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Dale Smith

Dale Smith: ‘Lyric Poetry after Auschwitz’?:

Kent Johnson and Political Satire

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Many recall Theodor Adorno’s claim that, following the atrocities at Auschwitz, it had become impossible, in the West, to write lyric poetry.[1] Of course, that has not stopped anyone from trying. But poets who desire to engage with issues of public relevance often have abandoned the lyric in favor of satire, social documentation, modernist assemblage, and other strategies of poetic engagement. Groups of activists like PIPA (Poetry Is Public Art), moreover, combine a skilful use of poetic language with social commentary that can be adapted to specific public environments, creating textual spaces that transform the area in which readers pass.


The roots of this sort of direct public engagement can be seen in the personal documentary and expressivist lyrics of Denise Levertov, with others following her lead in this regard, adapting urgent social or political messages to fit the requirements of place and time.[2] Those still practicing lyric poetry, however, frequently do not engage the public sphere with the same kind of conscious desire to change perceptions of social issues in it. Although the ethical portent of Adorno’s statement remains challenging to anyone who works within expressivist modes, it might be enough to say that the lyric’s value these days can be assessed largely outside of public contexts. Its audiences are composed, more frequently, of creative writing students and professors who distribute their work within the fairly confined social spaces of the university and other legitimizing institutions.


While certainly lyric poetry might still be used to make large public statements, its success as rhetorical discourse that engages a public audience on diverse social issues is achieved with greater difficulty. Adorno explains this as a result of social transactions in an environment that since World War II implicate the ‘innocent’ activities of poets (and everyone else) within a larger frame of political and cultural submission to Western economic objectives.[3] More self-conscious rhetorical strategies and poetic modes are required to effectively comment on issues relevant to public concern.


Although this is not the place to consider more fully Adorno’s claims, it is important to acknowledge this divide between lyric practice and public engagement when turning to the work of Kent Johnson, a poet based in a small town in Northern Illinois, where he teaches Spanish and English at a local community college. Despite this geographically remote location, his reputation and presence online and in print has grown dramatically over the last decade. Importantly, his political satire comments on a number of issues that allow readers to reflect on the role of poetry as a possible instrument of social change for communities of authors as well as the diverse public spaces they inhabit. Particularly, Johnson aims his arguments at contemporary avant-garde poetry audiences,[4] challenging them to look at the rhetorical contexts in which aesthetic forms operate and how social situations and ideologies have changed radically since the inception of Italian Futurism, Dadaism, and other avant-garde movements of the last century. By doing this, he moves attention from the aesthetic object to the rhetorical contexts that give meaning to poetic practice. For Johnson, writing can be used to challenge existing ideological paradigms, and in many ways he relies on the agonistic and even nihilistic tendencies found in early twentieth-century avant-garde work.[5]


His critique of ideology, power, coterie formation, and aesthetic practice within contemporary poetry communities attends the discordant relations between much contemporary avant-garde theory and practice, too. Although Johnson shares a predominately leftist ideology with some members of contemporary avant-garde poetry communities, he wants to bring attention to the rhetorical failure of many contemporary writers to fully exploit their poetry within situations that give meaning and shape to public life.[6] Since the U. S. government exerts so much power globally, he reminds those involved in forms of North American-based poetry that their art should advance social awareness rather than perform aesthetic values appreciated only within the more limited communal spaces of contemporary poetics.[7] Rather than performing the correct ideological values in a particular poem or avant-garde performance, Johnson wants to find more rhetorically effective and persuasive means to speak out about dissonant social realities that exist in contemporary ideologies and artistic practices. In order to show how Johnson’s satire persuades readers to reflect more carefully on their ideological commitments, I want to look at a few poems that address the ongoing wars in the Middle East. I will show how they work not only to bring attention to those wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also to challenge readers to evaluate their roles within contemporary avant-garde communities.[8]


In Homage to the Last Avant-Garde[9] — perhaps his finest contribution to the dilemmas of contemporary writing — Johnson reflects critically on the political and social contexts in which poetry is written. One way he does this is by bringing attention to how contemporary avant-garde communities privilege particular textual canons and aesthetic practices over addressing situations of public crisis and social value. In ‘The New York School (Or: I Grew Ever More Intense)’ the first person persona he creates describes a morning toilet routine, interspersed with voices that recount horrific scenes of loss and terror in certain Asian, African, and Arab nations. He achieves incongruent juxtapositions in the poem by placing satirical commentary on modern American poetry next to scenes of violence in the contemporary Middle East. For instance, he writes:


