1967. I’d been sent to collect Charles Olson from the Ithaca airport for a poetry convocation in nearby Cortland, New York. At twenty, I’d barely thought about a poetry world much less a mainstream and avant-garde. But Olson’s work was qualitatively different from what I was reading in my English courses, and I knew by heart some of the poems in anthologies like A Controversy of Poets and The New American Poetry, 1945 – 1960, which I’d found at the Eighth Street Book Shop in Greenwich Village two years earlier. I’d yet to articulate the contrast for myself, though.
Years later, Rachel Blau DuPlessis shared her version of the same story: “I was desperately trying to find out ‘things’ that were not the tight, tidy, domesticated poetry of my college years.” She was describing my own, still unknowing, adolescent passion. In “the little magazines” at the New York Public Library, she went on, she came upon poetry by the likes of Robert Duncan: “My first HIT of him: that person, the absolute gasp and sense of desire—to do something like THAT! It was a VERY important discovery—for the elegance and wildness at once, and a discovery of the hybrid text” (Email to author, December 17, 2011).
Olson, at 6’9”—author of the hybrid Maximus Poems—was outsized in more ways than one. So when I first spotted his hat bobbing above the wing of the plane he flew in on, as he walked across the tarmac, an Odin descended from the sky, he epitomized the avant-garde with which I was now becoming intimate.
A professor at SUNY Cortland, whose brother worked with Joel Oppenheimer for a Manhattan printer, had brought him to campus to run his weekly workshop and give a reading. More “outlaw” poets followed—Robert Creeley and a slew of other ne’er do wells—Paul Blackburn, William Bronk, Armand Schwerner, Cid Corman, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Olson of course. Alas, few of them were women, but I’d play hooky, heading south to New York City for readings at the nascent St. Mark’s Church Poetry Project. A mesmerizing evening featured Diane di Prima, its own inflection point.
Today, these poets are enshrined in our literary history. In the mid-sixties, few readers, practicing poets, or anyone else had heard of them. There was no such thing then as “culture wars,” let alone “the poetry wars.” College anthologies didn’t include most of the Modernist giants—Ezra Pound, H.D., Gertrude Stein, William Carlos Williams. Robert Frost was taught, maybe Marianne Moore, sometimes Wallace Stevens. Frost’s, Moore’s, and Amy Lowell’s poems were the standard fare.
Some of Stevens’s poems (I’d later learn) had been published in Origin and The Black Mountain Review—in the fifties and sixties, two of the principal journals frequented by “avant-garde” poets and part of the so-called “New American Poetry.” Stevens, to my mind, is the Modernist who inhabited the sublime. We read Dickinson, and other nineteenth-century poets in my American literature class. She was the threshold poet. To “get” Stevens the undergraduate had first to surrender to Dickinson’s “transport.”
I’d had my requisite love affair with Shelley and Keats. In Stevens’s language, in its aspirations, I deeply felt that Romanticism, some few of its tenuous threads unsevered. Stevens is the only poet who, all by himself, even to this day, tilts the picture of Modernism (as typified in Ron Silliman’s 1986 anthology, In the American Tree).
This is in part why I’ve come to feel that the work of the poet, writer, translator, and editor Kent Johnson is important. Yet Johnson is befuddling—for other reasons altogether. For one thing, he’s a card-carrying member of the avant-garde, dues paid up in full, while he’s nearly always busy—obsessively, gleefully—satirizing it. It’s as if he has this peculiar mission, one to go along with his social and political activism. He bites the hand that feeds him—and it’s his hand.
Here’s Johnson lobbing a pitch right over home plate; the poem is “Of Concept and Imperium” (in Homage to the Pseudo Avant-Garde, 2008):
“You can’t experiment at ease,
Without the concept that we’re One,
With oil and coal and weapons sales;
They give you your career and books,
Your conferences, your whip, and thong,
Your drinks, your pot, your lexicon.”
The half-rhyme of “thong” and “lexicon” is lovely for itself, and it works naturally as a send-up. (I don’t appreciate the visitation from Alexander Pope, wrenching me back to my junior year in college, but I can work with it.)
Here’s Johnson, in a poem titled “Prize List II” (from the same collection), being more dangerous:
“Fanny Howe fancies the sullen Bollingen, tenebrous it goes.
Lisa Robertson wants the deep and chary Pulitzer, umbral it flows.
Kent Johnson yearns for the turbid Pushcart, the color of brown stones.
Joseph Kaplan is friending.
Julie Carr covets the turbulent Rense, effulgent it crashes and clangs.”
Does Johnson have some kind of circular firing squad going here—in which he’s holding a gun to his own head?
Seriously, what I really feel about Kent Johnson is that he’s one of our most adroit and outrageous conceptual artists. That he’s also an estimable translator, and a shrewd editor, is not beside the point. But it’s that air of infamy surrounding his name. I think this has to be addressed first. Yes, he’s a gadfly. You can decide if he sacrifices his art, at times, for his moral prosecutions (or vice versa). He does, though, keep us on our toes, alert to complacency.
