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Poetry and Ethics
by WILFRED JOHN
11/08/08
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I just finished reading Kent Johnson's _Lyric Poetry After Auschwitz_ and it woke me up. I've been a bit sluggish, two weeks of only bits of writing. One of the things I found most compelling in Kent's book is how the speaker is implicated in horrors of war/torture etc. Both post-avant and school of quietude are equally taken to task

Duncan and Levertov had a falling out over Levertov's anti-Vietnam poetry. He argued he wasn't against 'political' poetry, but he believed Levertov's anti-war poetry fell short because the speaker was outside of what she/he was critiquing. Kent's poems do a great job of asking how poetry matters in a time of war (not to be confused with Gioia's book) . He takes to task people and poets who attempt a self-rightous outsider stance (i.e. Berstein's reaction to Sam Hamill's Poets Against the War site (and anthology) . Berstein complains of the self-righteous stance of poems with unquestioning political content (perhaps in a similar way to Duncan back in the day) . But the irony of his own self-righteous stance (the moral presumptions of poems with overtly political content) is not discussed or acknowledged. Bernstein is a very intelligent man and perhaps is aware of this. But I think it is very healthy to challenge this assumption and re-open the debate of poetry in a time of war (even if it means losing good friends much like Duncan lost the close friendship of Levertov) .

Another aspect of Lyric Poetry After Auschwitz that I find compelling is how the poems feel lived/experienced. I know Kent was/is not a soldier in Iraq etc but I get a sense of lived experience in the poems. Perhaps Kent has experienced some of the horrors of war? I think I remember reading (was it in Lyric Poetry After Auschwitz? that he witnessed a bit of literal war.

The book is very consistent in its call for an honest look at ourselves as writers and persons. How the poems are constructed are not neglected for 'content.' Kent/the speaker walks a razor-thin tightrope between nihilism and hope as did all the great post of European existentialists.

All I can say is thank you. I really needed this book right now. It is an ongoing struggle to unite life/art, the common failure of the avant garde. Kent continues this vital and always unfinished project of the avant garde. He uses letters and emails and tackles (literally.

WILFRED JOHN
WRITER
POET
JOURNALIST
johnrwilfred2003@yahoo.co.uk

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