Notes on the Poetry of B.S. Johnson

On Wednesday evening we attended a free event at the Poetry Library discussing and celebrating the poetry of B.S. Johnson, who is better known for his experimental novels such as The Unfortunates. I’d prepared for the event by reading the selection of Johnson’s poetry published in Penguin Modern Poets 25 (1975) – an old secondhand copy I’d tracked down a couple of years ago. In recent years many of Johnson’s novels have been republished, and a collection of his films released on DVD, but his poetry remains out of print. Chris McCabe, librarian at the Poetry Library, introduced the evening, revealing that while Johnson’s poetry is rarely requested, his books are often stolen from the library, an indication of his cult status as a poet.

Alan Brownjohn, resplendent in a red suit, spoke warmly of his friend Bryan, recalling that in the 1964 general election B.S. Johnson had given up a fortnight of his valuable time to drive Alan around as he campaigned in a distant electorate. He read three of Johnson’s poems, including The Short Fear, a late, bleak poem, and the very funny Love – All – the latter characteristic of Johnson’s ‘Cockney ruefulness’, according to Brownjohn. He also remarked on the candour and honesty of Johnson’s poetry, particularly in relation to rejection and rebuffs – concerns that will be familiar to readers of his novels. Brownjohn described Johnson, chucklingly, as ‘a connoisseur of defeat’.

Juila Jordan, from UCL, argued that Johnson’s poetry is a ‘memorialisation of failure’ and the poems often end in an anti-epiphany. This rings true for me from the poems I’ve read. She observed there are many poems that begin with architectural or structural observation, such as the poem Myddleton Square, and then move to a lack or void or absence to undercut and end the poem. There’s a bathetic quality, which I also recognised. ‘Nothingness at the heart of everything’, as Jordan said, and I certainly felt Beckett’s shadow hovering over Johnson’s poems. This is a good thing, in my book!

Shoestring Press publisher John Lucas, like Alan Brownjohn, had been a friend of B.S. Johnson, and recounted first meeting him after a talk at Nottingham University when Johnson had railed against academia. Lucas had quoted part of Johnson’s poem In Yates’s to him, and they subsequently repaired to the very same Yates’s Winelodge. Asked who his favourite poets were, Johnson had replied, to Lucas’s surprise, Robert Graves and the little known Cornish poet Jack Clemo.

Julia Jordan had referred to Johnson’s decision to write in syllabics and there was some disagreement between her and John Lucas as to how successfully this works in his poems. Lucas’s view is that Johnson was not naturally a poet, and that his use of syllabics creates a hippity-hoppity rhythm that undermines the poem. Julia Jordan conceded that some of the poems are problematic – not least those that display a misogynistic streak – but suggested that in some ways his poetry is a more successful expression of his key concerns (the problems of honesty in writing, his obsession with causality, the attempt to present chaos) than his novels. Chris McCabe observed that Johnson’s poems are conventional in terms of form and asked where the experimental or avant-garde side of Johnson resides in his poetry. Julia Jordan’s response was that the content is the radical element in the poems.

All of the above is, of course, my recollection and paraphrase, pulled together from the notes I took at the time. What it perhaps doesn’t convey is the humour in so many of Johnson’s poems, as in his other work. And what a stimulating and uplifting event it was, a celebration indeed. It surely says something that the work of this ‘connoisseur of defeat’ is still being debated, read, argued about, more than 40 years after his death.

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