Kent Johnson should be taken extremely seriously. I confess this as someone who has always had a gut aversion to didacticism or diatribe posing as art. Johnson can certainly be annoying.
My purpose here, however, is to evaluate him in his entirety—that is to say as Kent Johnson. I mean Kent Johnson the writer, the poet, not least of all the translator; the provocateur, the plagiarist, the fake; the ruthless trickster, the shapeshifter, the calculated commissioner of misstatement and mischaracterization intended to deceive serious readers—leading them toward miscomprehension of the very nature of literature and identity within a work of art—but also to confuse the greater community of citizens as he, Johnson, cloaked in the costume of good will, deftly places his plastique commando charges meant to, when they detonate, undermine the foundation of our social and political, perhaps philosophical assumptions, ideas, and musings.
Johnson, in other words, the artist.
To this day there are people in the literary world who are upset by what they see as his antics or something more sinister. The mega-infamous “hoax” Johnson perpetrated, Doubled Flowering: From the Notebooks of Araki Yasusada (1997), made “Kent Johnson” a household name in avant-garde dwellings. Here’s how Wikipedia currently describes this event:
“[Doubled Flowering] has allegedly been called “a criminal act” by Arthur Vogelsang, editor of American Poetry Review, which had previously published a special supplement of Yasusada poems, including an alleged portrait of the author, but in letters to the Boston Review he denied having used the phrase.“
(At this juncture it’s worth pointing out that James Sherry, founder of Roof Books and publisher of this extravagant invention, knew Johnson’s volume to be just that before going forward with the project.)
Wikipedia also tells us that the “real writer of the poems is widely believed to be Kent Johnson.” On the other hand,
“[Johnson] has never claimed authorship. Beliefs about Johnson’s role as author stem in no small part from the fact that Johnson edited the Yasusada texts for the Wesleyan University Press. Johnson also included Yasusada’s poetry in his doctoral dissertation.“
Johnson has described the Yasusada project as “full of self-revelation concerning its fictional nature”; he’s pointed to its both “subtle and blunt clues,” which were meant to disclose its intent. Nevertheless, assuming it would be “understood as an experiment in imaginative transference” as well as “anti-war expression,” he was not about “to publicly reveal the specific authorship(s).” Johnson is astonished that there are still people who view the book as “some kind of ethically transgressive work” even though there’s “a prominent statement about its fictionality” on the back cover (Email to Author, October 23, 2020).
Johnson’s “backstory as given,” Ron Silliman mentioned recently, recalling the appearance of Doubled Flowering, “seemed a little fanciful with its references to Spicer and Barthes” (Email to author, October 13, 2020). This may be rather an insider-game reflection, but it’s revealing as regards the repercussions from Doubled Flowering’s publication with respect to any assessment of who we are today, how we think about identity, and about art and literature.
Barthes and Spicer are pertinent to grasping the nature of Johnson’s various conceptual productions and on its own his translation work, as semblances of his both public and private selves. Within such a framework, there’s also more to be said about Modernism and its afterglow, the Postmodern, and about how Stevens fits into a larger picture in which Johnson’s work figures.
Here’s Araki’s Wikipedia page:
“Araki Yasusada was a non-existent Japanese poet, generally thought (though unverified) to be the creation of American literature professor Kent Johnson (born 1955). The publication of Yasusada’s poetry by major literary journals including the American Poetry Review, Grand Street and Conjunctions during the early 1990s created an embarrassing scandal for these publications.“
The parenthetical “though unverified” here made me think, for a second, about Wikipedia being in on the ruse. Intentional or not, the Yasusada scandal was what got Johnson wide attention (including mine—I’ve admired him since).
A not-unrelated comment came to me recently from Sherry (Yasusada’s publisher), which has caused me to think about the nature of the literary act per se. Astutely and succinctly, his opinion is that some “people need to use a persona from which to write” (Email to author, October 8, 2020).
Sherry is asking an increasingly pertinent question. And, when it comes to Johnson, there may be a lot to say along this line of inquiry. Because—and this takes me back to his propensity for translation—when Johnson is writing through another identity, he seems to be inhabiting it.
This is where Johnson’s adept translations come into play (such as in Have You Seen a Red Curtain in My Chamber? Writings of Tomas Borge Martinez, 1989, and Immanent Visitor: Selected Poems of Jaime Saenz, 2002, among many others). Johnson is able, seemingly, to transform his own personality as if with insight into a “soul” he’s taken over.
Sometimes Johnson creates pure fictions that contain truths. His mimicking of Jacques Lacan is a perfect instance of this. Lacan is replying, here, to a letter from Jacques Debrot (in Dear Jacques Lacan: An Analysis in Correspondence, 2005):
“February 17, 6:23 PM
Yuo do well, my dear Jacques. We shall go far.
