“Poets Eyeing America,” A Collage by Eliot Katz
I wanted to send in a contribution to your Kent Johnson “dossier.” Although Kent Johnson and I are almost the same age in our mid-60s (I’m younger by only two years) and we have both been doing poetry and progressive politics for decades, somehow our paths never crossed in the poetry world until 2017, when I had a poem included in the terrific, comprehensive, 700-plus-page political poetry anthology that Kent and Michael Boughn co-edited, Resist Much Obey Little, after the disappointing election of Donald Trump. After that hard-copy publication, I became an admirer of, and occasional contributor to, the energetic website that Kent and Mike created, Dispatches from the Poetry Wars.
Since your website asked for comments mainly on Kent’s new book, Because of Poetry, I Have a Really Big House (Shearsman Books, 2020), I’m going to let people who know Kent longer than I do write about Kent’s earlier work, except to say that, in looking up some of his earlier work, I’ve appreciated his anti-war and anti-torture poetry and also his commitment to spend years teaching poetry workshops in Sandinista Nicaragua.
Both in the Resist Much anthology and the recently retired Dispatches website, it was fascinating to see a poet/editor (along with his co-editor) embrace a far wider-than-usual range of poets and poetic styles, while at the same time demonstrating a sharp eye for calling out literary hypocrisy and the poetically ill-intentioned. The main goal of both Dispatches and Resist Much, it seems to me, was to try to keep poetry relevant to our social world, even as the overall impact of poetry these days seems to be diminishing among an array of more well-funded and more widely viewed art forms—from films and music to creative instagrams and tweets–available for viewing or listening via thousands of TV channels or hundreds of thousands of online venues.
With an exceptional mix of intelligence, humor, political critique, and formal variety/inventiveness, Kent’s newest poetry book is an extraordinary hypocrisy-detector—kind of like offering readers of poetry a super-sensitive metal finder to look for buried coins. The book is also a very engaging and fun read! Some writers have noted that Kent Johnson’s work carries on the tradition of great 18th century satirists like Pope and Swift, and I think they are largely right about that—although I would say that Kent’s book is, even more so, in the left, contemporary satirical, and serious, tradition of … Kent Johnson. One of the ingredients that can make poetry memorable is the element of surprise—in the way that Emily Dickinson said that good poetry made the top of her head feel like it was coming off–, and Kent’s poetry and his language is full of surprises on every page.
Kent notes that it isn’t always easy digging out hypocrisy in the poetry world: “It was complicated digging the tunnels under the Poetry Institution.” Here is Kent criticizing the well-funded Poetry Foundation’s having taken Big Pharma money and then allowing former national intelligence officials to have actual decision-making roles: “The grand Coalition of careerist / cliques was much boosted by the institution’s / lawyered birth in wake of the $100+ million opioid Lilly gift…past links to the…State Department, the CIA and NSA…/ it’s right there on their public vitas.” And here’s a critique of conceptual poets who made their names partly by criticizing dominant institutions only to become a major part of those dominant institutions: “the sell-off started with / the general messaging of the Po-left / into Academe…./ Later, the Poetry / Foundation swabbed up lumpen Avant / surplus for cheap.” And here is Kent understanding the deep fix we’re in, in the wider political world, including the ever-growing danger of climate change, and the attempts by some, including the author, to help create positive social transformation: “I arrived to the vast cities in a time of bedlam, / Of great heat and extinction and rising seas…. / And I rose and rebelled alongside them.”
After his criticisms of aspects of the poetry world, Kent gives us some positive visions, including telling us which poets he continues to admire, and it is indeed a wide range of international poets who are included in that group: English-language poets like Rukeyser, Baraka, Niedecker, and Duncan; international poets like Mayakovsky, Vallejo, Villon, Cavafy, and Dalton; and French surrealists, Japanese haiku poets, and Mexican Infrarealists. For Johnson, one of the goals in remaining on an honest poetry path is “how to refuse being a pawn in the / Rules of the Game,” and he insists, “I’m not letting / anyone buy my goddamn way.”
And he has certainly used that sense of maintaining one’s heartfelt poetic and political principles to write a unique and terrific new book. From his work on the Resist Much anthology and on the Dispatches website, we know that Kent Johnson reads boatloads of contemporary poetry—and his book reveals a deep well of knowledge of historical verse. Yet, in a funny, and what seems to me a Mayakovskian beginning, to one of his book’s poems, “With Fred Seidel, near the Matterhorn, in 2020,” Johnson starts off, “I don’t read poetry unless I have to, which / would be when a guard from Penn is pressing / a knife to my throat.”
Apparently, Kent Johnson’s past poetic work has included some detective-worthy mysteries well-publicized in some poetry-world circles, mysteries that he seems from afar (or from some interviews on the web) to have enjoyed being a part of (at least some of them). I’m personally not too sure about the “minute particulars” (Blake) of those mysteries, so I’ll leave it up to others to write about those. But what I can say about those past mysteries is that they seem to have motivated Kent to keep moving along an inspired and inspiring poetic path, doing his best to help keep his readers on their toes and ever-thinking, as well as entertained–and hopefully writing and/or working to build a healthier and more equitable planet.