The literary essay is having, as they say, a moment. Here at KR, the number of nonfiction submissions we receive each year has been steadily on the rise, and I suspect that other journals would report the same. Within that increasingly large pool of submissions, we’re also seeing a trend toward formal adventurousness, with many essayists shrugging off linear structures to play around with associative leaping, lyricism, and lists.
These approaches don’t always yield solid results. Often, a collection of discrete vignettes will fail to ultimately cohere, reading more like a fog of ideas and memories than a fully realized nonfiction piece. However potent the individual scenes or musings might be, they don’t necessarily, at the end of the day, add up to a cohesive whole.
This is why we’re so excited to be publishing Derek Mong’s “Ten New Ways to Read Ronald Johnson’s Radi os,” which demonstrates that this type of structural experimentation in nonfiction, in the right hands and with the right material, can also produce a great essay. Written in list form, the piece offers a well-developed portrait of the history, context, and contemporary relevance of Johnson’s book. Radi os, which was published in 1977, is an erasure of Milton’s Paradise Lost; Johnson crafted the book by taking the text of Paradise Lost and erasing lines, words, and letters to reveal skeletal poems underneath that took on new meanings of their own. Mong characterizes the form of erasure, resulting in only glimpses of the original work on the page, as “represent[ing] the after-image of reading, and the retention—spotty, subjective, slippery—that we carry from the last page.”
Mong’s approach to reading the book is panoramic, engaging with the work’s semantic content, physical layout and design, and relationship to science (quantum physics, non-linear time), fads (speed-reading) and cultural context (the emergence of San Francisco as center of gay life). Mong also discusses other poets’ spinoffs of Paradise Lost, and informs us that Radi os itself was inspired by another erasure (a Baroque composition by Lucas Foss, excised from a work of Handel’s). The extent of Mong’s analysis transports the essay from an impressionistic reading journal to a substantive look at a literary tradition and its exemplars. Though comprising a series of individual explicative flashes, the essay contains a clear throughline and builds to an argument, positing Radi os as a uniquely American project.
This is an interesting cultural moment to look at erasures in the context of American traditions. Contemporary poets whose work examines the national security state and its resultant human rights abuses might probe the relationship between poetic erasure and state-mandated redaction of information. I am thinking here of Philip Metres, Solmaz Sharif, and others—for example, the title of Metres’s most recent book, Sand Opera, is an erasure of the phrase standard operating procedure. (For an extended discussion of post-9/11 detention and access to information, head over to Kenyon Review Online, where we’ve just published a conversation on issues of censorship and restrictions on texts in the Detainee Library at Guantánamo.) Although these modern-day engagements with the erasure and redaction are starkly different from Johnson’s project, Mong’s brief history of erasures provides a useful grounding for thinking about what this poetic technique signifies now, and what it might signify in years to come.