I turned over the bottle of shampoo and Frank O’Hara came out. I rubbed him all into my head, letting the foam rise, knowing I was just warming myself up, excited by the excess of what was to come.[10]


Later on, New York School poet Barbara Guest squirts out of a shaving cream can and James Schuyler is squeezed from a tube of toothpaste. Images of Ted Berrigan aftershave and Kenneth Koch mouthwash also are directed at readers familiar with New York School poetry. Between these satiric paragraphs, however, we find narratives such as this:


a young girl… climbed out of the burning car in which her mother, father, and sister sat dead, their open-eyed bodies on slow fire. In shock she walked around in tight circles, her fingers hanging by nerves and skin from her hands… She simply walked in circles for about five minutes, an impassive look on her face, until she slowly knelt and curled up in apparent sleep on the street, the shooting continuing above her body for another twenty minutes or so. During that time, she bled to death.[11]


Readers, then, must confront these prosaic frames, alternating between poetic satire and horrific narrative. This incongruent presentation never explicitly states an argument, and it is possible that some might find the satire to be directly aimed at those poets of the New York school whom Johnson so enthusiastically absorbs into his body. But really, the satire is directed at contemporary poets who are too preoccupied with their investments in particular schools of thought or practice to apprehend how their reception of particular historic practices of writing may not work rhetorically under new social and political contexts. For instance, the New York School poets featured in this poem all came into public view during the 1950s and 60s as the Cold, Korean, and Vietnam wars informed the political agendas and ideology of the period. Using Adorno’s argument that implicates western complacency as a kind of shadow agency making possible global economic and political policies for disadvantaged nations, Johnson suggests that the time and social space made available to these New York School poets was bought through the suffering of others in far away places. The American practice of poetry is paid for in blood insofar as the freedom from economic stress purchased through U. S. policy abroad allowed certain poets to pursue their art in all its complex dimensions and avant-garde formal possibilities.[12]


While contemporary avant-garde aesthetic practice is often linked historically to Italian futurism and, especially, Dadaism, with an emphasis on ‘a revolt against art, morality, and society’,[13] Johnson points out that since the conditions of society have altered significantly — particularly in the decade since 9/11 — the rhetorical-poetic strategies of these earlier movements are no longer successful. After witnessing an initial campaign in Iraq, for instance, that promised ‘Shock and awe’ Johnson suggests that other strategies contesting American foreign policy and domestic ideology are required for poets who must stop living in the past with avant-garde formal techniques that now even the U. S. military employs to reinforce its own message of change.[14] Johnson, by contrast, asks readers to examine their situations as American citizens, and what that means within the smaller communities and public spaces they inhabit. Doing this, his discordant prose segments destabilize expectations, and his work asks that reflection on social practice extend to other global communities, and not just to a contemporary lineage composed of avant-garde formal strategies. In this way, public spaces can be addressed by poetry to make diverse communities more aware of the interaction of global politics and economic systems with the social and moral values in our daily experience.


If an avant-garde―governed, etymologically, by a metaphor of militarization―is supposed to be situated at the frontlines of culture, showing others new perspectives of the world and how to live in it―as well as promoting, among other things, social change and demonstrating responses to potentially dangerous ideologies―then Johnson’s critique asks for a greater persuasive role for poetry, and not just a formal and historical acceptance of strategies developed in the past for other situations. His work questions relationships of imagination to poetic practice, personal experience, and political power. He insists, too, that poets are not innocent of the political forces they may critique, and that rhetorical strategies that bring awareness to diverse global and cultural situations are preferable to the less persuasive formal performances of in-groups reinforcing their own limited cultural beliefs. By bringing this kind of awareness of the various social strata that exist in public modalities composed of U. S. poets and their audiences, Johnson challenges contemporary public narratives that associate poetry with aesthetic pleasure. His work, therefore, shows that American conflict abroad requires poetic inquiry because such address differs significantly from mediated forms that deliver a legitimized public debate. Johnson’s use of poetry to make socio-political messages influences belief and desire, so that in effect he prepares readers in advance of their participation in other forums of public deliberation.


