“Quickly Aging Here”: Denis Johnson (1949-2017)

Saturday, May 27, 2017

QUICKLY AGING HERE: Denis Johnson (July 1, 1949 – May 24, 2017)

An anthology published in 1969 entitled Quickly Aging Here derived its title from a line of poetry by its youngest contributor, Denis Johnson. The anthology itself, edited by Geoff Hewitt, was dominated by younger poets inaugurating the literary onslaught of those born in the first increment of the “Baby Boom.” I believe that the guiding rule of the anthology was that the poet could not have had a full-length volume of poems yet published, and fortunately that rule did not have the age limit of 40 imposed by the Hall-Pack-Simpson anthology or the Yale Younger Poets award. One of the oldest poets was Alfred Starr Hamilton, who eventually did get a substantial collection published. Mary Ellen Solt’s work stood out as emblematic of the expanding interest in so-called “concrete poetry” at that time. It was the anthology in which I first read the work of the Ray DiPalma, William Witherup, and Sophia Castro-Leon.

Even though Johnson went on to write a collection of poems, The Incognito Lounge, which was selected for the National Poetry Series, and to have a hefty “new and selected poems” published as well, very little of his work in this genre ended up being cited in his first obituary in the New York Times, let alone in the appreciation by Michiko Kakutani that appeared soon after.

It’s possible that Johnson will find himself left out of future anthologies that focus on poets born between 1940 and 1960 because of the way that his novels constitute the bulk of his reputation. This in itself suggests that much of what is regarded as editing poetry anthologies is merely the perfunctory checklist of genre affiliation: being regarded as a poet would seem to involve a devotion to a peculiar ritual of shaping language that isolates one from the bulk of literate people. No doubt jazz ends up exerting the same counter-weights to the gravitational tugs of popular music.

Restlessness in a writer is rarely rewarded, and Johnson himself acknowledged his impatience with any self-prescribed formula. The Poetry Foundation’s entry on Johnson quotes him in an article that appeared in the Los Angeles Times in 2014, “I get bored quickly and try another style, another genre, another form. … To me the writing is all one thing, or maybe I should say it’s all nothing. The truth is, I just write sentences.”

The test, of course, is how quickly the sentences age. Not everyone was overly impressed by Johnson’s sentences, as evidenced in a scathing review that appeared ten years ago in the Atlantic Monthly. Jonathan Galassi, on the other hand, issues a comment after Johnson died in which he called Johnson “one of the great writers of his generation. He wrote prose with the imaginative concentration and empathy of the poet he was.” How well Johnson’s poetic empathy will age is not a matter that can be settled in an instant. Slowly, in another decade or two, we will begin to find out if Johnson’s sentences deserve to endure.




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