RONALD JOHNSON INTERVIEW, November 19, 1995
© 2000, Literary Estate of Ronald Johnson
Note: This interview was conducted on November 19, 1995 in the evening at 3901 Drury Lane in Topeka, Kansas where Ronald Johnson lives with his father.
PETER OLEARY: Let me start by asking how did ARK change over the course of the twenty to twenty-five years or so of its composition? Since it was published in increments, you always included incidental notes describing the next step or two...
RONALD JOHNSON: I worked on it all the time. I knew it would be three parts. I didnt have "The Ramparts" quite namedIve forgotten what I called them. But I was lucky to envision a form that left me three different periods. So that when I got to doing "The Spires," I could just do Spires and think "what is a Spire?" And then when I got to "The Ramparts," which was really influenced by The Watts Towersthe outside of the Watts Towers which are mosaic arches: each one of those three lines is meant to be an arch, so that each one of those does a number of arches so that its really like a building as the arches go around: So I was just lucky. Well, weve got Olson and Zukofsky; Pound and whatever and William Carlos Williamsand of course then he decided that he had to do another piece and it set if off kilterand Pound bogged down before he got there because he misread Chinese. And I dont about Louis. I think Louis maybe had gotten it all there, if you can ever figure out whats there.
POL: I guess with "A" and then maybe Melvilles Clarel
RJ: I tried to read it once and I just couldnt, I couldnt keep up with it
POL: But still with those two yours would be the only three finished long poems
RJ: Well, "A" is finished...
POL: Right, "A" is finished, so "A," ARK, and Clarel, and maybe HDs "War Trilogy."
RJ: Well, you know, there are some other poems in there which nobody takes advantage of. Those [poems mentioned above] are the big examples and ARK is going to come join them. "Say, fellahs, what is an epic?" But you know there are other things. Theres Wallace Stevens "The Comedian as the Letter C"; theres "Briggflatts" by Basil Bunting. There are other poems which are major poems that dont take your whole life to understand.
POL: Do you see ARK very much in that tradition?
RJ: No. Oh, well, ARK is longer than those, longer than something like "Briggflatts." "Briggflatts" should be compared to The Book of the Green Man. You know, strangely enough, in the introduction to The Book of the Green Man, Christopher Middleton said this is the first new seasonal poem since blah, blah, blah. I had to write about it later and say in point of fact, it turns out that The Book of the Green Man and "Briggflatts" were published in the same year.
POL: I didnt realize that...
RJ: Yes, so those are comparable. The Book of the Green Man is a long seasonal poema traditional seasonal poem but in new forms and to see it as an American would see it. And the British just loved it. Its a nice book. The Book of the Green Man and "Briggflatts" are really the same: both seasonal poems, both trying to take in the whole thing and see it. Basil did it from asince hes Northumbrian, he substituted all the really pretty words for the hard Anglo-Saxon words, "tack," "grip," snap," "crackle," Anglo-Saxon words that give it a grit.
POL: And then ARK would be more along the lines of the big modernist poem...
RJ: Well I wanted it to be like that. Olson said that an epic is a poem with history. Zukofsky put a lot of contemporary history and Marxist politics into his poem. William Carlos Williams had a topography, a history of all of the people around him, you know, kind of a Whitman, he was a new Whitman. But I thought that ARK would be like the Watts Towers, like the Ideal Palace of the Facteur Cheval. I wanted it to be without history, that it was constructed of things in my time. Its just filled with snippets: things from books, things on television. When there was a good nature program on, sometimes I got a Rampart or two [laughs]. I keep my ears open and my eyes open and when I see or hear something I write it down in my notebook. It somehow is almost stitched outif anybody could figure out from those notebooks, I dont know what there series isit knits out. I never go back. Maybe sometime I should go back.
POL: You might get a whole new poem maybe...
RJ: I might get a whole new book and that would be too many books! [laughs] Ive already got three big books coming out!
POL: I remember reading a note that when you were first conceiving the poem you were calling it WOR(L)DS. When did it become ARK?
RJ: Yeah, it was a concrete poem with the word "worlds" with an "l" in parentheses so it would make "words" or "worlds" depending on your focus. That was its original title. I think its still a good title. But Guy Davenport said never title a book something you cant pronounce. And I believed him.
POL: So when did you change it to ARK?
RJ: After he said that. [laughs]
POL: How did you come up with ARK?
RJ: I think that was part of, kind of it, anyway. ARK had been there, I think.
POL: Were you thinking more of the Ark of the Covenant or Noahs Ark or Ark as in "Architecture"?
RJ: No, I didnt think about Noahwell, Noah gets in there. Hes got to get his lick in. I dont know. I just thought ARK because it also included the rainbowthe rainbow goes all the way through the poem, that kind of arch, "Ark." It has all kind of meaning, like "A" has meaning. Youve have to look at that several different ways to translate that title. And I thought ARK has as many and it was a structure, which I wanted to do; it was to save mankind, and the animal and vegetable and mineral world; and so I set off on a kind of science fiction, kind of like building a time-capsule of everything that Ive heard and seen, to go out to the dark, to the stars.
POL: Which is why it ends with the spaceship...
RJ: I didnt know I was going to do that. I get ends as I go along. I didnt know I was going to end like that but it seemed like a good way to do it.
