Because of Poetry
I was reading Johnson’s Because of Poetry I Have a Really Big House (Shearsman Books, $18.00) when I felt a sudden urge to check my dreams. There was someone in an orange jump suit sitting across from me in a visitor’s center. He asked me if I knew who he was. “Roque Dalton?” I asked. “I’m Kent Johnson,” said the man who said he was Kent Johnson. “You look just like Roque Dalton,” I said, still not sure who the hell he was. But he insisted that he was Kent Johnson. The Kent Johnson, that “bad boy” of American letters, co-editor, with Mike Boughn, of Dispatches from the Poetry Wars, recently defunct.
[N.B. I was a contributing editor of that journal, one of a cast of thousands. I haven’t met with Kent for many years, and when I did, I never noticed any resemblance to the El Salvadoran poet Roque Dalton.]
I asked what he was doing in prison, and he said that this wasn’t a prison. This was a poetry re-education camp, he explained, run by the Poetry Institute. “They treat me pretty well,” he said, “all things considered.” But why had he been placed in a poetry re-education camp? “They want me to discover the error of my ways. Certain poems, you know. They want me to critique them. And then rewrite them until I get it right.” Whatever that means. “Are you saying that you have to censor your own poetry?” “No, no no,” he said. “You obviously don’t understand. Just clarify the intent and make the poem behave more like, you know, a poem.”
“’I don’t read poetry unless I have to, which / would be when a guard from Penn is pressing / a knife to my throat in a penitentiary, where I / am residing for protesting some Poetry Institution,’” I read to him, the opening lines of “With Fred Seidel, near the Matterhorn, in 2020.” “That seems kind of, well, prophetic, doesn’t it?” I asked. Kent, or the man who said he was Kent, looked around nervously. “You shouldn’t be reading that book. In fact, you shouldn’t own any of my books. Burn them. All of them. As soon as you get home.”
“Say, isn’t that John Ashbery?” I asked. “Over there, speaking with some young poet who’s trying to look like a young John Ashbery?” I told him, though I sounded just like the Kent Johnson in the “Maatterhorn” poem who tells Fred Seidel that he sees John Ashbery. “That’s ridiculous. Everyone knows Ashbery is dead,” said Kent. “And besides, why would the Poetry Institute put John Ashbery in a poetry re-education camp. They love his poetry.”
More and more confused, I turned again to a poem to help me right my balance. “’Could someone tell me why I’ve never been / selected for the yearly Best American Poetry?’” I read from “Could Someone Tell Me Why.” Is it a crime, I wondered, to write such a thing in a poem? I must have said this aloud, as Kent told me that he would be released from the re-education camp as soon as he wrote a poem that was chosen for Best American Poetry. I wasn’t sure if he was joking or serious, and I nervously laughed. “But that means you’ll be here forever!” I said, to cheer him up. I could hear John Ashbery laughing nearby.
“Is there anything of your poetry that the Poetry Institute folks actually approve of?” I asked. He took my copy of Because of Poetry, and with his Sharpie started blacking out objectionable lines in the poems (this took a good hour, but it felt like a few seconds). He handed me back the book and all the lines were blacked out, except for these lines: “I like the way the flowers grow, / The way rain falls, the discs of snow.” “Of the entire book of poetry, 89 pages, that’s the only thing they like?” I said. He nodded.
I had to leave the dream and get back to fighting the spread of Covid-19 by injecting myself with poetry approved by the Poetry Institute. I hope Kent Johnson, or Roque Dalton, or whoever the hell he is, will get out of the poetry camp soon. Perhaps he’ll escape, disguised as John Ashbery. Or maybe as the Matterhorn.