Poet/translator Chris Daniels has an enthusiastic review of Kent's Lyric Poetry After Auschwitz. This was first posted at Chris Murray's Texfiles.
I give this brief, well-made chapbook fifteen stars: five
red giants for aesthetic value, five white dwarves for honesty, and
five supernovas for sheer courage. All fifteen stars to be shared by
effing press. I refuse to quote from this chapbook, which ought to be
read in one sitting by every citizen of the USA.
Kent Johnson’s Lyric Poetry After Auschwitz begins very fittingly with a dedication to his sons, both of whom are either near or at an age to be drafted. On the same page is Kent’s fatherly reminder to them that there is not a measureable bit of difference between Republican and Democrat politicians. Every Senator is a millionaire, after all. On the verso, we find Adorno’s famous tagline, which has become a cliché, and a pungently apt rejoinder from an anonymous critic with distinctly anti-bourgeoisie sentiments, both taken from the wall of the men’s room at the St. Mark’s Poetry Project.
I won’t waste a single indefinite article trying to lull you into a comfy stupor with my command of the thought of the ingenious reactionary Theodore Adorno. Firstly, I have no command of Adorno’s thought; secondly, to steal a line from a favorite critic of mine, I prefer my Marxism straight up, thank you very much, and I like to chase it with compassionate indignation, for that delectable combination tastes of the true ambrosia: rational solidarity in human relationships; and, thirdly, screw the old snob, anyway.
My friend Kent Johnson has been reviled, ignored, argued with and loved.
Kent’s arguments have been many, and they have usually ended up refining the ideas of both Kent and his interlocutors.
Most of us who love Kent, do so in part because he has spent no small amount of his time unanswerably exposing, with much subtlety and good humor, the fetishization and auto-fetishization of authors (including hmself) and their work.
The fetishization of artists removes them and their artistic labor from the material world of social relationships in which people make and do things. Fetishized artists, their labor and its product inhabit a rigidly hierarchical universe in which great, wise, good and aesthetically infallible Geniuses like Bach and Shakespeare (both of whom, like any other prolific artist, produced much that is mediocre by anybody’s standards) spring forth out of a mythic empyrean aswim with particles of their own inexplicable superiority to the rest of us. This results in something very much like the junk science that informs Erik von Daaniken’s agonizingly stupid Chariots of the Gods. The claim that human beings couldn’t possibly have built the pyramids at Giza without the help of Superhumanly Advanced Extraterrestrials is an insult to the human imagination, mocks the generations of poor people and slaves who were forced to drag those immense blocks of sandstone over the course of centuries and centuries, and denies the potential for cultural achievement inherent in every single new-born human being. A strong component of class arrogance and entitlement is always present in this impoverished mode of “thought”. Attitudes like this should be unthinkable to any man or woman of conscience.
When fetishization is present, and it almost always is, everything becomes very mysterious and no one really means to say what they just said. The great English monosyllable “work” no longer means “labor”, but “oeuvre”, an also noble French word which, when used by a certain relatively small class of predominantly White Anglophones and Anglophonettes doesn’t really mean “consummate writing of such profound import that rubes addicted to Pop Culture will never, ever get it”. Or else, it doesn’t really mean “project”, a noncommital, corporate word that lends its utterer’s pronouncements a technocratic sheen. Mystification ultimately only serves the very few.
Those very few of us who revile or ignore Kent, do so because his clearcut, tenacious critique, and his excellent poetry, which is always bittersweet, even when it is hilarious, tragic, outraged or, most typically, all three (and more) at once, make us uncomfortably aware of our own pretensions.
Even his most insensible enemies have got to love him in their hearts, for any fool can see that Kent does not spare himself. He ridicules himself mercilessly everywhere. This can be seen most clearly in The Miseries of Poetry. On every page of that wonderful book, including the opening section with its dozens of blurbs (to which I proudly contributed), he positions himself in front of his own petard and giggles impetuously while lighting the fuse. Kent always stands hoisèd before us, smiling, a bit shyly, the way he did the whole time I met him, but always unashamed, through the unfashionably plain motley of charred wadding (made from back issues of certain corrupt poetry journals) that he wears with such grace.
In this small but important collection of poems, essays and things containing elements of many genres, Kent sticks his neck out as far as it will possibly go and then he just leaves it there. He is not afraid of censure. He knows that those who want him to shut up are offended because their own hypocrisy has been exposed by Kent’s courageous willingness to struggle against Liberal Capitalist USA’s moral and ethical bankruptcy as it resides within himself, and then use his imagination to transform his inner struggle into political poetry of high aesthetic value and emotional complexity. Instead of embracing Kent’s struggle as their own, and following the example he sets, his defamers, many of whom are inexcusable snobs who should know better, will sneer reflexively or spit out ad hominem attacks born of envy, reaction and political despair.
This is the poetry of a man who cares deeply about humanity and its future, which is your future, and mine. This is the poetry of a loving and compassionate husband and father who hopes for a sustainable society based not upon the anarchic, irrational accumulation of wealth by a miniscule, parasitically murderous segment of the global population, but upon the meeting of basic human needs for each and every one of us on the planet. This is the poetry of an artist who understands that capitalist patriarchy not only has failed to encourage and allow the development of human potential in the vast majority of men and especially women who live in every nation on this planet, but has also been the direct cause of untold millions of deaths over the course of the last five centuries.
This is not a book of poems that will be enjoyed by the type of individuals who call those who disagree with them “fascist” at the drop of a hat without really knowing what that word means. This is not a book of poems for prideful bag men and women for a Christ whose teachings they have perverted into a gospel of greed and racist and sexist violence. This book should be read by every one of them, but they will not read it, and, if by some outside chance they do manage to read this book to the end, they will pile on in a tizzy, as they always do when they need a scapegoat for their own filthy consciences.
Sit back and try to relax while Kent Johnson’s new chapbook rips you a new one, right in the middle of your forehead. Don’t be afraid. It won’t kill you. It hurt Kent just as much as it will hurt you. Trust me, you’ll see so much better afterwards that you might even trade in your copies of Being and Time and Of Grammatology for something real, like the Penguin edition of Capital, Volume One and Sharon Smith’s Women and Socialism. You might start changing in earnest, first the way you think about the brutal society we live in, and then your very life in all its contradictory relationships to the human beings around you.
It’s time for us to leave the cradle. Time for us to wipe the ironic smirks off our faces. Time for us to realize that Capitalism has long sold off its revolutionary potential. Now is the time for us to leave behind the soothing unison of monotonous, barely reformist postmodern lullabies of Cloudcuckooland ethereality we’ve grown to depend on, and to learn the overwhelmingly beautiful, polyphonic chant of human solidarity in each and every one of its limitless modulations rooted in the material world wherein our joy, our tenderness, our sorrow, our love and our struggle are one, and our true, dignified identity sings forth in hope: we are human, simply human, sisters and brothers, and there are billions of us.
Chris Daniels, July 2005