by Eric Murphy Selinger, De Paul University
From The Dictionary of Literary Biography, reprinted with permission of Gale Press
Fred Astaire and Louis Zukofsky, Tin Pan Alley and the Transcendentalists: these, among others, are the muses of Ronald Johnson, whom Guy Davenport calls Americas greatest living poet. The claim, although surprising, bears consideration. In his concrete and shorter poems, in his book-length seasonal poem The Book of the Green Man, and in the ninety-nine Beams, Spires, and Arches that make up his long poem ARK--a rewriting of Paradise Lost by excision forms the hundredth piece, a constellated dome over the whole--Johnson has authored a body of work whose charm, ambition, and intelligence are all but unmatched among his contemporaries. An Artist of Abundancies, in Robert Duncan's phrase, Johnson is devoted to puns, to rhyme, and to bricoleur-mystics like the Facteur Cheval and Simon Rodia, whose Palais Ideal and Watts Towers are models for the collage architecture of ARK. A poet of science, Johnson finds the visionary organicism of Wordsworth, Emerson, and Thoreau confirmed by contemporary cosmology and physics. He thus may sing, in his own postmodern key, a spousal verse that celebrates the fit between the world and the mind that has evolved to behold and re-create it.
Johnson has been publishing since the mid-1960s, a period that was, in many ways, more receptive to his work than our more skeptical fin-de-siecle. His poems grow out of what Charles Altieri calls the immanentist postmodernism of the 60s, with its faith in natural orders waiting to be discovered and modeled in the poets equally natural act of writing; they have little in common with either the lyric of domestic epiphany that flourished in the Ford and Carter years or, at the opposite extreme, with the studied disjunction and (often) politicized avant-gardism of the so-called Language poets. Although his work subtly incorporates both autobiographical echoes and radical artifice, and although the later, metaphorically higher portions of ARK seem shadowed by the ravages of AIDS on his beloved San Francisco, as a rule Johnson's long poem consciously excludes history, both personal and political. If a war-torn poetry of witness claims the late-century moral and aesthetic high ground (think of poets as different as Michael Palmer and Carolyn Forch, both aspiring to the Historical Sublime) Johnson's epic looks at once back to a more optimistic period in American poetics and forward to an audience and critical climate as inspired and heartened by Complexity theory as it is shaken by aftershocks of atrocity. Playful, capacious, artful, eloquent, Johnson is the pre-eminent contemporary poet of the Beautiful.
Johnson was born in Ashland, Kansas, a town of two thousand set on the prairie, parched and driven by Depression-era dust-storms. His father, A.T. Johnson, was a carpenter, whose Lumber Yard was for the young poet a secret ground of changing piles and smells, with hid hollow cupolas, exits to tree-topped roofs, stored bins and nooks long lost, rooms of whirling saws, sharpened pencils: an early model for the architecture of ARK, in which his father sometimes figures as The Carpenter. The poets mother, Helen (Mayse) Johnson, was trained in dance in her youth: in ARK she appears at times as The Dancer, and the poet puns on her family name in the lovely self-portrait poem Of Circumstance, The Circum Stances: Mayse, my mothers / family name / & had it crest, Maize / / one would make it: a brown field sprouting / Indian corn, / / of red & yellow / kernels / that various, still / / variegated display of / / / ancestry. (By the end of the poem he supplements this crest with a second, that of the Indians who inhabited the land before whites came. Their crest was a human hand / /& in the palm of it, / an eye: a juxtaposition central to the poets later effort to join the / work of vision to the word / at hand, thus shaping paradise.)
Like most young children, Johnson began making up nonsense jingles at an early age, doting on what he later called the pure pleasure of rhythm and sound. His adult verse, with its ear-candy wordplay, unabashedly draws on this resource of infant joy. He studied piano, and remains deeply influenced by music, particularly the compositions of Gustav Mahler and Charles Ives. Probably the most seminal thing in my life, however, he recalls in an interview, was growing up and discovering the Oz books. I was about twelve or thirteen before I finally had to face the fact that there was no way to get to Oz. Much of Johnsons poetry can be profitably read in this biographical light, for it repeatedly returns to the effort to, as he himself puts it, make a special place--a garden of some kind--which was a surrogate for that imaginary land: an Oz where anything is possible and in which the imagination lives.