Though now, to be sure, yoru body is thoroughly cathected. While there is a certain sweetness in this now for yuo, soon together we will see that what is never, never found is the Thing (Das Ding). The Thing is the Hole around which topology is enfolded, not excluding the Three Sublimations
those enormous Quipos of the Other. The Thing is everything and it is nothing. Yuo see, the setting in motion of such a negative entity (a nothing, yet a nothing that is precisely not nothing, that is a kind of call to being) introduces a decisive break at the level of immanence, while determining the birth of the subject and the destruction of the Hartmannian ego. The Thing is Zero that makes yoru language train move.“
Having evoked Martin Heidegger and name-dropped Geoffrey Hartmann, Johnson’s Lacan throws himself into an inextricable word-salad of a story; it involves, variously, Antonin Artaud, Salvador Dali, André Michaux, André Breton, and Pierre Reverdy. The letter concludes with the Lacanian “This session is now finished.” But Lacan then adds this:
“C’est qu’on jouit en parlant. I send you missiles of language.
And yuo must continue to be brave.
Jacques Marie Emile Lacan“
Johnson’s “poems” are far more than witty or unnerving, a lot more than gorgeous pirouettes of mimicry in which so much, with a very sharp blade, is butchered.
Hoax as High Art
How did Kent Johnson bring about, with Doubled Flowering, what The Nation called, in 1998, “the most controversial work of poetry since Allen Ginsberg’s Howl”? Marjorie Perloff’s remark, the same year, goes to the crux of it: “Clearly, if the inventor of the Yasusada persona had wanted to cover his tracks, he need never have mentioned [the many writings in the book Araki couldn’t have read]” (“In Search of the Authentic Other: The Poetry of Araki Yasusada,” Jacket 5 ). It was a literary “hoax,” in hindsight, designed to fail.
And it’s easy now to see the ridiculous position in which many people found themselves. Licensed drunks, after the accident, were found to have been asleep at the wheel. What Doubled Flowering was not telling us directly, at the time, but which is now plain, is captured in Sherry’s observation that today we live in a cultural moment predicated upon a “linkage between behavior and aesthetics” (Email to author, 8 October 2020).
Has Johnson been the cause of this transformation in American poetry? And is this what our present avant-garde is about, or at least one of its attributes? How does Sherry’s insight obtain to our present condition, to our social and political attitudes as well as flesh-and-blood consequences? Is Kent Johnson—a spoofer in broad daylight who, with a serious mien, has written and edited books under his own name as well as the names of others—just a sign, or a mirror, showing us ourselves?
Take Johnson’s book A Nation of Poets: Writings from the Poetry Workshops of Nicaragua (1985). It is meant in utter seriousness. Johnson gleaned it while working in Central America, where he translated and edited young Nicaraguan writers. How about Beneath a Single Moon: Buddhism in Contemporary American Poetry (2001)? And Lyric Poetry after Auschwitz: Eleven Submissions to the War (2005)? Johnson’s name is on both of these volumes as editor.
We have to wonder what’s a spoof and what’s not in Johnson’s work. There are his publications written as—in other words “by”—Jacques Lacan, Roberto Bolaño, Slavoj Žižek, Anonyme, A.B., Emily Post-Avant, and others. Some of these are obvious masquerades, others not so much. There’s an intimacy that’s integral to so many of Johnson’s productions across a range of materials.
Viewing Johnson within the literary canon—with respect to the Postmodern condition, particularly as concerns the question of identity (thus his project of guise, of multiple personae, with which he critiques the avant-garde)—requires a return to Modernism. And from there we can imagine Stevens as Johnson’s distant forerunner.
Stevens’s lush, multivalent language—its syntax and lineation, its diction—helped to create Modernist poetry. There were other great Modernist poets, of course. If you now doubt that other poets of Stevens’s time rise to his imaginative mastery, then re-read Perloff’s essay “Pound/Stevens: Whose Era?” (1982).
It’s not the creation of gorgeous textures I find singular in Stevens (though I fault him for having relied upon, too often, epithets like “red weather”), which aligns him with an English Romantic like Keats, or Dickinson, his American counterpart. Modernist poetry was a direct repudiation of Romanticism in which the I prospered. Stevens, among the Modernists, brings forward from the Romantics their soaring musical intelligence. He manages, even so, to separate himself from their worldview.
Harold Bloom’s observation of Stevens—that he “describes and even celebrates [. . .] our selfhood-communings as no one else can or does” (Figures of Capable Imagination, 109)—explains the poet’s unique, Modernist nonetheless, quality, or rather leads us toward it. Johnson is of help in this regard. His literary charades, forgeries or what have you, must inevitably give rise to the question of his personal identity and, fundamentally, to the matter of the self as it’s been recast in Modernist and then Postmodernist literature. Johnson’s conceptualism, ironically, arises out of Romanticism.
That Bloom’s praise of Stevens was anachronistic, coming along in 1976, became obvious in the full flush of Postmodernism by the mid-1980s. Typically, for example, in “The Comedian as the Letter C,” Stevens attains a language that—our noticing it today a richly ironic fact—shows the limits of language in his poems, in his readers’ simultaneous struggle with and against it. To be sure, the readerly engagement of his poetry is a form of communion, inasmuch as its engagement engenders a rich inner experience that’s personal. Yet the self can be understood today as an intellectual construct arising out of a mediated, intellectualized, textualized experience.
