|Jacket 37 — Early 2009||Jacket 37 Contents page||Jacket Homepage||Search Jacket|
The Internet address of this page is http://jacketmagazine.com/36/r-kent-rb-davis.shtml
… he may be a hypocrite, like some fornicating Baptist pastor. This seems to be what some of his critics think.
Kent Johnson’s a complex guy. I know some people don’t like him. I know some people really don’t like him. I also know that there are people like myself who, to use a phrase that Linh Dinh uses in a blurb on the back of Johnson’s new book, are “in awe” of Kent Johnson. Actually, I bet even some of those who dislike him are in awe of him, even if it’s only in a sort of open-mouthed, wide-eyed shock. That there’s such a gap between his admirers and detractors is no surprise when you read Johnson’s work, and Homage to the Last Avant-Garde is no exception.
I think when I boil it down, the major gripe against Johnson is that, in one way or another, he’s a narcissist, or an egomaniacal self-promoter, or something like that. Which is probably true, but I really believe we could make the same claim about all artists. There is narcissism in writing in a serious fashion. There is narcissism in me writing this review. I am a narcissist! If you want to write me and tell me how wrong I am (or just write about it on your blog), then you are a narcissist too! My point is, anyone engaged in the arts (or just engaged in assuming their opinion matters and is important) is engaged in, to one degree or another, a sort of narcissism and self-promotion. You can argue that Johnson’s narcissism and self-promotion is way worse than yours or mine, but now we’re just talking degrees of narcissism and self-promotion and ideas about which type of narcissism and self-promotion is okay and which type is not. So now we’re in a he-without-sin-cast-the-first-stone situation. Or a people-in-glass-houses situation. Johnson might be in a glass house, but you probably are too.
What makes Johnson’s narcissism not only bearable, but hilarious and insightful, is that he is devoted to pointing out the narcissism of the artist in his work. Of course, Kent Johnson the person may truly be narcissistic and unable to notice that his work and public persona could seem as narcissistic as the narcissism he critiques ― he may be a hypocrite, like some fornicating Baptist pastor. This seems to be what some of his critics think. On the other hand, it seems perfectly obvious to me that Johnson’s career has been focused on the idea of the narcissism of the artist, layered with irony, etc. How could he, an astonishingly eloquent and rhetorically savvy guy, not recognize his own shit?
My point is that he does. And if someone doesn’t get that Kent Johnson is acting out that which he critiques, then they also don’t get Andy Kaufman or Steven Colbert. So, again, is it possible that in reality Kent Johnson doesn’t know what he’s doing? Well, sure, in the same way it’s possible that Andy Kaufman was a little nuts. Human psychology is very complicated. But then the question is: does it matter? And hasn’t that always been Johnson’s point? What does or doesn’t matter about the author? You either laugh at Andy Kaufman or you don’t.
Johnson is a sort of juxtaposition genius. The tender and the brutal, the ironic and the sincere, the comic and the serious, the factual and the fictive, are slammed together at terrific speeds and with such surprising ricocheting that it’s easy to get a little uncomfortable, maybe even a little confused, but it certainly isn’t boring. Emily Dickinson’s idea that poetry takes the top of your head off seems very genteel compared to Johnson, who is more of a saw-your-head-off-with-a-chainsaw-or-rusty-fish-knife kind of guy. Less scalping, more neck sawin’!
The major juxtaposition in the Homage is between the insular world of experimental/ avant-garde/ post-avant poetry and the all too brutal world of human suffering. Of course, neither of these are new subjects for Johnson, who is forever braiding them into some pretty strange pigtails.
The world of poetry that Homage is most concerned with is the world of the New York school. The title of the book is clearly a nod to David Lehman’s book on the first generation of the NY school. Lehman’s book particularly focuses on Ashbery, Koch, O’Hara, and Schuyler. Johnson rounds those four out with Ceravolo and Guest, and then it’s basically off to the races.
There’s a sestina that uses those six names as the repeating words. He throws in Berrigan, Padgett, and Shapiro, numerous invented forms á la the NY school, and divides the book into sections, each section title alluding to a journal known to publish the first and second generation of NY school poets. But, despite the clear importance of these poets, it’s not all NY school, all the time.
