Paris, 4th of October 2009
I’ve decided to write this review of your book Homage to the Last Avant-Garde in the form of a letter to you, and this for several reasons. Firstly, it allows me to negate certain censorious aspects of normative critical discourse via recourse to the mode of tonally ambiguous epistolary, which you yourself, in your imagined correspondences, master so very well. Secondly, in the case of a reader being implicitly critical, as a fair portion of this letter will be, regarding the work in question, it is perhaps better for said reader not to hide behind any sort of veil of false subjunctive formality. I would prefer to think I am talking to you, drunk together one spring evening in the café Danton, feeling more and more free to talk as some spirit softens the contours of any disapproving jibe. Let us then imagine that this is our discursive scenario – which poets and critics may, after all, construct between them, modulating almost infinitely within the realms of an exegetical fantastique – and begin . . .
I find you, Kent, a deeply stimulating poet, even though we often disagree on some of the most cardinal points of the contemporary poetic compass. If you, then, are pointing due North, raging on into an ironical midday whose zenith attempts to light upon the hyperbole of poetic hypocrisies, I am still set on a rather westward heading, that of the twilight (perhaps) of a European heritage softening from Sturm und Drang into a now meeker violet glow. Think of me then as a Horatio to your Hamlet, often unsure of what your intricate fuss is all about, and somewhat unable to understand what you are getting at beyond my limited “philosophy”. Such discordant, contrastive figures are often, of course, the most important for one to read. That’s why I wanted to write this letter to you. I want to learn Kent, and understand if I’m wrong in the way I feel about these questions.
Enough prolegomena. How immersed you are in poetics Kent! It is extraordinary. Immersed in the communities of poetics, their silly tiffs and to-and-fros, their “professional wrestling” aspect (as you yourself put it), their tales told by you-know-who signifying you-know-what. It is, for me, a strange fascination, like lawyers in a bar talking of other lawyers as a way of getting at the Law itself. It makes you, as you yourself seem to acknowledge in your deft collage of influences, rather Latinate, a Horace or Catullus for postmodernity, looking from within the ruins of the polis at the decaying polis itself. “A poetry embroiled with poetry,“ as C. D. Wright says of you, you ironize and criticize poetics from the inside, like Barthes’ spider of the modern subject forever caught up in its own gluey web. This is, of course, the situation we all face, but you put it at the forefront of your poetics, making of it the unstable scaffolding of an axiological architecture.
“This book,“ says David Shapiro on the back of same, “is also a criticism . . . of all the poetry that surrounds him.“ Fine, but the question must then be posed: what precisely is being criticized here? If what is being criticized, for example, is in part the immersion of a poetics community in its own issues, while it resolutely ignores the duplicitous and extraordinarily harmful machinations of the world around it (its incommensurable suffering), who is more immersed in poetics Kent than you? I know you thrive in the midst of these paradoxical postures, and far be it from me to accuse any poet of hypocrisy. My personal position tends to be that it is fully within a poet’s right to be hypocritical, in order to grant poets full rhetorical freedom to attack any subject, even (or a fortiori those) in which he or she is the most utterly embroiled. I would thus never label anypoet a hypocrite, least of all you, and I say this sincerely. I am too committed to the diversity and manifold miscellany of poetic discourse to decree what should or should not constitute a contemporary poetic “object”.
But, and here is a rather radical statement, but one which I believe in: “You may not talk about this” is in many respects the precise same statement as “You may not not talk about this.” Double negations yield an affirmation. Both are prescriptive. Otherwise put, I am happy René Char and W. H. Auden took to the terrible violence of their era with pen raised in righteous fury, just as I am happy that we have near-contemporaneous poems from John Ashbery and Yves Bonnefoy which never mention such things. Ainsi soit-il. So rolls on Apollo’s chariot, sending out myriad competing rainbow sparks. But you seem not to be so happy Kent with these manifold poets’ relative disinterest in a direct (and I draw attention to the italics) engagement with, as Hölderlin put it, this “era of distress”. In many respects, your serpenting laus et vituperatio seems directed at the immense distance between “our” poetic concerns and the concerns of the suffering world at large :
I couldn’t help it, I thought of this: The fourteen young soldiers of the Al-Quram Division, all of them descendents of the NSA-created Royal Court of Pyongyang, mummified by the dry heat but otherwise intact, were found in their sand bunker, crouched and huddled, fetus-like, in a corner, their hands pressed to their ears, their mouths wide open, lips pulled back over their teeth, each in near identical pose and position. Blood from their mouths, ears, noses, urethras, and rectums was caked thickly to their uniforms and bodies. They had been killed by the cumulative force of the Daisy Cutter concussions.
