Sunday, November 11, 2007

Bill Freind, "Inquiring Minds Want to Know"

Bill Freind
Rowan University

Inquiring Minds Want to Know: Kent Johnson’s Epigramititis: 118 Living American Poets

From the staged brawls on The Jerry Springer Show to rappers whose beefs occasionally turn deadly to the screaming heads on cable news shows, American culture has elevated public confrontation to a minor art form. Yet there’s one area that remains astonishingly genteel, at least in public: poetry. It used to be that poetic displays of anger and resentment were almost as common as bad love poems, as writers as diverse as Catullus, Dante, Pope, and Pound all demonstrate, but the satirical attack poem has largely vanished in America since World War II. In Epigramititis: 118 Living American Poets, Kent Johnson shows that he’s doing his part to both resuscitate and renovate the satirical epigram. His epigrams are caustic and often very funny, but they’re much more than mere insults. Instead, they highlight the ways in which reputations are (or are not) made in contemporary poetry, as well as the attendant ambitions and partially-disguised careerism. Given its insights into the dynamics of fame, Epigramititis is simultaneously a deft critique and an ambivalent celebration of contemporary American poetry.

Johnson came to a sort of prominence for his role in the Araki Yasusada affair. Allegedly a Hiroshima survivor who had died in 1972, Yasusada achieved posthumous recognition when his poems were published in translation in a variety of journals in Europe and North America in the 1990’s. However, it soon came out that Yasusada was an invention and many readers now assume that Johnson, who holds the copyright, was in fact the author—a claim which Johnson denies. Instead, he insists that Tosa Motokiyu, a pseudonym for a person who is now dead, was the actual author. Not surprisingly, the possibility that a white man appropriated (or impersonated, or utilized—the choice of verb matters quite a bit) the voice of Japanese survivor of the bombing of Hiroshima led to some strong denunciations. Nonetheless, I think it’s fair to say that the Yasusada project displayed an extraordinary understanding of the complexities of the various factions and fiefdoms in both contemporary poetry and the North American academy. For instance, Doubled Flowering: From the Notebooks of Araki Yasusada,
[1] a collection of Yasusada’s work, provided the materials for its own mini-industry: it included not only poems, drafts and letters ostensibly written by Yasusada, but also a brief biography of Yasusada, essays by Marjorie Perloff[2] and Mikhail Epstein, and an interview with Johnson—practically a prepublished course packet. Its provocative use of issues related to race, gender and history seemed designed to elicit passionate debate and Johnson’s framing of these hot-button issues was so sharp that it amounted to a meta-commentary on the academic-poetic complex.

Johnson is continuing that commentary, in part by carving out a niche as the closest thing in contemporary poetry to a gossip columnist. Celebrity gossip is predicated on some mixture of admiration, contempt, jealousy and schadenfreude, and the skilled purveyor of gossip must intimately understand how the mechanisms of fame operate at that time. Consequently, gossip columnists exist in a kind of netherworld: they are recognized and, occasionally, even famous, but while they can make or break celebrities they are not quite celebrities themselves, since they are simultaneously inside and outside the economy of celebrity. That’s a pretty accurate analogy to Johnson’s role in the poetry world. On the one hand, the diversity and quality of his body of work should make him a major force in North American poetry. Johnson has published a book of translations of poems written in the poetry workshops organized by Ernesto Cardenal throughout Nicaragua during the Sandinista era;
[3] edited a collection of contemporary Russian poetry;[4] co-edited an anthology of essays and poems by writers who examine the influence of Buddhism on their work;[5] translated, with Forrest Gander, two books by the extraordinary Bolivian poet Jaime Saenz;[6] and published a number of books of poetry including, in Lyric Poetry After Auschwitz, what I think are some of the most powerful political poems written in English in the last thirty years.[7] On the other hand, Johnson has displayed an impressive ability to infuriate a wide range of poets and critics, which I believe is the central reason why he hasn’t received the recognition he deserves.[8] Johnson himself is well aware of his position, writing in the Author’s Note to Epigramititis “This book is fated to be assiduously ignored by the Poetry Establishment, ‘mainstream’ and ‘experimental,’ the two sides of its ancient coin.”[9] Johnson doesn’t position himself as marginalized; instead he claims to be almost irrelevant. Still, Johnson states that his book will be “assiduously ignored” (emphasis added) and the adverb suggests a willfulness on the part of the “Poetry Establishment,” as if the mere presence of this book acts as an irritant or allergen, even if it isn’t being read. Although Epigramititis hasn’t received a large number of reviews, I’ve heard stories (and in a paper dealing with gossip, second- and third-hand stories are legitimate sources) of poets passing Epigramititis around at readings, looking up epigrams (their own and others) with a mixture of horror and fascination.