Epistemology of the Fragment
The Romantics posited the self as the human essence in their exalting of the imagination. Even Keats’s “negative capability” requires a self as prerequisite. In contrast, Johnson appears in the guise of the person of his name or as a psychoanalyst like Lacan, or a writer like Bolaño, or a philosopher like Žižek. All of these are real people.
Johnson is also purely fictional personages—writers or editors like Emily Post-Avant (a journal columnist much read in recent years) or A.B or Araki. These personae (the word is not accurate enough) are imbued with the element that defines Modernist art insofar as it undermined the unitary self. In Johnson’s time, the result has been something like a constellation of selves, all anchored by what, in 1996, Allucquère Rosanne Stone called the “root persona.”
Stone, in The War of Desire and Technology at the End of the Mechanical Age, adopted multiple-personality disorder as an analogue for what she noticed was a proliferation of identities on the internet. Persons had begun to live through various online avatars, each a persona, in other words a phenomenon that could be projected into one’s off-line life. These alternate “selves” were secured by the root persona that had an actual street address and legal status in society.
What was occurring in the nineties, however, was a consequence of an artistic force, an emerging sociology, which would come to manifest as an individual’s quasi-identities—which were a diffusion of personal materializations often as not fictional to one degree or another. Johnson’s writings, the commentaries on them and on the author’s life, are inquisitions that lead to something possibly resembling this life. Appearing in 1997, Johnson’s/Araki’s Doubled Flowering dramatized the dilemma of selfhood.
The core invention of the poet Araki, of his life as well as his personal letters, and in the fragmentary circumstance of his found, recovered writings, provide no satisfying conclusion to this story. The reader of the text—let’s enlarge this to include any literate person who engages the world—became not a self. The writer of the text, rather than singular, became the “plurality” Roland Barthes anticipated in 1970 (in S/Z). The “I,” the ego, Barthes wrote, is “already itself a plurality.”
Johnson creates a letter by Araki, written to a fellow poet and collaborator, Akutagawa Fusei. The letter is about a friend who has returned from the U.S. bearing, among several books, a copy of Jack Spicer’s After Lorca. The other books are listed. And in a “P.S.” Araki adds to his list one final title: Empire of Signs (Barthes’s 1970 study of Japanese culture). Johnson knowingly comes forward from behind the veil of his multilayered “forgery.”
Spicer certainly figures in Johnson’s life and development as a writer, which Johnson discloses in various modes. For now, I just want to point out the tongue-in-cheek quality of Doubled Flowering, which I think originates, for Johnson, in the older poet. This same dynamic would later coalesce in the work of Armand Schwerner whom Johnson knew and who was familiar with Spicer’s work.
In Schwerner’s monumental book, The Tablets, which purports to translate the earliest written texts, from Mesopotamia, the textual fragment has been elevated to the highest status. The fragment as such is involved with the archeological recovery of a text that’s assumed to have been whole, complete. The text is less than whole, however. The circumstance of the fragment is also central to Barthes and Spicer—as well as Johnson.
Early in Doubled Flowering, the translator-editor of the found texts of Araki Yasusada leaves the following note to a poem that exists in fragments. The poem is presented as if it’s a totality yet from within present circumstances:
“Awkward Fragment and Boyfriend
December 29, 1945
These are, she said, her arms held out,
my only arms, and I must be
done with it before they
come. And then the flowers blossomed
upon her back. (And then)*
the transparent coat of dreams
enclosed her sex. (And then) she
was transported—sly torso of the sign,
awkward fragment—by the
Boyfriend of Compassionate Tears,
*[Yasusada notes at bottom of page]
(fit in the phrase, “immaculate sphere descending”)
(to clench in his virgin palm (…)—see Genji)
(Describe in a heading the dream of Akiko’s voice.)
*[Parentheses in text are Yasusada’s. While the term “Fragment” appears intended to figuratively suggest an archeological image, it seems, as well, to appropriately prefigure the fragmented nature of this draft.]”
Araki is a Hiroshima poet who survived World War II. Resonances of the Hiroshima atomic bombing are infused in the poem—adding another layer to Johnson’s text. War, disaggregation, not only destroys the built world; it sows doubt in the very possibility of the complete and permanent. The poem is all the more unforgettable for this doubt. It’s invested in the very idea of the fragment (specifically, what’s left after the war).
Stevens’s “The Comedian as the Letter C,” from 1923, flirts with the epistemology of the fragment and is fully absorbed in, if not forgery, then certainly disguise. Is disguise, by definition, a force of disaggregation? Stevens’s poem proposes something Stephen Colbert would, in 2005, term “truthiness.” Stevensian Modernism, his writing dressed in the most august language, not least so in this poem, prophesizes the societal mutation Colbert typified in his later coinage.
Doubled Flowering played its part in what was American culture’s definitive course adjustment during the nineties. So did The Tablets (published in its finalized form in 1999, while portions of it were appearing as early as the sixties). The Tablets was meant as a luxuriously comedic jest, for all its Postmodern grandeur, and some of the glory of its “text” lies in its visual impact. It’s a magisterial “poem” (I place the word in quotes since the first journal to review it was Art News).