POL: When did you write that last lines?
RJ: When it was finished. [laughing]
POL: Well when was that.
RJ: I dont know it was somewhere around 1990. Ive spent, what, six or seven years trying to get this book published. I mean a friend had to start a publishing company just to publish me. It was awful. Nobody would listen to me anymore. [laughing] But theyre very worldly people.
POL: When you imagined the original plan of ARK, you knew it was going to be in three parts, but did you know it was going to go "Foundations," "Spires," and "Ramparts."
RJ: Once I had conceived that the first book should be "The Foundations" then I thought that I would put Spires on top of it. I wasnt quite sure about the periphery; it wasnt until I really saw Watts Towers and saw the outside walls that I thought this is what "The Ramparts" will be, it will just be a wall of mosaic arches. Thats what each of those stanzas are in "The Ramparts." Theyre made up of three lines apiece and each three lines makes up an Arch. I wanted them to be constructed in a way so that I could get a source anywhere, from any source whatsoever, a word spoken, a word read, a sight, whatever, so that I could make a mosaic out of it.
POL: Besides the Watts Tower, were there any literary models in mind? It makes me think of say Wordsworths Recluse project, or George Herberts The Temple.
RJ: No. I dont think theres ever been anything like this. I didnt, I couldnt, I didnt model. I mean, I had before me, my God, "A," andI had all those big poems in front of me to look at. And I said, can I do this any differently. And as Robert Duncan pointed out, that you were only one to make it an architecture. And when you make it an architecture, then youre settled at being finished. Architecture has a plan and an execution and a dedication ceremony [laughs]. If they can ever get their people together [laughs].
POL: That brings up an interesting consideration. Do you see the words as they appear on the page as a kind of plan or the blueprints for this imaginary ARK that each reader will construct.
RJ: No. I just write line. I write lines. And as I go along I always remember the lines before so it leads me to the next line which leads me to the next line...
POL: "One perception directly follows from another..."
RJ: ... And I dont really revise much after. If those lines dont wobble, theyre good lines. I go from line to line and, generally, my head is in that direction. My nose is downwind [laughs].
POL: How did you know when youd finished a part, or when youd finished one of the beams, or when you finished one of the sections?
RJ: Well, youve got to know when to stop. There are other questions that people well may ask. In "The Ramparts," there are three pages of six arches on each page, and there are three pagesthe whole thing goes in threes throughout. Its the Trinity and its the whole basis of what I think being is. I knew that I had this form and I knew I had to fill it out and, say, you kind of just sneaked up on the end, thats what you did. You had this idea of that end before and you said, well, how does this come in? Endingshow does one know? I think thats part of becoming a poet. You say, "OK, Ive already said it, and I dont need to add anymore to it." Or, like I sometimes do, because it doesnt have so much to do with the poem because its already been finished, to find a great surprise at the end, a great wonderful way to end. And once you got that, you say, "My God, this ends. Its got a great beat. And it says it on the nose." Thats when you quit.
POL: There are so many visual things going on in ARK, little magical things that the eye follows along, its interesting you mention "the beat." Whats the aural component of ARK? Do you see it being read out loud?
RJ: By the time you get to "The Ramparts" its what Louis Zukofsky said about poetry; he said its upper bound music, and its lower bound speech. At that point its all to music and to make sense at the same time, which I dont think Zukofsky always necessary does. In his last book, 80 Flowers, there are clues you can track down, but you could chew at it forever [laughs] and never decide what Louis really meant. I tried to make the upper bound music and to make sense out of it. And in some cases I think I managed. I just think anyone could read it. They could read it over because its filled with puns and the kinds of things that are there to discover. Its got all kinds of things inside it. To Hell and gone. "to Helen, gone" (ARK 39, The Roswell Spire). Which then brings in the Greeks and all kinds of things. I just tried to reach for lines that have at least two meanings and have a balance. And its nice if you can see something too, along the way.
POL: Do you think the reader of ARK should read the poem with other books; there are so many references in it, puns.
RJ: I meant not to do any reference. Its informed by things that I think anybody ought to have read. Jung, and theres a good deal of Thoreau in itbut you dont have to know Thoreau to start reading it. I included all my intellect in it so that naturally will have some things that other people havent had. But on whole I tried to keep to things which were archetypal and part of the world as we imagine it.
POL: What about the fact that its in 99 parts. That brings up Dante...
RJ: Not for me.
POL: Where did the 99 come from?
RJ: Before I started ARK, I knew it was going to be in threes.
POL: That three would be the magic number...
RJ: That three would be the number which carries all the way through. I just decided that that was the structure of ARK, really, threes.
POL: I was just thinking of Dante because his poem is also constructed in threes in the same way.
RJ: No, I wasnt thinking of that then. I hadnt thought of that. Im not much influenced by Dante. I read it in school. But I always thought that you needed to have Italian to enjoy it. And it was not given to me to live in Florence. Like Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett [laughs]. Im a home-grown poet.
POL: What would that home be? Kansas, or San Francisco?
