September 2008

Dale Smith

marsupial inquirer

The Assholes of Assus: An Homage

I’ve always been inspired by poets who risk their perceptions in poetry. I have affinities for those who align themselves along some precarious edge where social values and personal decisions collide. As a group, however, poets typically flee the edge -- or they define it with such banality no sense of danger could ever hinder the forward progress up the ladder of American letters. Poetry, like the art world Dave Hickey describes in his book on art and democracy, Air Guitar, thrives on career hierarchies. Poets must know their place in the professional scheme of things. Those who act out or try in some way to bring reflection to the role of the poet as a participant in the contradictory social forces we inhabit as U. S. citizens tend to get chewed up in the jaws of the machinery.

Kent Johnson has been a critical and serious force in poetry for more than a decade, showing how established practices and affinities among certain groups in the so-called avant-garde create a situation in which careers are rewarded over breath-taking and original writing -- and he’s hated for it (duh).

In Homage to the Last Avant-Garde -- perhaps his finest contribution to the dilemmas of contemporary writing -- he brings critical reflection to the political and social contexts in which poetry is written. A satirist basing much of the work here in responses to various poets and traditions of writing -- particularly the New York School -- Johnson’s perspectives are aerated too with warmth and generosity. A hot lyricism radiates just under the surface of his satiric wit, and this is the most telling aspect of his writing.

The earnestness and commitment he brings out, however, can be overlooked due to the satiric charge of the voices he invents. And in an age that values irony and contempt for the weakness of others, Johnson has been read as a trickster-gadfly-pain-in-the-ass-of-the-pimple-of-poetry. Meanwhile, of course, the poet-pimps manage their assets on blogs and in their spheres of limited cultural influence -- spaces Johnson enters too -- like a mosquito on bare ankles at sunset. His commentary at the Harriet Blog -- managed by the fabulously endowed Poetry Foundation -- has argued for greater reflection on the role of politics in poetry. His work in today’s world of meltdown economics, Abu Ghraib-styled social surveillance systems, and other Bush-era, boot-clicking social forms of compliance provides a massive check on the behavior of poets whose theories often conflict with their practices.

One thing Johnson is good at is deflating some of the esteem poets give to their heroes. In “The New York School (Or: I Grew Ever More Intense),” he describes his morning toilet routines interspersed with voices that recount horrific scenes of loss and terror in certain Asian, African, and Arab nations. It’s a weird juxtaposition. “I turned over the bottle of shampoo,” he writes, “and Frank O’Hara came out. I rubbed him all into my head, letting the foam rise, knowing I was just warming myself up, excited by the excess of what was to come.” Later in the poem, Barbara Guest squirts out of a shaving cream can and James Schuyler is squeezed out of toothpaste. There is Ted Berrigan after shave and Kenneth Koch mouthwash. Between these satiric paragraphs we find narratives such as this:

I couldn’t help it, I thought of this: One day, a fortnight or so after my mother’s death in Shishido, I was up in the hills playing with some friends. Suddenly one of them said, Look, the baby’s hands are all swollen. I touched the baby, which was still strapped to my back, and screamed -- it was stone cold. My friends began to panic and jump up and down, shouting, It’s dead, it’s dead. I felt awful having something dead tied to me, so I ripped off my jacket and dropped the baby, before joining the others as they ran back down the hill as fast as their legs would take them, shrieking.

So readers have to deal with these prosaic frames, alternating between poetic satire and horrific narrative. This performative presentation never explicitly states an argument, and it’s possible that some might find the satire directly aimed at those poets of the New York school whom Johnson so enthusiastically squishes into his own warm man-body. But really, the satire is aimed at contemporary poets who are too preoccupied with their investments in particular schools of thought or practice to apprehend how their writing obscures and defies the memories of the dead in places around the world. The poignant thing here is that the New York School poets featured in this poem all came to public significance during the 1950s and '60s as the Cold, Korean, and Vietnam wars raged around the globe. Johnson suggests that the time and social space made available to these poets, and many others, was bought through the suffering of those in far away places. The American practice of poetry is paid for in blood -- literally. And that’s not something people want to hear -- nor is it much under anyone’s control. But Johnson is unrelenting, forcing readers to digest his imagery so that, in Robert Duncan’s terms, evil is not something to oppose; instead, it is to be completely imagined by the poet. In another paragraph, doing just this, he writes:

a young girl…climbed out of the burning car in which her mother, father, and sister sat dead, their open-eyed bodies on slow fire. In shock she walked around in tight circles, her fingers hanging by nerves and skin from her hands… She simply walked in circles for about five minutes, an impassive look on her face, until she slowly knelt and curled up in apparent sleep on the street, the shooting continuing above her body for another twenty minutes or so. During that time, she bled to death.