I grew ever more intense. I turned the button on the deodorant stick and Joseph Ceravolo came out. I slid his bald head back and forth under my arms and began to sing a romantic lied [. . .]
In this succession of juxtapositions from your poem The New York School (or: I Grew Ever More Intense), which identifies John Ashbery with a “soap dispenser” directly after the description of a young girl who “climbed out of the burning car in which her mother, father, and sister sat dead, their open-eyed bodies on slow fire”, we cannot demurely back away from an interpretation which contrasts the “cleanliness” of a hygienic, urbane New York School with the Bosch-like horrors of a historical reality. We cannot wrap ourselves in the equivocal raiments of satire. This is, Kent, didactic statement, a condemnation of the self-sufficiency and interiority of a poetics who turns its gaze from the fire of imperialisms towards the sun on Fire Island. Imagined meetings with Barrett Watten and Ron Silliman, full of poetic “private plots”, are then placed next to the recounting of “American soldiers who were hungry and full of drugs”, who had “raped and killed [a] boy and cooked some of his meat with a flame thrower and eaten it and then sold the rest to the local merchant.” Amongst other atrocities we later read:
Good night bladder of Helen Vendler and a jar from Tennessee.
(though what are these doing here in Baghdad?)
What indeed! One explanation, according to your techniques of rhetorical antiphrasis, would be that seeing as Helen Vendler does not speak (enough) of Baghdad, her insertion into the context of Baghdad is “incongruous”, when it should in fact be entirely congruous (if she were fulfilling, that is, her manifest poetic “duties”). In other words, we should see this incongruity as revelatory. That the bladder of Helen Vendler is no different to these “ashes of letter from crispy girl all dressed with scarf for school”, may thus be seen to be the moral imperative – and I neither use this term lightly nor shy away from its implications – of the poem. But Helen Vendler has neither an “obligation” nor a “responsibility” to talk of Baghdad in order to underline any fundamental humanist principle. Demanding of poets or critics that they address the specificities of specific sufferings is akin to demanding anything of an artist (whatever its ethical dimension) : a deontological imposition, which would perhaps be better replaced by the efforts of an individual poetics, which does not base its primary claim to value on the “blindness” or “limitation” of one’s contemporaries.
(Moreover, I would even tentatively venture to argue, along the lines of a small measure of Aristotelian universality accorded to poetry over history, that for the poet, all wars may be one war, that in attacking the roots of intransigent dilemmas [chance or fate, the condition of biological violence, the subject say or his or her intersubjective relations – their inadequacy], we may be talking differently of the same thing. Must one mention Baghdad to speak of pain and injustice? Even Mallarmé’s poetry, to take an extreme example of this hermeneutics, has been read as an articulation of a generalized silence and distance among individuals, leading to a perilous and painful isolation of the subjective ethos: a harbinger of modernity).
In any case, such potent juxtaposition seems Kent to be the bread and butter of your oratorical arsenal: “Good night first editions of Das Kapital, Novum Organum, The Symbolic Affinities between Poetry Blogs and Oil Wells, and the Koran.” Such texts and objects, all heaped together, far from melting into a poststructuralist, “purely discursive” soup, rather highlight the immense distances of value, significance and importance which separate such phenomena. To associate poetry blogs with oil wells: well, why not. But to achieve what? To tell us what? What is the underlying teleology?:
My grieving brother, D., shot columns of fire-jelly out his bottom and mouth: HE, the clown on the side, in the peace of thighs, and the joy of small blogs, whom children would laugh at and mock.
Kent, forget blogs: they are just superficial, abstract discursive entities, and nobody (save the insane) believes in their overarching importance. “Irony, in its bigness, becomes something other” writes Ossama Hussein in one of your beautiful, quoted correspondences. Very true. So what here does it become? I pose these questions in good faith. I simply wonder Kent how different you are here from those you lambaste, given that you are among the most poetry-obsessed poets I have ever come across! And that’s fine of course – in your poems it is even hilarious and glorious – but if this is the case, why are you concerned if the New York School, or even the Flarfists for that matter, occasionally exhibit the selfsame self-conscious traits?