Surely The Tablets—no doubt on a par, as a Postmodern masterpiece, with Stevens’s Modernist poetry—was a great influence on Johnson. And I have come to feel that Schwerner was a unique force in the evolution of the American avant-garde, just as I view Kent Johnson as vital to grasping our present situation. Both writers have pointed to the dilemma of truth.
The Tablets is a towering work of fiction. Johnson toys with the very idea of fiction. And the way forward to him, not least when he is manifested in a persona other than “Kent Johnson,” runs through Schwerner’s greatest invention in print (one of the great inventions in literature): The Scholar/Translator.
The presumed artifact of the world’s oldest discovered writing—our would-be oldest witness—The Tablets is meant to reflect civilization at the onset of literacy. It’s to us—as mediated by the verbal intercession of a comical figure—disturbingly funny not merely in the Scholar/Translator’s interpretive and speculative errors but in, too, the fact that they exude from a person who takes himself most seriously. Schwerner’s fake Sumerian tablets require a figure like the Scholar/Translator, a supremely comic personage.
In “the Comedian as the Letter C” he was a “nincompated pedagogue.” Readers come to know his narrative voice because of Schwerner’s pseudo translations (along with his invented pictographs), which directly inform the high falutin’ behavior of the pseudo Johnson writer/translator/editor.
Spicer lies between Stevens and Schwerner in the Johnson chronology. After Lorca, an equally groundbreaking book in its imaginative foray, was published in 1957. The book has an introduction that was supposedly written from “Outside Granada” somewhere, dated “October 1957,” it’s signed (in typescript) “Federico Garcia Lorca.”
The Introduction to Spicer’s book is as follows.
“Frankly I was quite surprised [sic] when Mr. Spicer asked me to write an introduction to this volume. My reaction to the manuscript he sent me (and to the series of letters that are now part of it) was and is fundamentally unsympathetic. It seems to me the waste of considerable talent on something which is not worth doing. However, I have been removed from all contact with poetry for the last twenty years.”
Lorca doesn’t think very much of Mr. Spicer. Here we are seeing an example of what can be called the trope of droll self-deprecation (Lorca’s, Spicer’s—later Johnson’s, though merely implied in Schwerner’s Scholar/Translator). Spicer’s book goes on.
Lorca complains about the liberties Spicer has taken in translating him (in the present volume) and feels compelled to make clear that some of the poems in the book are not his! Lorca feels it necessary to register his pique over the absence of any effort to classify what must actually be Spicer’s literary excursions. Lorca is upset that he’s been thrown into company with the likes of Spicer, uncomfortable with the level of intimacy arising from Spicer’s presumption—a certain closeness, as each of them knows in his time, which is an unfortunate byproduct intrinsic to the politics of poetry.
“The letters are another problem,” Lorca’s plaint continues:
“When Mr. Spicer began sending them to me a few months ago, I recognized immediately the “programmatic letter”—the letter one poet writes to another not in any effort to communicate with him, but rather as a young man whispers his secrets to a scarecrow, knowing that his young lady in the distance is listening.“
Where is the “real” Lorca in all this? Reading After Lorca, we come to know Spicer’s Lorca, and Spicer’s diegetic self.
Impersonism in the Nineties
“A person told me once he had dialed Dial-a-Poem and gotten Frank’s voice, though Frank was dead. The voice was so obviously Frank’s that the person had to shudder at the living dead.” (Attributed to David Shapiro by Kent Johnson, in A Question Mark Above the Sun, 2012)
Johnson’s diegesis takes a variety of personae and modes, thus shining a light on a key avant-garde lineage, furthermore making note of it by illuminating both his entire poetic enterprise and the larger Modern-Postmodern transformation in the arts and everyday life. A decade on from After Lorca, Barthes published his famous essay, “The Death of the Author.” Two years later, Michel Foucault posed what he called his “slightly odd question” in his essay, “What Is an Author?” The death is really just the author’s reincarnation. For Johnson, I’ll say at the risk of oversimplification, the death of the author is usually evinced as speaking through a persona.
In the 1970s, Sherrie Levine legitimized appropriation and Cindy Sherman transmuted impersonation, elevating the two to the status of high art. Levine did so in exhibiting photos by Walker Evans as her own. At the same time, Sherman was photographing herself in poses that characterized fellow passengers she’d observed when riding on a bus. (”I feel I’m anonymous in my work,” she later would say. “When I look at the pictures, I never see myself; they aren’t self-portraits. Sometimes I disappear” [New York Times, 1 February 1990].) The two artists were instrumental in expanding our concept of both propriety and authorship, while blurring old boundaries to the point of illegibility.
In the early eighties, the mockumentary film genre came fully into its own. The icon of it, to this day, is This Is Spinal Tap, released in 1984 as a spoof of Martin Scorcese’s The Last Waltz. In the film, Rob Reiner, who directed it, plays the role of “Marty DiBergi.” Marty travels the world with a band named Spinal Tap, interviewing the musicians—sometimes he’s not in the shot, as the camera documents them in all kinds of situations in which they’re acting, with candor, peculiarly, or on stage playing to crowds of their fans).
