He spins the slight, self-pleasing thread anew;
Destroy his fib or sophistry, in vain,
The creature's at his dirty work again;
Thron'd in the centre of his thin designs;
Proud of a vast extent of flimsy lines!
“Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot”
Satire is not my forte. When I was in graduate school, I avoided taking courses on the eighteenth century. For many years, I taught a course at Xavier which was intended in part to be a history of English and American poetry. I skipped Dryden and usually did Swift’s “The Lady’s Dressing Room” (“Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia shits!”). Since I had to demonstrate how effective heroic couplets could be, I would give the students those lines from “The Deserted Village” in which Goldsmith bids farewell to Poetry, but those are elegiac rather than satirical, and I could barely refrain from weeping, something I found myself doing rather often in that course. I think of myself as an ironic soul, but I lean toward the romantic irony of the sublime rather than the aggressive, say one thing but mean the opposite sort of irony one finds in satire. Besides, as everyone knows, if you have to explain a joke, you’ve ruined it.
All this to say that I’m probably not the best reviewer for Kent Johnson’s new book, which is not only satire of the most aggressive and confrontational sort, but, like some of Pope’s best work, is aimed specifically at what is often referred to these days as “po-biz.” Johnson has been a highly visible po-biz gadfly for many years, and he has made plenty of enemies. Most recently, he and Michael Boughn (to whom Because of Poetry is dedicated) edited the online journal Dispatches from the Poetry Wars, which not only covered, but also provoked, a number of controversies inside and outside whatever still counts as an American poetry “establishment” (more on this concept below). Writing under the nom de guerre of Emily Post-Avant, Johnson’s column in Dispatches was bitchy, seethingly indignant, insufferably judgmental, and scathingly funny, which is a good enough description of the current volume as well.
At this point, a number of my readers are probably wondering why, given Kent Johnson’s reputation and past history, I’m venturing into the quagmire that a review of his work is bound to be. My reason is simple: Johnson is an important writer, and the questions his work raises are not merely sociological but have everything to do with the ways in which readers become conscious (or remain unconscious) of their assumptions about poetry and of their aesthetic values in general. More to the point, Johnson does not present this idea in theory. Rather, because he is poet, he self-consciously enacts it, leading us into self-consciousness as well. Some of us will go along for the ride quite willingly, others will have to be dragged kicking and screaming. And herein lies the question that must be addressed by any reviewer of Johnson’s book: is it a cure for the problems of “po-biz,” or is it a symptom? In considering this, I am reminded of the great Viennese satirist Karl Kraus, who famously quipped that “Psychoanalysis is the mental illness it purports to cure.”
If Johnson himself understands his work as in any way a cure, it is a cure of an extreme sort. (Ezra Pound, who tends to see the arts in terms of hygiene, notes that “satire is surgery, insertions and amputations.”) He seems to prefer the frontal attack, regardless of the mode or form of address in each of his poems. Here’s the beginning of “The Discs of Snow”:
The way rain falls, the discs of snow.
I like the writers in my class,
The way they kiss each other’s ass.
I wish they liked me equally,
Returning, thus, my fealty.
But Satyr’s wage is lonesomeness,
Among the solemn Crotalus.
They coil and fang and hiss away,
At panpipe me, who (just as they!)
Do meekly seek an MFA. (21)
I admit that I laughed out loud when I hit the fourth line, and if that means I have a juvenile sense of humor, so be it. But note that the rhymes become increasingly clever, as the tone of the poem gets wackier. A satyr (or satirist) in an MFA program? Not likely: I’ve encountered a number of styles and stances among the young poets coming out of such programs, but I would have to say that most of their poet-professors do not see satire as a promising career move.
The absurdity of a “career” in poetry is one of Johnson’s most frequent subjects, and it pairs well with the faux-naif voice that he occasionally adopts. From “Poetry Will Save Your Life”:
nice, and this is the other reason I know that Poetry won’t
save your life: All you have to do is look around you
at other poets, be it in New York City or some quaint
Midwestern college town and what unkind, impolite,
and self-involved people they are, the poets, mainly out
for themselves and their “poetry careers,” and the bigger
their vitas become, the more unpleasant they get. My third
ex-wife once asked me, and with all her faults, she
could narrow in on a topic and pluck out its essence,
she asked me, “Has any poet even once done something
nice for you twice, without the good old quid pro quo?” (12-13)
What makes this a (self-indulgent) poem rather than a (self-indulgent) short story? As is sometimes said by unsophisticated readers encountering a modern poem, it seems to be prose chopped up arbitrarily into lines of verse. I think this is deliberate, and fundamental to Johnson’s satiric strategy. Just like his goofy rhymes, his long, prosy lines and absurdly meandering narrative play with and against what his readers know about the current state of poetry. The institutional structures he mocks through the formal structures he manipulates are of a piece. What readers know about both-what readers have invested in both-will determine their response to Johnson’s provocations.
There’s no denying the sheer glee of these provocations. “The Gunpowder Plot” is written in lines so long that you have to turn the book sideways to read it, and in a deliberately stilted language that vaguely resembles seventeenth-century English (but actually sounds more like pirate talk). Rather than the House of Lords, it’s the “Poetry Institution” (that is, the notoriously wealthy Poetry Foundation) that is Guy Fawkes’ target, “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 hath come to invade almost fucking everything” (32). Since the publication of Because of Poetry, the Foundation has been subject to even more severe criticism, facing accusations of institutional racism and its failure to support writers facing economic hardship due to the pandemic. This has led to the resignation of its president and board chair, and most recently, the editor of Poetry. Johnson is nothing if not prescient.
This prescience is due in part to Johnson’s comprehensive knowledge of the social history of recent American poetry, with all its gossip and tempests in teapots, from which he produces some of his best satiric barbs. But unlike earlier satirists, whose orientation was relatively conservative, Johnson is more of an anarchist. A set of poems called “From One Hundred Poems from the Chinese” parodies Kenneth Rexroth’s anthology and skewers nearly every movement, style, and tendency of the last seventy-five years:
due to the overdo, “avant-garde” verse has moved
on to get conflated, rapidly and willingly, with the
Academy and mainstream print venues, to the point
where we haven’t had an institutionalized habitus
like it since the New Criticism. Penn is the new
Kenyon, and the prominent Presses, Literary Prizes,
and State or Corporate Fellowships leash the values
of attention. A full moon rises over the New Yorker. (49)
We’ve heard this tale before, but it bears repeating. Though there are still centers of cultural power and individual arbiters in the world of poetry, the radical decentering of this world is a fait accompli. Nevertheless, literary opportunism, as far as Kent Johnson is concerned, is alive and well. From later in the same poem:
poets off. When I dream, everything is as it used to
be: The living are the living. Yet when I wake, I am
returned to the land of the stomping dead. Here come
two young poets with books from Wave, drawn in a
cart by J. Spicer and J. Kyger. The poet-horses have
gold bits clenched in their foamy mouths. The cart-
poets whip them, again and again. Why? Why? Poor
horses! I want to throw my arms around their wet
necks and sob until I go mad. Major or minor,
the dead are together as pure souls. (50)
The reference here is to the possibly apocryphal story of Nietzsche’s breakdown in Turin, when he saw a carthorse being beaten; it is also an episode in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. In these lines, Johnson passes from the register of satire to that of horrific prophecy, or perhaps of Blakean visionary realism. These moments do not occur very often in Johnson’s book, but when they do, we realize that he’s not joking.