And it got so bad Rimbaud had to toss Beauty off his knees, she was so sour
– Olson, Special View, 31
A madcap style is the vehicle for implying other, graver things.
-Johnson, All Because of Poetry, 27
In the title poem of Kent Johnson’s All Because of Poetry there is
- a Jesuit priest
- a mad poet
- another poet called Ted
- a temple
- a giantess
- a Neruda-faced mouse.
I will take them one by one.
Because of poetry, I have a really big house.
Behind the house lives a kindly family of grouse.
They play all around and run, and they flame
All strange, in the specious sun. They are mild and tame,
Of a species where the boy birds sport a mane
Of golden fire and foil. Yes, I enjoy to go for a walk. (Johnson 11)
Check the sound scape and nature theme in Johnson’s first six lines against “God’s Grandeur.” Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote that sonnet in rural North Wales sometime between 1875 and 1877 while he was training for the priesthood. He was ordained a Jesuit in 1877. He is usually noted for his sprung rhythms (his stress-based meter with variable sylable count), his lush “inscapes,” his inventive lexicon, and his internal rhymes. In all of nature’s things, he saw the glory of God “[flaming] out, like shining from shook foil” beneath the human “smudge.” Johnson’s phrase “boy birds” brings a child-like sensibility to a Hopkins-like wonder at the world’s flaming strangeness. Maybe it takes a priest or a child to wonder in a world so “seared with trade” and “bleared, smeared with toil.”
I do this much, and as I walk I snort and talk
To myself and sing, like Christopher Smart,
On his knees, O. Hummingbirds and shrike dart
About my head, from which sprouts a forest,
With bats. (Johnson 11)
Christopher Smart wrote the “Jubilate Agno” and “A Song to David” while detained in a madhouse. He was reckless with money and drink, and was thrown in jail for debt more than once. About 1756, however, he developed a religious mania, moving his friend Samuel Johnson to remark, “My poor friend Smart, showed the disturbance of his mind by falling upon his knees and saying his prayers in the street, or any other unusual place.” In current lingo, Smart was ”inappropriate,“ both as a rake and a religious visionary, but as a visionary he took exceptionally careful note of God’s creatures, and like Hopkins, admired them fulsomely in their haecceity. The “Jubilate Agno” worships the Lord in the antics of His cat. But then Smart, like the poet in Johnson’s poem, had “bats” in his forested head.
. . . So I visit my friend, Ted, the arborist.
He asks me if I want to go to the White Temple
For a while, where they put gauze on each temple
And bring a bluish spoon to take between the teeth.
When I wake, after a dream, I notice that beneath
Me the sheet is brown and wet. Yet Ted smiles
And says, “You did good, Mr. Poet!” And then he dials
His phone to God, and everything again goes black. (Johnson 11)
Ted could be just about anybody, but American poet Ted Kooser, U.S. poet laureate from 2004 to 2006, and Pulitzer prize winner in 2005 for his poetry collection Delights and Shadows has a children’s book called The House Held Up by Trees. The story is of a man who tries to keep his impeccable lawn free of the tree sprouts that come up from the seeds that blow across it. In the end, the man moves away and nature wins. The trees grow up around and through the house until it is literally held up by the trees. Not a bad fit for the nature theme thus far in Johnson’s poem.
4. Next up is the White Temple.
a) There once was a White Temple in archaic Uruk on top of an impressively high ziggurat. The temple was devoted to Anu, a Mesopotamian sky god, who presided over the city. A city oriented by a god rather than commerce. Now there’s a thought.
b) Otherwise, there is another White Temple currently under construction in Thailand. It is the privately owned artwork-in-progress of Chalermchai Kositpipat who took over a derelict Buddhist temple outside of Chiang Rai and has been building his elaborate offering to the Buddha since the 1990s. The construction is designed to go on past his death, with projects planned up to 2070. The White Temple is both a functioning Buddhist monastery and a tourist attraction, opened to the public in 1997. One of its features is a bridge under which is a sea of reaching, grasping hands, symbolizing the desire and greed of those souls lost to the Tao. Obviously. Inside the temple, Kositpipat has combined traditional Thai Buddhist iconography with references to global popular culture and history, like Kung-Fu Panda, Batman, Elvis, Spiderman, and the Twin Towers.
c) Should the poet be disinclined to travel, there is yet another White Temple to consider. This is the Brotherhood of the White Temple, founded in 1930 by a Dr. M. Doreal. This temple, according to its website, is a metaphysical church based on a synthesis of the Emerald Tablets, the Bible, and the Kabballah. The book can be had for $35.
So, in a heady whirl, are a couple of big civilizations and their gods zooming about with American comic book characters and Elvis. No wonder the small wondering poet shits himself. Moses, Semele and Arjuna didn’t do much better when they tried to look with little finite eyes on the Mighty Mystery.
That must be when the Giantess takes me in a pod, back
To my house, which is filled with books of fine poetry.