Those are the same emotions that Johnson seems to feel for the “celebrities” in the post-avant, as indicated by the epigraph by Catullus that opens Epigramititis: “Odi et amo. quare id faciam, fortasse requiris? / nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.” Johnson offers no translation, but here’s one from Guy Lee: “I hate and love. Perhaps you’re asking why I do that? / I don’t know, but I feel it happening, and am racked.”

While Catullus’ poem alludes to his conflicting passions for Lesbia, the lover who is the subject of much of his work, Johnson’s
epigraph is about the poetry world, i.e., not just the poetry that is written and published, but also the ambitions, rivalries, and petty squabbling that are an inextricable but often overlooked part of that work. Furthermore, Epigramititis implicitly suggests why the poetic satire in North America has slipped into a coma: the poetry world is simultaneously all but invisible to the public at large and so fragmented that most readers will be unable to identify at least a few of the targets in Johnson’s poems, which highlights the deep irony in the entire concept of poetic celebrity. That means that Johnson’s epigrams, like the traditional epigram, are a kind of attempt to seize the mechanisms of poetic fame—both to praise those who deserve it (Johnson cites Eleni Sikelianos, Robert Creeley and Eliot Weinberger, as well as a few others) and to disparage those writers whose reputation, according to the epigrammatist, has exceeded or outlived their talent—even as the epigrams parody the desire for poetic reputation.[11] That’s a pose, of course, but it’s nonetheless an interesting revision of the epigrammatic tradition.

Epigramititis differs from traditional epigrams in another way: each poem includes a drawing or photograph on the facing page, but they’re metaphorical, not literal representations of the poet. These images are the equivalent of the paparazzo shot, that staple of celebrity journalism: the common denominator is that they are intended to make the subject look bad. Robert Pinsky is paired with a photo of a used car salesman, and Johnson discusses this in an interview with John Bradley that’s forthcoming at the journal Plantarchy:

“Now, let me say again, this has nothing to do with Robert Pinsky as a person—nor even as a poet, speaking in the main. I mean, Pinsky is a magnificently gifted person, I don’t think many people doubt that. But talent or personality have nothing to do with it: He has a starring role in the whole institutional drama titled “Poetry Biz and Its Discontents” and the soap opera (post-avant poets as the token minority characters) is just awful—a tragicomedy of stupid plot and embarrassingly cheap scenery. Exactly what used automobiles have to do with it, admittedly, I’m not certain, but I suspect there is some connection there . . . ”.

Johnson's irony is unmistakable, since many people involved with post-avant poetries would doubt that Pinsky is a “magnificently gifted poet.” (I suspect Johnson himself is a doubter; I certainly am.) Additionally, Johnson’s professed confusion about why he might have paired Pinsky with a used car salesman echoes the epigram itself: “I, too, dislike him, / though I’m not sure why (37).

As poet laureate, and now as de facto poet laureate emeritus, Pinsky, as Johnson notes, continues to play a role in which he is required to bemoan the irrelevance of poetry in the US, while coming up with solutions (or, some might say, gimmicks) to change this state of affairs. The epigram, which reworks Marianne Moore’s widely anthologized “Poetry,” suggests that as poet laureate Pinsky is the visible face of poetry in the United States, while the image contends that Pinsky has attempted to foist poetry to a largely uninterested public, just as a sleazy car salesman might use the hard sell to move a lemon off the lot. I think Pinsky operates as a kind of shorthand for other poetry salesmen such as Ted Kooser, another former laureate; John Barr, the investment banker who presides over the more than $100 million endowment at the Poetry Foundation; and Dana Gioia, the former VP of marketing at General Foods who now directs the National Endowment for the Arts.
[13] Each of these men has explicitly called for marketing poetry as if it were a product.[14] That’s where the irony of the photo really comes into focus: even a dismal used car salesman has a better sales record than these guys.

