Image: KJ Photo Self-Portrait
Fausto Bedoya “borrowed” my copy of Johnson’s newest book. I retrieved it and a journal entry from Bedoya’s flat. Theresa Smalec engaged me to review Johnson’s book. The deadline imminent, I’m submitting an excerpt from Bedoya’s journal in place of my review.
In “One Hundred Poems from the Chinese” Mei says, “It used to be that heterodox poetry, at least in the U.S., had some serious interface with the quotidian, and was more all-embracing for it” (47). The poem’s narrator extolls the quotidian, bemoaning shifts to language itself as poetic subject. Yet, roughly 100 years ago abstract expressionism shifted to the medium itself, soon followed by conceptual art. Johnson breaks alternate literary “rules” mingling actuality, virtuality, dream, rant, and literary critique. The first poem features irregular-length lines and rhyming couplets. If the line-breaks didn’t exist in this book, it’d qualify as quasi-fiction, or, “auto-theory,” combining subjective and autobiographical materials, mixing fact with invention. Because of Poetry emerges as poetic meta-narrative, with ritzy cover-art by Michael Basinski!
Johnson’s notoriety arose involving controversy surrounding a poetry book (Doubled Flowering) attributed to Araki Yasusada, a Japanese Hiroshima survivor, raising questions about authorship, translation, and politics. See review: http://jacketmagazine.com/04/ganderyasu.html. Johnson’s books include A Nation of Poets: Writing from the Workshops of Nicaragua; Beneath a Single Moon: Buddhism in Contemporary American Poetry (co-editor Craig Paulenich); Third Wave: The New Russian Poetry (co-editor Stephen Ashby); and Lyric Poetry After Auschwitz: Nine Submissions to the War. With Michael Boughn, Johnson edited Dispatches from the Poetry Wars (ceased, May 2020. SFU archive. Example; Dispatch #54 — Hasta la vista, baby | Dispatches Poetry Wars). Interviewed in the Argotist and Rain Taxi, Johnson has essays in Boston Comment, Jacket, The Chicago Review, and the Lana Turner Journal. He lived in Uruguay in his youth, worked with Sandanista Revolutionaires as a literacy and Adult Education volunteer teacher in Nicaragua. He taught English and Spanish at Highland Community College in Freeport Illinois, and was named “State Teacher of the Year.” He received numerous literary awards and research-grants. I appreciate how much of Johnson’s writing is available free, on-line.
Because of Poetry features five ironic/satiric sections, often featuring literary feuds, symbolic “killings” of fathers, mothers, and literary parental figures. Oedipus, Electra, whoever. What of parthenogenesis? Desires of a reading public suffering from reduced attention-span are best fed with gossip, feuds, petty dramas, maybe poetry. Feuds (Freudian or not), fuel bon-fires of vanity.
This book features numerous allusions to actual authors. For example, the first poem mentions Christopher Smart falling to his knees. Samuel Johnson once remarked, “My poor friend Smart showed the disturbance of his mind by falling upon his knees, and saying his prayers in the street, or in any other unusual place.” Sometimes, I’m not sure if Johnson is satiric or serious. Likely, both. Allusions abound, some fictional, others actual.
For example, in “Could Someone Tell Me Why” there’s mention of a “David Villon” who purportedly excluded Johnson-as-narrator from the Best American Poetry edition in 2006. That series, founded by poet-editor, David Lehman (1988), engages different guest editors each year. Lehman, general-editor of the series, annually contributes a foreword on the state of contemporary poetry. Each year, the guest-editor contributes an introduction. “Could Someone Tell Me Why?” (83), speciously suggests the founder was Robert Bly. The actual 2006 edition was guest-edited by Billy Collins, not David Villon (https://www.bestamericanpoetry.com/archive/?id=20.). Johnson blurs author/narrator. Amusing angry dysphemisms arise, “makes my butt want to grind corn” (86). More on that later. At first, such anger puzzles. Johnson must be joking. Groucho Marx (not Karl) once said, “I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.”
After all, why would a gadfly, attacking New American Poetry, wish inclusion in any publication re-affirming such poetry? In “Let Us Now Give Thanks to the New American Poetry,” Johnson satirically compares poets, critics, and “New American Poetry” (NAP) to antiquated architecture. That section challenges previous poetic generations, noting Gertrude Stein’s translation of stridently anti-Semitic speeches by Marshal Pétain, and Ezra Pound’s support of Mussolini’s fascism. One can parody tragedy, “But Satyr’s wage is lonesomeness” (21). The rant stops. The section concludes with, “Let us now give thanks/ to the New American poetry,” perhaps alluding ironically to James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941, w/Walker Evans’ photos), documenting lives of impoverished Great Depression farmers.
