Sunday, September 3, 2017



(Spuyten Duyvil/ Dispatches Editions, 2017)

“Let us now give thanks”

            In the opening poem, Johnson declares himself—engaged, various, loving: a reader searching for profundity, finding it where it lies—in the poem, in life. Always in the real. From the first line, he reveals that he is not sure that you, or anyone else “would or should/care” about his poetry, his “fickle poetic leanings.” What is sure is that he cares, deeply, about what “is there” in poetry, what some have died for want of.  I am left at the end of this densely packed book caring as well, and feeling the hurt when poets and poetries betray their mission, of having something there, something a caring reader might need, even on a day in the waterpark. Johnson has long railed against the false, the betrayal of poetry’s truth, its honesty for fame, or money or the small change of academic prestige. Right from the start, he warns us: he cares, and he is the most dangerous of readers, of poets—he is one who pays attention. He is watching. He knows.

            This book is filled with that knowledge. Of poets, of forms. Of history, of ideology. Sometimes it’s hard to keep up. But do so, as it is worth it.

            In “Forgotten Poets of the Nineteenth Century” and its companion piece, “Forgotten Poets of the Twentieth Century,” we are reminded of our mortality. Not just physical mortality, but the mortality of the poetic reputations that writers hold so dear. As a combatant in the never-ending Poetry Wars, Johnson has seen first-hand the vitriol with which they are fought; here he reminds us that the extremity of our positions is always tied to our belief in their eternal justification, and those justifications are far more ephemeral than we imagine. In the Nineteenth Century, Johnson lists a number of fictitious (? I’m not sure) poets whose triple names sound like a roll call from a Puritan prayer meeting. The poem itself reminds me of a child’s hornbook, or speller:

Absalom William Moore is a poet who thought poetry was an anchor in the drift of the world.
Adelaide Mary Brown is a poet who inspired strong feelings among the bachelors of her town.
Bartholomew Derrick Taylor is a poet who spoke to us intimately, from an almost suffocating nearness.
Obedience Sophie Walker is a poet who believed there’s another world where we will read to each other high on a mountain in the wind.
Cuthbert Eli Morgan is a poet who always seemed to connect with the choir.
Abiah Charlotte Sanders is a poet who spun her gold down through the moving deep laurel shade all day.
Chauncey Thaddeus Powell is a poet who believed that there are no grounds for belief.
Lucretia Florence Jenkins is a poet who believed they will have to believe it as we believed it.
Cornelius August Parker is a poet who thought he was lit up like morning glories and was showered by the rain of his symbols.

These poets (lost, forgotten, made up) are distilled into a single line, seeming quaint and somewhat pointless in their “poeticalness,” though I must admit, I wouldn’t mind spinning my gold under a laurel, or hanging on to some kind of anchor, given the drift of the world today. These nineteenth century poets seem recognizable, even in miniature, their crackpot ideas being the bedrock of an identity which makes them “poetic”; poetry as a lifestyle, not necessarily an art.

            The Twentieth Century poem takes a different turn—it’s all theory, all jargon, an argot that must necessitate an arbiter. Enter Piers and Cuddie, debating the canonical status of a number of poets, identifiable only by number (biography having become anathema in some circles, I suppose):


I ask that poet 33 be put back on the table, he did as he was able. The river bed is sandy and the water races along; the material synthesized in the centers of stars gets ejected back out into space when the star dies. Everyone tries. I ask that poeta triginta tres be put back on the table.


I ask that poet 15 be put back on the table, the horses have fled the stable. The front of the hut slides open, and the woman just sits there, staring out; dominant structures pull on their subordinate neighbors, causing small local motions against the background expansion. He died over his scansion. I ask that poeta quindecim be put back on the table.


I move that poet 501 be put back in circulation, there’s no need for oblivion. Eventually, the prayer halls and all the icons they contain are pulled down; the hole is marked by a singularity: in other words spacetime is infinitely curved down a nozzle in the core. She couldn’t have suffered more. I move that poeta quingenti unus be put back in circulation.


I beg that poet 247 be entered into conversation, he wrote with deep conviction. As I said, the pilots are pretty inexperienced, and nine times out of ten they crash their planes upside down; fifteen billion years later, we’re here. He couldn’t make it cohere. I beg that poeta ducenti quadraginta septem be entered into conversation.


I demand that poet 99 be rescued from nothingness, save her memory from emptiness. Boiling is done in enormous cauldrons that belong to the boss; from this perspective, as observers and performers of thought experiments, we can chart out the field on which we live. She wrote out her heart and had nothing left to give. I demand that poeta nonaginta novem be rescued from nothingness.

