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Kent Johnson's Homage to the Last Avant-Garde

Jeffery Beam

  Homage to the Last Avant-Garde.
Kent Johnson.
Shearsman Books, 2008.
122 pages, $16 (paperback).
ISBN: 1905700954

In a time when Fernando Pessoa's work (and the work of his imagined heteronyms) has gained more and more attention in the poetry world, Kent Johnson, perhaps, still carries an aura of transgression, of provocation, of fraud, of pranksterism. Certainly Pessoa, and Jack Spicer, if not patterns for Johnson's poetic creations, are inspirations—that he hasn't denied, and his fascination with becoming multiple poetic or creative personalities is unequaled in contemporary poetry. Eliot Weinberger's description of Johnson as a "poetic ventriloquist" is apt.

I'm probably the least capable poet to review Homage to the Last Avant-Garde, a book, at least in general form, inspired by Spicer's Book of Magazine Verse. Of course the choice of this structure offers its own ironies—Johnson continues to push against the Balkanization of forms and poetic factions. Johnson's poetic persona in this book, organized into poems supposedly submitted for a range of specific now defunct first and second generation New York School literary magazines (i.e. The Evergreen Review, Trobar, Angel Hair, C: A Journal of Poetry), thus takes on a variety of styles and poetic placements. What doesn't change is his sincere and witty assault on the poetically overblown, and presumptive poetic practices of alternative poetries. No one is immune, although Johnson seems to have a particular bone to pick with the New York and Language poets—but in such a good-humored way that you sense also a dis-affected affection for their agenda. For Johnson the avant-garde has failed in its presumed superiority to engage social and cultural consciousness. Johnson's program is not only to critique those failures, but to influence a revitalization of American poetry's, and specifically the avant-garde's, presumed dead-end.

A reader such as I am at a bit of disadvantage. I have avoided graduate school, writing programs, writing "support" groups, and literary theories like the plague, but my own poetry has grown out of not only traditional "mystic" poetry, but also from the Surrealists and Symbolists, the Deep Image Poets, Asian poetry, the Black Mountain Poets, the Objectivists, and the minimalist poetries now at work. Thus there's much I admire in the experimental and avant-garde, but there's just as much or more that is much too abstract and self-referential for my tastes (ditto the self-referential for the tons of twaddle produced by mainstream poets such as the Confessional poets). I've sought a middle ground of accessibility and experiment, mystery and the real world of nature. I recognize the names of many of the contemporary poets who Johnson puns or skewers or teases, but they, primarily (excepting for example O'Hara), have not been a major part of my reading and so I know I'm missing a lot in poems such as "Sestina: Avantforte" or "Even Though He's Known as a Language Poet, I Want to Write Like Norman Fischer." I'm more comfortable when Breton or Picabia make an appearance. Nevertheless, even when I feel I'm lacking some specific knowledge, the sheer energy and chutzpah, the entertainments on show, are captivating. Johnson's knowledge is amazing, and his ability to weave this wealth into seamless "fictions," not only is thrilling to watch, but mesmerizing, intoxicating, and occasionally even hallucinatory. I couldn't put the book down —although there were many times I wanted to Google a name or literary theory or place.

The book opens with an epigraph from Frank O'Hara, a poet from which Johnson has learned his tender bonhomie: "You just go on your nerve." These poems, full of nerve and easy spirit, actually do hide a human tenderness, a definite distress at human evil—showing how corrective and hopeful he trusts his assaults might be. His son inhabits some poems, and Johnson's guardian-like love seeks to not only protect but guide him through the world's bombs and tanks and burning bodies that appear in some of the other poems. In "I Dreamt Us Having a Pure Father and Son Moment" his son asks Johnson to "'Look into my eyes,' and I did, and there was not discomfort in the doing of it, it was like looking in a mirror of my own eyes." And yet in the political poems in the book's last section "Seven Submissions to the War for The World" which include searing critiques of Abu Ghraib and the Iraqi War, the poem "Baghdad" careens off from the gentle sleep-inducing children's book Goodnight Moon ending hauntingly with "Good night, Mr. Kent, good night, for now you must / soon wake up and rub your eyes and know that you are dead."

There are a number of very good, more scholarly, reviews of Avant-Garde I'd like to direct you to—if you need background to some of the poems a good place to start, and these critics discussions of Johnson's work are well worth reading:

John Latta's blog post at Isola di Rifiuti.

Peter Davis' review in Jacket.

John Beer's review [PDF] in Chicago Review.

Robert P. Baird's blog post at Digital Emunction.

Philip Metre's blog post in Behind the Lines.

Murat Nemet-Nejat's review in Rain Taxi.

Linh Dinh's review in The Poetry Foundation's "Harriet the Blog."

Thank the tutelary spirits, Johnson will remain a controversial figure in American, and international poetry. We need and deserve his assaults. Rest assured, for every positive thing I or anyone else has said about him and his work there will be an equal number, if not more, of those who would argue the opposite about the value of what Johnson has written. Homage to the Last Avant-Garde represents only the first half of Johnson's life's work. Being of the same generation, I know he has at least another good 30 years, if not more, to prod, insult, seduce, and regale us.

. . .