Poetry News

A Must-Read! Kent Johnson's "Scintillose" Poem, "Forgotten American Poets of the 19th Century"

By Harriet Staff

John Latta, at Isola di Rifiuti, more than posts Kent Johnson's extraordinary poem "Forgotten American Poets of the 19th Century," "a piece of excavatory goodwill, nigh pious in its delight, scintillose in its wit, partial to its supposed principals," but gives it his delicious all in an introduction to the text and much-desired elaboration on the myriad, oft-incantatory O of poetries today and yesteryears:

Ah, the “brain-scattering” ejaculatory O!’s of the nineteenth century. Ah, the thrice-named titans of humor, the gloaming belle-lettrists of the pitiable conceit, the dashing ornery grammarians! Augustus Baldwin Longstreet! Roderick Impey Murchison! Letitia Elizabeth Landon! Anna Peyre Dinnies! Sumner Lincoln Fairfield! Ah, the poets, all driveling their revelatory abrupts across the deathless page, all with all the sticky ubiquity of the common arachnidae (the amblypygids, the schizomids, the acarinae)—isn’t it precisely there that the nineteenth century meets “our” “own”? There in the “nonpareil” (meaning, I suppose, “candy-assed”) shamelessness of the endless mercurial “through-put”? What the bent sigillum of Alexander Pope hurled forth in the eighteenth century mounts up in cruel accrual and sigmoid glut, alarum of “things to come”:

Who shames a scribbler? Break one cobweb through,
He spins the slight, self-pleasing thread anew:
Destroy his fib, or sophistry: in vain!
The creature’s at his dirty work again,
Throned in the centre of his thin designs,
Proud of a vast extent of flimsy lines . . .

(A twenty-first century version reads: “You have plenty of time is what everybody says, the stupidest / Thing I’ve ever heard // I don’t even fucking / Have time to write this right now.”) Hellbent toward the unaccoutered morass of the oubliette, that hole where memory goeth “off” so prettily only to droop in the remove, evanesce in the wash . . .

We shall, O! I trust it is not too impetuous (or impolitic) to say, all die and thereat be forgot, scrubbed “out” by the nonchalant commandoes of the new, the rankest of our ranks made dumb by the honest temporal sludge of the incipient. And just as something like Ariana Reines’s lines (out of Mercury)—

I don’t know what I need
Until you have given it to me
To make me know I needed it

O stone of all I’m not. O gem of all things
Making me lick your gorgon eye
& touch myself eternally

—just may refer the contemporary hypocrite lecteur back to the sinuous insinuatory overtures of something like Mrs. Frances Sargent Osgood’s “The Dying Rosebud’s Lament”—I quote—

Ah me! ah! wo is me!

That I should perish now,

With the dear sunlight just let in,

Upon my balmy brow!

My leaves, instinct with glowing life,

Were quivering to unclose!

My happy heart with love was rife;—

I was almost a rose!

There is more where that came from, and then there is Johnson's poem. With respect to its original intent and publishing-place, we'll have you read "Forgotten American Poets of the 19th Century," for John Bradley, in the 21st, here.

Originally Published: August 1st, 2012
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