Leaving Kansas for college, Johnson received a B.A. in 1960 from Columbia University. While there, he met the poet and publisher Jonathan Williams, on whom he was later to write an entry for the Dictionary of Literary Biography. The two were companions for the next eleven years. Williams introduced him not only to the work of Zukofsky, Duncan, Creeley, and Olson, but to the poets themselves; in New York they also met and talked shop with the Abstract Expressionist painters, and with the many composers and photographers who made the Cedar Tavern the Boeuf Sur Le Toit or Deux Magots of its day. Johnson hiked the length of the Appalachian trail with Williams, and their walking tour of England, recollected in tranquility, informs his rewriting of the English seasonal poem, The Book of the Green Man. (Along with a boyhood chafing at dry Kansas flatness, these hikes account for the poets passion for pastoral.) In the 1970s Johnson was a Writer in Residence at the University of Kentucky, and he held the Roethke Chair for Poetry at the University of Washington before settling in San Francisco. Aside from temporary travels, he has made his home in the Bay Area ever since; and 1994 he was Poet in Residence at the University of California at Berkeley.
From the start, Johnson has written in a variety of poetic modes. He has a longstanding interest in collage and concrete poetry, often using these architectural techniques of composition to revivify such older genres as pastoral and Romantic spousal verse. If he is a poet of nature, however, it is of a natural world illuminated at once by scientific inquiry and by Transcendental vision--as in Thoreau, the two are not opposed--and Johnsons nature also includes the second nature of language and human culture, which he treats as a rich loam from which new poems may grow. He thus often shapes his poems out of found materials: quotations from American and British naturalists, from scientists, from older poets, all allowed to speak for themselves as objects in the text, as Norman Finkelstein observes, even as the shaping subject speaks through them. He draws our attention to the page before us and the world around us, engaging readers in what Davenport calls the simple but difficult business of seeing the world with eyes cleansed of stupidity and indifference. An effort that links him to Pound--who told Johnson, in their one meeting, I have only pointed out a few things might else have been forgotten--and to Charles Olson, to whom Johnson dedicated his first book, A Line of Poetry, A Row of Trees (1964).
A Line of Poetry, A Row of Trees takes its title from a buried etymological pun: stich, it so happens, means both. Like many of Olsons poems--the Maximus Poems, The Kingfishers, and so on--these pieces are stitched out of borrowed material, including scraps from Samuel Palmer, William Bartram, Emerson, Thoreau, and a collage poem from Six Months in Kansas, by a Lady, / published 1856. A number of Johnsons pieces have a packed, projective, Olsonian movement: Columbus, as the first Western eyes, called it / panic grass--Maize, of a quaking ancestry, i.e., the / attempt, always, at classification (Indian Corn); That what we know of the world is Physiognomy, face. As / Haida square a bear to its corners, / join profiles / --edge to edge--joint its head, trunk & limbs / with eyes... (Landscape with Bears, for Charles Olson). But even in this first collection Johnsons distinctive voice and interests are clear. Against the landscape with bears of the Olson poem I have just quoted, where wildness is all, the poem Shake, Quoth the Dove House sets the art of poetry in an evergreen topiary grotto: A laurustine bear in blossom with a juniper hunter in berries, a lavender pig with sage growing in his belly & a pair of maidenheads in fir, in great forwardness. This is the Garden, where all is a poets topiary. Where even the trees shall have tongues, green aviaries, to rustle at his will. And as I sit here, my pipe alight, coos like a turtle-dove in the wood-- its smoke a live-oak, in still air. In Lilacs, Portals, Evocations, meanwhile, the poet invokes Kansas, of / sand plums & muddy rivers: a place that all roads once led away from, but to which the poetry of Zukofsky and Williams and the music of composers Ruggles and Ives--artists at once local and innovative--have at last become ways homeward.