‘Lyric Poetry After Auschwitz, or: “Get the Hood Back On”’, a poem that examines American ideological values in correspondence with the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal, also challenges readers to consider the rhetorical atmosphere in which poetry is produced and read. While this long poem works through a number of cultural perspectives and public narratives that juxtapose American ideological values with physical acts of torture in Iraq, I want to focus on the final performative section. In it, Johnson explicitly argues for more effective social and political witness from contemporary poets. ‘Hi there, Madid’, he writes in this controversial stanza:


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 inAmerican 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, which include anti-war poetry readings at the Lincoln Center and the Poetry Project, with appetizers and wine and New World Music and lots of pot. And because nothing is simple in this world, and because no one gets out unscathed, I’m going to just be completely candid with you: 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 because that’s the breaks; poetry is hard, and people go up in flames for lack of it everyday. By the time any investigation gets to you, your grandchildren will have been dead over one thousand years, and poetry will be inhabiting regions you can’t even begin to imagine. Well, we did our best; sorry we couldn’t have done better… I want you to take this self-righteous poem, soak it in this bedpan of crude oil, and shove it down your pleading, screaming throat.
Now, get the hood back on.[15]


Here the rhetorical voice begins as a kind of left-leaning stereotype of what a contemporary poet might be. Such a person makes their political commitments known through the Poets Against War website, or by writing for other recognized journals. She is culturally sophisticated, embracing ‘Arab music’ and reflects with critical acumen on ‘progressive’ issues through the cultural criticism of ‘Adorno and Spivak’. This left-leaning individual ‘voted for Clinton and Gore’ in what is meant to suggest a tepid form of socio-political commitment.


Although he is creating a sort of ‘straw man’ caricature of left-leaning poets, these images are effective because they show how some of these stereotypical narratives remain viable in contemporary culture. The critique is not solely against the scandal of abuse at Abu Ghraib; it is directed at conflicting moral and social values in American ideology that officially or unofficially create environments for actions as extreme as torture. Although Americans like to tell stories of ourselves as good people who bring freedom and democracy to other nations, western ideologies also validate aggressive social behavior in many situations. The images from Abu Ghraib shocked and confused viewers because of the intense conflict the prison scandal raised about official ideologies and American narratives. Identification with the side of righteousness was submerged in images of prisoners reduced to the level of animals at the hands of the U. S. military. By using these volatile images of prison torture to construct his poetic narrative, Johnson rhetorically engages American cultural values and military law by arranging satiric narrative through the perspectives of different U. S. citizen types, including poets who like to identify socially and politically with the Left and its culturally legitimizing institutions. By doing so Johnson suggests that actions and attitudes performed within diverse public modes are implicated in global events, too. And in his work he addresses those beliefs in order to make persuasive commentary on perspectives that are in conflict with our own.


How, as Charles Bernstein once asked, should poets ‘pursue our own forms of ethical and aesthetic response’ in the face of ‘the sort of pronouncement by fiat and moral presumption of President Bush and his partisans’?[16] This dilemma has challenged poets and artists of the last decade to evaluate rhetorical strategies, determining what may work from the past, and what needs to be reinvigorated. One noticeable change in the present is that the formal obligations of poetry are beginning to give way to a more thoughtful understanding of the contexts in which forms contribute to arguments that can persuade diverse public audiences on issues of social significance. Although the Bush administration contributed to an era of ideological fear and uncertainty, asking, for instance, that Americans begin shopping once more in order to maintain a sense of economic order after the events of 9/11, many poets, artists, activists, and intellectuals found other ways to conduct life. And in response to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, many took their views into diverse public spaces where speculation on the nature of contemporary life in democratic society could be renewed, or shaped in opposition to official consensus and ideology.


While poets and activists during the Vietnam War could address audiences who shared similar social and cultural claims about war, domestic policy, and other issues that would include gender and race in the 1960s and ’70s, poets who shared positions against war and the Bush administration’s retaliatory strikes after 9/11 confronted greater ideological challenges. While large rallies and oratorical practices that addressed activists were useful in the past, the post 9/11 situation required new rhetorical strategies that could speak to an audience, often by word of mouth, through limited textual exchanges and performative engagements, or through the digital possibilities offered by the web.


