Saturday, May 03, 2003
Halvard Johnson no longer lives
& teaches in
I’ve known Johnson primarily as the author of four books that came out over a decade – more or less the 1970s – from New Rivers Press. That was a decade of high militancy amid poetry tendencies – the period when the Poetry Project Newsletter routinely removed certain language poets from the lists of contributors to little magazines – and Johnson’s poetry, which I would have characterized then as a softer version of the New American poetics of the two previous decades, was part of the landscape, but never aligned with any particular visible formation. That was, I now suspect, a reasonably accurate assessment. He was – still is – a complete independent as a poet.
anyone who reads small presses knows, Johnson has continued to write &
publish in journals since the 1970s. Books, however, appear to have been harder
to come by. Which is why the inclusion of his Rapsodie espagnole on Jukka-Pekka Kervinen’s xPress(ed) website from
xPress(ed) is a site that publishes booklength works of “experimental” – its term – poetry in PDF files. It published 13 books last fall, and another ten this spring. Authors include Catherine Daly, Jesse Glass, Peter Ganick, Lewis Lacook, mIEKAL aND, Kari Edwards, Eileen “Peeps” Tabios, Sheila E. (for Everywhere) Murphy, Michael Basinski, Nico Vassilakis, Dan Raphael, Joel Chace & more.
Rapsodie espagnole is, by Johnson’s own description, “a found poem,” a work in 34 sections whose sentences are taken entirely from the English examples in an advanced Spanish language primer. If there are any rules beyond the constraints around Johnson’s source language, I can’t discern them. Here is section 7:
If I were you, I should decline the offer. She wanted to go shopping,
but he preferred to read the paper. Where do you spend the summer?
Who is it? It is they. The fact is that there is not enough for the two of you.
Before sitting down, I wiped the chair. On thinking it over, we have decided
he is not suitable. Put them there, don’t give them to me. How brown
you are getting! I am going to tell you the truth. It was as if the monkey
were human. Whenever I see him I give him a small coin. Where
is the chocolate? We have eaten it. There are Peter and Philip,
let’s go and invite them. We offered it to her. He entertains his friends
a great deal. He handed the list to the inspector. They took out
the necklaces and beads and showed them to the natives.
They showed them to them. She was so scared that her hair
stood on end. The nurse put a thermometer in his mouth and took
his temperature. He promised his wife he would buy her a new washing
machine. He promised it to her. In order to pay for it he borrowed
the money from his bank manager. It is impossible for us to accept
this ultimatum. They were shot at dawn. Why go on talking about it?
He thinks he’s handsome, but he isn’t. He is so kind-hearted! I told you so.
You cannot rely on him, believe me! We think it opportune to sell
all our shares in that company. I am surprised there are foreign tourists here.
They are everywhere. He thought he was so clever!
New Sentence Я Us! Johnson plays the pronouns into a comic series of exchanges, some light-hearted, others threatening. Individual sentences tend to be direct, but at times are just far enough “off” from idiomatic norms to give the reader that “dictated from Mars” feeling: How brown you are getting!
I have to
admit I have always had an ambivalent relationship toward constructed texts of
this sort, a feeling heightened now that the Ubu website seems to have decided
that my own 2197 “anticipates,
with its stock of phrases morphing and reappearing in different acrobatic poses
throughout its pages, the preoccupation with dataflows,
rhizomes and digital recurrence that has characterized much literature in the
age of the internet.”** But 2197 was
very much written the old-fashioned way, by looking at the materials at hand
& figuring out in my head what should go next – its only quirk being that
“the materials at hand” were restricted to one source sentence for syntax, one
for vocabulary, determined mathematically from a core set of 169 sentences. My
guess is that Johnson has proceeded through K.L.J. Mason’s Advanced Spanish Course in very much the same fashion, utilizing
the “Practice Sentences for Translation into Spanish” as source material, but
then just writing. I don’t think it’s possible – in the above section or
elsewhere throughout these 34 single-stanza pieces of variable length – to have
produced what we find here through a system. Johnson’s wit is too sharp, his
timing too exact. It passes a variant of the Turing test for
poetry that I call the Ginger Rogers
example, some early systematic poems by Jackson Mac Low, such
as those found in Stanzas
for Iris Lezak, a 396-page work written by
Mac Low in 1960 & published by Dick Higgins’ Something Else Press 12 years
later***. Mac Low’s afterword on the method used in composing & performing Stanzas is over 20 pages long, but what
is really noteworthy from the perspective of Halvard Johnson’s text some 43
years hence is how very awkward Mac Low’s pieces are – they don’t try to hide
it & even revel in it to some degree. At the time it was something, however
ungainly, nobody had every achieved before in writing. In contrast,
ambivalence, of course, is that same old one between composition as an
individual process – that is, as a process channeled through (& thus
controlled by) an individual – and the possibilities of, not automatic writing,
but automated writing. There was a
period a few years back when I wondered if Brian Kim Stefans would soon be able
to generate a computerized booklength text every single afternoon, while still
holding down whatever it is he does for a job. Since then I’ve gotten to know a
little the large oeuvre of
want to turn into a slightly pomo variation on Hilton
Kramer’s caricature of criticism, shaking a raised finger & kvetching that
young people these days need to sweat out every individual pixel. Yet I do
value labor & intelligence absolutely – Johnson’s approach to his materials
demonstrates plenty of both. It’s not, for example, a test case for the limits
of procedure, but rather a deft & exceptionally clever application of the
possibilities raised by this language. In this sense, Rapsodie is a reasonably close kin to
One significant difference between Rapsodie & Dolch or Twenties is that its fundamental kernel is the sentence, whereas the other two works come into focus at the word. Writing with the sentence as your unit is an extremely tricky & difficult process – not at all like putting word after word. Length, structure, sound, potential for referentiality all come into play in ways that are sometimes surprising. Given my own writing process – composing individual sentences & deploying them in works often months or even years later – this for me is the most fascinating part of Johnson’s process. I can speak from experience when I say that he really gets it & hits the right spots the way, say, a great jazz musician would all the way throughout this work.
* Trying to
yoke an aesthetic tendency around
** I will admit that I never thought of 2197 in such terms before reading this blurb.
*** Really useful project for Duration or Ubu or even xPress(ed): get the rights to digitize the entire Something Else catalog.