RJ: Home-grown in that Im an American. I come from Kansas, from the middle of the country, from a town of about 2000, on the edge of the prairies just like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. It was a horrible place. So I didnt know anything. I think that helped me that I didnt know anything. I started from the very beginning playing the piano and played that until I went to college. But I never had a great teacher and I didnt know much about music. I can play some things now even though my fingers arent great. And then when I was a teenager I thought it would be theater. I did drama readings and the like. And I painted. And then I got into college at University of Kansas and took a theater class and decided that theater people, well theyre wonderful but nothing. And I didnt love the theater that much. And then I took a semester of painting and drawing and I saw that I wasnt a draughtsman. I dont know what I thought I was going to do then so I just majored in English. And then while I was there at the University of Kansas, I wrote a poem and won third prize in a poetry contest.
POL: Does that poem still exist?
RJ: I dont know. I think it was published in one of the student journals, the Jayhawker. And then, sort of indirectly, I got to New York. And I knew Jonathan Williams and he knew all the Black Mountain people and we all used to go to the Cedar Barall kinds of people: Allen Ginsberg, well just anybody, there were a lot of people, thats where everybody went. And so I learned from all of them, that whole Black Mountain circle, because Jonathan knew all of them and he published them on Jargon Press. And so I was immersed in this world of wonderful creative people. And so I began writing. I dont know if this has ever been saved because Ive never found a copy, but I won at Columbia the Boorshead Prize in poetry. And they had never heard of me because I had spent all of my time at the Cedar Bar and not with the literary crowd on campus [laughing]. So they didnt want to give it to me and I never found out whether they published the poem I wrote. Oh, I dont know. I think its best that it has remained buried. It was meant to be a big, Olsonish kind of thing.
POL: So you were writing all of the time you spent in New York?
RJ: Yeah. Well, I started writing when I was eighteen or so. I dont know if any of those early poems were salvageable poems. I dont know. It took quite a few years. I did some collage poems in which I took snippets from newspapers that said something strange, just two words, or three words, and I made poems out of those and I made different forms and they were all pasted in a book. Thats disappeared, too. I didnt get rid of them; they just disappeared. I looked for it because Id love to see that book. So already then, before I knew anything much about poetrywell, Id write this collage poemI didnt know anything about modern poetry, not really. I had favorite poetsI liked Wallace Stevens the way people like Sheats and Kelly (or the other way around). So, once I met Jonathan Williams, I started writing and it took quite a long time for me to succeed at it. I can remember one line that I wrote just after I met Jonathan, and I was trying already then to do things like sound in the line, but I never got any further than this line: "A pot of philodendrons five flights up" [laughing] and Jonathan said, "What are you going to do with that line?" and I said, "Its got all those "f"s and "p"s!" [laughing}
POL: So was Jonathan Williams an early guide?
RJ: Oh, yes, he was my mentor.
POL: Is he much older than you?
RJ: Oh, yeah, hes about 65.
POL: And he was your mentor because he knew all these people...
RJ: Well, hed been to Black Mountain and hed started Jargon Press. And Jargon Press published all the interesting people, like Kenneth Rexroth, and, oh, you name it, all those people. It was through Kenneth Rexroth that he found Mina Loy. Through Louis Zukofsky, he found Lorine Niedecker. And he published all of the important people early on. He did Denise Levertovs first book. And he did a really pivotal book of Robert Duncans, right before Duncan found his mature voice...
RJ: Yes, Letters. I just sold a copy of that for I dont know how much money... Not enough money... Its a beautiful, beautiful book. Jonathan, in those days, with James Laughlin at New Directions, were the publishers publishing the important people. And they didnt care about making any money. Laughlin had steel.
POL: And Jonathan Williams published your first book.
RJ: Yes he did.
POL: Is the Jargon Press version of A Line of Poetry, A Row of Trees substantially different from the version that appears in Valley of the Many-Colored Grasses?
RJ: Yes. I cut out some poems.
POL: Because you didnt like them anymore?
RJ: I thought that they didnt hold energy. You know. They were trivial and I thought that they were best left out in the new book. But there was enough of the book there that I only cut out ten poems or so. They were mostly poems, my early influence of Olson, made me write about Kansas and my heritage. At that time Olson was very important. And mostly they were following through doing that but that it didnt sound like me, what I wanted. But I think thats what you do when you take people as a master to teach you. Then they teach you and eventually you find out that thats not your way. Your way is your way, not my way. But its nice to have gone through it. You couldnt have come out through the other end if you didnt. As I said in a recent piece that I wrote, when you are young, you ought to take a mentor or more and learn from them and actually even echo their thoughts. Then after that stage you gather your friends around you, people with like minds. You write to poets you like, say, you write a fan letterit never hurt anybody to write a fan letter. And you gather friends around you, so you share ideas, so you get in the zeitgeist, and then youre on your own. Its lonely after that [laughs]. Its an incessant thing in your study. You cant help yourself from writing again. Stop me! Stop me!
POL: When did you conceive of ARK? Theres an early mention in one of the Beams, "(Mid-age. Brought to my knee.)/ 1935-1970" (Beam 2). Did you start writing it in 1970?
POL: But did you have the idea for the poem long before...
RJ: Id always had the idea in mind when I wrote The Book of the Green Man, that I was doing a long seasonal English poem. But later I wanted to do a big American poem. Always from the beginning it was there. It took a lot of traveling and doing different things.