Another comedy, Zelig, written, directed and starring Woody Allen, appeared the year before. This film’s implications were more interesting. Leonard Zelig, uncannily, is subject to chameleon-like changes of behavior as well as physiognomy and demeanor, depending on the circumstances in which he’s found himself. The press covers him as he becomes a nation-wide fascination.
Author, identity, forgery, hoax, poem, artwork—all had already, completely, become intermingled by the 1980s. In 1996, the year before Doubled Flowering was released, a physicist managed to fool the editors of the forward-looking journal Social Text, with the intent of exposing their hypocrisy and creating a public scandal, by publishing his article there. The title of Alan Sokal’s article—“Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity”—was part of his very serious joke that was meant to, and did, cause the journal great embarrassment.
Sokal disclosed the hoax in a subsequent article in another journal, triggering a reply from the Social Text editors. In it, they inadvertently revealed that they’d been hoodwinked. The reply took the form of a post on a “Jacques Derrida” discussion board, describing Sokal’s charade as “the earnest attempt of a professional scientist to seek some kind of affirmation from postmodern philosophy for developments in his field,” and, noting “its status as parody,” called it “a symptomatic document” of its time (posted by David Erben, May 24, 1996). The article’s title is worthy of Stevens, possibly Schwerner. It drew upon current poststructuralist theorizing in order to argue that scientists had no special purchase on scientific truths. Serious in its intent to show the emperor without clothes, it was, de facto, satire.
2007 saw the release of I’m Not There, a film in which various actors play their own versions of Bob Dylan. The real Dylan doesn’t appear in the film (but for brief concert footage at the film’s end). That same year, Johnson’s Dear Lacan appeared; Homage to the Avant-Garde came out the following year. Johnson started publishing in the mid-eighties. The works of more vexed authorship and personae came into public view a decade later.
Other Johnson grand jests include Works and Days of the Fénéon Collective (2009, 2010, 2012), named after Felix Fénéon, a French art critic and anarchist in the nineteenth century, which is edited and introduced by Anonyme. The book’s “unauthorized” introduction alerts us to ensuing “print publications” of “epigrammatic,” anarcho-artistic comments. The book’s front matter includes this caveat: “The pieces that follow are partly fictional. Any relation of the events depicted herein to actual individuals or institutions is in some cases fortuitous.”
Today, we live in the world of hyperrealist painting and sculpture, as well as the digital deep fake. Never discount the role of art in the evolution of science and technology (“Artists are the antennae of the race”—Ezra Pound in 1918). Yet the need for disguise is nothing new in literature (I say this without taking a position as to whether or not the arts are what mostly foster fakes). The earliest forgery, to my knowledge, was committed by someone named Onomacritus (c. 530– 480 BCE), “also known as Onomacritos or Onomakritos,” who was a “Greek chresmologue or compiler of oracles [living] at the court of the tyrant Pisistratus in Athens. He is said to have prepared an edition of the Homeric poems, and was an industrious collector, as well as a forger of old oracles and poems” (Wikipedia).
How does the act of writing down oral poems—such as, for example, those by someone we think of as a person we now call Homer—bring about the rife delinquency of modern fiction? It begins to happen when people start reading and writing. As Walter Ong explained in the eighties (famously in Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word), literacy gives rise to abstraction and higher-order thinking. Simultaneously, an objectification will occur, such as on the page, involving the words of a persona (as Louis Zukofsky wrote, in 1931, “a rested totality [that can] be called objectification”).
A notation by Schwerner’s Scholar/Translator (the mirth of it is unintended by him) intercedes in his rendering of the fake Sumerian text whose English translation is “o Pinitou Pinitou Pintou*, this is not me.” The reader then looks below to find the note the Scholar/Translator has left there:
“* curious; if this is the surname, or given name, of the speaker, we are faced for the first time with a particularized man, this man, rescued from the prototypical and generalized ‘I’ of these Tablets. If it is this man, Pinitou, I find myself deeply moved at this early reality of self; if we have the name of an unknown deity or peer of the speaker, I am not deeply moved.“
In “From the Laboratory Teaching Memoirs of the Scholar/Translator,” his commentary on Tablet XXVI, Schwerner’s Scholar/Translator remarks as follows.
“Though little credit has been given or recognition tendered to the possible development of a radical self-plumbing before the beginning of the 3rd millennium BCE, recent paleographic research yields a sense of person as self-examiner far earlier than any posited up to now.“
A bit later on:
“I would also call attention to the power of the unsullied literary imagination evident in the texts which are the object of my studies, a power generously evident in the work of the so-called scribes, who were of course redactors, a vector we usually ignore. Thus often the line between redactor and author is hard to draw.“
As a young man, Johnson must have been enchanted by Schwerner’s work and what lay behind it. Schwerner was a trained anthropologist who was comfortable in several languages; English was not his first. Born in the US, Johnson spent his youth in Uruguay. The experience of those years, I believe, was foundational to his later work and life as a poet, translator, and editor.
