Of Metromanie and Authorship: Kent Johnson’s Hybrid Critique
by David Hadbawnik
When Michel Foucault wrote “What Is an Author?”, he famously ended the essay with a Utopian desire for “a form of culture in which fiction would not be limited by the figure of the author,” and speculated that “as our society changes … the author-function will disappear” (516-17) . This, he imagines or hopes, will render obsolete “limiting” questions such as, “Who really spoke? Is it really he and not someone else? With what authenticity or originality? And what part of his deepest self did he express in his discourse?” and lead instead to a renewed, more open-ended focus on texts and discourses in their own right; with regards to the author, as Foucault concludes, “we would hear hardly anything but the stirring of an indifference: ‘What difference does it make who is speaking?’” (517). Yet the “Death of the Author” has proven as elusive and premature as the end of capitalism, the modern institution that arguably gave rise to the modern concept of the author; for every scoop of dirt tossed on it, the author seems to rise up with a vengeance. Indeed, as literature has become less important from a cultural standpoint , it seems to matter more than ever who wrote it. Awards, grants, tenure, prestige—these increasingly scarce and meager crumbs are doled out to individuals, not “discourses.”
One form of authorship, which seems at once new and at least somewhat anticipated by Foucault , is what I would term (for lack of a thriftier phrase) “Isn’t that the one who…?” authors. The need for such authors on poetry’s cultural landscape is implicit in Marjorie Perloff’s controversial Boston Review essay, “Poetry on the Brink: Reinventing the Lyric,” in which she suggests there are too many poets. Perloff notes at the outset of the essay that, “the sheer number of poets now plying their craft inevitably ensures moderation and safety.” She then describes the typical contemporary poem as a sort of loose free-verse construction, image-heavy, and aiming towards a form of expression which, as Perloff writes, “designat[es] the lyric speaker as a particularly sensitive person who really feels the pain, whether of our imperialist wars in the Middle East or of late capitalism or of some personal tragedy such as the death of a loved one.” The glut of poets produced by this modern Academic-Industrial Complex (and the surfeit of journals and presses that support them) results in the regrettable situation that “poets are always being displaced by younger poets.” Yet Perloff’s true message is that as a result of this uniformity, this glut of poets, the well-turned phrase, the well-wrought poem of whatever stripe is simply pedestrian unless its author can be introduced by the formula, “Isn’t that the one who…?” Otherwise, said author’s writing is just another in the endless stream of (at best) perfectly competent verse that is foisted on the public at ever-increasing and alarming rates.
Try it out:
Isn’t he the one who copied a whole issue of The New York Times?
Isn’t he the one who wrote a poem into some DNA or something?
Isn’t she the one who uses testimony from rape trials in her books?
Isn’t he the one behind the Yasusada poems?
Considered this way, one observes the secret affinity between so-called Conceptual writers and Kent Johnson, all of whom share this feature: any discussion of their work must begin with a qualification that becomes a litmus test. Before any discussion of the relative merits of said work, one must acknowledge its respective unusual, controversial origins; if in mixed company, one must be prepared to respond to those strongly resistant to, or supportive of, said work; one may even feel compelled to explain the particular circumstances of the work to non-poets or poets somehow unaware of it. All this comes prior to—in some sense takes the place of—a critical discourse on the work proper. The mode of intervention itself is the work; a fact that is celebrated in the introduction to the conceptualist anthology Against Expression .
