Thursday, March 04, 2010


The journal Pleiades continues to publish some of the most insightful reviews of contemporary poetry.

Some time ago I mentioned how the review of Gunnar Bjorling's "You go the words" in Pleiades was one of the best essays I've read on Bjorling's work. And I've pretty much read all scholarship on Bjorling.

In the most recent issue, there are fine reviews of Sandy Florian's The Tree of No and Lara Glenum's Maximum Gaga.

There's also an interesting essay by Michael Theune on gadfly Kent Johnson. I was struck by Theune's desire to activate "the middle space", to make it mean something other than a pointless inbetween. Interesting the way he uses Kent's work to oppose the vague theoretical stance of American Hybrid and Reginald Sheppherd's Lyric Postmodernisms.


Blogger Michael Theune said...

Thanks for the shout-out, Johannes!

10:26 AM  
Blogger Kent Johnson said...

Thanks from me, too, JG.

And thank *you*, Mike.


4:08 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Well perhaps I can ask you Michael: why is it important to maintain the model of "third way" poetry?

To me this seems such a vague concept, covering a lot of different kinds of poetries.

I can kind of see the point: to create a space of interaction, rather than isolated schools etc.


4:41 PM  
Blogger Richard Greenfield said...

Coincidentally, on my own (very infrequent) blog, I had posted the notes for a talk I gave on Kent's Lyric Poetry After Auschwitz back in 2005 (Joyelle and you were at the conference, but I don't think you made it to this particular panel).I saw the debate in the polemic (what would be the first two "ways" as opposed to the "third way") paralleling a debate between the "political realism" and "consensus reality" in relation to Karl Rove's "reality based community" critique. If anyone is interested, here's the link:

3:54 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...

THat's an interesting post Richard - it actually speaks to my disatisfaction with the idea of "structure" in my previous post as well.

Though I have very different ideas than Kent about what to do about that. I think you may put too much value in Kent's acknowledgement of being part of empire - such self-relfexive self-indictments seem to have become part of the mantra of "innovative poetry".

When I went to a conference some months ago everybody wanted to point out how much they questioned their own beliefs and indicted themselves etc. THe more self-questionining the more ethical. That part seems like the most common moral code of "innovative poetry," which Kent is part of. And that's what made me so exasperated with Kent on this blog.

Of course, a lot of that self-flaying is strangely blind to some very obvious compliances, as you point out.

But on the whole: Great job. Interesting book. Everyone should read it.


7:11 AM  
Blogger Kent Johnson said...

>such self-relfexive self-indictments seem to have become part of the mantra of "innovative poetry".


I do see such gesture (you make it sound a somewhat more pat, one-dimensional matter than it perhaps is?) in some of the newer Brits: Sutherland, Brady, Bonney, Atkins, Manson, Critchley, and others, this is some serious stuff; the hub is Sussex now, but such silence over here you'd think the work wasn't in English. Atencion yanks! (I wrote a post about this "new wave" here:

But tell me. I certainly don't claim to have comprehensive knowledge of the field. Who are you thinking of? Recent Spahr, maybe?

I'm still waiting for Greenfield's Tracer...

8:27 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...


I've read your post and before that I read the Chicago Review issue, which was actually celebrated by a special symposium here at Notre Dame (where John Wilkinson teaches) and I think at U of Chicago. So there was actually quite a bit of fanfare, not to mention Chicago Review special issue of itse.

I'm still waiting for them to ask me to put together a special issue of various Swedish poets, whose work I think is more interesting than the British poets. But then you have never even tried to engage with my translated work, except to use xenophobic comments suggesting Swedish poets are not "serious" enough for you (or whatever it was you said in connection with your later retracted critique of Joyelle's manifesto).

This is just a "snotty" way of saying: most poetry, least of all foreign poetry, gets much attention in the US. It's your job to call attention to this work, but you do a pretry poor job in this entry.

I find your way of arguing that they are more "serious" is really lame, Kent. Seriously. If you like Hot Andy then describe why you like it, don't try to coerce me into being interesting by calling it "serious" etc.

Your whole rhetoric - which you fall back on again and again - that all poetry you don't like isn't serious, isn't real, is some highly dubious way of arguing.


9:40 AM  
Blogger Kent Johnson said...

>But then you have never even tried to engage with my translated work, except to use xenophobic comments suggesting Swedish poets are not "serious" enough for you

Johannes, now come on, WHEN did I say this?? I'm completely befuddled.

On Sutherland and Hot Andy, he and I began an exchange on things some time back, but it's been a bit delayed in getting done. We'll see what comes of it.


10:03 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Yes, you most certainly suggested something like that about "the poets of Stockholm". You'll have to google it if you can't remember, but i think it's under the posting of Joyelle's future of poetry piece.


10:05 AM  
Blogger Kent Johnson said...


I did go back and found that. I noticed that I wrote a longish comment later toward the end of that thread, quoting the initial comment and giving it more context, though you never responded. The follow-up comment was in very good-faith and had some productive things in it, I think.

It's the old SWP'er in me, I suppose, that leads me to use "sociological" terms that people these days automatically take as insults, like "petit-bourgeois." I mean, *I* fall within the general category, too.