POL: Was there an original spark of the poem? In the note at the end of ARK 50, you quote the Facteur Cheval kicking up a stone and putting it in his pocket so as to admire it later, the act that more or less began his construction of the Ideal Palace. Was there something like that for you, some original event? Or was it amalgamated from years of experience?
RJ: Oh, goodness, what a flashback! To begin with, and I must remember to get to the flashback, as a child you lived in such a bleak atmosphere, it was so dry and hot, in Kansas, and it was hard to grow things. And Id always imagined a garden, just a little garden, and I did manage to pave the back with bricks and things like that, but it never looked like anything. It always looked like you were in the middle of the prairies [laughing]. So I always wanted to make a garden of some kind and thats how I imagine ARK. But the flashback you gave me was that I can remember once I was a private at Fort Gordon, Georgia, and I was going to some kind of entertainment somewhere, and it had been raining and there were puddles and streetlights and there was nobody around. I was going down four blocks or so of streetlights and puddles. And I was stepping over a curb and it suddenly occurs to me that I imagined a structure, then, way back then. Thats strange to have that come back. But it was very vivid, stepping over that puddle and seeing the reflection and thinking thats what I would do, write a poem with a vast structure.
POL: Were you ever interested in architecture before that, or was that the first structural moment?
RJ: The architectureno. Except that in all art, you are building. I think at the heart of ARK is my fathers lumber yard. His father before him and then he managed this lumber yard and I helped there and did all kinds of things. It was a huge building with these slots for different kinds and lengths of wood. And it was kind of a maze of wooda wooden maze. And there were secret rooms and belfrieswith bats, there was one with bats. And you could get up on the roof and there were black walnut trees and you could drop black walnuts before people and not exactly hit them. We werent allowed to go there. Oh, it was a secret playground which had many stalls for woodI dont know if youve been in a lumber yard
POL: Probably nothing as elaborate as that
RJ: Oh, it wasnt elaborate. I think Ive got a picture of it [rummaging]. I think this is more the bones of what I was thinking of than any kind of temple or something like that. A storage for flashing, wonderful, bright things in life which put themselves together to make a tune. A riddle. And the things that make life wonderful.
POL: Theres a hint of this evoking of a childhood world of wonder on the front jacket of The Foundations where you mention the magical bottomless pool in Kansas...
RJ: Oh, yes, in those days I thought Id have it erected near St. Jacobs Well, which was a bottomless pit north of Ashland and a mysterious thing. I suppose I thought, "Just put it out there on the prairie; forget it." [laughs]
POL: Make it kind of mysterious?
RJ: Oh, it will be mysterious enough. I dont think its mysterious but Im sure it will be mysterious to people.
POL: Thats an area thats interesting about ARK. On the page, it appears visually challenging. Or lets say, it looks different than other poems.
RJ: Oh, well, sure. I created a new form.
POL: You created a new form.
RJ: I created new forms all the way. "The Spires" are one creating of a form after another. They are almost all only one stanza. And they are all formally different. And then of course "The Ramparts" are all the same.
POL: With different material.
RJ: With different material.
POL: When did you discover this form, or these forms? Some of them you discovered while you were writing ARK but some of them appear in the earlier poems, like "The Unfoldings" and "The Letters to Whitman."
RJ: "The Unfoldings" is a major poem. And then theres "The Different Musics." In fact, I like all of the poems in The Different Musics [distinguishing the collection from the poem]. Doesnt that have the "Letters to Whitman"? And the "Rousseau." The middles. Its where I discovered the book doing the middle form, the spine. Bifurcated.
POL: Did you choose this form because you liked the way it looked or the way it allowed you to arrange ideas?
RJ: No, I thought it was a biological form which could be incorporated, and I found that I incorporated it into all of ARK. So its a bilateral unity in form.
POL: Is ARK then as well as being a structure a big body?
RJ: I had a conversation with Guy Davenport about it. I said, you know, Blake says its all one big body. And I said, no, I think its a tree. And Guy Davenport said, "I think youre right." I felt it as being this, as being a tree. Its one of the great structures: its got depths and heights, its got circulation, it goes into streams. It goes into stream patterns, which is what branches do. I think time makes things a tree.
POL: It seems that your conceiving of ARK as a tree comes more from seeing things, or say from experience, than it does from mystical or religious ideas.
RJ: My poetry may sound kind of mystical but I dont think Im mystical. Ive never had a vision... Well, I suppose I had that vision I told you about, crossing the puddle. I guess I have certain visions. But mostly its a work of the unconscious, I think.
POL: ARK is a work of the unconscious
RJ: ARK. Ive always said that everybody, really, not just poets, has three wishes; youve got to be careful what you wish for. I think one of the things I wished for was to make this, I think it was that poem. Like I never wished for money because God knows I never got it. [laughs]. Or fame. I didnt get that. But I think I wished for this. And I got it. I had my question and this was my answer. I dont know.
POL: The tree as a sort of holding for those answers
RJ: No. That was another question you asked. ARK would not have happened if I had not asked the question. And so I got my answer and it took twenty years to answer it. Well, what did you expect? It took the Facteur Cheval twenty years to make the Ideal Palace...
