I’ve been invited to add to this dossier on Kent Johnson on the occasion of the publication of his most recent book, Because of Poetry I Have a Really Big House (Shearsman, 2020). I like the fact that Theresa Smalec, one of the editors but not someone very involved with the poetry world, expresses curiosity about Johnson’s notoriety there, the controversies that have surrounded Johnson, his work and his opinions, his avowals and disavowals, and the divisiveness that clings to his name; and that her interest in open-mindedness has led her to open the website, if you will, to collect what might show up.
Johnson’s been duking it out with various figures in the more formally & ideologically forward-leaning scene for many years now, decades even, before we had these infernally enticing digital platforms to dance on, back in the day when back-&-forths took place on electronic bulletin boards and such. I was never a part of any of that, didn’t know anything about it. But I got to see some of the funnier hypocrisies playout in the dim lit corridors of Berkeley’s Wheeler Hall in the late eighties and early nineties, where Language poetry collided with so-called “establishment” poetry, where Bob Perelman and Barret Watten—doctoral students some years ahead of me at the time—mixed uneasily with faculty such as Robert Pinsky (one of my favorite teachers there), Bob Hass (with whom I had the great good luck of working closely as an assistant), Peter Dale Scott (ditto), Alfred Arteaga (a warm and generously encouraging soul to any young poet), Ishmael Reed (no one made me laugh harder), and Thom Gunn (with whom I worked closely for over ten years). Fred Moten was there, too, working on the dissertation that would become (I believe) In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Radical Black Tradition. –(I don’t know that anyone at Berkeley at that time knew that Fred was really a poet. I always enjoyed running into him and talking to him about improvisation; his sophistication was intimidating, but he was always remarkably genial and open. Of all the lost opportunities of those years, not getting to know him better is one that sticks with me).
Between Berkeley and Buffalo, a lot of poetics—remember “poetics”?—got hashed out. It was one of the vectors, in addition to New York, Chicago, LA, where poets, poetry, and poetics all tensely co-existed in relation to the idea of an establishment, located nowhere, really, but felt in the foundations, prizes, publications, programs, etc. which, to many minds, raised careers while razing the field of an egalitarian writing community. Eventually, this establishment, with its basement capital, swallowed everyone and all poetics—there seems to be no known margin that it cannot ingest and metabolize by unhinging its jaws and opening wider. (The most recent allegory of this process may be seen on television, the moment when Jon Hamm, playing ad exec Don Draper in the series, Mad Men, sees a guy in a bar reading a hot new book of counter-culture poetry, Frank O’Hara’s Meditations in an Emergency, and later picks up a copy to better inform a new tactic for selling the cultural revolution back to its revolutionaries).
There might have been a time when the avant-garde was indigestible, but that’s history; and it’s now available in many editions for your study and entertainment if not your inspiration. In the U.S., eventual collaboration has been a norm for many decades now, as poets who stood against the establishment—at least its most obvious embodiments–eventually joined it, especially in the universities—they may have changed aspects of it, but they also eagerly participated in it. Pound got kicked out of Penn; Bernstein sits in an endowed chair there. What does that mean? Does it have a meaning? Today I opened the December issue of Poetry magazine, to a poem by Noor Hindi titled, “Fuck Your Lecture on Craft, My People Are Dying.” It’s an arresting poem in a magazine published by a foundation floating on big pharma money, and represents “establishment” to the max. How does the reality of that context become part of the poem’s meaning?
I started writing poetry in college and studying it with concerted devotion under the tutelage of teaching poets; having moved to the Midwest from New Jersey ‘burbs, I kept going further west to study more with other poets I admired. I started out in an established situation of poetry, however much it was shifting around in the mid-eighties, and I had no conversion experience. I found the poets I wanted to work with, stuck with them, and learned as much as I could. The scene in the Bay Area at that time was heady, and poetry was happening everywhere, on campuses and far away from them, too. You could catch June Jordan or Derek Walcott, Czeslaw Milosz or Gerald Vizenor at Cal one night, Michael McClure and Denise Levertov at CCAC in Oakland another night, Michael Palmer in SF on the third, and Julia Vinograd (“The Bubble Lady”) whenever you might run into her at Café Med or outside Moe’s Books on Telegraph Avenue. It seemed never to stop, and it was great to this twenty-something kid reading and writing poems. I had no idea it was all comet-tail embers, it felt timeless. It was an established establishment situation, albeit of a west coast anti-establishment establishment. You ran into everyone everywhere. And similar scenes could be found in many cities. I knew nothing of AWP and the MFA world; I eventually entered it in order to make a living: more establishment. It’s easy to demarcate one aspect of the establishment by following the money: Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young did this recently, in a sense, by mapping out how publications and prizes follow patterns of institutional support, especially formal schooling and other coterie associations (http://asapjournal.com/on-poets-and-prizes-juliana-spahr-and-stephanie-young/). But the fuller truth is more amorphous, because the poetry establishment is less about dollars and more about prestige; money plays its fluffing part, but there is a difficult-to-pinpoint fashion force at work, too, that creates appearances of radical chic that depend on some critical distance from capital; and like moths to a flame, etc.