But there is a danger in this approach, every bit as threatening as the endless wave of new poets displacing older poets. In a sense, that threat is merely transferred to the author’s own oeuvre. It is the danger of being reduced to that work—of being always and primarily described as “the one who…,” like a basketball player famous for a freak statistical outing, say, scoring 78 points in a game, which overshadows a whole career. There is the further, related danger of repetition—the need to do something more outrageous to piss off and/or amaze readers even more, to one-up the prior achievement, rather than quietly build on it. To turn Perloff’s critique around: what if an entire generation of poets responded to the gauntlet her essay throws down, eschewed “lyric expression,” and took up conceptualist strategies? Would we not then observe the transference of uniformity to this ground, and witness a land-grab for the most shocking and controversial ideas to inaugurate conceptualist works? This is already, to some extent, what one does find among those who have embraced such techniques. Also—as Perloff surely knows, having championed a number of new movements (Concrete Poetry, Language Poetry, etc.) over the years—there is inevitably a need to found a new –ism, to get in on the ground floor and be one of a group that can collectively be described as, “Aren’t they the ones who…?”
And it is precisely here that Kent Johnson and Conceptualist writers part ways. For one thing, they are a they. They have numbers, and one way to forestall the wearing off of the “Isn’t that the one who…?” effect is to incorporate others into the conversation. New projects can thus emerge, a critical discourse is constructed from the inside, as it were, institutional footholds can be attained and consolidated (via academic positions, course offerings, anthologies, reading series, etc.), and the movement can grow and evolve (and spawn whole new movements, as noted above). Conversely, there is only one Kent Johnson. This statement is at once immediately and self-evidently true—in the sense that Johnson stands alone, from a creative standpoint, with no movement to support him—and also demonstrably and maddeningly false. Johnson does not stand alone—Johnson could not exist without a vast panorama of other poets and poetics. From the outset, his project has depended on other poets: their aesthetics, critical discourses, expectations, and theories. He is an author-as-parasite. His books attach themselves to other poets’ and critics’ works and coexist with them in a symbiotic relationship, unraveling their stability from the inside. More than that: his works tend to absorb and co-opt criticism, opprobrium, outright resistance, and emerge the stronger for it. This, in addition to the personal animus that many harbor towards Johnson because of his noisy presence in comment threads (during the heyday of listservs and blogs), is a large part of the reason he upsets so many people. He is a bully; at least, that is his literary persona.
The sense one gets is as follows: I just wanted to enjoy my [Japanese Hiroshima survivor poetry], my [conceptual rendering of the New York Times by Kenny Goldsmith], my [Frank O’Hara’s “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island”]—and along comes Johnson, bulling his way into the frame and photobombing what had been an untroubled authorial picture. He hovers annoyingly in the background of such pictures, now: for anyone who has read (and absorbed the controversy surrounding) the Yasusada books, there is Johnson, grinning; any discussion of Day, for those familiar with Johnson’s “version,” must now account for his presence as a scowling footnote to that text; and now, any mention of O’Hara’s poem, for those who have encountered A Question Mark Above the Sun, must include the aside, “Yeah, but have you read that book…?”
It has often been noted that Johnson critiques the idea of authorship. But Johnson’s method of critique is less often considered. His approach hearkens back to old modes of authorship, while pointing towards new ones. Johnson’s reputation as a satirist has been increasingly recognized thanks to the tour-de-force hybrid review-mystery story at the center of A Question Mark Above the Sun, “Corroded by Symbolysme: An Unfinished Novella.” Writing on this section originally for his blog in an essay now appended to the volume, Michael Kelleher calls Johnson “a satirist of the first rank,” while Joshua Kotin, the Chicago Review editor who first commissioned the piece from Johnson, describes it as “a masterpiece of literary criticism.” Indeed, Johnson begins his “novella” by wondering, “why is the review always about the view of the reviewer … Why shouldn’t the poet who is the subject be the one to primarilie speak about his or her own work, be a protagonist, even, within the review’s fictitious world…?” This simple premise proves to have profound implications, as Johnson proceeds to brilliantly satirize the inflated solemnity of the typical review, presenting himself as a rather bumbling detective in search of poetic truths, one who repeatedly allows his subjects—through dialogue, epistolary exchanges, and actual transcribed readings—to state their case directly to readers. The motif of faux-antiquated spellings, which seems to take hold for no other reason than that Johnson is writing about British poets, manages (in characteristic fashion) to be at once humorous, annoying, and something you just get used to after a while.