Although there are similarities in these strategies, there are numerous differences, too. Sam Hamill’s Poets Against War web site and PIPA share with Johnson, for instance, similar ideological perspectives that associate their social and political views with the Left, and yet their strategies of engagement with an audience are radically different.[17] Sam Hamill’s promotion of Poets Against War as a digital site of protest provides thousands of textual responses to war. This makes it difficult, however, to succeed in persuading readers beyond the limited communities of poets represented by the site because no one has time to thoughtfully read through each poem.


Moreover, many of the poems convey similar arguments against war. The representation of the voices on the site, then, is not about the arguments presented in the poems, but about an extant population of American citizens willing to contribute their public opposition to the Iraq War. While Hamill’s use of digital technology to protest war is interesting (particularly in how this digital component interfaces with other print strategies, such as the print anthology, Poets Against the War), much of the work, as well as the editorial support, reinforces the cultural values and beliefs of the participants, but offers little to those who may not already share in these attitudes about the war in Iraq. Moreover, the basic argument―‘poets against war’―offers an unspecific desire grounded in moral preference rather than an actual commitment to a particular and achievable goal. Few people would stand up, if asked, to announce their support for war. And yet, depending upon the situation, there are moments, clearly, when war can be justified. While Hamill’s social position is honorable, and he has contributed an important oppositional presence through his work, the rhetorical strategies employed through Poets Against War make it difficult for this opposition to create a lasting public effect.


Johnson’s satiric stance, by contrast, brings critical attention to the public role of contemporary poetry insofar as his arguments question the values held by communities of writers and their willingness to contribute to important political issues. While his work is often seen as controversial, and his critiques against his peers are received frequently with hostility, he continues an avant-garde project that values ‘a revolt against art, morality, and society.’ Such a ‘revolt’ for Johnson is centered predominantly on how collective ideologies and national narratives shape artistic, moral, and social values. By bringing new perspectives in his satire into collision with received poetic practices, Johnson challenges contemporary poets to consider more carefully their commitments to audiences in diverse public situations. He asks also that they adapt their words and images to the particular requirements of social and political situations. The public and private spaces wherein larger national narratives and ideologies are processed by observers of foreign and domestic policy become significant staging grounds wherein poetry can be used to influence belief and desire.


[1] In ‘Cultural Criticism and Society’, Prisms (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1994), first published in 1951, Adorno makes the claim that all poetry is implicated in a kind of cultural ‘barbarism’: ‘Even the most extreme consciousness of doom threatens to degenerate into idle chatter. Cultural criticism finds itself faced with the final stage of the dialectic of culture and barbarism. To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. And this corrodes even the knowledge of why it has become impossible to write poetry today’. In ‘On Lyric Poetry and Society’, (1954) Notes to Literature, vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), Adorno narrows his claim to focus on lyric poetry in particular, arguing that since the Holocaust, such writing is no longer possible in the West.

[2] It is perhaps worth noting that Levertov’s espressivist and pathetic strategies might inspire Adorno’s distrust of lyrical poetry in the final half of the twentieth century. Without experiencing the specific suffering of the Vietnamese, she wrote as a witness to their experience in work such as To Stay Alive. The discordance between experience and pathetic invention introduces problems of ethos. How do we, as readers, trust the words of a westerner attempting to manipulate our understanding of events for which, say, no witnesses are able to speak out on behalf of their experience? The My Lai massacre, for instance, resists reconciliation by the constructed pathos of a western lyric strategist.

[3] See Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life (New York: Verso, 1974) for investigations of the moral and psychological problems associated with Western social and economic systems.

[4] The readers of contemporary poetry, of course, are numerous and various. Johnson’s work, however, aims at readers familiar with the historical and aesthetic history of twentieth-century avant-garde movements such as Futurism, Dadaism, Surrealism, and visual poetries, along with more contemporary variations and responses to these. His work, in many ways, points to the ways contemporary poets and readers who identify with avant-garde movements often neglect the more political and social associations with those approaches to art. Many question, indeed, in a post-Language Poetry moment where groups as diverse as Flarf and Slow Poetry coexist (if somewhat bitterly) within such socially and aesthetically aligned scenes, whether or not the goals of an avant-garde remain at all viable. Many, including Johnson, use Ron Silliman’s inadequate and problematic phrase ‘post-avant’ to describe contemporary writers who identify with ‘experimental’ strategies of composition anchored in avant-garde aesthetic history. See Silliman’s Blog for current discussions of this audience available at; for promotions of Flarf see Lime-Tree available at; a comprehensive archive of European and American avant-garde visual work is available at; see Possum Ego available at for discussions related to Slow Poetry; other comprehensive perspectives on contemporary poetry and its readers can be located at Harriet, the blog of the Poetry Foundation available at

[5] For a discussion of these tendencies in avant-garde art, see The Theory of the Avant-Garde. Renato Poggioli. trans Gerald Fitzgerald (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1968), 61‒77.

