Monday, 7 March 2016

BS Johnson Not As Poet

   A confluence in my reading - Jonathan Coe's biography Like a Fiery Elephant aligning with Penguin Modern Poets 25 which features BSJ alongside Gavin Ewart and Zulfikar Ghose - lead me to originally conceive of this post as a study of what I anticipated as the arresting, unconventional poetry of this arresting, unconventional novelist. I would call it 'BS Johnson As Poet' and I would perhaps be applauded (by whom I'm not sure) for resuscitating the seldom-read verses of a writer who apparently always thought of himself as primarily a poet, a "struggler in the desert" who consistently argued for principles of bold Modernist experiment in the teeth of tepid Little Englander middle-browism.
   However, I rapidly came up against a substantial obstacle: BS Johnson's poems are mostly not very good. Apart from a few notable successes like 'Cwm Pennant', they generally suffer from having the air of "occasional verse" not adequately committed to or followed through - some seem mere squibs or notebook-jottings that haven't yet undergone the necessary creative pressure that might convert them into genuine poems, as though their very brevity and shortness of line automatically endowed them with this status (DH Lawrence's Pansies display a similar kind of failing although clearly he didn't intend them as fully-formed poems, admitting in their Intro "they do not pretend to be half-baked lyrics"). 
   Unfortunately Johnson's opuscules have every pretension to be finely-baked lyrics: indeed, another of their problematics is the frequent air of pretentiousness they exude in tone and diction. The second poem in this selection 'Evening: Barents Sea' begins "the trawl of unquiet mind drops astern" and after a clunky attempt at an almost Pre-Raphaelite-ish descriptive metaphor ("bifurcated banners at a tourney") the stanza slumps to a bathetic truism lent spurious gravitas by an over-bunching of stressed syllables and adjectives: "now the short northern/autumn day closes quickly". 
   In this and other poems there seems to be a reaching towards the heavyweight, lugubrious profundity of European modernism - also flagged up thematically through an often overstated brooding on death and lost love - which doesn't quite come off, whether through a lack of genuine metaphysical insight or, in their consistently egocentric range, a failure to attain the distancing-effects of form and craft which most poets in this lineage work with. This self-preoccupation also gives vent to an array of unpalatable thought-patterns in Johnson which readers of Like a Fiery Elephant will be all too familiar with: a rancorous vein of misogyny, a schoolboy prurience about bodily functions and a tiresome Ee-Aw-ish grumpiness which is a million miles away from anything in his hero Samuel Beckett's oeuvre.
    In each of his novels BS Johnson attempted a different angle of deconstruction in regard to its traditional realist counterparts, laying bare the house of fiction as a crumbling bourgeois facade and its omniscient narrator as a blown-up face on a wide-screen projection which, tugged aside, reveals only a little man at a desk in the corner, furiously reinventing a world he takes issue with. That the majority of his considerable energies went into his prose and that the poems were very much side-projects seems clear. Johnson's tragic downfall - movingly demonstrated in Coe's enthralling biography - was ironically precipitated by a misapprehension more commonly observed among poets than novelists: the notion that - to avoid the somehow inauthentic, fictive status of most writing - he should write about only what really happened to him. So, for example, he made a voyage on a trawler just so he could write about the experience of making a voyage on a trawler.
     There is something autophagous about this process, of course, and potentially damaging to one's sense of self-worth and integrity, as in Nietzsche's aphorism "Poets are shameless with their experiences: they exploit them". Again ironically, in fact, given Johnson's other ideas, it amounts to a romanticised, hypertrophied form of realism. As Coe points out, if you hold to this as a strict tenet you can only - as Johnson did - run out of meaningful experiences to write about and exhaust your own ability to ring the changes of formal variations and strategies in depicting them. Language in itself - let alone literary or poetic language - is a construct and all literary texts work on the creative tension between how they capture reality and how they imaginatively recompose it. Despite all his gifts, Johnson's curious inability to grasp this - as evinced in the short poem 'The Dishonesty of Metaphor' ("The sound of rain/is only like/the sound of rain") - lead him to believe his work had resulted in failure and (to simplify the actions of a complex man) to take the drastic, appalling step of suicide.
      BS Johnson was happiest during the year he spent teaching in Wales at Gregynog (1969-70). Geoffrey Hill memorialises this hiatus and the sad "self-wreck" of Johnson's life in Oraclau :
       Let this be, do not untie it:
           The snow birth-littered where
       The lambs have dropped, immanent atmosphere
       Of crystal haze, much like creation, pure
       As I imagined it to be these times
       Among the fresh erasure of old names
                                             ('At Gregynog')

Afterword: It has just occurred to me that Johnson's idea of the 'factional' novel about his own experiences is exactly what Karl Ove Knausgaard has employed in his phenomenally successful 'My Struggle' novel-cycle - I'm not saying Knausgaard took it from BSJ but that perhaps Johnson was just ahead of his time in foreseeing the culture of today when - not just in literature but in all media - reality and fiction are bundled up and interfused and as Norman Mailer - another forerunner of 'faction' wrote - "Reality is no longer realistic". A culture in which a contemptible, cartoonish buffoon from The Apprentice who spouts racist absurdities is able to become a likely candidate for President of the United States.

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