Other writers referenced include Alan Sondheim, Stephen Rodefer, David Bromige, Dmitri Prigov, Nazim Hikmet, Gabriel Gudding, Russell Edson, Jack Spicer, Ron Silliman, Kevin Killian, K. Silem Mohammad, Norman Fischer, John Wieners, Whitman, Williams, Dickinson, Laura Mullen, a host of ancient Greeks, Stein, Rachel Loden, Guy Davenport, Stevens, Rexroth, Ed Dorn, Bob Dylan and more. Names appear everywhere, scattered in poems, footnotes, epigraphs, dedications, letters, e-mails, etc. If you’re a poet, reading Homage might make you nervous that you will soon read your own name. It seems no one is off limits.
Actually, when he satirizes young, self-absorbed poets (“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… and I know I live quite nicely off the fruits of a dying imperium”) I feel a little twinge, because, after all (besides the Arab music thing) he’s basically talking about me.
But I deserve to feel a twinge of something occasionally. After all, as I dream my life away in the world of poetry, why shouldn’t I catch a little hell for it from time to time? Of course, the fact that Johnson’s talking about you and me (or could be talking about you or me, or someone we know) is a little lurid, but it’s exciting too. I can understand that being satirized hurts, especially if it hits close to home, but I also think that, despite the satire, Homage really is a sincere homage to the NY school and the world of contemporary poetry. It is sincere because as a book of poetry (and like the man himself) it is very self-consciously the thing it critiques.
Besides, the babies that Johnson eats from the world of experimental poetry are, uh, child’s play when compared to the real babies and people in the world who are genuinely suffering. In fact, poets should love Johnson simply because he flatters us by even remembering we exist in between breaking our hearts with stuff that matters even more than poetry. It’s a backhanded compliment, but it’s still a compliment. So are you a half-glass full or a half-glass empty person? If you’re Kenneth Koch (and you’re still alive), what do you think of the first poem in the book?
Thanks to his poem about a garbage can
lid being smashed into a likeness of King
George the Third’s face, my sixteen year old
son is now writing poetry. This activity has
recently led him into drinking alcohol and
experimenting with drugs, which makes
it difficult for me to say, but I’ll say it
anyway: Thank you, Kenneth Koch,
for your marvelous contributions to Poetry.
While not taking any responsibility for his son writing poetry and taking drugs (both of which the narrator is far more likely responsible for than Koch) the narrator notes his own forgiving nature before thanking Koch for his “contributions to Poetry,” despite the fact that writing poetry is, at least from the parental standpoint of this poem, a seriously non-edifying activity. And despite the fact that one of Koch’s “marvelous contributions,” in this case, is just another sixteen-year-old who’s now getting stoned and drunk for the first few times. It’s kind of like thanking a bad influence for being especially bad. But nobody can get too upset about this, can they? I think Koch would appreciate it. (Though, I can also imagine that after reading his and his friends’ names over and over for the next 100 or so pages, Koch could, you know, maybe not be pissed off, but perhaps get a little irritated.)
Consider the juxtapositions in “The New York School (or: I Grew Ever More Intense).” This, the second poem in the book, is a Mandrake. O, you’re not familiar with the Mandrake as a form? Well, you shouldn’t be. Johnson invented it and so first supplies an “Author’s Note” that explains the rules of the form, which include, among other requirements, the rule that “any ‘Mandrake’ must be led off by some kind of brief introduction, as this originating example is (i.e., the one you are reading right now).” This is followed by a prose poem that stretches a full five pages and alternates between paragraphs that begin “I grew ever more intense,” and ones that begin “I couldn’t help it. I thought of this.”
The paragraphs that begin “I grew ever more intense” are followed by some sort of surreal bathroom routine involving various NY school poets. For instance, “I pressed the button on the shaving cream and Barbara Guest came out. I smoothed her taut-as-a-canvass-body all over my cheeks and neck and chin and then I made some hills and valleys in her flatness, using my fingers in an artistic way.”
Or, “In an outhouse on the hills of Nokaido, I wiped myself and then I went to the sink and depressed the pump on the hand soap dispenser and John Ashbery came out.”
The paragraphs that begin “I couldn’t help it, I thought of this” are mostly followed by exceedingly graphic scenes of human suffering. As in, “torched villages; macheted babies in the streets; stoned child warriors indulging in cannibalism and draping themselves with the entrails of their victims,” and “a young girl, perhaps eight or nine years old, climbed out of the burning car in which her mother, father, and sister sat dead, their open-eyed bodies on the slow fire.”
The penultimate, fourteenth paragraph, however, begins “I couldn’t help it, I thought of this” and is followed by a touching account of a father and son hunting mushrooms together. The father, reflecting on his son, “thinking the most sentimental things and shielding my tears from his view” wonders “How is it possible the years have gone by like they have and that I will never get them back? How is it that this world is so full of suffering and hurt?” It’s a sweet moment.