[6] Indeed, Johnson was for many years a railroad mechanic and active member of the Socialist Workers Party; in the ’80s, he worked on two occasions as a literacy teacher in war zones in Sandinista Nicaragua.

[7] Johnson also translates modernist poetry from Latin America, and he often points out the differences in avant-garde traditions of Anglophone poetry and the South American adaptations of European modernism, which is usually more socially and politically motivated. His translations with Forrest Gander of the Bolivian poet Jaime Saenz have been recognized by PEN American center, including The Night (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007) and Immanent Visitor (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002).

[8] Although he publishes work in traditional book formats, he maintains a complicated public presence in the comments sections of many of the most frequented poetry blogs, such as Silliman’s Blog and Harriet, the blog of the Poetry Foundation. Such public action online has been read as willful self-promotion, and yet, Johnson also remains consistent with his critique of both expressivist and experimental poetry that neglects to engage social conditions.

[9] Homage to the Last Avant-Garde (Exeter: Shearsman Books, 2008).

[10] Johnson, Homage, 12.

[11] Johnson, Homage, 15.

[12] I do not mean to imply here that such complicity is overtly conscious or self-aware on the part of poets and artists in post-World War Two U. S. culture. For Adorno, however, the conditions have been such that artists under global capitalism have been able to explore an extraordinary range of meanings and formal possibilities with a great deal of structural support. Kenneth Burke, perhaps says it better, in a brief review of Thomas Mann’s trilogy, Joseph and His Brothers: ‘To live by contingencies alone is unquestionably the most comforting way to live―and contented ages have probably been those in which the concepts of duty were wholly of this specific sort, harvesting when the crops were ripe, shearing when the sheep were heavy, and coupling when the body felt the need of its counterbody. But the world of contingencies is now wholly in disarray. In our despicable economic structure, to do the things thus immediately required of us is too often to do despicable things. It is at such times, I imagine, that the question of duty naturally becomes more generalized, and attempts at defining the “ultimate vocation” seem most apropos.’ See Burke, ‘Permanence and Change’, The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973), 429.

[13] Georges Ribémont-Dessaignes qtd in ‘Agonism and Futurism’, The Theory of the Avant-Garde. Renato Poggioli. trans Gerald Fitzgerald (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1968), 63.

[14] Today, reality shocks with much greater speed and suddenness than art. Since 9/11 we have witnessed wars, occupations, and U. S.-sanctioned torture in the Middle East (with photographs that border on the pornographic), along more recently with shocks to the global financial system. Contemporary avant-garde poetry, Johnson suggests in his work, must move against the spectacles created by contemporary culture. It does this not by shocking bourgeois audiences, but by persuasively revealing other perspectives.

[15] Johnson, Homage, 122.

[16] ‘Enough’, statement for a public reading of Enough: An Anthology of Poetry and Writing Against the War, Rick London and Leslie Scalapino, eds. (Berkeley: O Books, 2003) on the web site Circulars: Poets and Critics Respond to U. S. Global Policy available accessed 21 March 2009.

[17] As an interesting side note, PAW, which regularly promoted all manner of ‘anti-war’ poetry publications in the wake of the initial promotion of the site, refused to support Johnson’s work, even though his poem ‘Baghdad’ had appeared in the selected PAW anthology and been included as one of the fifteen or so poems featured (from approximately 15,000 at the site) in a special Monthly Review journal portfolio. The editors of PAW presumably were taken aback by the ‘self-critical’ reference to PAW in the title poem, which validates much of the poem’s critique.

Dale Smith

Dale Smith

Dale Smith lives in Austin, Texas, with the poet Hoa Nguyen. His poems, essays, and reviews appear in Chicago Review, Damn The Caesars, Jacket and in other print and digital media. He is the author of several books — most recently, Susquehanna — and writes a popular poetry blog, Possum Ego (

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