought in the campaign to liberate Greek cities from Macedonian garrisons following the death of Alexander in 323 B.C. Only three poems by him survive, though scholars have attributed a number of late *Skolia* (anonymous drinking songs) to him.


1. Famous student of Aristotle.
2. The city where Aristotle served as tutor to Alexander.
3. A reference, in part, to Aristotle, who for three years lived and taught in Assos with Erastus and Xenocrates. Assos was
the capital of a small client state ruled by Hermeias, a vassal of the Great King of Persia, and roundly despised by the Athenians.

On the Bastard Boupalous 1


Be a coatrack for me, dear, while I clock
Boupalous on his snot-filled nose.

Following this, be a four-legged bench,
as I fuck from the rear his sweet,
the idiot giantess of Rhegium.2

Thank you, Ibykos, handsome whore-boy,
for supporting my revenge.3


1.Boupalous was a sculptor of Ephesos for whom Hipponax had great enmity. Numerous of Hipponax's poems take him as occasion.
2. Her name was Arete, and it appears that Hipponax later had a serious amorous relationship with her.
3. A dig at the court poet Ibykos, famous contemporary of Hipponax.

The Miseries of Poetry


In Lydian tone she said, “Come hither, I will plug up
your tight asshole.” And she beat my egg sack with a sprig
of lilac as if I were a satyr. I fell backwards, breathing
heavy, and caught there by writhing vines I suffered
torture times two, and then some: A dried rose stem
lashed my man-tits; someone smeared me with cow’s
shit, and then my ass started stinking like Hades.
Dung beetles came, sucked there by the fetid
gook, like roan-filled flies. Bugs with their alphabet-eating
sounds: They covered me and shoved inward, burrowed
deep, filing their teeth without pity on my bones.
I hurt so bad, I might as well have had the Pygelian plague.


—Hipponax, ca. 565-520. Banished from Ephesos, he lived much of his life as a wandering beggar in the nearby city of Klazomenai. He is one of the most demotic, bawdy, and satirically cutting poets of the Lyric Age, almost totally preoccupied with personal topics, and his verse exhibits an earthiness whose imagery often flirts with the fantastic and surreal. As evocatively stated by Herondas in the Palatine Anthology, “O stranger, stay clear of the horrible tomb of Hipponax... You might wake the sleeping wasp whose bile would not rest even in Hades, but launches shafts of song in lame measure.” Indeed, his meter is unorthodox by Hellenistic standards— Hipponax composed largely in “choliambs”, or “lame iambics” with dragging final feet.



On paper wings, pressed by Phokylidos
the Epileptic, I flap to Olympus, panting,
seeking my master, Eros. But he looks
through me, says no more dog-style fucking:
He sees my graying face-hairs and flies off,
looking outwards toward nothing—
while I stand transfixed in the breeze
made by his thin wings of gold.


— Anakreon, 572-490 BC. With the equally famed Ibykos, he was for many years court poet of Polykrates, the Tyrant of Samos. Upon the murder of his employer, Anakreon moved on to the court of Hippias, Athenian ruler of no less tyrannical nature. His refined and sophisticate verse is almost wholly decadent in theme. He died, it is said, choking on a grape.



[Moths have eaten here. Who sent them?]
they will remember us by our pieces. Our torsos
will move them to poetry.
They will put our parts on parade,
to imagine what we were,
so to forget what they,
dreaming us, are.


Attalyda, provenance and dates unknown. From papyrus discovered in the Montazah Palace find, Alexandria, Egypt, 1998.

The Seven Muses of the Boat-making District 1


If I ever see a ghost, I hope it is Brotachos of Alkmena2.
Because I wouldn’t be afraid. I would look at him
Floating there in his lily-shaped bubble, and then I would
Fall asleep and pick up exactly where I’d stopped in
My dream, just as if I’d never left it.


If I ever go to the Cyclades, I hope it is Samos, in the last century.
Because Ibykos3 lives there. And I would track him down
To offer him a bottle of liqueur from the future,
So to drink with him and gaze at his incredibly strange face,
Which is remarkably like Brotachos’. And I would look at this face
And think, all at once, about the whole Constellation of Dioskouroi.4


And if I ever go to heaven, I wish there to be more
Hummingbirds there than there are here.
And I hope there is a tiny golden kind.
Because when this kind beats its impossible wings so fast,
The sound of Brotachos’ voice comes out, making every poet-angel
Want so much to be so good to every other one.


And if I could ever do something all over again in the City of Athens,
It would be to go to Brotachus’ apartment in the Boat-making District.
Because it is like a boat, and Korax and Markos5 and the one whose
Name on the list is number thirty are also there. And we will read
Poetry to the music of Demostratis, sure in the knowledge that
Storms and other dangerous weathers will not harm us.


And if I should ever give someone flowers again,
I hope to give them to Brotachos of Alkmena.
Because once when I brought him flowers, he put them
In a vase in the middle of his seven bronze muses,
And he closed his eyes and bent towards them, as if in prayer,
For a long time, and I saw two tears fall into the flowers.