Johnson’s book also alludes to actual literary events, but with invented names. For example, “Could Someone Tell Me Why” seems to critique Kenny Goldsmith (89) regarding the Michael Brown “autopsy bomb” but uses the name “Kerman Lalond” (89. See; https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/mar/17/michael-brown-autopsy-report-poem-kenneth-goldsmith). Johnson’s satiric complexities demand intensive reader engagement to grasp text and sub-text.
Invented literary characters such as Foret Raguyer, Noemi Valois, David L’Amaury, David Villon, are contrasted with actual literati such as Geraldine Dodge, Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, and others. Satirically mingling accounts of poetry readings, exclusionism, and literary f(R)euds, Johnson cleverly reveals the lies of fiction/non-fiction by blurring author/narrator.
For example, the first poem alludes to a mysterious “White Temple.” Several white temple sites exist on-line, including a podcast where authors discussing literature question whether literary feuds are driven by intellectual differences, or professional rivalry. Feuds often involve career-building, replete with texts and a sub-texts. (See; https://lithub.com/edmund-white-and-emily-temple-on-literary-feuds-social-media-and-our-appetite-for-drama/). I appreciate that many of Johnson’s texts are free on-line. Euphemistically, open discourse makes me happier than a five-peckered dog who just found a cozy glove.
The first poem deploys a Surrealist dream, featuring a giantess taking the narrator back to his house, filled with fine poetry (11). Is this an allusion to Rabelais’ satire, Three Good Giants, featuring the giantess Queen Gargamelle? Or, is this “giantess” fictive? From poetic and oneiro-critical perspectives, the house has significance. It fulfills one of Maslow’s basic needs (e.g.; food, drink, shelter, and freedom from fear, including in one’s home). The “big house” in Johnson’s book begs a question about poetry’s socio-political purpose, a topic recurring throughout the book. This poem alludes to actual writers, Ashbery (1927-2017), and Neruda (1904-1973). Later, a predilection for “hammer and sickle” poets emerges, naming Mayakovsky (USSR) and Vallejo (Peru) as “pillars in my heart, without compare” (67). Johnson’s actual origins in Uruguay and support in struggles against oppressive regimes surfaces. Although Neruda overlooked Stalinist purges, Johnson acknowledges Stalinist oppression (as Foucault did when he critiqued left-wing French intellectuals for disregarding Stalin’s Gulag). Some say Mayakovsky was murdered by Stalinists. Vallejo, unfairly accused, died in exile in Paris. Johnson valorizes poets fighting for human rights.
This book contrasts socio-politically engaged vs. elitist poets. When the narrator in the first poem has trouble rhyming the word “poetry” (which rhymes with Ashbery), the Giantess offers “Toiletry” alongside “Popery,” and “Coterie.” Ashbery, winner of nearly every major American award for poetry, was considered by many to be the most influential poet of his time and served as Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. He is contrasted with Chile’s leftist, Nobel prize-winning, Pablo Neruda, who supported Allende but fled Pinochet’s dictatorship. Perhaps “All Because of Poetry I have a Really Big House” alludes to Larrain’s movie Neruda, documenting that poet’s escape from his Chilean house, while playing cat and “mouse” (11) with murderous authorities hunting him for political reasons. Dictators have low tolerance for poets. Drawing inspiration from Plato, Chile’s Piñera recently held a plebiscite banning poets (https://nacla.org/chile-art-protest-movement). Language poets are critiqued in Because of Poetry, but they also valorize authors struggling against oppressive regimes. For example, Bernstein’s Shadowtime mixes fiction and non-fiction, depicting Walter Benjamin’s death due to Nazism (http://writing.upenn.edu/epc/authors/bernstein/shadowtime/). Johnson’s book satirizes poetry as bourgeois indulgence for the economically comfortable, while extolling poetry as vehicle for inspiring desirable social change. This book reveals why it’s not just about a really big house.
Fausto Bedoya is a reclusive, socially-engaged editor, freelance writer, literary critic, and political activist. He has been published in Windsor Salt, Algoma Ink, and Rampike.