POL: And you knew when you started it that it was going to be a long process
RJ: Oh, yeah. And you always hope when you set out to come to the place where you can say it ends. And I felt I was lucky to do that because it hasnt happened to too many people.
POL: What kinds of ideas or what parts of the poem did you end up jettisoning? Were there any ideas that came that during the course of the twenty years you at first thought were great but then decided against?
RJ: Only oneand that was at the beginning. I thought I would have a section really looking at an object the way painters looked at itand then change it, change it, change it. Kind of like Duncan does in his books, with the continuing Passages. I did two of those and then I decided no, no, that I couldnt peel every onion. It was a good central image and that peeling an onion was kind of mythic and blah, blah, blah. I threw all that away. But that was at the very beginning. Once I got into it, it just kind of happened.
POL: It started to show you where to go?
RJ: Well, I think it was in my choice of a métier, that I was going to make this an architecture. And what you do with an architecture is like you do in this building, but what Ive always done is to carry things through until I finish it, rather than leaving something unfinished. What you do is you take a board and you nail it there. Then you make a day-doe [sp?] and you do blah blah blah. But youre building something and you build all along. Sometimes I discard things, sometimes even a page or so, where Ive gone on even for seven lines, and thats not getting me anywhere. Ive just always tried to get somewhere. Every time I wrote a line, I tried to get somewhere.
POL: Were you writing anything besides ARK while you were working on ARK?
RJ: I was writing cookbooks.
POL: I guess Im thinking about something like RADI OS
RJ: RADI OS happened before ARK. It was when I was teaching at the University of Washington. I went to a party at a students one night and they played a Lukas Foss record called "Baroque Variations." His Handel piece, his strategy was to take Handel and erase things so that it had a modern, modish feel, but it was definitely Handel. It was really neoclassical in some odd way. And so I went off to think about it and the next day I went to the bookstore and bought a Milton Paradise Lost. And I started crossing out. I got about halfway through it crossing out anything because I thought it would be funny. But I decided you don't tamper with Milton to be funny. You have to be serious. I didnt think about Blake right then but I went back and got serious. And wrote RADI OS.
POL: Did you write it quickly?
RJ: Fairly quickly. One of the things about taking a text like that is that you only have to read back to where you started and you have to carry on through the page with a sense. Making sure things make certain sense. And you always have something to go on to. You have an idea. You have a text. And all you have to do is let the words announce themselves to make another text. Midway through the second book of RADI OS I found myself writing the Orpheus and Eurydice bit ["The Song of Orpheus"], which was me. Nobody else would have gotten that out of it. So it still is me. It happened because of music.
POL: What happened to the plans to do the whole thing, to do all of Paradise Lost?
RJ: Ive done five and Ive penciled in up to eight. And then I looked at it and I thought it doesnt have the impetus. RADI OS kind of wrote itself. I think it ended when it needed to end and I didnt need to add the rest.
POL: But you had thought of incorporating it as the 100th part of ARK at one point.
RJ: Ive always thought of it mainly because everybodys liked it so much. Everybody thinks this is a great "destruction" or whatever. And theyre so surprised to find out that I made another poem. I really created rather than destroy but they expect it to be destroyed.
POL: Do you pronounce it "radios" or "radius" or "radiose"?
RJ: When I wrote that title I knew it had all of those possibilities in it. The only other title you could have gotten out of Paradise Lost is "Parades." And "Parades" had already been done.
POL: Who did "Parades," you?
RJ: Oh no. "Parade," thats the ballet at the turn of the century with Picasso doing all of the sets... I just always thought that the title was good. When you take a poem from a text it should announce itself in your title. Right up front. So RADI OS was from Paradise Lost and it also then gave me my text, indicating radiant things of light all the way through. So you understand why I didnt want to call it "Parades." I have other titles which announce themselves: in The Foundations, right at the middle, I take the Psalms, and my rule was that I had to have at least one word in every Psalm, and the words had to be chosen in sequence throughout the Psalms. The title of that was "PALMS" [in "BEAMS 21, 22, 23, The Song of Orpheus"]. In other words, I took out the "S"; I took out the snake. [laughs]
POL: So "PALMS" is composed entirely of words from the Psalms?
RJ: Theyre all words from the Psalms. So it was kind of like doing the Milton. You see I had that great basis of vocabulary behind me and all I had to do was choose. And I had those rules. And that turned into Orpheus and Eurydice, too!
POL: And its really the centerpiece of The Foundations.
POL: Did you know that when you wrote it?
RJ: I just knew I had this new rule and I would use it on the Psalms. It was completely different from what Id done on Milton. That it would yield me. And it did. Its one of those poems thats a little too long to read it out loud but it really goes over when you read it in public. "out of my mind:/ I have heard/ My times"!
POL: Have you ever given readings of ARK?
RJ: Oh, yeah. In fact, I gave a reading once in San Francisco of the complete ARK: The Foundations after it came out. With slides of the visuals. I did that over three nights. You dont want to do it all at once. Its too enjambed. You have to explain things as you go along.
POL: You were explaining what the different parts mean?
RJ: I think in some ways you do in some ways because I find there are certain poems of mine in giving readings that go over beautifully
POL: Such as?
