“Because Of Poetry, I Have A Really Big House” by Kent Johnson, pub. Shearsman Books. 89 pages. £10.95
I’m not exactly au fait with the contemporary American poetry scene and don’t have an insider’s knowledge with regard to Kent Johnson’s controversial satirical approach via relationships with other writers but on dipping into his Wikipedia page and perusing his most recent collection for the first time I have to say that I find him very readable even though I’m sure I’m missing a lot of the context. I have to add that I haven’t laughed out so loudly to myself while reading a poetry book for a long time.
Here are the opening lines to the first poem which is also the title piece:
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.
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. 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. …….
Make of that what you will. The first two lines appear unexpectedly banal with that almost childlike rhyme yet the inclusion of ‘specious’ suggests something sinister beneath this innocent idyll (very English, incidentally) and the play on the pastoral setting only adds to the sense of a façade and concealment. You can’t help but think that the rhymes, which are deliberately bad yet hilariously funny, also generate some of the poem’s movement and the way that ‘forest’ takes you to ‘Ted, the arborist’ is quite brilliant. In fact the whole piece has a feeling of being completely faked yet somehow innocently naïve at the same time, quite an achievement and it’s really well put together in a traditional sense. The double use of ‘Temple/temple’ with its possible links to Christopher Smart, to ‘a folly’ or a seat of legal power via the garden of an aristocratic family sets you off on a variety of related trains of thought until we get to the rituals of drug-taking and the resultant ‘double accident.’ What on earth is going on here? The couplets suggest a parody of an18th century satirical style yet the latter part of the poem with its references to Neruda and Ashbery bring us closer to the here and now and we return to the opening line with ‘Because of poetry, I have a really big house.’ All this from an American ex-Trot who worked in Nicaragua in an educational capacity and clearly has a beef with the poetry establishment(s), whether that be what he sees as a formalised and redundant avant-garde or a mainstream which is also ‘up its own bottom’ with its prizes and connections and corrupt and hypocritical right-on politics. Certainly there seems to be more of an issue with poetry as a money-making commodity in the States but is Johnson’s modus operandi a matter of muddying the waters or does it have something more serious at its heart.
In ‘The Gunpowder Plot’ we have another mixing of historical periods with a harking back to the 17th century (again in an English setting) where Johnson provides a mock lingo which sees the escapades of Fawkes and company in terms of bringing down the corrupt power structures of the poetry establishment. He clearly sees himself as an outsider with few friends, forced into extreme actions by neglect and the disdain of the powerful. Given that this is all about poetry and not politics there is a comic aspect to his recusant behaviour though perhaps poetry has more going for it in terms of its satirical thrust than we’ve been allowed to believe. I’ve no idea how well his books sell but I suspect the irony intended in the collection’s title is double-barbed: some people do indeed make money from poetry. Here are the final lines of the poem:
Though comrade Fawkes would stay with the barrels until the fateful moment.
Blowing himself to the heavens for the saketh of poetry’s sovereignty.
From the insidious creeping of Capital, the State, and the general economy of
The culture industry, which have come to invade almost fucking everything.
The explosion was tremendous, shaking the whole Field to its cowardly core.
There may be humour in this piece, in terms of its mildly pastiche language but the anger here is visceral.
His reworking of Brecht (To Those Who May Come After – a translucination) appears to be more of an assault on the way Brecht has been canonized by an established liberal left than an assault on the actual politics and his anger seems to come from a place of personal experience which seeks out hypocrisy and bad faith with the tools at his disposal: literary talent, dark humour and a determination not to cower in an abject fashion. That’s the positive interpretation anyway as there seem to be plenty of people who view his work as being self-serving, vindictive and misplaced. Again, I’ve not been involved in any of the online disputes within the poetry world which seem to have fuelled what might be called tribal antagonisms but I’d hazard a guess that he has a point:
For we did what we could, switching our homes
More often than our shoes, all through the small
Poetry wars and the great wars of the classes, despairing
At the sins in the latter, and no doubt too much
At the ones in the former. We crossed deserts, rivers,
And seas, and still we never arrived, for we were nothing.
(from To Those Who May Come After)
It seems to me and I’m taking the poem at face value that there’s a real sense of loss and perhaps of betrayal here in terms of the culture wars and the relation between these and real political power.
I also get the feeling that in the depths of his invective and scatological critiques there’s a poet who is able to laugh at himself, as is suggested in ‘To Make an Omelette of Poetry You have to Break Some Eggs,’ where we get, for example, the following:
81. Did done sayeth I’d never have a career in poetry after I said
something critical about Language poetry on a Language
82. Did wrote a long review and said something about everyone
in the anthology, except for me.
83. Did refuseth to help me get an interview at the AWP,
even though I helped him get maybe three.
84. Did Unfriended me from the Facebook.
I can’t think of anyone in a British context who quite reminds me of Kent Johnson but there are some stylistic similarities with Martin Stannard, a poet clearly influenced by American poetry and also with a somewhat abrasive, if hilarious, reviewing mode, and also perhaps Martin Hayes, whose powerful commentaries on the world of work are relentless in their furious onslaught while including an element of dark humour.
In ‘Let Us Now Give Thanks to the New American Poetry’ we have this opening extract from ‘Prelude,’ –
Not that anyone would or should
care for my fickle poetic leanings,
but I’ve elected now to share, half
naked and pickled as I’m presently
feeling (I’ll explain), some thoughts
about some things, that these thoughts
might flutter about, with errant and
rowdy wings, while the mind is juiced.
This long poem gives a potted history of 20th century American poetry (including some European influences) in what I take to be an ironic, all-encompassing critique which seems to be largely aimed at current trends and complacency allied to the notion of ‘poetry as a business.’ In fact ‘errant and rowdy wings’ seems a good self-description for a poet who, warts and all, is prepared to say things that others are either too polite or too full of self-interest to engage with. As I’ve suggested before Johnson is a writer who has the ‘marmite factor’ and seems to provoke polarised reactions but I can’t help thinking there is more nuance here than meets the eye. In the final section (10.) we have the following:
…….. It’s like there’s been a
traumatic shipwreck but everyone
is ecstatic. Keep looking up, I say,
and don’t look down. So, OK, that’s
enough from me: Let us now give thanks
to the New American poetry.
I could say more about this collection, especially Johnson’s ‘A Review of James Tait’ which seems to ‘throw everything up in the air’ with its hilarious ending but I’d rather like any potential readers to discover this for themselves and make up their own minds. I have definite mixed feelings about his work so perhaps the polarisation is not as appropriate as I may have suggested. I did laugh a lot though and that can’t be a bad thing these days. I also think he has his heart in the right place. Let the firing commence!
Copyright © Steve Spence, 2021