The true brilliance of this strategy is that—in a similar way to Johnson’s typical blurring of roles among editor, translator, critic, blurbist, and author—it combines genres while still delivering a fresh take on its subject matter. The exchanges Johnson stages with the four poets really do present a compelling, at times comic, dialectic on the authors’ works, with any doubts Johnson has about them immediately answered, tussled over and argued, by said authors. And when he takes the ingenious step of introducing the O’Hara-Koch authorship angle to the proceedings, it has the effect of transforming the “review” into a pot-boiler, as well. This occurs when Johnson, almost as an aside, mentions to J.H. Prynne that a “friend” has written an essay calling into question O’Hara’s authorship of “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island.” “Prynne swung his face towards me with suddenness and glared at me with a great ferositie,” Johnson reports. “His lips began to tremble and he began to bat his eyes rapidlie…” This casual mention of the O’Hara-Koch controversy activates a secret society of opal-ring wearing poets, heavily invested in maintaining the legend of O’Hara’s authorship of the poem, and keeping the Koch hypothesis from seeing the light of day—a conspiracy that haunts Johnson through the rest of the novella. It is this thread, which at first glance seems extraneous, that winds up being the most presciently satirical.
For, as Kelleher writes, “When it was announced that Richard Owens … publisher of Punch Press and Damn the Caesars, intended to collect all of this work into a publication, the Koch and O’Hara estates, much like the fictional secret society imagined in the book, sprang into action.” This is no accident; like a web troll who has mastered his victims’ collective psyche, Johnson has a knack for locating the soft underbelly of the authorship conundrum with his literary barbs. There were once readers who took Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” seriously. The Chinese People’s Daily recently ran a story celebrating The Onion’s naming of Kim Jong Un as “Sexiest Man Alive.” And as any Facebook user knows, hoaxes spread incredibly quickly there and take in people who seemingly ought to know better . The Yasusada project itself only burned so many in the literary community—and made Johnson so many enemies—because it exposed and exploited the strong desire among critics and readers for an “authentic” voice, i.e., a genuine author with a compelling and preferably exotic backstory. A Question Mark Above the Sun disturbed the O’Hara and Koch estates, and prompted their heavy-handed and ham-fisted response, not because it proves that Koch was the genuine author of “A True Account…”—it does not—but because the author-function “brand” of both is still so important to the literary-critical marketplace that they rely on. In this way, as with the uproar surrounding previous projects, the reaction of the respective estates (and their surrogates) was quickly co-opted and incorporated into the project itself, even if (in part) in negative form—the negative space of numerous redactions, the negative publicity of critical blog posts, etc.
What Johnson’s satire ultimately reveals is that authorship is a hoax near and dear to the heart of Western literature. It is a hoax in the sense that any poet who has seriously pursued the art understands: there is no such thing as entirely individual, self-contained and -perpetuating creativity; making something always depends on something and someone else. But, further—and here is where one might wish that Foucault had not been quite so confident that authorship would just wither away—like anyone who falls hook, line, and sinker for a well-constructed hoax, there are those who become tremendously invested in perpetuating it, so much so that they can brook no dissent. Grants, book sales, reprintings, reputations, course offerings, copyrights, anthologies—all of these depend to some extent on knowing for certain who wrote what, when. Never mind that the lineage of a text might be murkier, and a lot more interesting, if such stability is called into question.
