In which I review books without actually having read them, based only on the titles. Starting with Kent Johnson’s Lyric Poetry After Auschwitz, which has been the buzz of the blogs recently.
The title is of course a quote, from (Google tells me) Theodore Adorno, who said that poetry after Auschwitz was ‘barbaric’ – though he also said that ‘literature must resist this verdict’.
So, we have a book of poetry which gets its title from a quote about poetry from a culture theorist. First deduction: this book is full of self-consciously intellectual poetry that isn’t afraid to approach its subject through a layer of heavy-handed irony.
In fact, there’s no way someone who would choose this title would be gauche enough to to use the phrase ‘lyric poetry’ in a straightforward way. It’s a further irony – the poems in the book are not in fact lyrics at all!
On the other hand, despite all the irony sloshing around the place, there are certain magic words that are too important to make light of, even for people who read cultural theorists. Theory fans are generally earnest about their politics anyway, but mentioning Auschwitz in the title means this a book of Very Serious Poetry.
The poet must have a Very Serious point to make – I’m guessing he thinks Auschwitz was a bad thing. He probably also draws in some more contemporary events as well, for topicality.
So we have non-lyrical (in fact, anti-lyrical) poetry about Auschwitz, Srebrenica, Iraq and so on. But it’s not just about the sadness of the human condition – no, it’s highly politicised. And it’s very aware of irony but has no sense of humour.
As you may have gathered, I hate this title. It’s aggressive, holier-than-thou, patronising, self-important and heavy-handed.