Schwerner’s The Tablets is multi-layered and multi-voiced. Everything in it is to be believed, because it rings true. Nothing in it is fact. The transcultural Johnson apprehended the project intuitively, and it may have given him artistic permission to seek a literary mode he needed.
“Je est un autre” – Arthur Rimbaud
At the heart of Johnson’s oeuvre is his love of arcana, which he knows deeply. Doubled Flowering and other Johnson books are full of the recherché and curious factoid. Johnson is our poet of the metanarrative. The key insight into his work, all in all, is the realization that all the elements of his Supreme Fictions are suspended in an asymmetrical arrangement. Johnson’s love of twists of reference or loopings back of narrative also associate him with Borges’ labyrinthine library.
Johnson’s poems are porous. Their author is a hologram. In some tangible way his impersonations are compiled in an archive of thousands upon thousands of notations, asides or reveries. You’d think his wonderful series published in 2007, I Once Met (which is distantly reminiscent of On Kawara’s I Got Up series of postcards, in their commission), would be accounts more substantial than anecdotes. They’re straight-faced, by containing the not-quite hidden agenda of establishing, in posterity, a mooring for the root persona Kent Johnson, within our collective archive.
These vignettes lull you into thinking there’s no core irony setting all the small memoirs of people Johnson has come into contact with in places—but you remain ready for that. The prose is supple, lulling us into the delicious pleasure of memory set to art. Yet soon enough another element creeps in.
For instance, in “I Once Met Bill Friend” he and Friend are having beers at a local pub after Johnson has given an on-campus reading. A “gaggle of young grad poets” is seated in the next booth. “Names poured out of their mouths, like dams releasing waters,” and Johnson thinks of all “the innocent, oblivious towns” like this one. “I listened intently,” he goes on, “as all poets do, hoping to hear my own name, but, no, alas… Me, who in his poems has named the names of so many poets, more than anyone has, yet without recompense whatsoever” (Homage to the Pseudo Avant-Garde).
Does Johnson always see himself from the perspective of the third person? “Consider,” the supposed Kent Johnson writes in his book Poetic Architecture (2007), “this thought experiment: You are a poet, and although you cannot imagine it, you are always in a diorama.” This experiment is described in prose, not verse. The same is true of the I Once Met entries. On the other hand, they’re all about poetry.
I wonder if a plausible definition of poetry, for Johnson, might be hearing the voice of another. There are, in a number of generic disguises, the many masquerades in Johnson’s writing that are comprised of unlikely combinations of people. But for the dialogues, they most seem to be dumb shows, as if a strain of drollness runs through them all. More often than not an underhanded effort to celebritize the characters in these shows is the pivotal element—the characters usually poets, not infrequently Johnson “himself.”
I am reminded of an old episode of the Johnny Carson Show. Johnny’s guests on stage, along with him and Ed McMahon, were Jonathan Winters and Robin Williams (the two were more like father and son than mentor and prodigy). What occurred was beyond anyone’s expectations. Winters and Williams riffed off one another, rapidly moving from one character to the next, each one taking the other’s bait. It seemed finally like I was watching two people who, together, were in bliss, as were the many personae the audience got to witness. Carson and McMahon were forced just to stand back and let it happen. This was to be taken as the genius of the personality.
All writing is, in some sense, impersonating—stealing—first because it divides us between our nonverbal and textual selves. Some would say the literate person is completely textual. Yet higher-order thinking, abstraction, involves a relationship—between the maker of the text and the text per se. Modernism begins with the first modern photograph—soon thereafter comes Impressionist painting. Mallarmé’s, Duchamp’s, Stein’s, Williams’s works reside over and against their makers. Williams composed poems on his typewriter, his words objectified as the paper slowly appeared in the carriage before him.
Writing made the world specific—a precision of the mind. Stevens’s Comedian may be longing for the thing itself (“Here was the veritable ding an sich, at last”) but it’s not there, in front of him, before his eyes, where it can be grasped. By whom? The encyclopedia, a summa, becomes possible because of the written word. Our artifacts create our civilization. Yet, Stevens writes, “The words of things entangle and confuse.”
Johnson is an insatiable reader, someone who can live in texts. Who is the Comedian in “The Comedian as the Letter C”? Might we be led to believe he’s that feckless “nincompated pedagogue”? How about the ineffectual “lexicographer of mute,” a mere “annotator”? The scribe can be relied upon to be “veracious page on page, exact”—but not particularly the poet. Is Stevens’s poem Modernism’s heroic and doomed charge at the battlement of meaning, in its vain attempt to rescue truth—to fling open the cell door, therein to behold the real? Or were the Modernists the Vandals sacking Rome?
According to Stevens, “What counted was the mythology of self.” Peering into the cell, there was only darkness. Was this a disturbance of the mind, that instant when the “moonlight fiction disappeared”? Crispin, Stevens’s figure, bears witness, to no avail: “The last distortion of romance / Forsook the insatiable egoist.” What’s left to him is “Disguised pronunciamento.”