“In America” writes David Shapiro of you, “[Kent Johnson] is rejected for breaking a variety of rules.” I’m not entirely sure that this is true – are you truly, Kent, so rejected? – but in any case, it’s certainly not among my problems with your poetics. Shapiro is right to an extent: there is rule-breaking here, in the sense of a system-shock to the meek and demure moralizers among a poetics community (and, truth be told, I adore this). But you are of course, Kent, yourself a moralizer of a different sort, simply more protean than those who strangely take offence at your Pessoa-esque writhings. Are you not reprimanding a poetics community for a self-regard of which you are the highest incarnation?
This is the point where antinomy becomes aporia. It’s always amusing for me, for instance, to see poets shouting (albeit wryly or in a circuitous, sardonic fashion) at other poets: “You’re not engaged enough!” An appropriate paraphrase would be: « You’re not talking about the right things !” The “right things” may be, in this case, the axiological separation between “our concerns” with a minority poetics and the concerns of an intensely suffering majority. So let us look at another specific example of such a divide:
I remember once, years ago, before the War that is with us, just after I had joined the Poetics List, George Bowering sent in a post that said [I think I remember it rightly], “I am sitting here. The girls have just gone out for juice and cigarettes.” Lots of things happened on the Poetics List after that, but for some reason I always remembered that post. I also remember that George and David Bromige used to joke back and forth a lot, you could tell they were old Vancouver pals, and sometimes Rachel Loden and another woman, whose name was number thirty, I think, I can’t recall, used to chime in, and it was all pretty clever and erotic, actually, for they would often say things that seemed quite inappropriate for a public space like Poetics, but you could tell everyone really liked it and wanted more.
The War (in its foreboding majuscules) sits looming over these subsequent stories of male poets’ erotic feelings regarding the to-and-fros of a mailing list. The passage is, for me, decidedly creepy, and perhaps it is “supposed to be.” Is this nostalgia for a pre-war era, as a trope such as “years ago” would seem to express? In part it seems to be this, yet the poem also contains the inference, as we find in the majority of the other poems of your book, that nothing has changed: that such concerns are still those of our “community”, while over a horizon invisible to us, sidewinders are still drifting silently into schools or desert hills. “I hope the War ends soon. I hope George Bowering is happy . . .”
Honestly Kent, there are few things I’m less interested in than the semi-erotic interplays of the Poetics List (maybe you had to be there). But so be it, I’ll leave you your interests. Or perhaps they are not your interests? The satirist always has this protection: a sort of body-armour impenetrable to the critic, where the ironical poet may always dryly wink at the reader as if to say: “You have fallen into my trap!” But if satire is so doubled-over and redoubled-over that it ends up resembling an undoable knot of contradictions, it is difficult to see how such satire is any different from the self-obsessed poetry it is ostensibly criticizing.
Such “satire”, in brief, becomes a new incarnation of self-reflexive, relativistic ambivalence: the absence of absence and the statement of non-statements, with nothing put forth, nothing reconciled by way of these innumerable circumlocutions of identity, discourse, posture, gesture, act. Perhaps irony is not meant to be “undone”, you may suggest. I’m all for it, but then the ironist must accept the same discursive status for his work as that poetry which, for its “saying nothing”, he ostensibly attacks.
The ramifications of these questions, I realize, are immense, and I am at pains to address their full scope. “Like Hamlet” as you note in Baghdad Exceeds Its Object, “your emotion is unconvincing, for it exceeds its object.” I know I have addressed Kent, in the short space of my letter, only a very limited aspect of your poetics, and only one facet among many of your Homage to the Last Avant-Garde. It is because this particular facet preoccupies me so greatly that I haven’t sufficiently explored your formal ingeniousness, your humour, your incessant challenging of our strictest, set ideologies, your raucous flying in the face of damaging norms. “I have also seen all of your invented letters”, writes Jack Spicer to you. “The ones from the living are quite boring. The more interesting ones are from the dead”. Though this is no doubt true, I would prefer to be boring for many years yet, though never bored by these poems which trouble me to the extent that I simultaneously “disagree” with their apparent predicates, yet am unsure of the precise point of our disagreement.
Perhaps others will think you wrote this letter to yourself, Kent, that it is the case of the cunning invention of another ambivalent heteronym, a naïve francophone critic looking vainly for some (inexistent) solid ethical ground. But you and I know such rumours to be silly. I only hope not to have offended you by these questions, you who, need it be said, I do admire, in spite of the troubles of a difficult century.
And after all, all fucking by poets takes place in hell, as Spicer says.