And those questions are good questions. Especially for poets who spend so much time involved in aesthetic/artistic debates, so caught in our own world of words that the average person hardly knows we exist, let alone what we’re talking about. The seriousness of the brutal world juxtaposed against the world of poetry emphasizes how absurd poetry is, and, conversely, the world of poetry emphasizes how absurd the brutal world is. The father and son sweetness at the end comes across as a necessary break from all of the bizarre stupidity surrounding us.
And so that’s another thing: everyone knows that Johnson is a buzz saw kind of guy, but Homage also shows his sweet and tender side. Seriously! The poem “I once met Stephen Rodefer” recounts, first, a confrontation between Johnson and Rodefer in which Johnson threatens to break Rodefer’s nose for taking a mean dig at Johnson in front of some other people. This scene is followed by a description of a reading that Rodefer gives in which he starts crying due to the presence of a young Spanish boy. The poem ends:
It was later that night I learned that his own son, aged ten, had drowned, in Paris, three years back. And the person who told me this said that Rodefer’s son looked uncannily like this beautiful boy from Spain. And so I cried that night, back at my modernized room at Christ’s College, a room, it was, down the hall from Christopher Marlowes’s old purported room, and I cried for a long time. And the next day I went over to Stephen, by the wine box, and put my hand on his shoulder, and said, That was one fine, powerful reading you gave yesterday. And he turned and said Thanks, that’s very kind of you to say. And we made awkward small talk for a while, and we walked out into the courtyard together, where it was cool in the evening air.
From the tough-guy Johnson, to the sobbing Johnson alone in a “modernized room at Christ’s College,” to the contrite Johnson and Rodefer awkwardly chatting, Johnson shows some real vulnerability. It’s an empathetic poem full of good, fatherly karma.
A number of Johnson’s poems allude to his own sons, whom he often writes about with the awe and emotion of a proud parent. In a poem called “Unedited Notes toward a Poetic Essay on the Translation of Poetry” one of his sons gives him some paraphrased advice about translation for an essay Johnson’s working on. The poem ends:
And he is in the darkness
now from me and with such velocity, even the sadness of the space where he once
stood, reading, is darkly beautiful for it.
And I can’t really say, looking at all these translations before me, what is faithfulness, nor what is so faithful it has flowered, without shame, into falsity.
Once again, it’s sweet, but this time it is also shaded with the menace of the future and the past. Also, that last stanza could go a long way in describing much of Johnson’s work. Substitute the word “translations” with the word “poems” and I could say the same thing about this book. Because while I assume the narrator in the poem above is Johnson, I don’t know for sure that it is.
When I wrote about the “Kenneth Koch” poem I referred to the “narrator,” but that narrator surely is Johnson. But who knows? I have no idea if the story in “I once met Stephen Rodefer” is accurate, or semi-accurate, or not accurate at all. Reading Homage you might find yourself thinking odd questions like: Did Kent Johnson really translate poems with a Greek woman afflicted with a condition producing a large horn from her head? Was it possible that Jack Spicer actually wrote a letter to Kent Johnson? Is this or that footnote legitimate? Is Kent Johnson in some sort of legal trouble in Greece? Is he involved with a murder? Etc. The answer to all of these is probably always no, but, then again, I don’t know, and that’s the point.
Speaking of translation, the idea of translation is clearly very important to Johnson who in one poem calls it the “very soil of poetry. It’s mystery.” Johnson, as much as any poet I can think of, thrives on the idea of mystery in poetry. Thus, it’s no surprise that his selections of Greek translations in Homage are called “Traductions.” The word nicely ties in the ideas of slander and misinterpretation (willful and otherwise) to the idea of translation.
This reminds me of Rexroth, whose One Hundred Poems from the Chinese is a book that Johnson alludes to a number of times. In fact, One Hundred Poems from the Chinese may be as close to a model for Homage as anything. In Homage, Johnson does as an author much of what Rexroth does as a translator: there is the direct tone of voice, the self-deprecating humor, the constant mentioning of contemporary poets (followed sometimes by sharp invective), the conglomeration of a number of poetic voices, the semi-constant mentioning of alcohol, old age, and failure (at one point Johnson writes “beer bellied, flatulent, we’re become / the objects, from afar, of our children’s disdain”) and, finally, the mystery behind the suspicion that we can’t quite trust the author/translator, even if he hints that he’s lying. Talk about flowering “without shame, into falsity”! And while Johnson certainly doesn’t shy from falsities in his work, those falsities are constantly being tempered.