Pinsky’s epigram is somewhat anomalous, since the images and poems in Epigramititis more typically slide into outright mockery. For instance, John Ashbery gets a reproduction of Brian, the talking dog from the animated sitcom The Family Guy; Brian is holding a martini, a clear nod to the stories about Ashbery’s prodigious drinking. It’s a cheap shot, but in many ways both gossip and the epigram are based on the cheap shot. Byron later described English Bards and Scotch Reviewers as a “miserable record of misplaced anger and indiscriminate acrimony,”
[15] which is both largely true and exactly why we still read the poem: like gossip, the satire is sometimes more effective and more enjoyable when it’s not completely accurate. The comparison to Byron is apt on at least one level, since Johnson seeks a position that’s roughly analogous to Byron’s in the Preface to Don Juan, attacking the Language poets just as Byron savaged the Lakers. Charles Bernstein serves as Johnson’s Robert Southey, that is, the former radical who has sold out for mainstream respectability. Bernstein, who with Bruce Andrews co-edited the journal L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, moved on to an endowed chair at the University of Buffalo and now holds an endowed chair at the University of Pennsylvania and has even appeared in television advertisement for The Yellow Pages.[16] Here’s Bernstein’s epigram:

“Pity the aardvark; he seems
at once lost in the Ivy of the zoo
and strangely at home, too” (35).

If for a good slice of the poetry reading public, “language poetry” is still a pejorative, Bernstein has somehow managed to move from outlaw to mainstream, a change that has at the very least complicated his trenchant critiques of official verse culture. The accompanying image extends the epigram: it is a picture of Eduard Bernstein, the leader of the Second International, who rejected violent revolution and instead celebrated reforms within the framework of parliamentary democracy. Bernstein’s deviations from orthodox Marxism led Lenin to attack him as a revisionist and opportunist. Would this be a fair analogue to a poet who has moved from the margins to the heights of Ivy League prestige? Maybe, but ultimately, there’s something a little absurd about comparing the Johnson-Charles Bernstein battles to those of Marx and Eduard Bernstein or Byron and Southey: the stakes in a squabble in the post-avant are nowhere near as high as in the splits in international Marxism or even in Byron’s attacks on the Lakers. It seems to me that that absurdity is precisely the point: Johnson has stated that “poetry’s political impact, at least in the United States, is going to be poignantly tiny”
[17] but he seems deeply ambivalent about that. It may be that poetry’s ineffectuality is a part of its freedom: because it is unable to generate money, fame or political change, poetry remains off the national radar and as a result poets are largely free to do what they want without the influence of undue censure or praise. But if Shelley’s claim that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world was a bit of a stretch in the nineteenth century, it’s almost laughable in twenty-first century America. Poets may write political poems but their political power is nil.

That sense of political powerlessness provides the subtext of Johnson’s epigram on Stephen Burt:

“Poet and critic, we claim him
as our Randall Jarrell (the younger version).
Oh, goodbye, Helen Vendler, goodbye,
for you are their Matthew Arnold.
We wash you out of your shattered turret with a hose” (41).

The second line alludes to Burt’s celebration of Jarrell in his (i.e., Burt’s) book Randall Jarrell and His Age,
[18] and the comparison of Burt to Jarrell is certainly a case of damning with very faint praise. The epigram also suggests that Burt has assumed Helen Vendler’s role as the unofficial Critic Laureate of the US, so Vendler (like the title figure in Jarrell’s famous poem “Death of the Ball Turret Gunner”) is now another fatality of the poetry wars. It’s a funny epigram, I think, even if Vendler never had a fraction of Arnold’s stature.

But the poem’s humor is eliminated by the accompanying image, a photograph of charred bodies hanging from a bridge. These are the contractors from Blackwater International who in March, 2004 were shot in Fallujah, Iraq, their corpses set on fire then strung from a bridge above the Euphrates River. Johnson makes a similar move in a few places in Epigramititis: he chronicles or charges into the various skirmishes in the poetry world, only to point at political concerns which make the poetry “wars” seem absurd by comparison to the real and horrifying conflicts that continue around the globe. The photo offers no pat message; it is simply (simply?) an acknowledgment that these atrocities far exceed the squabbles of poets concerned with fame and ambition. As a result, the photograph implicitly calls into question the entire project of Epigramititis.

I think this has been one of the most overlooked aspects of Johnson’s work: while he has spent the better part of a decade critiquing and disparaging a variety of prominent poets and critics, his work also calls into question his own position. He mocks Helen Vendler by comparing her to Matthew Arnold, but in the book’s final epigram, entitled “The Epigramist,” he includes a Photoshopped image in which his own face is superimposed on Samuel Johnson’s. The epigram demonstrates that the gesture is clearly ironic:

“He’s offered, in decorus subjunctus, to Double Happiness,
The Poetry Project, The Bowery, and the KGB Bar,
that he fly to New York to share his Epigramititis.
He wonders how Martial would say: ‘So far, no cigar’.” (259)

Helen Vendler may be a watered down Arnold, but Kent Johnson, by his own admission, is no Samuel Johnson (and no Martial). The Author’s Note predicts that these epigrams will be assiduously ignored but this epigram implicitly drops the adverb. Maybe that’s for the best: epigrams have more force when they’re launched from beyond the margins.