Large-scale projects such as Yasusada and A Question Mark… can be thought of as the high-concept end of the satirical spectrum, complete with an all-encompassing logic designed to stir up and absorb controversy; as such, these are the literary descendants of Juvenal, Swift, Rabelais, and kindred to Stephen Colbert. The lighter, Horatian side of Johnson’s satire can be found in recent projects like Doggerel for the Masses: A Post-Scandal BlazeVOX Booke (BlazeVOX 2012), and the chapbook 5 Works (habenicht 2011), ostensibly a collaborative effort by “The Rejection Group,” said to include Johnson, K. Silem Mohammad, Vanessa Place, Kenny Goldsmith, and Christian Bök. Both reveal Johnson’s fine ear for structured verse of a kind appropriate to his material. In Doggerel, Johnson employs “perfect,” at times comically strained, iambic tetrameter, the measure that Chaucer adapted to English but eventually rejected, and that Skelton resurrected to wincingly awful effect. Combined with tongue-in-cheek footnotes to explain the numerous references in the poems, they mostly register as mild stuff, ranging in tone from bitter to whimsical, with a strong undercurrent of harmless—because so self-deprecatingly pathetic—hostility. One of the stronger offerings is “And when cell rings, my legs blow off,” which includes the stanza,
I want to strap a belt to me,
To blow up my hypocrisy.
I ask my comrade Christian Bök,
To set it off with Blackberrý;
But he declines preoccupied,
With microbes and eternal fame.
(A footnote explains Bök’s poetic-DNA project.) Here Johnson adopts a characteristic strategy of dramatizing as real the symbolic violence that poets perpetrate on one another in polemical attacks, and beats his rivals to the punch by pining for his own death, seemingly in their despite.
In 5 Works—if we can assume Johnson to be its primary author—a range of forms is explored, from a sectioned prose piece, to a long poem in rhyming couplets, to a translation of a translation of Rimbaud by John Ashbery. All offer light, satirical touches, but the comical centerpiece of the chapbook is titled “79 Poetry Bumper Stickers,” which contains brief, all-caps witticisms of just the type one might find plastered to a poet’s car. Some of the better ones include, “DON’T LIKE CATULLUS? CALL 1-800-EAT-SHIT”; “MY OTHER POEM’S A HYBRID”; and “I BREAK LINES FOR NO APPARENT REASON”—as well as a number of personal swipes that skewer nearly every current poetic movement and fashion, from Modernism to Flarf to the “official verse culture” of Poetry. Both Johnson’s overall satirical project, and the discrete forms and formats he uses to explore and expand it, constitute a compelling response to the straw-man argument against bland, “expressive” free verse that appears whenever Conceptual writers (or Perloff, their champion) explain the need for such writing . In closing, I would like to juxtapose one such explanation with a much earlier attack on a specific poet:
Of all the manias of this mad age, the most incurable, as well as the most common, seems to be no other than the Metromanie. The just celebrity of Robert Burns and Miss Baillie has had the melancholy effect of turning the heads of we know not how many farm-servants and unmarried ladies; our very footmen compose tragedies, and there is scarcely a superannuated governess in the island that does not leave a roll of lyrics behind her in her band-box….. [Mr John Keats] appears to have received from nature talents of an excellent, perhaps even of a superior order — talents which, devoted to the purposes of any useful profession, must have rendered him a respectable, if not an eminent citizen. His friends, we understand, destined him to the career of medicine, and he was bound apprentice some years ago to a worthy apothecary in town. But all has been undone by a sudden attack of the malady to which we have alluded…. — John Gibson Lockhart, from Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, August 1818
Here, then, is where conceptual writing shows up the rhetorical, ideological force of our cultural sense of creativity, which clings so tenaciously to a gold standard of one’s own words rather than to one’s own idea or the integrity of that idea’s execution. The hundred-thousandth lyric published this decade in which a plainspoken persona realizes a small profundity about suburban bourgeois life, or the hundred-thousandth coming-of-age novel developing psychological portraits of characters amid difficult romantic relationships and family tensions, is somehow still within the bounds of the properly creative (and these numbers are not exaggerations); yet the first or second work to use previously written source texts in a novel way are still felt to be troublingly improper. Retyping the New York Times, after Day, would be considered unoriginal; a story in which one generation must come to terms with a secret family history would still be given the benefit of the doubt. In part, Against Expression is a litmus test for the reader’s sense of where the demarcations between creative and uncreative writing lie. — Craig Dworkin, “The Fate of Echo,” Introduction to Against Expression Anthology, 2010
