Tuesday, March 14, 2006


The suffix itis has evolved over the centuries from merely meaning diseased to its contemporary medical connotation of inflamed or swollen. Thus arthritis, rhinitis, colitis. Thus also Epigramititis: 118 Living American Poets by Kent Johnson – meaning literally swollen epigrams, the extra it intended I suppose to lend the whole even more of a stuttering Barney Fife-as-Virgil air. It hasn’t even been a month since I wrote that

I’m convinced that, for whatever reason, Kent Johnson just isn’t having fun if he isn’t up to mischief. Fortunately – an adverb I use with some caution – Johnson has boundless energy when it comes to attracting same.

Now Johnson has, I reckon, figured out how to get 118 or so people to purchase his newest effort. In a bizarre way, it’s worth the $20. An epigram is (thank you OED) a loosely laudatory poem. These, however, carry their passive-aggressive air to new heights (or depths), as with one entitled “Michael Palmer.”

O Ideal Reader,
Pretty Girlie-Man,
Master of Fine Arted:
Through the Gate Whose Name is Author,
You shall be lost within
The Maze of the Market,
and you shall be, etc.
astonished by the letter, etc.
Whose Name is M, or L, or A, etc.

Illustrating this poem is a full-frontal photograph of the governor of California entirely nude, flexing pretty much everything there is to flex. Now let’s ignore the fact that Michael Palmer has, so far as I know, no MFA, nor is a member of any standing of the MLA (nor, for that matter, is named Michael, except insofar as he has adopted his middle name). What is Johnson saying? More exactly, what is Johnson implying?

Here is the poem entitled “Ron Silliman”:

Poetry, children, is boring.
We must not say so. But
life is, too. And this is
the New Realism.

The illustration for this piece is a photograph of a young woman – the presence of a crude blackboard on the walls suggests that she is a school teacher – about to whip with a ruler the bare bottom of a female student. Given that I believe none of the above, it’s a head scratcher.

Perhaps the most telling text in the entire volume occurs on a faux copyright page (there’s a real one further up) that reads:

© Wherever Poetry, With Its Loves, Hates, and Sorrows Resides

Disclaimer: All Names and characters portrayed here are completely fictional. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is in most cases coincidental. This holds, as well, for nearly all images accompanying the epigrams, hard copies of which were tossed into a big wicker basket and shuffled around before each image was randomly picked out and given its pairing with a poem.

I love that “in most cases” qualifier above; ditto the “nearly all.” For what distinguishes this book is its gleeful meanness, as in “Lyn Lifshin”:

Not to be mean, or anything
Like that, but did Lyn Lifshin
Really ever exist?

Another, illustrated by a photo of Marilyn Monroe raising a martini glass, is “Robert Grenier”:


Or, illustrated by a photo of a used car salesman, “Robert Pinsky”:

I, too, dislike him,
though I’m not sure why.

Or, illustrated by a photo of Telly Savalas sticking a lollipop into his mouth, “David Antin”:

Shortly after 9/11, he spoke in writing
on the listserv Poetics: “If you encounter
a terrorist on a plane, you don’t politely
request that he return to his seat, you
pull out a .45 and you shoot him.”
History is unstoppable in its teleological
drive to unity: Pop culture merges
with the Humanities; the Talk Show merges
with Talk Poetry. And huge decompressed
machines fall, like ideologemes, out of the air.

Or, illustrated with a photo of the burned corpses of American contractors being hung from a Baghdad bridge, “Stephen Burt”:

Poet and critic, we claim him
as our Randall Jarrell (the younger version)>
Oh, goodbye, Helen Vendler, goodbye,
for you are their Matthew Arnold.
We wash you out of your shattered turret with a hose.

Some of the poems (Graham Foust, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge) are “in the manner” of their targets & in more than a few cases, Johnson is settling scores. My own name appears in a half dozen or so pieces, the hit count of this blog in more than one. Of the 118 total, just 30 are women, several of whom – Eleni Sikelianos, Eileen Myles, Catherine Daly, Hoa Nguyen – are considered more for their looks than their poetry. Un-PC? You bet.

Johnson is, I think, the canary in our coal mine, gasping for air. Like Jim Behrle, whose stance towards poetry as first of all a social activity Johnson comes close to miming, he is telling us something moderately significant about contemporary verse. More than Behrle, Johnson has figured out how to fit this into his written work, as such. But the downside for both is that to get to this place, one has to be almost tragically out of control, which is the choice each appears to accept. There is an audience of sorts that takes this as bravery – the same folks who thought the homophobia of Ed Dorn & Tom Clark with regards to Naropa – wishing Allen Ginsberg “the gift of AIDS” – was telling it like it is. More accurately, it’s like the way in which Clark’s biographies invariably identify with their subjects as monsters, as tho the monster in the mirror were all one could ever hope to confront, really. One might say that Kent Johnson is at war with poetry, with all of it, and desperately in love with it as well. The result is pornographic in the most literal sense – you hate to find yourself staring obsessively at it, like watching someone with horrific burn scars attempt to sip through a straw. As such, it’s a powerful, tho stomach-wrenching experience.

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