RJ: The prime example is when I got in Noahs ark going in "The Ramparts." These plural nouns for animals, like a pride of lions. I did a whole list of the different animals and its very rhythmic it turned out. Its one of those things I just wrote in about one evening and it goes over big. I always end with that. Occasionally you write kind of mindless things like that really go over very well. Reading out loudsometimes, on the page you can always go back and say, "did I get that?" And then you go back until you get it because its always to be got. But in talking, it can become more easy to miss this and that
POL: Then there were other poems you would have to stop and explain along the way?
RJ: I try not to do that; or, to have only one thing to explain. And then there are other things, like the eye, and the ear, and the mind in The Foundations [Beam 4, Beam 7, & Beam 12]. Theyre perfectly clear. Theyre prose and each is a statement of something that is absolutely true even if you never thought about it that way. And everybody loves those.
POL: Theyre the ones that make it into the anthologies.
RJ: There was one who wanted both the ear and the eye. And I said, "You dont want both! Theyll think Im a prose writer!" He said, "But you are!" And I said, "But!" [laughing]. "Im a poet!"
POL: These questions of how easily the poem goes over come back to something we talked about earlier. ARK seems to be a very instructive poem. I dont want to say its didactic, but theres a lot to be learned from it
RJ: Thats because Ive learned things. I read an awful lot of books: scientific books and books about psychology and all kinds of books. Its a book of philosophy, I suppose, of sorts. Of things Ive tried to distill and relived it. Its like Blake said, you should make "a wiry bounding line."
POL: One of the books that may be comparable to ARK, and there are many, is Lucretius The Way of Things.
RJ: Oh, that was one of my early books that I read about and I thought, "Lucretius is what I want to read!" Yes, I havent read it in years. But, yes, that was an early influence, Im sure. A book about the world! Now that you bring that back I hadnt even thought about it, trying to be Lucretius.
POL: You really are the American Lucretius, writing a longer epic poem that really doesnt have a hero
RJ: And it doesnt have a story. It doesnt have a history. It just lists a few things.
POL: More than a few things
RJ: Well, I make some comparisons. Turn a few metaphors. Cartwheels!
POL: You mentioned projecting the visual images during your reading of ARK. How integral are they to the poem?
RJ: It seemed to be the only way I could read all of ARK. You know, I got thirty or forty people for all three nights. There was enough interest that I felt like I could indulge myself and tell them about how this book was and read it to them. Theres that one image that I cut out. You know what I call "Leonardos Orpheus of Proportions"? The guy with his arms and legs out and in the circle? When I put that in there, it was part of the language of the tribe, that it hadnt got so used. Its used in everything now. So I took that out.
POL: So will the visuals appear in the complete ARK?
RJ: Yeah, the rest of the visuals will appear. This has happened to me twice now: Leonardos Orpheus and the image on the cover to Valley of the Many Colored Grassesthe sage reaching through the rainbow to the stars. At the time it was unknown; then after that, it became the image of the sixties. It was used on t-shirts. It was used everywhere.
POL: Its a great image.
RJ: Its a great image and when I used it, I hadnt ever seen anybody else use it. And then it suddenly became a logo almost, along with the "LOVE" poster.
POL: The one with the tilted "O"? Its almost a concrete poem.
RJ: And he wasnt known as a concrete poet but he learned from concrete poetry. Things become overused and they have no luster anymore. They say, "Oh, he just used this old image..." But when I used it, it was right.
POL: There are a number of strong visual components to the poem, including the way the lines are splayed out. In all of the ways that ARK has been published so far there have been visuals and images included
RJ: I used all of the things I had learned being one of the concrete poets in the early sixties.
POL: How much concrete poetry is in ARK? How much is ARK a kind of massive concrete poem?
RJ: Its a kind of concrete poem, except it took it way beyond what concrete poets were doing. There are bones in there of concrete poetry, of course. That "no where/ now here/ no where/ now here" [Beam 29] were philosophical kind of "fanned" concepts. But they had never been appropriated by concrete poetry, but it is concrete poetry. A lot of it is. I learned all the visual things I did from concrete poetry. I wanted to take it further, like Ian Finlay, who now makes gardens; he wanted to take it further. Because, as important a movement as I think it was, and the one which nobodys taken up yet, a visual poetry thats internationalI think it was an important movement. I certainly learned a lot. I was one of the concrete poets. Jonathan Williams and I were about the only Americans involved, who were allowed to join! [laughing]
POL: In that its called "concrete" poetry, and there is so much architecture in ARK, it seems like a building block
RJ: Yes, building blocks. This is plainly part of my whole growth. There may be some Spires that you havent seen yettheres a building block Spire called the "Abecedarium" which does little concrete definitions for each of the letters. So in The Spires is this concrete poem, ending up in Zion. Zi-On! And so I carried it through. I dont think anybody could ever think about my work without considering what happened to concrete poetry. I think the thing Im proudest of in concrete poetry is a late work afterthe movement was nearly over. Id looked at and admired Jonathan Williams Mahler where for each movement of the symphonies he wrote a poem. And I thought, "Ah, but he didnt do Das Lied!" So I did Songs of the Earth and made them each a concrete poem. Concrete poetry wasnt known for subtlety necessarily. The Germans did one thing and the French did another romantic lacy thing. And the Scots! And the English! And the Argentineans, were all different. I felt that in Songs of the Earth I did the ultimate concrete poem. Its a sequence of squares with different statements in a different orientation. Its a very romantic poem. And I think it can stand beside Das Lied. And youve got to be careful when you do things like that.