Granted, I could have put it differently, and I guess I allowed your barbed tone in the first response to affect mine...

I find your, Joyelle's, and Berg's work perfectly impressive, as I think I've said elsewhere. My point, or focus, in that comment, is not really textual, though.

11:25 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Can you repeate those concerns you thought I didn't address?

You did use "petite-bourgeois" in a dismissing way. Further, you use it too reductively if you want to simply tie certain aesthetics to certain classes.

Class gets even more difficult when you go across national boundaries - your suggestion that there's something bourgeois about Swedish poets is really strange becuase Sweden as a whole is a pretty working class country. Has historically been very poor.

Johan Jonson, who wrote the book I most recently translated, used to until quite recently work carrying feces out of an old people's home (he got fired a while back). Doesn't sound too petite bourgeois to me.

But mostly I just think that's poor use of class - especially keeping in mind that you love a group of poets called "The cambridge school." That already makes them more "academic" than any of the poets I've translated from Swedish (non of whom have graduate degrees, some of who do not have undergraduate degrees).


12:07 PM  
Blogger Kent Johnson said...

Yes, it was a loose deployment of the term. Wasn't suggesting that anyone under discussion was in any particular relation to means of production. "Intelligentsia" would have been more apropos, but hard to use it as an adjective, I guess.

What was it Lenin once said, that "The intelligentsia are not the brains of society, they are the shit of society." Something like that.

But that's not necessarily a bad thing, I take it, from your perspective? Or from perspective of Joyelle's talk?

This all gets very complicated from the standpoint of poetry and politics-- or the politics of poetry!

12:41 PM  
Blogger Richard Greenfield said...


I'm interested in your statement that "Such self-reflexive self-indictments seem to have become part of the mantra of 'innovative poetry'."

I am aware that we have had some indications of this "self-indictment" (perhaps "self-locating" is a more accurate term?) showing up. I think it was right for Kent to mention Spahr-- and I think work by Kevin Davies would be a good example. Alice Notley's Alma, or the Dead Women is powerfully self-annihilating (in my reading the book's figure of Alma rages with self-locating and self-flaying on behalf of all of us who refuse to do so). And would I be wrong to suggest that "self-quarantine" is in the spirit of self-flaying?

I guess I agree such gestures in "innovative poetry" are ubiquitous. But these poets you mention, do you find that they are pointing toward a critique of the privileged position that comes from being a poet writing from the center of empire (or from the center of academia for that matter, given how many "innovative poets" and "innovative poetries" are associated, located within, or resourced by academia)? Surely more energies have been spent in unraveling the numerous values of the lyric in a self-critical way (giving rise to lyric postmodernisms) for example, than have been spent in challenging the familiar narratives of the financial crisis, the war against terrorism, the environmental catastrophe, or American isolationism in a manner that is unfamiliar or deconstructive? I do question if the ethical gesture of "self-criticism" (as you say, "the more self-questioning the more ethical") might be ultimately only rhetorical. Mere self-questioning is not enough, as I hope my comments here suggest.

But yes, I must place a great amount of value in "self-questioning." One reason for this is that I find that good old fashioned "liberal humanist" values still happen to dominate much political discourse in all kinds of poetries--that this is not a problem limited to so-called "mainstream" poetry. I find it so prevalent that it must represent a kind of mass delusion, even collective cultural oblivion, of how dated and how familiar most political discourse in poetry remains. I can hear the sound of one hand patting the back of the self as a subtext to this kind of poetry. Self-questioning (I hope) breaks that arm off.

4:45 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...


I largely agree with you.

My problem is when self-questioning becomes precisely a liberal humanist idea: poetry is a place where we can be decent human being who question ourselves. If we just "implicate" ourselves enough we can feel good about ourselves.

Also, part of this poetry tends to engage in a certain rhetoric of "un-masking" the art, an ethics of doing away with the art of art (Plato, perhaps); and that makes me suspicious that this is in fact the true motive behind the self-questioning. A kind of puritanical iconophobia. I'm going to write about this later today or tomorrow.

This is obviously not Alice Notley's problem! And obviously this is not Tracer's problem. So we may not be entirely talking about the same thing.


6:41 AM  
Blogger Kent Johnson said...

Johannes said:
>My problem is when self-questioning becomes precisely a liberal humanist idea: poetry is a place where we can be decent human being who question ourselves. If we just "implicate" ourselves enough we can feel good about ourselves.<

No argument there!

7:24 AM  
Blogger Michael Theune said...

Responding to Johannes's comment from a while back (#3 in the stream):

I agree with you, Johannes: IF it is at all important to maintain the model of "third way" poetry, it is because the "third way" can (potentially) reveal interactions rather than isolated schools.

However, the problem (or one big problem) is that the third way editors/anthologizers regularly have worked (consciously or not) to create new kinds of isolated schools: the hybrid/third way vs. the stand-up/ultra-talk being one of the clearest new divides.

So, while the hybrid touts itself as something that joins, it is clearly oppositional, and oppositional in a way that I find to be a tired derivative of the 80's poetry wars. Current thinking about contemporary poetry can be more accurate and surprising than this.

9:57 AM  

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