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Kent Johnson has a fanatic’s heart and a penchant for real estate, specifically the poetry market. His corner of that market has been a relentless, patently hysterical, coruscating survey of how certain contemporary American poets and styles of poetry become established, enshrined, and then absorbed into the mainstream. Such processes of literary assimilation are, of course, ongoing. What drives Johnson’s various take-downs is the complacency of many self-appointed arbiters of experimental verse. The tendency of such communities to be unaware of the contradictions, ironies, and bad faith that can arise when an avant-garde movement gets established and then institutionalized is another sharp point of his contention.
For decades, Johnson has surveyed the poetry biz provocatively and in poems, criticism, and manifestos. Because of Poetry I Have a Really Big House is a rigorous effort to interrogate the ways that institutional forces frame the reading and valuation of modern poetry. Despite the unstinting passion of his critiques, the tone never curdles into stridency or self-satisfaction. There are no signs of tumors growing on Kent Johnson’s funny bone; the majority of these poems are laugh-out-loud hilarious.
Johnson’s trickster spirit is exuberant and infectious; if critical theory and poetic criticism were always written with such dense humor each would attract more readers. But this does not reduce the impact of the author’s mission to mount a blistering, blustering attack on Official Verse Culture, and those poets who think they transcend it.
Throughout Because of Poetry I Have a Really Big House the subjective voice pokes fun at itself by performing a mocking, quasi-autobiographical interrogation of the poet-critic’s intentions:
But that’s OK, I’ve gotten back at him plenty for that in years since, exposing him for the charlatan he is a few times, or so I like to think. But maybe he has the last laugh, because he’s in Best American Poetry twelve years in a row, and I’m at zero.
The effect underpins Johnson’s strategy to mutually deconstruct the privileged space of mainstream poetry culture and the sensibility that would level blame and judgement against it. All in fun, in fury, in fun that cannot disarm the fury but aligns with it.
Cleverly, this method does not neutralize or diffuse the judgement calls but instead displaces some of the ferocity that could otherwise easily detract from the reckoning with many subjects. These include but are not limited to: poetry prizes, endowed poetry chairs at universities with ties to banks and corporations, poetry tours organized in dictatorships, trends like Flarf and Conceptual poetry, poetry schools like L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, political correctness, identity politics, institutions and universities compromised by racist histories or corporate ties, gossip, exclusionary politics, and coteries. Whatever he lambastes, he usually makes a formidable case, with the evidence to substantiate his claims. (Diplomatically, he tends to give pseudonyms to the poets he hits, though many will be readily recognized by context and the specific charge against them.)
The book is divided into five parts: “Because of Poetry,” “From One Hundred Poems from the Chinese,” “From the Found Journal of Hiram Addison Jackson,” “Let Us Now Give Thanks to the New American Poetry,” and “Could Someone Tell Me Why?” The formats of the poems in each section differ wildly, while the content scrutinizes recent poetic developments as well as long-term tendencies, as he looks at moods and modes in the poetry world. The pretentious and arrogant, the hermetic and self-aggrandizing, are brought to the witness stand, particularly in the form of the “famous poet” whose labors are described, with irony, as onerous:
It’s tough being a famous poet. All your creative juices get drained into answering solicitations from journals and presses and with traveling to conferences and with judging book contests and with doing tenure reviews for other poets who want to be famous too. It’s just so tiresome!
The publicity machines and crammed schedules of the modern poet? Prison is paradise compared to the world of demands besetting prestigious poets. You may not always detect sincerity in Johnson’s work (I assure you, it’s there) but you never get envy. What does emerge is radical utopian thinking bound to be greatly disappointed. Kent Johnson thinks another poetry world is possible, and he may be right, but given the excess of silliness swarming the poetry world, the prospect is far off.
If Johnson skewers other poets, he does so with consistent historicized explanations of how earlier poetic traditions took root and how their once-burgeoning forms were stunted, replaced, or coopted by far more sectarian voices, stagnant conventional practices, standard-issue viewpoints on poetry. In “Half Lost in the Southern Mountains, I Finally Arrive to My Lodgings, I Am Startled by Mei in an Ancient Room,” the character Mei laments:
It used to be that heterodox poetry, at least in the U.S., had some serious interface with the quotidian, and was more all-embracing for it. Think of Whitman and Dickinson and Williams and the Objectivists, for instance. Or the NAP era, not so long at all ago— so informed, across its groups and strains, by everyday life, demotic language, and a decidedly non-professional sociality.
His agitprop is extremely ethical; he has no wistful nostalgia for older poets and poems, per se, but finds their examples to be instructive and productive, oriented to the public, not just themselves. Johnson wants a poetry that is communal, eccentric, kinetic, and beholden to no school, bank, corporation, poet, or anyone else. His fondness for New American Poetry, in particular, is not a retrograde fetish for its particular variants, but rather an authentic consideration of the eclectic and electric, the liberated and elusive past makers who could sit alongside new makers unconstrained by orthodoxies, awards, or approval by select tastemakers and kingmakers. Call Kent Johnson a scourge, a gadfly, a mischief maker … but also a visionary.
Ludic, lustful, just occasionally lyrical (these poems unfurl like broad banners rather than concise stanzas and lines), pseudo-pedantic, and funnier than most of us could ever be, at least in poetry, Because of Poetry I Have a Really Big House is a messy, mighty, slanted, and enchanted enterprise. It should stimulate controversy, but, even better, inspiration, for new kinds of poetry and novel ways of talking and thinking about it.
Ideally, a book like this will produce a meaningful exchange, one that challenges, even changes, the game on which it is played. Dreamers can only dream. To our collective detriment, poets like Kent Johnson are given attention as legitimate provocateurs yet are not really appreciated as activists for the true possibility of new kinds of poetry and innovative poetics. How depressing! Regardless, Kent Johnson’s is not a bleeding heart but a brooding heart, a blaring heart, a red heart, the circulating red of a replenishing radicalism. All powers to such sentiment!
Because of Poetry I Have a Really Big House (2020) by Kent Johnson is published by Shearsman Books. Cover art by Michael Basinski.