Between A Line of Poetry, A Row of Trees and Johnsons next full-length collection, The Book of the Green Man, the poet wrote several shorter books, published in limited small press editions. Sports & Divertissements offers a translation and elaboration of the comic, surreal performance notes of the French composer Erik Satie, whose works Johnson had played as a boy and whose words Johnson spaced and paced to make a music on the page. Artist John Furnival supplied drawings to accompany the poems, and the two collaborated on Johnsons subsequent concrete poem Io and the Ox-Eye Daisy, for which Furnival did the lettering. Both books were published in Scotland by Ian Hamilton Finlay, the Scots concrete poet and formal gardener, with whom Johnson stayed for two weeks during a trip to Scotland. Another book of concrete poems, GORSE / GOOSE / ROSE, is dedicated to Finlay: its a series of Scotch Shapes / & landscapes written day by day during Johnsons visit as an experiment in writing a narrative concrete poem. (Johnson was never pleased with how the book was printed, and it was not widely distributed.) In 1966 the Auerhahn Press of San Francisco published a beautiful palm-sized limited edition of Assorted Jungles: Rousseau, an ekphrastic suite later reprinted in Valley of the Many-Colored Grasses. Centered on the page, printed in an art-nouveau typeface, the poems are written in a tempting, Stevensian diction. Johnson pieces his language out in slow motion, with each word or phrase as discrete and neatly bordered as one of the painters leaves: an attempt, as he explains elsewhere, to use words in the naive and exotic way Rousseau painted his jungles. The dream is Java & / impenetrable, / / its pomegranates clearly / impossible, one poem thus begins. In this painterly incarnation of the poets grottoes and Gardens--an adult Oz, where anything is possible, and the imagination lives--the limits of verisimilitude yield to the lushness of possibility, and Huge orange / oranges / / & pendulous imaginings / of banana / / proliferate / a veritable / Tanganyika.
On his walking tour of England, especially the Lake Country, Johnson found a landscape that, while less exotic and more pastoral, answered his imaginative needs just as powerfully as the one he saw in Rousseau. In 1967 W. W. Norton published the book-length poem that grew out of those English travels and meditations: The Book of the Green Man. Derived from the writings of British naturalists--Francis Kilvert and Gilbert White, among others--as much as from the poets own explorations, the book is a still-young Kansans effort to work endless changes (in Wordsworths phrase) on the age-old British seasonal poem: an attempt to transplant his American imagination into English soil, and into the rich silt of bibliography that covers it. (The gesture is as old as Washington Irving learning "The Art of Book-Making" in the British Museum, but Johnson takes his cue more directly from Thoreau, who noted that Decayed literature makes the richest of all soils.) In this book the poets impulse to compose Of the seasons, / seamless, a garland bears fruit in a frugal aesthetic where sounds are reused, recombined, rewoven, line by line; more broadly, the poet works to shape the worlds inarticulate / warble / & seething into A maze / of sound, to catch / the labyrinthine wind, / in words-- / / syllable, following / on syllable... (Notice that both the wind and the poem are described as maze-like. This felt symmetry between the world and the poet's words recalls the Transcendentalists, and will prove the keel of ARK.)
The book begins in winter, in Grasmere Churchyard. Wordsworth is its guiding spirit-- or, more accurately, both Wordsworths are: the visionary William, who could not see / daffodils / only / huge forms, Presences & earth working / like a sea, and the more practical Dorothy, who saw the landscape in its sweet and rough particulars of lichen, moss, and water. (Future scholars will no doubt tease out the relationship between this Dorothy and her fictive Kansas cousin in Johnsons pantheon.) As it goes on, The Book of the Green Man includes both dream visions, sublime in their leaps of scale, and more strictly empirical, observational passages; and the poet insists on the connections between these realms, which mirror the bonds between an earth, sentient with moles / & the owls / radiant eyes-- and those that leap from earth, to mistletoe, ivy & lichen, to owls- / wing, to thunder, to lightning, to earth--& back. By spring we meet the Green Man in propria persona: the nature genius who came to Sir Gawain as the Green Knight, and who appears in writings of many others here as well. (The I of these poems is a bit of a green man himself. As he hikes along the river Wye he quotes Whitman to claim that he incorporates fruits, grains, esculent roots," his eyes containing substance / / of the sun, / [his] ears built of beaks & feathers.) Summer is a season of close and scientific scrutiny, full of dissections and anatomies; autumn, too, holds fast to specificities, rich with descriptions not only of nature (a poem that follows the suns arc by numbered degrees, describing the landscape as it rises and sets), but of several man-made Follies and Grottoes. We read of William Stukeley, who made his own Stonehenge of an old orchard, and of Pope, whose description of one garden (a laurustine bear in blossom, and so on) was quoted earlier in Shake, Quoth the Dove House. By the end of the poem the landscape of Shoreham is revealed as Albion, a Paradys / / Erthely; but its also Johnsons most fully realized Kansas-as-Oz so far: a country / where there is no / night / / but of moons / & with heads of fish / / in the furrow, // & on each, ear, beneath a husk / of twilight / / were as many suns as / kernels, / / & fields were far / / as the eye / could reach...
