“We must be absolutely modern”: an anecdote for Kent Johnson

Over at his Facebook page, Kent Johnson continues to probe the legacy of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E in his inimitable way. His persistent concern with the movement and its wake prompted me to observe, among other things:

I think it needs be said, too, that, for my part, anyway, I don’t know a poet under, let’s say, 35 who would either recognize the terms of the dispute or even grasp the pertinence of the issue. Their concerns are either identity-political or ecopoetical (and that ‘or’ is not exclusive), and those with the conceptual apparatus would likely judge the whole discussion as formalist, all-too-formalist…

All of which brings to mind the following anecdote…

I’m fortunate to count among my friends a number of poets and scholars half my age, among them, one brought into our circle by a peer of mine, now a professor emeritus of German language and literature. One evening, this young friend, another peer of mine, and myself were carousing, as we poet-scholars are wont to do, this time at my peer’s place.

I forget now exactly how the topic came up, but I recall maybe it had something to do with American poet Charles Olson. Our young friend is a frighteningly-gifted and learned young man, a francophone Quebecer who speaks English and German like a native speaker and who, at the time, as part of his graduate work in Irish Studies, was learning Gaelic (he has since, last I heard, taken up learning Dutch, for the fun of it). Though steeped in the European literary Modernism of the first half of the Twentieth Century, Olson was new to him.

What ensued was a speed-seminar in the Poetry Wars of postwar American, anglophone poetry: Donald Allen’s landmark anthology The New American Poetry, the New Criticism oriented poetry then in power, Confessionalism and Projective Verse, etc. The impromptu seminar ended with a lively reading of Olson’s “La Préface”.

Our young friend’s reaction: “Why don’t they teach us all this in school?!”.

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