POL: It seems that along with there being a lot of architecture not only in ARK but in all of your poems, theres a lot of music, too. You mentioned already Lukas Foss
RJ: I mentioned before that I grew up as a pianist. From four or five to about eighteen, I played. And the trombone. [laughing]
POL: You once sent me in a letter Charles Ives notes for his Universe Symphony that you called one of the models for ARK. In what ways does Ives play into the poem?
RJ: I think that Ives is somost composers, you only learn from their music. You do with Ives, but a lot of the music had ideas behind it, which were structural ideas. Ives I think has been a very central figure for me. I mean, ARK is an Ivesian symphony. Its got three movements.
POL: Was Ives one of your building blocks?
RJ: Yes, definitely.
POL: In ways beyond ideas? Or as a guiding muse?
RJ: Ives is not that different from the Watts Towers. He was like mehe knew a lot about music, but he wanted to appear a naive, to get back to where you dont know anything about art. And then you construct something. I was trying to forget about music and then start all over again. Or you try to remember everything. I think the structure of Ives symphonies had been more of an influence on me than just about anything else.
POL: Then ARK really is about starting over, about paring down to a beginning and then building up again.
RJ: No, Id already begun. ARK begins with sunrise and ends at the end of the night.
POL: With the space shuttle!
RJ: Yes, but of course they wouldnt take off in the middle of the night, would they? Or, maybe at dawn. Yes, at dawn. All of those arches at the end are about night.
POL: What about Erik Satie? I know that you translated his music notationsits your only book of translation, isnt it?
RJ: No. I translated, and made into poems, the notes of the Facteur Cheval.
POL: And this was published?
RJ: "The Stones Will Talk, the Rocks Will Walk."
POL: Who published that?
POL: Thats another one you dont see around very often...
RJ: I think the Satie book was my first mature poem because I was translating. And I had the fact of Pound behind me. I was licensed to do a book of poems from them because they were such silly little notes. So I made each of them into a poem. I did half of them and Ian Finlay published them. And he said, "Why dont we do a book," and so I translated the rest of them. Theyre playful, like concrete poetry. A different kind of poetry.
POL: Erik Satie seems like another figure who lurks behind your methods
RJ: He does. He was such a strange composer! [laughing] He was really peculiar! I knew French and Jonathan had the notes. And I asked him, "Are you going to use these?" And he said, "No." And so I said, "Im going to." So I had them, and I thought, "These will make poems." So, it was my first mature book. I hadnt thought about it, but, sure, he was an influence. Theres that and then theres Song of the Earth. So theres lots of music stuff.
POL: What are some of the other musics inside of ARK?
RJ: The Pillars of Saltthose are all taps. Theyve got three words for each line: "Ta-ta-dat, ta-ta-daa, ta-ta-daa."
POL: In addition to those, are there any other composers? Or what about jazz?
RJ: Jazz influenced my whole medium. I first started listening to jazz when I first got to New York going to Columbia. Jonathan and I would go down and hear Charlie Mingus and other jazz musicians. Ive listened to jazz music for ever. Jazz influenced me. You listen to rhythms. I think language should be very close to rhythm. It shouldnt be necessarily "ta-tum, ta-tum, ta-tum." Except that Ive found some of the greatest lines Ive ever written are in iambics. [laughing]
POL: Such as? Do you have any on hand?
RJ: Do I have any on hand? Oh, I was thinking about the ending of one of my cookbooks; what was it?You can analyze lines and you dont think about it beforehand, but when you look at it you realize it is "ta-tum, ta-tum, ta-tum." And thats why it has that ring, of an ultimate. I think thats very deeply embedded in the bloodstream. But I tend to use "Ta, ta-ta-Ta, ta-ta-Ta!" I tend to charge ahead! [laughing]
POL: Another musical thing that comes up in ARK is all of the birdsongs. One part of ARK is comprised entirely of birdsongs
RJ: I guess I wanted one coast to reverberate the other coast. I took the Peterson Field Guide to Eastern Birds and just snipped it up and made a quilt out of it. A birdsong. Not all birdsong, but birdsongs are in it. And then I did a real piece of music where I took a record of the Western birdsthe first one was called "Prosperos Songs to Ariel" [ARK 37] and this one was called "Ariels Songs to Prospero" [ARK 38], as if going from the east coast to the west coast. I used records and stitched together a music with a sound technician to make a real music from six little birdsongs. Composed into ARK are six musical pieces which I suppose that somebody will find somewhere. My idea with ARK was that there should a special thing for people that if they paid $50 they got a record with the "Songs to Prospero" on it. [laughs]
POL: How long is it?
RJ: Itswhat?six minutes... I gave all those pretentious titles to those tiny little moments... Its all made out of birdsongs. Theres nothing else but birdsongs. Theyre altered, because I had a sound technician. We would go and spend an afternoon and maybe get half of one.