It’s funny, says me, that there is no word to rhyme with Poetry,
Except for mongrel slants like Popery, Coterie, and Ashbery. . .
Toiletry, says the Giantess, the bully. Her face is umbral Mystery.
It might be worth recalling in the context of these lines that Jane Ellen Harrison reads in archaic Greek vase paintings representations of Gaia as a giant female emerging from the earth (418–20). In Johnson’s poem, the Giantess brings the poet back to his own house “filled with books of fine poetry” where, no doubt, are many great volumes. If this first poem is a poem about poetry, which I think it is, it sets the contemporary poetry war that follows in the company of the ghosts of splendors past.
Now, on my bed, there is a seven-foot Neruda-faced mouse.
But that’s alright: Because of poetry I have a really big house. (Johnson 11)
Why a “Neruda-faced mouse”? Mouse rhymes with house, of course. In his political poems, the Chilean poet and communist, Pablo Neruda, brings the running sores of social injustice up to the quivering nose of the reader. Consider Neruda’s “The Celestial Poets” for instance which chides the “intellectualizers, Rilkeans, / mystifiers, false existential / sorcerers, surrealist / butterflies” for averting their eyes from human suffering. They are, he says like “wreaths / at the cemetery, when rain / falls on the flowers still / and rotten among the tombs.” So Neruda brings the political fire to this party of visionary lyricists—in contrast to which is poetry that rhymes with “Popery, Coterie, Ashbery.”
* * * *
I have not yet said the obvious, that All Because of Poetry is largely a satirical collection of poems that takes as its immediate target the American poetry scene. Language poetry takes a hit, for instance, because, in Johnson’s view, it is now too snugly housed in the academies (corrupt!) and because some of its leading lights have made the star trek to China (Stalinist!). Then there is the Poetry Foundation. It has been endowed generously by Eli Lilly and Company pharmaceuticals and yet during the present Covid pandemic its directors have so far refused to share the wealth with starving poets. For this bit of ugliness, Johnson contemplates a “gunpowder plot” to blow the whole place sky high, wrecking not the possibility of a Guy Fawkes end for himself in literary circles. Rather he compounds his peril by taking swipes at cancel culture in the poem “To Make an Omelet of Poetry You Have to Break Some Eggs” with lines like “Did done looketh at my crotch, I think, at a reading” (62). Then he satirizes his own outsider status in relation to literary prizes and grants and paid trips and general acknowledgement in a longish complaint about not being included in the annual Best American Poetry anthologies that shows the poet throwing tantrums at the various folks who might have helped him into the Table of Contents. So this book hits all the wrong notes. Deliberately. On purpose.
In an astute cover blurb, Ron Silliman compares Johnson to a pit bull in a school yard and sure enough, there is much barking and snapping and biting. But back of all that, there are flashes of lyrical intensity and political commitment that give the book depth and dimension beyond Johnson’s impressive repertoire of insult and
invective or the word magic that lets him marry a pseudo-16th century lexicon to the diction of a whinging teenager. The poet of these poems stands for something, and not just against poetry that he finds wanting and he assembles a genealogy of poets to stand with him. Back of the white biting dog, is a poet who is awed by the glory and mystery of nature and disgusted by the stupid human despoilation of it. There is as well a warrior-poet who demands that his fellows speak truth to power and is enraged when they don’t. This is what I hear in Kent Johnson’s Because of Poetry. What I don’t hear, in these lines from “To Those Who May Come After,” is any satire at all:
I’d really love to be wise.
The old epics teach us about wisdom:
To rise above the discord of the world,
To be present in the days that one’s been given,
Free of anxiety or of fear.
To abide in peace, without hassling others,
To pay unyielding evil with acceding mercy—
The wise don’t torture their conscience,
They’re happy with their lot, small as it may be.
But sometimes I think I just can’t be OK with that.
Man, it’s confounding and these days are bleak! (33–34)
“Christopher Smart.” www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/christopher-smart.
Harrison, Jane Ellen. Epilegomena and Themis. New York: University Books, 1962.
Hopkins, Gerard Manley. “God’s Grandeur.” poets.org/poems/gerard-manley-hopkins.
Johnson, Kent. All Because of Poetry I Have a Really Big House. Swindon, UK: 2020.
Kooser, Ted. A House Held Up by Trees. Illustrated by Jon Klassen. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press, 2012.
Neruda, Pablo. “The Celestial Poets.” In Behind the Lines: Poetry, War and Peace-making. By Philip Metres. https://behindthelinespoetry.blogspot.com/2009/11/pablo-nerudas- celestial-poets.html
Olson, Charles. The Special View of History. Ed. Ann Charters. Berkeley: Oyez, 1970.
“A Short Curious History of the White Temple of Chiang Rai.” Remote Lands. www.remotelands/travelogues/the-short-curious-history-of-the-white-temple.
“White Temple.” Ancient Origins: Reconstructing the Story of Humanity’s Past. www.ancient.origins.net/ancient-places-asia/white-temple-and-great-ziggurat.