Image of Ben Jonson

I’ve enjoyed reading Kent Johnson’s Because of Poetry so much that I’ve read it about five times, laughing my head off every time, wiping my eyes, bent over clutching my stomach. Not only is it hilarious, it’s an important and original and over-the-top work of criticism.

The criticism of poetry BY or IN poems has few obvious antecedents, although each describable era is understood to be a critique, or a correction, of the weaknesses (moral, intellectual, social, personal, formal, etc.) of the previous era.  No sooner had Language poetry won the institutions, than the Post-Avant came along to polish it up a bit and tone down the harsh politics and the incomprehensibility, and substitute its own..  Prizes, professorships, and offshore invitations followed.  Then “Dispatches from the Poetry Wars,” co-founded by Kent Johnson and Michael Boughn threw a jolt into the works and while not discounting any worthwhile poetry, brought a reconsideration of the real and lasting spirit of The New American Poetry (the title of Donald M. Allen’s 1960 anthology) back to the table.  And as Dispatches’ official regular columnist, Emily Post-Avant, Johnson dispensed real-world advice to invented troubled poets.

In the early 1600’s in Elizabethan England, it was the War of the Theatres in which debates about poetic and theatrical writing were fought out in a number of plays produced over two fraught years.   This war was called by one its practitioners, Thomas Dekker, the Poetomachia.

Poetomachia was engaged in by poet/playwright Ben Jonson (whom Kent Johnson named his dog after) and playwrights Dekker, Marston, Drayton, and Shakespeare,. It is hard to imagine how such a thing could be enforced, but at the time, satire had been banned by a “Bishop’s Ban.”  Theatre then became the only outlet for the so-called  “satiric urge.”  Jonson satirized Marston’s wordy style; Dekker satirized Jonson as an overbearing hypocrite; Jonson satirized Dekker as “a strange arrogating puff” and “a light voluptuous reveller.”   In another Jonson play, the character representing Marston vomits the “bombastic and ridiculous words he has ingested.”  During the height of the poetomachia “there was “much throwing about of brains,” as Shakespare has Guildenstern comment in Hamlet.

Kent Johnson’s All Because of Poetry I Have A Big House… (the title goes on longer) is the poetry-poetomachia of our time, and though he lacks a Jonson/Dekker/Marston/Drayton to play with, at least so far, he has issued a challenge and it would be interesting, and possibly entertaining, if anyone could throw around their own brains in response to the brilliant, comedic wit of Kent Johnson.  That would be a fruitful development, for, in all brilliant comedic wit, much truth otherwise inexpressible, resides.

Parody, or as one great review of this book noted, “forgeries,” is one of Johnson’s strongest suits.  Where forgery meets satire meets parody is in the highly voiced quality of Johnson’s work.  The SOUND of Johnson’s poems gives them their familiarity and a sort of goofy, awkward, faux-innocence.  His long lament, “Could Someone Tell Me Why” about never having been included in an edition of Best American Poetry is a masterpiece in faux-abjection, disappointment, and resentment.  And it’s even more complicated than that:  in the odd manner by which two negatives result in a positive, this collection has a disarming sweetness and vulnerability.  Johnson is a master of idiom and vernacular, of the sound and rhythm of languages, discourses, and eras.  Even the title of this book, often written as “Because of Poetry I Have a Big House….” is actually “All Because of Poetry…” which takes us to a familiar slightly whiny idiom, (“all because…” instead of “because”),  perfect for the asinine-innocent pridefulness of the title.

Kent Johnson’s book is one of the smartest and most open defences of poetry you could ever read.  He brings poetry out of the institutionalized, eggshell-walking “poetry world” that young poets today, sadly, must aspire to belong to—instead of to Poetry herself.  As if that isn’t difficult enough.