The Book of the Green Man was widely and favorably reviewed. At once symbiotic and magical, Charles Philbrick wrote in The Saturday Review, the book seemed a species of literary mistletoe. (He goes on to note that unlike Robert Lowells Near the Ocean, the disappointment of the season, Johnsons work embodies an epiphany and results in a triumph.) Later critics have explored its use of quotation and bricolage--an aesthetic of the migratory phrase, as Steve McCaffery puts it--and have dwelled on what Finkelstein calls the poets complexly mediated and startlingly immediate...engagement with the Romantic, visionary, and pastoral traditions in English poetry. Like the green world of rural England, Finkelstein writes, and like the myth of the Green Man itself, poetry partakes in a potent, celebratory natural impulse; it regenerates itself out of precursor texts that have likewise been initiated into such knowledge. Although in technique the book looks back to Olson and Zukofsky, it also deserves to be read in a broader context of postmodern poetry of nature, in the company of Ammons and Snyder. Johnson is as ecological a poet, in many ways, as either, but he offers a third, distinctive poetic: one neither Buddhist (the Eastern idea of emptiness and the void I find unattractive. Blake didnt believe in it.) nor resolutely secular.
Two years later, when Norton published Valley of the Many-Colored Grasses--a book that includes most of A Line of Poetry, A Row of Trees and the Rousseau poems, along with an extensive collection of ambitious work from 1966-67, all with an afterward by Davenport--it, too, was praised in a range of publications. (A major book, Margaret Randall called it in Poetry, for example, humble and brilliant at the same time.) The second half of the book, which contains the new poems, is framed by two epigraphs: one from Blake, one from Thoreau, signalling the Different Musics the poet heard harmonized in The Book of the Green Man, and which he draws on here as well, along with other tutelary figures, notably Whitman and Charles Ives. In the poem The Different Musics, one thus finds a Thoreauvian attention to the found poetry of etymology and to the unending richness of detail in any patch of nature closely examined, but on the level of form the poem enacts an Ivesian composition in two simultaneous voices, coming together in a chorus and flourish at the end.
Several poems from Valley have drawn recent scholarly attention, especially the Letters to Walt Whitman and the double-columned The Unfoldings. Ed Folsom calls the Letters, which open with seed-lines from Whitman and then blossom into Johnsons own words--though these root down into and draw upon other Whitmanian passages--one of the most sustained and suggestive of all the poetic encounters with Whitman. In them Johnson carries on one of Whitmans deepest concerns, Folsom notes: how the poet can indicate to men and women the path between reality and their souls. (In Letter 9 he poses the question through a favorite, recurring motif. Whitman promises Landscapes projected masculine, / full-sized and golden. Are these landscapes to be imagined, Johnson wonders, or are they, rather, an actual / Kansas--the central, earthy, prosaic core of us, needing only to be seen anew, following the poets gesture and exultant gaze?) Davenport has recently argued that the Letters respond to another element in Whitman as well: his curiosity about and enthusiasm for science, which seemed to the older poet to describe a harmonic and orderly universe where, as Davenport puts it, passionate friendship is an example of its harmony. Johnson embodies this harmonic vision in "The Unfoldings," too. The astronomers and writers quoted in the two poems two columns echo and confirm each others testimony, while the love that draws a Thoreau or a Kepler or a Leonardo to the things of this world--the love that draws Johnson as well--takes shape as the love that moves the sun and other stars. Presumably it also moves the two galaxies whose staticky collision, heard by radio astronomers and broadcast on the BBC, gave Johnson the climax of the book.
