Johnson, Judith (Emlyn)

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JOHNSON, Judith (Emlyn)

Pseudonyms: Judith Johnson Sherwin. Nationality: American. Born: New York City, 3 October 1936. Education: The Dalton Schools, New York, 1954; Radcliffe College, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1954–55; Barnard College, New York, B.A. (cum laude) 1958 (Phi Beta Kappa); Columbia University, New York (Woodrow Wilson fellow, 1958), 1958–59. Family: Married James T. Sherwin in 1955 (divorced); three children. Career: Promotion manager, Arrow Press, New York, 1961; instructor, Poetry Center, New York, 1976, 1978, 1981; poet-in-residence, Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, 1980. Poet-in-residence, 1980–81, assistant professor of English, 1981–87, associate professor, 1988–91, since 1992 professor of English and women's studies, and chair of department of Women's Studies, 1995–96, State University of New York, Albany; president, 1975–78, and chairman of the Executive Committee, 1979–80, Poetry Society of America; member of Board of Directors, 1994–97, and president, 1995–96, Associated Writing Programs. Awards: Academy of American Poets prize, 1958; Yaddo fellowship, 1964; Poetry Society of America fellowship, 1964; Aspen Writers Workshop Rose fellowship, 1967; Yale Series of Younger Poets award, 1968; St. Andrews Review prize, 1975; Playboy award, for fiction, 1977; National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, 1981; Poetry Society of America Alice Fay Di Castagnola award, 1992; D. Litt Honoris Causa, St. Andrew's College, Laurinburg, N.C., 1992. Address: Department of English, State University of New York, Albany, New York 12222, U.S.A.



Uranium Poems. New Haven, Connecticut, Yale University Press, 1969.

Impossible Buildings. New York, Doubleday, 1973.

Waste: The Town Scold, Transparencies, Dead's Good Company. Taftsville, Vermont, Countryman Press, 3 vols., 1977–79.

How the Dead Count. New York, Norton, 1978.

The Ice Lizard. New York, Sheep Meadow Press, 1992.


Belisa's Love (produced New York, 1959).

En Avant, Coco (produced New York, 1961). two untitled multimedia works (produced Brussels, 1971, 1972).

Waste (multimedia; produced London, 1972).

Short Stories

The Life of Riot. New York, Atheneum, 1970.


Editor, with Brenda S. Webster, Hungry for Light: The Journal of Ethel Schwabacher. Webster, Indiana, Indiana University Press, 1993.


Critical Studies: By Hayden Carruth, in Harper's (New York), June 1978, and The Nation (New York), January 1979; in Choice (Middletown, Connecticut), July-August and December 1978; by Rochelle Ratner, in Soho Weekly News (New York), 7 September 1978; by Carol Saltus, in The Women's Review of Books (Massachusetts), December 1992; by Mimi Albert, in Poetry Flash (San Francisco), November 1992; by Leslie Ullman, in The Kenyon Review (Gambier, Ohio), summer 1993; by Dianne Blakely Shoaf, in American Book Review, October-November 1993; "Healing Our Wounds: The Direction of Difference in the Poetry of Lucille Clifton and Judith Johnson" by Jean Anaporte-Easton, in Mid-American Review (Bowling Green, Ohio), 14(2), 1994.

Judith Johnson comments:

My poetry comes across in readings as drama or music more than as text. I enjoy reading with cool jazz or with quiet electronic music that provides spaces in the sound and between the sounds. Much of my poetry is meant to be sung or chanted or belted out in the shower.

All my life I have refused to let myself be limited to any theory of what poetry should be, either in form or in content. I write traditional sonnet sequences, and I write surreal poems and sound poems. Every form, every technique is of equal interest. I should feel dissatisfied with my mind if there were any approach to poetry that did not excite me to see if I could go out and do likewise.

My writing, poetry, fiction, and drama, is both feminist and political, but it is neither didactic nor hortatory. I write about my life as a woman and as a political animal because that is where my life is, those are the questions I have to face. However, I do not know the answers; any answer I examine is hypothesis, not conclusion.

I try to make a rough music, a dance of the mind, a calculus of the emotions, a driving beat of praise out of the pain and mystery that surround me and become me. My poems are meant to make your mind get up and shout.

(1995) What I have been fashioning is a poetics of generosity to replace the poetics of parsimony that governs public life and art. As with many women writers, whatever I write has seemed to take its place in the mainstream poetic culture as "other" and as "excess." The critical reaction has often been some form of "You're something else!" or "You're too much!"—some uneasy blend of admiration and condemnation. To transform feminine excess and alterity from perceived weaknesses to strengths requires rethinking both literary norms and my location within or outside them. I have chosen to consider the energy in my work a form of generosity rather than a form of excess; to consider my poetics as normative rather than marginal; to imagine transformative poetics in metaphors other than the militaristic ones associated with terms like "avant-garde"; to phrase my changing locations within life and literature in terms of what they are rather than of what they are not; to enunciate plenitude rather than lack.

What I have been fashioning, like many contemporary poets whose theoretical vocabularies differ, is a poetics of transformation rather than a poetics of representation. Aristotelian poetics valued the mimetic qualities of art, the imitation of an action rather than the action itself, holding the mirror up to nature rather than inventing and transforming and acting within nature. But just as contemporary scientific and mathematical theory seems to suggest the action of the observer within the experiment, so the poetics in which I participate stresses the poem as transformative act across a range of practices, varying from pure play, analogous to the sciences' pure research, to Marxist, feminist, or postcolonialist political activisms.