Therefore, if I ever give him flowers again, I hope their
Aroma to be like a drug, unbounded by time.
Because we will sit together on his goatskin-covered
Couch, and look at a long scroll of Antimenidas’ etchings.
And Brotachos will move his hand over all the parallel worlds curled
Up in there, making me want to fall asleep, and pick up exactly
Where I’d stopped in my dream, just as if I’d never left it.


And because I hope that when I wake, my head will be on
His shoulder, and his sleeping head will be resting
Lightly upon mine. And the scroll will still be open.


—Megaklys. The provenance and dates of the author of this extraordinary poem are unknown, though the reference to Ibykos “in the last century” would date it ca. fourth century. Intact papyrus discovered in Alexandria in the Montazah Palace find of 1998. No other works by him are known to exist.


1. Of course, the classical number is nine.
2. Nothing is known of this figure.
3. Great court poet of the tyrant Polykrates, from sixth/fifth century, B.C.
4. The constellation of good fortune for sailors, suggesting that Megaklys may have been a fisherman or mariner of some kind.
5. Neither of these two figures is known, nor are Demostratis or Antimenidas.

Death Mask


[Moths eating, their thoraxes growing purplish and huge.]
lovely geography,
pushed out in this face,
but not upwelling from the earth below,
nor carved in relief from space above.
The form arrives from somewhere else
[Moths eating, their thoraxes growing purplish and huge.]


—Mimnermos, ca. seventh century B.C., resident of Smyrna or Kolophon. The above fragment most likely belongs to his elegies to Nanno, the flute-girl who accompanied the recitation of his lyrics. She was kidnapped and brutally murdered by Meniskos, a minor poet, who was intensely jealous of Mimnermos’s fame.



Joints are parts of the body and yet not parts of the body.
They join through opposition to create a harmony of autonomous forces.
Mountains arise because of the absence of mountains.
The absence of mountains arises because of the mountains.
Because neither exists without the other, neither exists in self-same identity.
This is also true of all flora and fauna, of all humans and all their deeds.
When we are awake we share a world.
When we are asleep, we are each in a discrete world.
This is, upon reflection, like the mountain and its absence.
This is also like words and their ideas.
Words are mountains; ideas are the absence around words.
Identity arises from discrete particulars; discrete particulars arise from identity.
Our understanding of the greatest matters will never be consummated.
All opposition is seamlessly interconnected by atomic joints.


—Herakleitos, fifth century B.C. Poem discovered in the Montazah Palace find. Herakleitos (Heraclitus of Ephesus) is,
of course, one of the great philosophers of antiquity. His central proposition, that the fundamental condition of nature
is change and impermanence, reflects, with remarkable synchrony, the first of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism, as
proclaimed by his exact contemporary, Siddhartha Gautama. In this poem, Herakleitos also seems to intuit the
fundamental Buddhist truth of interdependence and non-identity.

A Single Mind


1. A single mind is all things.
2. All things are a single mind.
[Large holes: Moths? American academics?]
10. Listen: One can never step twice in the same river.
11. Listen: In swallowing, the moon is brought forth.
12. Listen and spit out: The swollen moon is brought forth.
13. Swallow your self and swallow others.
14. Spit out your self and spit out others.
[Large strange holes, mysterious gaps, frightening loss.]
26. When clouds fly, the moon moves.
27. When a boat goes, the shore moves.
28. The boat and the shore travel at the same time, walk together, without floating or turning.
[Holes eaten by time, American academics, loss, and mystery.]
39. Listen: The reader and writer pass with their dragonfly bodies in the sky, while words, like clouds, float by.
40. Listen: the cloud’s flying, the moon’s traveling, the boat’s going, the shore’s moving, the reader’s and writer’s passing, these are not bound by past, present, or future.
41. Nor do they have any starting or stopping.
42. Not starting or stopping, not going forward or backward, the moon’s movement is true and not true.
43. Because it is beyond beginning, middle, or end.
44. Therefore, one can never step twice in the same river.
45. Listen or not: A single mind is all things.
46. Listen or not: all things are a single mind.


—Tantalos of Myrina, fifth century B.C. Discovered in the Montazah find. This is the only known writing by Tantalos of Myrina, who is mentioned by Herakleitos and other contemporaries.



[Blackened at top by time or fire, eaten yet above that by the lepidoptera,
oh, my white village, like a mirage on the hill, when I remove the gauze from my eyes.]
that little hill, rubbed bald
by galling winds, the fossil-hill
nigh the Hades Hole.
We’ll stitch chords to their ribs
and fly them like kites. We’ll
chorus our dead to the music
of the humming strings.
[Gnawed away. Impossible to know if the poem ends here.]

—Phillipos. Fragment discovered at Montazah. Nothing is known of this poet and apparent soldier. While we have titled the poem “Revenge,” the identity of the ‘body-kites’ is not entirely clear: Are they enemies, as we have guessed, or fallen comrades? If the latter, the poem might be titled “Funeral,” or “Afterlife.”



[Rotted away.]
What [does] poetry do for the world?
[Rotted away.]


—Anonymous fragment. Discovered in the Montazah find.

For more about Kent Johnson, see his Jacket author notes page.

Jacket’s author notes pages provide bio notes, photos, direct links to various items in the magazine that feature more of our authors’ writing, reviews of their books, and interviews.