The Miseries of Poetry: Traductions from the Greek
translated by Alexandra Papaditsas and Kent Johnson
Skanky Possum, 2003; 52 pages

What to make of these traductions? We might start with the word’s definition – literally, exercises in shame, degradation and falsehood. “On paper wings, pressed by Phokylidos / the Epileptic, I flap to Olympus, panting, / seeking my master, EROS. But he looks / through me, says no more dog-style fucking: / He sees my graying face-hairs and flies off, / looking outward toward nothing– / while I stand transfixed in the breeze/ made by his thin wings of gold,” write the translators in “Eros,” a poem attributed to Anakreon. This poem can’t be found in the canon, but at least Anakreon himself once fit into a toga; no such evidence exists for Tantalos and Phillipos, some of his colleagues in this collection. In fact, not one word of this book can be taken at face value: everything is in play.

A lot of indignant nonsense has been written about Kent Johnson’s poetic projects by correspondents who forget that what’s true in three dimensions may not be true in four, or eleven. In an interview with Gabriel Gudding published in the Possum Pouch, Johnson opines that he’s not really interested in the “two-dimensional issues” of measure or content, but rather the “four-dimensional challenges of how your self and non-self relate to poetry’s total space.” (www.skankypossum.com/pouch/archives/000048.html). If one accepts this four-dimensional vision of poetry, it’s easier to see that Miseries is really a novella, with clashing and conflicting voices. For example, there are more blurbs in this book, real and imagined, than people who voted for Dennis Kucinich in South Carolina – all part of a cacophony through which readers must find their own way.

Yet two dimensions – and the flawed exegesis and interpretation they generate – usually carry the day. That’s why “What poetry [does] for the world” is open to question, why one of the translators here instructs his son to reject it with all his might. Such vehemence may at first seem out of place; to most of the world, poetry has been a sick old man on life support for some time, owed no more than sentimental obligation or scorn. What does come through is instantly pigeonholed (whether by “American academics” or moths), and the experience of the poem is defined away as “political” or “post-avant language” or “flarf” – categories that merely uphold the status quo. Edward Dorn’s 1976 poetry-as-graded-beef observation seems relevant. And yet, “strange beauty sings that poetry is not bound by imitation” (Ammonides, “On Imitation”).

In such a context, speculation about what’s real or imagined is way beyond the point. Better to invoke, as Papaditsas does in her introduction, Dionysus, “before the terrorist brown color covered everything.” Better to “Dream of a boy and a girl entwining / their lithe and sweating bodies” (Alkman, “Time”). Better to remember the Valentinians, a Gnostic sect: although they might have been “addicted to all kinds of forbidden deeds,” writes Jean-Pierre Mahé in “Gnostic and Hermetic Ethics,” “they hold that they shall be entirely and undoubtedly saved, not by means of conduct, but because they are pneumatic by nature” (Adversus Haerses 1.6.2). This pneumatic state of mind is exemplified, as is the scholarship in The Miseries of Poetry, by “anything but fixed learning, [but] rather a research attitude, an active openness to divine intuition” (21-22). “The antinomy between mind and body, word and deed, speech and silence, overcome. Everything is a metaphor; there is only poetry.” (Norman O. Brown, Love’s Body)