Lockhart’s scolding of Keats (originally printed anonymously) stands at the outset of what might be considered the “democratizing” of English poetry, and a great part of the offense he takes at Keats’s verse is overtly class-based; Keats, and his “Cockney” cohorts, should not presume to join the august company of the largely patrician English poets. It coincides with the gradual smoothing out of chaotic British copyright laws (first established in 1710), the explosion of printing press production, and England’s first true literary celebrity (Lord Byron). In other words, Lockhart’s review comes at a moment when fame combined with capitalism to bring into focus the modern concept of the author. Dworkin’s widely quoted statement stands as yet another grave marker in what is supposed to be the death of the author, coinciding with late capitalism. Both drip with derision, and the seething cultural elitism in the phrases, “plainspoken persona” … “small profundity” … “suburban bourgeois life” offers a neat bookend to Lockhart’s hand-wringing concern about tragedy-composing footmen and “superannuated governesses” straining at lyrics. Further, while Dworkin doesn’t name names, this is merely an acknowledgment that fears of the great unwashed taking up pen and paper have now been realized—there are simply too many to count—as well as strategic omission. One can always be excused from the ranks of the “suburban bourgeois” in polite company.
The point of this juxtaposition is to highlight the main argument Johnson—our premier satirist of authorship—has with Conceptual writing, and the critical apparatus that explains its necessity. The latter offers what seems to be a critique of authorship, only to shift authorship’s ground to a higher remove (that of elite “idea” rather than “bourgeois” personal expression). By refusing to specify who is actually writing this bland, uniform verse, critical statements such as Perloff’s and Dworkin’s attempt to reduce everyone else to “bad,” outmoded forms of authorship. Johnson’s own work, not only in rhyme and meter, but translation, and hybrid forms that meld genre and authorial roles, stands as one body of evidence against such blanket statements. His ever-shifting oeuvre remains a strong critique of the limiting tendencies of authorship, and the creative possibilities that poetry still offers its most imaginative practitioners.
1. Foucault, Michel. “What Is an Author?” The Postmodern Beowulf. Eds. Eileen A. Joy and Mary K. Ramsay. Morgantown: West Virginia U P, 2006 (501-518).
2. Or, more specifically, poetry, where it is a commonplace that book sales have dwindled; a typical comment on the situation can be found here:
3. Particularly in his section on “founders of discursivity”; these include Freud and Marx, who originated discourses that could then be built on by others, but importantly: “They have created a possibility for something other than their discourse” (512-13).
4. As Craig Dworkin admiringly quotes Sol LeWitt: “When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.”
5. Two recent examples include the Nolan Daniels $1 million Lotto giveaway, and the “Facebook Privacy Notice,” both of which went viral.
6. See Kenny Goldsmith’s introduction to the “Flarf and Conceptual Writing” section of Poetry summer 2009, in addition to the statements by Dworkin and Perloff quoted above: “Why use your own words when you can express yourself just as well by using someone else’s?”
[David Hadbawnik is a poet living in Buffalo, NY. In 2012, he edited Thomas Meyer’s Beowulf (Punctum Books), and in 2011 he edited (with Sean Reynolds) selections from Jack Spicer’s Beowulf for CUNY’s Lost and Found Document Series. Other publications include Field Work (BlazeVOX, 2011), Translations From Creeley (Sardines, 2008), Ovid in Exile (Interbirth, 2007), and SF Spleen (Skanky Possum, 2006). He is the editor and publisher of Habenicht Press and the journal kadar koli, active since 2002. He began studying towards his PhD in poetics at SUNY Buffalo in fall 2008, where he directs the Buffalo Poets Theater.]