POL: Did the birdsongs come off of other recordings? You werent going into the field and recording birds
RJ. No, no. We used published recordings. So I thought that those two were meant to be echoed. Prosperothats another kind of myth. Its my favorite play. I think Prospero is a great sage or something. Hes somebody you go to who knows everything. Thats where you go when you need to. Ariel is the [cant make out]. I suppose some people would think that the "Prosperos Songs to Ariel" are [cant make out] but in a sense theyre equivalents: theyre built of alternate light and dark. And they do a kind of diamonds on the page. And, granted, they are just snippets. But it gave me a new vocabulary. See, thats one of the things I needed throughout ARK, is to use songs over the years, Peterson, to give me another vocabulary. Otherwise, everything seemed to be so much me. It just got me out of myself.
POL: There seems to be very little of you, explicitly, in the poem. Theres the one mention of you I mentioned early on
RJ: My birthday poem.
POL: But thats about it, isnt it? Or are there other buried references?
RJ: Lets see. What does Henry James say? "To be present in every line in a text from which you had so elaborately tried to hide yourself." I didnt need to talk about myself. All of that is talking to myself. Talking to the universe.
POL: Lets talk a little bit more about the mythical components. Theres Orpheus and Eurydice. Theres Prospero and Ariel. Theres the cosmic tree. What are some of the other ones?
RJ: Maybe I havent said what I believe about Orpheus and Eurydice. Orpheus went into the underworld, which I take to be the unconscious, and there he finds Eurydice and tries to lead her out. But he looks back and he cant get her out. Cocteau did this as a mirror, which was a bath of mercury. Which is one of the reasons the palm is there [BEAM 18], is that palm going into the mercury to get to the underworld. This seems to me the Jungian idea that the male has within him the unconscious which is the female. And that is the muse, actually. What I got from The Orphic Voice by Elizabeth Sewell was the idea that Orpheus was a poet of nature who strummed his lyre. He caused the animals and plants, the atoms, to move in rhythm. She said that this is the poet. The poet is somebody who strums that lyre and hes connected to the natural world and makes things happen. And then, of course, the second thing about him is Eurydice, which took me a long time to figure out, was the anima within, the muse, and Orpheus achieved his ability to make music from that.
POL: This myth gives an ordering to the natural and animal references throughout the poem, then
RJ: ARK is a all a strumming of the lyre.
POL: Were there any other dominant mythic strains that you were thinking about when you were making the poem?
RJ: That awful onion! No, I didnt think about that for too long. No, I dont think I could say how I did. Its just that I did do it. Theres no secret to it.
POL: The Orpheus and Eurydice sections really appear early on in the poem. Do you think they move into the background in the later parts of the book?
RJ: I dont know how much they are in "The Ramparts," but I think that I established very early on that they were there. Although, I suppose "The Ramparts" is when Orpheus is dead and his head is floating. All those maenads cut it off.
POL: A lot of "The Spires" seem to be dedicated to someone or another. Theres the Ballanchine Spire, the Roswell Spire
RJ: The Louis Zukofsky Spire, I was into it a page when I found out Louis died. It had been quite a while I had been noting things down in my notebook. And suddenly it all crystallized and it just started pouring out. And then Jonathan Williams letter arrived saying Louis had died. So it turned into a Spire for the death of Louis.
POL: Did you know Louis Zukofsky?
RJ: Oh, sure.
POL: What was he like?
RJ: Everything in his apartment was tiny. You could only snuff out half a cigarette in an ashtray. I went there once to Christmas dinner. And Jews giving Christmas dinner, what do they know? And so Celia decided to base it on the colors red and green, because that was the sure-fire Christmas. So of course they had boiled ham, being Jewish. And there was creamed spinach. And there was a lime jello salad in the shape of a star with peppermint candy crushed inside it! [boisterous laughs] It was a Christmas dinner like none you could image. Oh, Louis was wonderful. And he was very patient with me. He didnt like my poems much.
POL: He didnt?
RJ: Not really. Ultimately, he like one poem of mine and that was the one that sounded most like him, "Of Circumstance, the Circum Stances."
POL: And were you seeing him while you were living in New York City?
POL: How long were you living in New York?
RJ: I went there to go to Columbia for three years. Jonathan and I would go over there and wed have lunch. Wed take him somewhere. We used to go to this Mexican restaurant around the corner where they shouted your order down the chute for a dumbwaiter. And then wed go to Louis, so we ate.
POL: Youd eat lunch before you went over...
RJ: Well you had thimblefuls of coffee or if it was a drink it was about a thimbleful, too. Everything was tiny. I met a lot of people in those days. Edward Dahlberg. There were composers there, there were painters. So many people. The Ballanchine Spirewhen I was in the army stationed in San Francisco I found out you could get tickets for the ballet for free. And the New York Ballet was there for two weeks, one week doing The Nutcracker. There was Tanaquil LeClerq. I wrote her a poem [laughing]. It completely revolutionizedit was the first time Id seen real ballet. Two weeks and I went every week every night, to The Nutcracker with LeClerq as the Sugarplum Fairy! It revolutionized my poems. And the other tutelary influences in ARK, besides Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, are my mother and father. And I have them explicitly put there my mother a dancer, because she danced. She danced with my fatherhe still dances; he goes to the dance on Thursday night. They did things on the stage. And my father was a carpenter. And so the dancer and the carpenter. I think that those are my main characters.