As the 1960s came to an end, Johnson published several more concrete poems, again mostly in limited editions. Theyre witty, spare, lyrical efforts to let the reader see, not through, but with the letters, the poet explains, lightly reversing Blake's admonition, in "The Everlasting Gospel," that "This life's five windows of the soul / Distorts the Heavens from pole to pole, / And leads you to believe a lie / When you see with, not thro', the eye." Indeed, the poet wryly notes, one could spend a lifetime writing with just the 26 letters of the alphabet, unfolding their implications: Tree: the t leaves. An r branches. the es have annual rings..." In Reading 1--a single poem published on a single folded page--the word book is printed in stolid black lettering, with an r printed below it, just between the b and first o. A proofreaders insertion mark, hand-written, signals where the r should fit in: where Blake saw books in babbling brooks, Johnson reads in the other direction, while the wavery blue pen of his writing restores the fluidity that print masks or denies. (After a moment you see brooks, instinctively, at which point Blakes original dictum comes back into play.) In Songs of the Earth Johnson shapes a series of listenings, as poems must listen and sing simultaneously, inspired by Mahlers Das Lied von der Erde and by Jonathan Williams's Mahler, a suite of long poems inspired by and answering to Mahler's symphonies. Johnson's Songs range from the visually simple--at the center of a page, framed by that visual silence, wood / winds--to more complex arrays, in which (for example) a spacious square of capital letters spelling WANE encloses a lowercase square of anew, which rises into italicized capitals a little lower on the page. In Eyes & Objects, a longer collection published in 1976, Johnson tried his hand at poems where every sound is mirrored by some other sound, producing what are, in effect, concrete poems carved out of aural space. A catalogue for an exhibition which was itself the exhibition, Johnson calls this book; it's a fascinating text, curious in its play of ideas and delicate in music.
As he published these concrete poems, Johnson began work on Wor(l)ds, the long poem that would occupy him for the next twenty years. (By 1980 he had retitled it ARK; it was completed in 1991, and will be published in its entirety in 1995.) This magnum opus was originally conceived, he has explained, as a personal epic in the mode of The Prelude, but there is little explicitly autobiographical material or narrative in the poem as written. Indeed, given his instinct towards architectural structures (the follies and grottos and topiary gardens of his earlier work), and his interest in concrete poetry, Johnsons epic seems in some ways closer in spirit to Wordsworths unfinished The Recluse: that gothic church to which the autobiographical Prelude was merely the ante-chapel, as Wordsworth explained, and into which the poets shorter work might fit as little cells, oratories, and sepulchral recesses. It is no accident that the first published work pertaining to Wor(l)ds, although not designated as part of it, was the slim pamphlet called The Spirit Walks, the Rocks Will Talk, in which Johnson gathered his eccentric translations of two eccentrics: the facteur Cheval and Raymond Isidore, creators of the Palais Ideal in Hauterives and of a mosaic house in the shade of Chartres. Like these men, and like American bricoleur folk artists and architects James Hampton and Simon Rodia, Johnson has built a fantastical and visionary monument from scraps and trouvailles and glittering fragments, here drawn from sources that range from Paradise Lost and the Book of Psalms to Protestant hymns, The Star-Spangled Banner, Fourth of July celebrations (fireworks included), and Tory Petersons A Field Guide to Western Birds, along with earlier concrete poems by Johnson himself. While this collage model is familiar to American long poems from The Cantos, The Waste Land, Paterson, The Maximus Poems, and "A", ARK stands apart in the rigor and shapeliness of its architecture and in the poets professed desire to write, unlike Pound or Williams, Olson or Zukofsky, a poem without history.
ARK is divided into three books of thirty-three sections: The Foundations (made up of Beams), The Spires, and The Ramparts (whose cantos are called Arches). Over these, as a metaphorical dome, rests ARK 100: a rewriting of Paradise Lost by excision. There is a temporal sequence to the poems as well, since The Foundations begin at sunrise and end at noon, The Spires go to sundown, and The Ramparts overlook a midnight of the soul even as they show the ARK transformed into a metaphorical starship (all arrowed a rainbow midair, / ad astra per aspera / countdown for Lift Off, ARK 99 concludes). ARK 100, the poet has promised, will return us to dawn, looking at once backward in tense and forward in trajectory, with The world all before. The first portion of ARK to appear in book form, however, was a much earlier section of this overarching dome, published in 1977 as RADI OS.
Inspired by British artist Tom Phillips, who painted and refigured pages from the third-rate Victorian novel A Human Document to turn it into his mysterious treated text A Humament, and provoked by composer Lukas Foss, whose Baroque Variations present a piece by Handel with pieces cut out (I composed the holes, Foss explains), Johnson began his revision of Paradise Lost rather casually. He soon found, however, that he had entered a grand Romantic tradition of wrestling and rewriting Miltons epic; found, indeed, that he had begun a specifically Blakean infernal reading of the prior text, composed by etching away surfaces to display the infinite which was hid. The first page of RADI OS--and the book is composed in pages, each one a visual text--thus revises Miltons famous invocation Of mans first disobedience, and the fruit / Of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste / Brought death into the world into O tree into the World, Man the chosen Rose out of Chaos: song, Johnson has not simply ventilated the dense Miltonic sentence, following the lead of Pound and Poe. He has erased the divine sentence that stands behind Milton's opening. Disobedience and death have vanished, along with the fact that the Tree was forbidden and the greater nature of the Man (Christ) that Milton invokes. Here Man / the chosen / Rose out of Chaos, not by the fiat of some creator, but as the rose appears in Pounds steel dust, according the universes blessed rage to order, complexity, beauty--and its impulse to create something that will echo that complexity in song. Johnsons cosmos is organized on what physics calls the anthropic principle: that is, it assumes a role for the observing human intelligence in the shaping of the creation that shapes our sentience. After a long time of light, there began to be eyes, and light began looking at itself, Johnson writes in Beam 4 of ARK: The Foundations; in Beam 7 we learn that Matter delights in music, and became Bach.