Masquerade, in the end, is the demise of poetry’s illusion—even so, it’s something “more exquisite than any tumbling verse.” Johnson, the satirist, Stevens writes,
[. . .] “gripped more closely the essential prose
As being, in a world so falsified,
The one integrity for him, the one
Discovery still possible to make,
To which all poems were incident, unless
That prose should wear a poem’s guise at last.“
Toward the end of his life, Stevens glimpsed the “absolute foyer beyond romance” (“Local Objects,” 1955). He was unable to step into it, never possibly through it to a beyond. When young, Kent Johnson must have been seized by something no young person could understand. Stevens writes that Johnson
[. . .]”knelt in the cathedral with the rest,
This connoisseur of elemental fate,
Aware of exquisite thought. The storm was one
Of many proclamations of the kind,
Proclaiming something harsher than he learned
From hearing signboards whimper in cold nights
Or seeing the midsummer artifice
Of heat upon his pane. This was the span
Of force, the quintessential fact, the note
Of Vulcan, that a valet seeks to own,
The thing that makes him envious in phrase.“
The lyric voice belongs to no one. Each poet inhabits it. The beautiful paradox is that the poet rendering the lyric has surrendered the self to the lyric’s voice—that eternal voice, through poetry, which is selfless. The lyric is our relic, a bridge from the preliterate “poetry” of the sceop to the exquisite expression of Keats or Dickinson.
Johnson will occasionally take his turn at the poignant, elegant, flowing lyric. This was what we once took for serious poetic utterance; it bespoke fleeting time. He brings this expression of beauty, his lyric, off with great flair, as in this poem from Homage to the Last Avant-Garde:
“Photograph of Emily Dickinson
— for John Wieners
Life, this Sphere — Infinite —
Death enshrouds the Paradox —
Its surround not a vestment,
But the skin of an Aperture,
Pulled — Taut — to an aura of Soul’s
Form — confused Heaven —
Lit and ecstasied by you — This book
By my hand. This flower that I hold
In my hand, in the shock of your life.”
What we’re more likely to find in a collection of Johnson’s writing is something like this piece from his latest book, Because of Poetry I Have a Really Big House:
“The Discs of Snow
‘I like the way the flowers grow.’
(Jack Spicer, Billy the Kid)
I like the way the flowers grow,
The way the rain falls, the discs of snow.
I like the writers in my class,
The way they kiss each other’s ass.”
Oops. The “real” gadfly named “Kent Johnson” finds redemption in whining, though it’s a red herring (as we see in these lines from the same book):
“Could someone tell me why I’ve never been
selected for the yearly Best American Poetry?
I’ll tell you this: It seriously dills my pickle.
I have written lots of poems, and I know
that many of them have been among the best
in all American poetry.”
It once occurred to me that James Joyce became a writer of fiction because the medium of poetry was too confining for him. I’m not sure there’s an analogy here with Johnson (but there might be!). An analogy with someone like Jonathan Swift holds up well enough; witness his tombstone: “Swift has sailed into his rest; / Savage indignation there / Cannot lacerate his Breast. / Imitate him if you dare[.]”
You either believe Kent Johnson exists or he doesn’t. Neither is true. In his poems, translations, conceptual acts anchored on the page, Kent Johnson is there and not there. There is no masquerade or pose or charade, however. There is an unheard voice. Nevertheless, it is a voice, or I’ll say a consistent patter. At times it’s a consciousness that remains undetected, remote in the text’s perspective. It is not satirical, in the final analysis. Instead, it’s an intelligence that implicitly understands something about utterance as permeated, usually, by civic circumstance.
A raiment of consciousness speaks steadily to the reader, from the page, in one Johnson “poem” after another. The “author” of Kent Johnson’s works is a person who will not, cannot, conform to anyone else’s norms or generally those of any society or religion. The “voice” of “his” poems is uncanny—not necessarily in the Freudian sense of unheimlich. It’s a voice most people would say is without a country—perhaps others would say it’s of a country unknown to all but Kent Johnson. Johnson writes in “Twenty Hinged Propositions in Search of a Lost Political Poem” (from Homage to the Last Avant-Garde): “In my country, murmured Swann through the hood, the clock is a dog for time. Time does not mean to be listened to: humiliating in its disguises, heedless of the ocean.”
Someone named Kent Johnson has mounted the most ferocious assault upon the Romantic lyric—that bastion of the illusion of selfhood. That glimmering monad. That exalted tower. Johnson has broken in. He’s climbed the spiral stairway to the very top and absconded with the jewels hidden there. He found a prisoner there too, whom he carried back down with him slung over his shoulder. The prisoner was too weak to flee. He’s been left for dead—“The last distortion of romance.”
BURT KIMMELMAN has published ten collections of poems as well as eight volumes of criticism and more than a hundred articles mostly on literature, some on art, architecture, and culture. He’s a distinguished professor of Humanities at New Jersey Institute of Technology. Further information is available at his website.
Read more by Burt Kimmelman:
Interview with Thomas Fink
Poem in B O D Y
Essay in B O D Y