This is most evident near the end of the book in the section, “Seven Submissions to the War for The World”. The most well known of these is the somewhat infamous “Lyric Poetry After Auschwitz, or: ‘Get the Hood Back On’” which pissed off some people because of the way it implicates, not only the regular old Americans but, more importantly, regular old contemporary American poets in the atrocities taking place in Iraq. It’s another poem in which the power is in the strangeness of the juxtapositions, between stanzas, between poetry and war, between politeness and brutality, between what Johnson identifies as his “self-righteous poem” and the self righteousness he critiques.
Other poems like “When I first Read Ange Mlinko” have an unflinching self-awareness that makes it clear that Johnson includes himself in the poets “twentyish, early to mid-thirtyish, fortyish to seventyish” whom he satirizes elsewhere. It also exhibits a number of Johnson’s tropes throughout Homage:
When I first read
Ange Mlinko in The Poker, I started to bat
my eyes, seductively. Wow, I drank, this makes me want to
both write more and drink less so I might live longer! She’s
My beautiful wife (for she is beautiful to me) yelled up the
stairs: “It’s time for your date with the grill, Buster Lazy
Brown!” That was funny, my yelling wife… .
First, he calls out a contemporary poet by name (one who might be considered an heir of the NY school) and the mood is kind and sweet, especially with the campy humor of his wife and his characterization of his “yelling wife” as “funny.” Then, in a hyperconscious, meta-ish way, Johnson describes the unexplainable and unexpected memory of a “little article” of “four little girls incinerated in a mud compound by a missile fired from a pilotless / drone.” After some more hand-wringing and fidgeting Johnson writes:
matter how self-
reflexive I get, or
how suspicious you become of my quaint
and insecure prosody,
And that guilt of being a poet, privileged with literary journals and cookouts, while other humans are “often-raped,” seems to weigh heavy on Johnson. The fact that Johnson loves poetry a great deal (not to mention his family and semi-comfortable life) only makes this guilt deeper. So at the end of the poem when he throws “a match / on the fuel-soaked / briquets” the burning feels real. And he’s got a point.
I don’t think I can justify the massive amount of time I pour into my own creative work and the flakey world of poetics, given the more tangible things that deserve attention in this world. (Think of the time I have spent on this essay alone, parsing words and phrases, as if doing so is of the utmost importance. Every one of those minutes/ hours might have been more usefully spent donating blood.) I have some guilt. Or rather, I have moments of guilt. I mean I can’t totally justify my work, but I continue to do it anyway.
What good is poetry? I know that this overly dramatic question could be legitimately answered a number of ways, but if you’re deeply involved in the world of poetry and you don’t seriously question its purpose and relevance from time to time, well, then, I guess I don’t know what to tell you. I do. And by seriously question, I mean question it to the point that, at least for a few days, or weeks, or years, you can’t come up with a good answer. And, I guess unsurprisingly, I think that questioning the world of poetry and its worth, in a sustained and critical way, or in simple spasmodic fits of doubt, is a valuable activity. Like Johnson writes in “33 Rules of Poetry for Poets 23 and Under”: “Ask yourself constantly: What is the worth of poetry? When you answer, ‘It is nothing,’ you have climbed the first step.”
While other poets spend so much time trying to convince us of poetry’s importance and worth, Johnson does just the opposite and, in the end, his version of poetry seems to be the most creditable. In his view, poetry is largely about ego, his own and others. From his point of view, while their actions may be wildly different, the ego of a poet and the ego of a torturer are both still just egos. And thus, despite all the fictions he weaves, I find myself thinking that his poetry is some of the most believable I’ve ever read. What a thing to say about Kent Johnson!
And the further irony (because there is always more irony when reading Johnson) is that by acknowledging the “nothingness” of poetry and demonstrating its silliness as it is juxtaposed against a world full of hurt, Johnson ends up writing poetry that does have value and meaning, if only because the mystery it can sow is contagious, so much so that even you, somehow, find yourself reading this sentence.
Peter Davis’ book of poems is Hitler’s Mustache and he edited Poet’s Bookshelf: Contemporary Poets on Books that Shaped Their Art. His poems appear recently in journals like Barrelhouse, Fou, Anti-, Tarpaulin Sky, and Double Room. He lives with his wife and kids in Muncie, Indiana and teaches at Ball State University. See more at http://artisnecessary.com/