If an avant-garde is supposed to be at the front of culture, showing others new perspectives of the world and how to live in it -- promoting, among other things, real social change -- then Johnson’s critique is damning to those who understand poetry’s value as a mere expression of formal methodologies. He asks for a genuine understanding of the relationships between imagination, poetic practice, and political power. More than anything he insists that poets are not innocent of the political forces they may critique.

The criticism often hurled at satirists, of course, is that they remain distant from their own critiques. They possess a vantage from which to view the world that is untouchable and remote. What makes Johnson’s satire so compelling, however, is the trust he establishes with readers. He exposes his feeling and beliefs in order to discover something beyond his feeling and beliefs. Like all of us, he too is at the mercy of systems of power and authority that are only comprehended through great effort. It is depressing, however, to realize how few poets do get the stakes here -- and elsewhere (particularly as the economy continues to fizzle out with extraordinary ramifications for everyone).

Elsewhere in the book, “Traductions” of ancient Greek lyrics show the hostility and argumentativeness of ancient poetry communities. “Let the assholes of Assus preach about Truth and Form,” Johnson “traduces” in a poem attributed to Ammonides. “In the real world, a philosopher flying over a burning city is strangely beautiful.” Ancient poets elsewhere are smeared “with cow’s / shit”; they are told by Eros to lay off the “dog-style fucking”; or, more simply, they are “fucked with black luck.” These poems from the ancient Greeks, in a section called, “The Miseries of Poetry,” seem to reveal Johnson’s affinity for Jack Spicer’s engagement with the outside. The poet channels voices from afar, who speak, through the psychic and elemental static, through him. The poet is submissive to this sense of transcendent mission, “fucked with black luck.” Any sense of accomplishment, as though the author were in possession of genuine gifts, stinks of many dog turds in this context.

Finally, “Lyric Poetry After Auschwitz, or: ‘Get the Hood Back On,’” a poem that brilliantly implicates red-blooded American virtues in the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal, is a fine example of a poetic practice that balances satire with self-inspection, challenge and critique with lyric amplitude. “Hi there, Madid,” Johnson writes in a concluding and controversial stanza,

I’m an American poet, twentyish, early to mid-thirtyish, fiftyish to seventyish, I’ve had poems on the Poets Against the War website, and in American Poetry Review and Chain, among other magazines, and I have a blog, and I really dig Arab music, and I read Adorno and Spivak, and I’m really progressive, I voted for Clinton and Gore, even though I know they bombed you a lot, too, sorry about that, and I know I live quite nicely off the fruits of a dying imperium, which include anti-war poetry readings at the Lincoln Center and the Poetry Project…

In this complex piece, satirical attacks against an American presence in Iraq go beyond a vague, “holier-than-thou” position to implicate a complex weave of American social types. How, as Charles Bernstein once asked, should poets “pursue our own forms of ethical and aesthetic response” in the face of “the sort of pronouncement by fiat and moral presumption of President Bush and his partisans”? This question, in a sense, is Johnson’s thesis. But what would perhaps trouble Bernstein and others are the claims, implied by Johnson’s performative satire, that we are all spectators to a calamity no one can relieve. We are a good, decent people who will destroy any opponent to our faith in system, resource and even aesthetics.

As editor of the Araki Yasusada notebooks, Kent Johnson has, over more than a decade, emerged as a volatile figure in what remains of the avant-garde, as well as other, less well-defined poetic communities. His argument within poetry communities brings with it brilliant insight not only for other poets, but for all of us who live in a world that is currently teetering on the brink of change -- and not just in the elective sense offered through Obama and McCain’s ululating refrains. Johnson’s humor and vulnerability make this volume alive to the poetry’s full potential. As Johnson notes,

Our poems will be completely / forgotten, rot in the landfill of oblivion. With wry smiles and toasts / to the ancient ones, we console each other:

In that common mass grave, we shall never be alone.