What I have been fashioning is a poetics of multiplicity, in which the capaciousness and porosity of meaning take on their own life within language. This requires a recasting of vocabulary. The idea of indeterminacy allows me to do some things, but multideterminacy or infinite determinacy allows me to do very different things. Uncertainty in physics allows us to recognize that we can know location or velocity but not both. But a point whose location we cannot determine may have multiple locations rather than no location, and this latter terminology with regard to how meaning moves allows me to work more dynamically within the text. Zeno demonstrated the shortcomings of analytic processes when he used them to prove that the arrow did not move. A magical or transformative poetics restores motion by accepting the principles of simultaneity and of multiple location.

*  *  *

Judith Johnson, originally introduced to the poetry world as Judith Johnson Sherwin, is not only a poet but also a mixed-media artist, fiction writer, playwright, and critic. Her poems first appeared in the 1960s and introduced major themes—technology and the devastating effects of modern politics and the difficulty and necessity of loving in the modern world—that continue into her present work. Her poems both elucidate these problems and constitute a weapon to defy them. Her style is characterized by incantatory repetitions and a skewed, tense diction that strains the limits of conventional grammar and syntax, though she often incorporates these within the classic forms of the sonnet and quatrain, updated with slant rhyme. Her similes and metaphors are extended and bizarre, drawn from the absurd artifacts of contemporary plastic culture but often also reminiscent of the seventeenth-century Metaphysical conceit. Yet her sensibility is ultramodern, influenced by and reflective of jazz, radio ads, and technological innovations.

In her first book, Uranium Poems, words pile up and hammer on one other without breath break, reinforcing the metaphor and message that uranium mining destroys the earth to procure ores to make bombs that destroy the world. This theme begets another, how the consciousness of various deaths permeates our lives, especially the death that haunts love, Marilyn Monroe's suicide, and the bitter political deaths of our time, murder by Adolf Eichmann. In her second collection, Impossible Buildings, Johnson is still hardheaded, but her language and forms are less rough-hewn. In "Materials," a sequence of ten sonnets, each poem focuses on a natural substance such as ice, wood, or water, and each is made an elegant symbol for an aspect of sexual love. The prevailing theme is larger than love, however, as the title poem makes clear. As in M.C. Escher's drawings, "impossible buildings" are constructed by the artist's mind in its creative work: "the construction is /the information."

The poems of How the Dead Count, while often elegiac in tone (as in the long title poem), are also often angry and satiric. The stock exchange mentality, Henry Kissinger, capitalist and technological abuses—all receive Johnson's contempt. Love returns in this book, too, as a freighted theme, a sometimes ebullient emotion but frequently bereft and sad in severance from the loved one, as in the section entitled "From Brussels." The pain rises out of conflict with, and seems to be the price of, the poet's life as an independent woman and artist. The independence, however, is an elemental source of power, not destructive to her life or to any other. In "Three Power Dances" she pits against technology the Native American mythic viewpoint, out of which she creates a totem of herself, "a great Female Bear /wide as a house sings /out of Her dark cave." The emphasis is on female being over male doing: "I hold back your day /your death dance, your night of war /This is My Power dance." This defiant yet compassionate sensibility profoundly animates the title poem, an elegy for the young dead of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War, which continues the theme of death intermingled with our lives. These dead "count"—they matter—because they bring creative richness to birth in us by the very extremity of their situation.

No creativity or contemporary emotion can disentangle itself from our technologized milieu, however, as is made clear in Johnson's book "Cities of Mathematics and Desire," the title poem of her book manuscript that won the Poetry Society of America's Alice Fay Di Castagnola award in 1992. Here language experiments loop even higher in the imaginative air, but they serve compassion as they imitate speech impaired by stroke and collage stories, exclamations, and rude fragments to convey a multilayered sense of deracinated yet exuberant modern urban life. The title poem is an epic taking off from William Carlos Williams's mythic theme of Paterson (a man is a city) to dramatize the interpenetration of impersonal forces, "mathematics," and personal passion, a condition that extends from the submicroscopic collision of particles to marriage to mysterious explosions in intergalactic space. It is an exalted theme orchestrated by Johnson's impressive gift for laser-sharp, bejeweled language.

Johnson's subsequent work expands on the themes of Cities of Mathematics and Desire. Her unconventional creative process uses improvisation to generate performance/ritual/mythic poems that eventually appear on the page. These poems embody a large vision that unites science, philosophy, and feminism. Chaos theory in physics and shamanistic trance experiences are major influences on both Johnson's intellect and her intuition. She has made important contributions to literary theory in a generically radical verse essay, "A Poetics of Generosity: A Wo Manifesto," which she presented as a paper at the Modern Language Association meeting in 1997. Here she challenges the Lacanian notion that the symbolic order—that is, language and art—proceeds from "lack." It comes, she says, from surplus, from the fecundity of the universe to which the multiplicity of appearances testifies. Desire is the spark that "would now flame /this world alive /for all time." The possessor of the spark, that is, the "maker"—her term, which is preferable to "poet"—therefore has power:

… the act of speech
is always more than symbolic. It is solid,
the hammer of words at the lip
of the well

Johnson is a writer to watch. She embraces both the postmodern and the archaic in a beneficent "machinery of connection" that arouses confidence in the human ability to elicit order out of chaos.

—Jane Augustine

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Johnson, Judith (Emlyn)

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