Here, Johnson shows these poets dehumanized, turned into numbered entities marked only by their theoretical positions. As in the previous poem, all are lost to history, but here, Cuddie and Piers plead their respective cases, to whom we never know.
What follows is what readers of Johnson have come to expect from him: an explosion of forms from rhyme to prose, short lines, long lines. And a deep and varied interaction with poets on the page: Ashbery and the New York School, Villon, Sol Lewitt (should we count him, artist that he is?). In “from I Once Met, 2nd edition,” he also recounts a series of real interactions with real poets. Things don’t always go so well, mostly for Kent: somehow I see him bemused by how awkward the poetry wars are, in the flesh. Here’s “I once met Bill Freind,” which resists quotation:

I once met Bill Freind. This was in New Jersey, at Rowan University, where he invited me to read. He is a brilliant man, a true gentleman. I believe he is one of the sharpest, most clearly elegant writers of our time, though most people have been slow to wake up to the fact. There was a very impressive crowd in the auditorium, and this made me feel good, though as the reading went on I was able to see, eyes adjusting to the lights, that the great bulk of them were students, no doubt required to attend by their professors. I read well, I thought and had a warm exchange with a group of young poets, who came up to me at the end. So that was pleasing, too. The next evening, Bill drove me to Philadelphia, across the river, where I had another event the following day, though I was to get sick and miss it, a group reading, in any case, no big deal, offsite at the MLA. In fact, OK, I’ll admit it: I pretended I was sick so to get out of it, it’s not the first time; sometimes I just get these crazy panic attacks, I can’t do anything about it. But anyway, that night before I canceled I was feeling fine, and Bill took me to a tavern whose name I can’t now remember, but which is very old and legendary, full of dive bar character. Shortly after we began to talk about sports (for Bill and I are into sports and their statistics) we began to overhear a gaggle of young grad poets at the booth behind us (or behind me, more accurately), no doubt attending the MLA, kids with everything still to live for, so they seemed to think, gossiping about Charles Bernstein this, and Anne Carson that, and Ben Lerner this, and Elizabeth Alexander that. We stopped talking about statistics and just listened to the excited banter, smiling at one another, sipping our pints. Then Bill, so to hear better, came over go sit next to me, and so I guess we looked like boyfriends, in a booth. Names spilled out of their mouths, like dams releasing their waters, it was quite incredible, and so were some of the stories, most no doubt totally fiction by the time they spilled the capacious reservoirs of their young poet heads, ones full to the overflow mark, the volume and pressure of the back-up both ominous and sexed in the ways of deep dark fluids, which overwhelm the governance of reason, the innocent, oblivious towns with their twinkling lights waiting quaintly below, in the valley of death. I listened intently, as all poets do, hoping to hear my own name, but, no, alas… Me, who in his poems has named the names of so many poets, more than anyone has, yet without recompense whatsoever, and my little hamlet of huts now erased from the map because of it, what is wrong with me, what have I done. Until the Cubs find a Gold Glove third baseman who can hit .275, said bill, reaching for my hand and holding it, in comradely way, no coquetry intended, You will, and quite decisively, remain in the basement of sorrows. I nodded, a tear for my team coming to my eye. He was, as in all his poetry criticism, precise, implacable, and correct. (109)

Each one of these pieces seem mythical: plausible, but somehow unbelievable. This one was at least a bit prophetic, in that Kris Bryant batted .292, and the Cubs won the World Series, (though he didn’t win the Gold Glove, he was the American League MVP.) Perhaps Kent has exited the basement of sorrows, at least where baseball is concerned?

Kent’s beef with Conceptualism and AvantPo is famous, but here, in the very conceptual framework of his undertaking, he shows us it’s not the conceptual he objects to. No, his objection is to when poetry and its poets do the one thing that he never does—stop moving. In the poetry wars, there is too much poison in positioning, too much of a zero-sum game in the way poets and critics pick sides and declare winners and losers. In doing so, much of the work of poetry becomes subordinate to the task of putting itself in a place that declares its position, whatever it might be.

            Both sides (all sides, if there are more than two) should begin with the same question: “What can I make?” I, for one, am less concerned with what a poem is, than what begins it, what condition do we lay forth that results in a poem, a work that resonates with the truth and honesty that Kent is looking for in that first poem in the book. Everywhere in this book, Johnson decries the tragedy of that incipient condition too often being deflected or corrupted by the striving for an already-rigged prize, or for the accolades of those who have told you exactly what is necessary to receive their approval, whether it is with a prize, with publication, or by inclusion in a group. He seems to be reminding us that we are constantly under attack from our own worst impulses, for fame, for approval, for the sense that we are somehow “right” and others are wrong. As sharp as his critique may be, his sense of humor rescues this work from mere invective or bomb-throwing; in the end, he recognizes that he is just as vulnerable as any of the rest of us.

Throughout this book, Kent Johnson shows us that poetry does not stop. The poetasters of the past, and the critics who so lovingly extolled their virtues appear now as fools, if they are remembered at all; in Homage, Kent begs the question: “how do we know that we are not just like them?”  I don’t know the answer, and don’t know if Kent does, either, but it’s a good one to be asking.


John Rigney teaches English at a high school just north of Buffalo, NY. He and his wife, Dana, own the Second Reader Bookshop in the city of Buffalo. He has been published in BlazeVox, Dispatches from the Poetry Wars and has a poem in Resist Much / Obey Little: Inaugural Poems to the Resistance (Spuyten Duyvil, 2017).

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