I’m waxing memoiristic here because Kent Johnson’s book is precisely about the vanities of this world—the poetry world as it has been established and establishmentized in the U.S. over the past sixty years or so, inside the academy and out, but particularly in the past thirty-five, which have involved Johnson the most directly. And because at this point I’m clearly a part of the (under read and over schooled) establishment in the crosshairs of Johnson’s sharpshooting satires. (Disclaimer: Johnson and Mike Boughn published my chapbook, Everything I Do I Do Good: Trumpoems, as a digital edition through Dispatches Against the Poetry Wars).
The thing is, I don’t feel very implicated, even though I know I am; and this is part of the problem of such satires—unless you’re named directly—and Johnson’s poems are very à la cleffy—you can laugh it off. Were any of the Italian Futurists who weren’t Marinetti and Pampini much bothered by Mina Loy’s skewering of fascist masculinist pretensions? Probably not. Did any midcentury Midwest poets who weren’t Robert Bly and James Wright feel skewered by Thomas McGrath’s satires about aesthete complacency? Unlikely. Does satire’s ambition as a moral corrective ever work? Luckily we’re not searching for validation. I think at best I feel warned, as if I might be in danger of violating some understood precepts about how to behave as a decent person in the world. The stakes are all-involving of the soul. And I’m happy to be warned in such a wickedly entertaining manner. The poems in Johnson’s Big House are genuinely funny, sliding from vigorous doggerel verse to deliberately empty and lovely lyric writing–killer kitsch. I also find them a little sad—not pathetic, but sometimes I sense a feeling I attribute to Johnson that the poetry world continues to disappoint him and let us all down: the idealism that poetry once suggested, perhaps, of comradery, of shared purpose and shared values—that idealism is hard to find, and once found hard to keep, hard to continue believing in. That sense of loss or impossibility is the ironic discrepancy Ben Lerner reads between Poetry, as idealized phenomena and mere poems with all their limitations, the source of Moore’s “dislike”, and the hotter heat that he names “the hatred of poetry.” But do people really hate poetry?
It’s not so much the poetry establishment, whatever that means in the end, but poets themselves that are so disappointing: preening, petty, peevish, false, grandiose, narrow in mind, tribal in allegiance, ambitious, hypocritical, hyper-critical, hipper-than-thou, and happy in misery, self-induced. Because they’re really just like everyone else, they are driven by interests rather than finding ultimate poise in the disinterest we often imagine belonging to the genuine poet of negative capability. Whitman’s bold statement about contradicting himself and containing multitudes is now a tired bon mot falling on Bose headphones; the contrariness has been domesticated and redeployed. If the art has lost the nobility it once had, it’s not because there’s a Poetry Foundation sitting like a dragon on a pile of gold, or an MFA program in every quadrant, but because poets have professionalized themselves from the inside out. As if poetry were a profession, or a vocation even. This doesn’t happen because you go to school for two years, or get a poem accepted by the New Yorker. People don’t hate poetry, they hate poets, especially living ones; they see us as dentists who think of themselves as tooth-fairies. Is this like a spiritual virus? It goes around and around, the ego’s need to insist on the self’s existence, a virus born of the lyric. If so, the vaccine is available, it’s in your own mind to take, a strong dose; and the needle pricks. You’ll find it well stocked in Johnson’s Big House.
The moral spur of satire is to aim higher, to be better. But what of the satirist? There is a danger for him as well. A pure cynic smells flowers and looks around for a funeral (Mencken)—he can’t do otherwise. But one senses a Romantic undercurrent beneath the Big House that poetry has built for the professional poets, and that Johnson draws from as it runs along the shores of this negation. Unless this, too, is being drained by the ironies, the after-burn of an image of a moral life in poetry remains, exemplified in Johnson’s book by poets such as Li Shang-yin and Niedecker and Lew Welch, and most of all Brecht—all stars by which to guide one’s barque. (“Ah, the Sea,” E.D. pines, as we navigate our craft). Brecht is present as the exemplar above all, in a translation Johnson coins a “translucination”, of “An die Nachgeborenen” (“To Those Who May Come After”). The compassion Brecht hopes for at the end of that poem is proleptic, the poet’s posture that of one who includes himself in the count.
Poetry really is a really big house, after all, with winding corridors, attic spaces, and stairways that go nowhere. There is no longer a perceptible avant-garde; the establishment appears to be total, though the true margin from whence an authentically new poetry could emerge is probably beyond our ken, likely bi-lingual (Spanish), and outside the parameters of any schoolground. Maybe it was twenty years ago that I randomly came across catalog copy for a course to be taught by a radically chic poet in the summer program at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown; it was called “How to Write an Avant-Garde Poem.” No shit. I stared at that for a long time and relished the inanity of it, the life of Poetry and the needs of poets performing under the big-top at the Vanity Fair.
6 December 2020