Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Johnson, Kent. Lyric Poetry After Auschwitz: Eleven Submissions to the War. Austin, TX: Effing Press, 2005.

At first blush, Kent Johnson’s Lyric Poetry After Auschwitz may appear to be an excoriation of American experimental poetry. Take, for instance, the poem “When I First Read Ange Mlinko.” The speaker states that “no matter how self-/ reflexive I get” the four “often-raped/ kids” who were eventually “incinerated in a mud compound by a missile fired from a pilotless drone…will/ still/ be/ dead.” Certainly, this passage recriminates Mlinko and writers like her as ineffectual (at best) in the face of modern warfare. Moreover, we find the speaker of the poem “Baghdad” posing the rhetorical question: “why do you seem like American experimental poets going nowhere/ on little exercise bikes?” Obviously, taken outside the context of the entire collection, neither of these examples does much to negate any anti-experimental assertions.

But to simply relegate Johnson’s collection to a negative critique of “experimental” writers would be to misconstrue its central argument. To understand, one must consider seriously Johnson’s critique of Charles Bernstein’s “Enough!” in Lyric Poetry’s afterword. What Johnson takes issue with is not so much Bernstein’s aesthetic that champions “ambiguity, complexity, and skepticism,” but the fact that the latter seems to have conflated aesthetics and ethics[1]: promoting LANGUAGE-based poetries as the most efficacious route to undermining the “moral arrogance of the Bush administration,” while simultaneously denigrating a more straight-forward poetic as “righteous” and “detestable.” It would appear, according to Johnson, that Bernstein’s call for an “open-ended process” that fosters “finding” and “thinking” when addressing America foreign policies does not likewise translate into the aesthetic realm. For all intents and purposes, Johnson’s target is the hypocrisy of some “avant-garde” writers, not a particular avant-aesthetic; otherwise, Johnson would be as short-sighted as Bernstein.

The poem “Lyric Poetry After Auschwitz, or: ‘Get the Hood Back On’,” provides the reader with an actualization of Johnson’s egalitarian approach. In each paragraph, an American citizen addresses a Iraqi prisoner: they tell him who they are (e.g. a pregnant nineteen year old, an assistant manager from Wal-Mart, a member of the 700 Club, etc.) and what each intends to do with their respective foils before a Military Intelligence interrogation (e.g. “hold a pistol to your head,” “shove a fifteen inch dildo down your throat,” etc.). The last of these characters is “an American poet” who is:
Twentyish, early to mid-thirtyish, fortyish to seventyish, I’ve had poems on the Poets Against the War website, and in American Poetry Review and Chain, among other magazines, and I have a blog, and I really dig Arab music, and I read Adorno and Spivak, and I’m really progressive…I’m going to be completely candid with you: I’m going to box your ears with two big books of poems, one of them experimental and the other more plain speech-like, both of them hardbound and from leading academic presses, until your brain swells to the size of a basketball and you die like the fucking lion for real.
To make the Iraqi prisoner’s brain “swell to the size of a basketball,” the poet uses both “experimental” and “plain speech-like” poetry books to smash in his head. The poem’s parallelism posits a complicity between, not just differing poetic camps, but between poets and average American citizens, between American citizens and the guards at Abu-Ghraib, and between American citizens and the Bush Administration’s foreign policies.

The paragraph ends with the poet saying: “Well, we did our best; sorry we couldn’t have done better…I want you to take this self-righteous poem, soak it in this bedpan of crude oil, and shove it down your pleading, screaming throat.” And this is Johnson’s real target: the utility of poetry in a country where 300 million Americans, more or less, idly sit by and watch as our military rapes another country 7000 miles away. In this case, the poet’s “best” is an affirmation of torture. Yet not to worry: while the incinerated kids might “still/ be/ dead,” the poet can rest easy knowing that he can still waddle “downstairs, and/ thr[o]w/ a match/ on the fuel-soaked/ brisquets” for his family’s nightly barbeque. The American poet, regardless of aesthetic leaning, more often than not leads a life insulated from the atrocities of the modern world where (s)he can write whimsically of “the tulip flowering/ by the jacarandas in the dying light” without needing to be troubled by bodies burning in “a geyser of fire” (unless, of course, it helps them to write an “edgy” poem).

What, then, is one to do? Stop writing poetry (whether it be “experimental” or “plain speech-like”)? It would seem that the Adornian epigraph to the collection provides us with a hint as to how to proceed: “I have no wish to soften the saying that to write lyric poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric…[But] literature must resist this verdict.” In the face of the insurmountable, then, poetry must “resist,” even if the odds are always already against it. But merely to resist is not enough. In Minima Moralia, Adorno writes:
The dialectic…was a mode of discussion whereby dogmatic assertions were shaken and…the lesser word made the stronger…But as a means of proving oneself right it was also from the first an instrument of domination…unconcerned with content, serviceable to those who could pay…Its truth or untruth, therefore, is not inherent in the method itself, but in its intention in the historical process.
Poetry, like dialectics, can be thought of in a similar fashion. If the “intention” of poetry is to upend “dogmatic assertions” and make “the lesser word…stronger,” then poetry “must resist the verdict” of its death; yet, if the “intention” of poetry is to act as “an instrument of domination,” and at the availability of only “those who [can] pay" (i.e. act as a bully pulpit to level negative critiques, or marginalize another aesthetic), then poetry, regardless of aesthetic, must be carried swiftly off to its death.

[1] Or, more appropriately speaking, Bernstein attempts to stabilize a center in both his aesthetics and ethics when such a center, vis-a-vis his poetics, is inherently unstable.

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