[1] Johnson, Kent. Doubled Flowering: From the Notebooks of Araki Yasusada. New York: Roof Books, 1997.

[2] Perloff’s essay, “In Search of the Authentic Other: The Poetry of Araki Yasusada,” is an abridged version of an essay that originally appeared in the Boston Review 22.3-4, (1997): 26-33.

[3] Johnson, Kent. A Nation of Poets: Writing from the Poetry Workshops of Nicaragua. New York: West End Press, 1985.

[4] Johnson, Kent. Third Wave: The New Russian Poetry. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1992.

[5] Johnson, Kent. Beneath a Single Moon. Boston: Shambhala Press, 2001.

[6] Saenz, Jaime. Immanent Visitor: Selected Poems of Jaime Saenz. Trans. Forrest Gander and Kent Johnson. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002; Saenz, Jaime. The Night. Trans. Forrest Gander and Kent Johnson. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007.

[7] Johnson, Kent. Lyric Poetry After Auschwitz, Austin: Effing Press, 2005.

[8] Johnson’s provocations got him banned from the Poetics listserv at the University of Buffalo, as well as the British Poetry listserv; he also makes regular and often polemical appearances in the comments sections of a number of poetry blogs. In fact, Johnson’s comments on Kasey Silem Mohammed’s Lime Tree blog so enraged Mohammed that he banned Johnson and initially threatened to delete every comment that Johnson had ever made on the blog. Mohammed later relented on the deletions when he realized how difficult such a project would be, but he did in fact delete all of the discussion regarding Johnson’s banishment. For Johnson’s version of the exchange, see <http://www.blazevox.org/072-kj.htm>.

[9] Johnson, Kent. Epigramititis: 118 Living American Poets, Buffalo: BlazeVox, 2007. 18.

[10] Catullus, “Carmen 85.” Catullus: The Complete Poems, trans. Guy Lee. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990. 131.

[11] Johnson also has a number of ambivalent epigrams that seem as if they might be simultaneously praising and disparaging. For instance, Kenward Elmslie’s epigram reads

“Indeed, I am dying, but I am here to say
that his poems are miniature theaters,”
said a boy on fire, standing on a paper
stage. Bravo! Bravo! cried the poet-pilot
in a little plane, dark blue against a
dark-blue night sky. VIVA DELAUNAY!

[12] Bradley, John and Kent Johnson. “Epigramaphobia: A Conversation between John Bradley and Kent Johnson,” Plantarchy 5, forthcoming.

[13] Johnson’s epigram “The Poet Laureate” continues this conflation of those who would serve as spokespeople for poetry:

I can’t quite recall his or her name presently.
Is it Robert, Rita, or Billy?
Or is it Ted? No… Ted Hughes is dead.
He wears a helmet of hair in Hell.
I’m so silly (167).

The accompanying photo is of Laura Bush, who has attempted to promote both reading in general and poetry in particular. The poem suggests that the attempt to domesticate poetry for public consumption puts the American laureate in a position that’s analogous to the British laureate, whose job is to write verse for state occasions. The position of laureate makes these different poets indistinguishable from each other, and from the first lady, and suggests that they are at least tacitly complicit in the actions of the government that employs them.

[14] For an excellent analysis of the strategies of Kooser, et. al., see Evans, Steve. “Free (Market) Verse,” 29 July 2007 <http://www.thirdfactory.net/freemarketverse-all.html/>.

[15] Quoted in Byron: The Oxford Authors, ed. Jerome McGann. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1986. 1021.

[16] This ad, as well as an eleven minute outtake with Jon Lovitz and two radio ads, are at PennSound. 29 July 2007 <http://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/Bernstein-YP.html>.

[17] Johnson, Kent. “Hoaxes and Heteronymity: An Interview with Kent Johnson.” By Bill Freind. VeRT 5, 29 July 30, 2007 <http://www.litvert.com/KJ_Interview.html>.

[18] Burt, Stephen. Randall Jarrell and His Age. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005.

Bill Freind is the author of American Field Couches (BlazeVox, 2008) and An Anthology (housepress, 2000). He lives near an abandoned golf course in South Jersey.

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