The four books of Paradise Lost that make up RADI OS can be read as a covert or implicit narrative: both as a running commentary on Milton and as a story of creation and the human fall into a sleepy forgetfulness, which the visionary poet will teach us to wake up from and ascend to our true stature. (The echoes of Emerson and Thoreau are quite deliberate.) The poem includes sublime passages where Archangels appear--note the pun on ARK--, and others, more plangent, where Miltons mourning for his blindness is transformed into a lament over the flickering of poetical insight Emerson laments throughout Nature. To find / the more / clear song, Johnsons page unfolds, Shine inward, and there plant eyes that I may see and tell Of things invisible once thick as stars, The radiant image the only Garden On the bare outside of this World At the close of Book IV of RADI OS Johnson returns to this defense of the visionary-cum-utopian perception of everyday life, challenging his readers to test his poetry's claims on the night or sunlit sky, as much as against his Miltonic original. For proof look up, this book ends, And read / Where thou art.
For many years Guy Davenports elegant, perceptive Afterward remained the only substantial critical work on RADI OS. Unlike Johnsons previous books, it was not widely reviewed; even in the Johnson / Davenport issue of Vort magazine, an essential source for Johnson scholarship, the poem is not treated in the detail accorded his earlier volumes. (No one, for example, has explored in any detail Johnsons possible debt to Zukofskys A-14, which includes another writing-through of Paradise Lost.) In part this may be due to the unusual nature of the project itself, which has seemed even to some sympathetic readers as quixotic, even maddening. In part, however, it is also due to a shift in sensibility in the American poetry community: a turn away from the immanentist postmodernism of the 1960s towards either the narrower lyric of domestic epiphany or to the politicized avant-gardism of what would soon be called the Language poets. These poets share Johnsons debt to Zukofsky, but they are, as a rule, quite skeptical of visions, especially when those visions are of organic wholeness, a blissful fit between signifier and signified, language and the world. It is no accident that Ron Silliman, for example, found RADI OS to be a less interesting use of prior text than work by Jackson MacLow, William Burroughs, or Kathy Acker. MacLow, the aleatoric poet--Johnson is apocalyptic--and Burroughs and Acker, those fashioners of bitter, twisted fictions of the lost, lack Johnsons Blakean apocalyptic vision, as well as his Arielian desire to recreate Paradise, and groves / Elysian (Wordsworth) in a "verbal earthly paradise" (Auden). Its going to take a lot of piss and sweat to balance out these angels (and angles) of light and darkness, Silliman warns, revealingly. Such writers also lack Johnsons sense that the physical sciences, especially physics and biology, confirm his optimistic vision: an sense that underwrites ARK: The Foundations.
ARK: The Foundations was one of the first three books published by San Franciscos now-defunct North Point Press. Its a glorious book, in every sense of the word: a tour-de-force of harmonies, echoes, balancings, flooded with a light that Johnson hymns in both Neoplatonic and scientific terms. Begun before RADI OS, but not published for four years afterward, the books share an impulse to rethink Romanticism in terms of modern physics. As he worked on that RADI OS, Johnson explains, I was taken over by Blake, but with my vision of the physical universe and...able to try to figure out how we order the universe now. Blake couldnt even look at Newton. I felt if I were to do this I would have to be a Blake who could also look at what we know of modern cosmology.
The Suns light when he unfolds it / Depends on the Organ that Beholds it, Blake observed. Beam 1 of the Foundations begins with a similar insight, set at sunrise: Over the rim body of earth rays exit sun rest to full velocity to eastward pinwheeled in a sparrows eye --Jupiter compressed west to the other-- wake waves on wave in wave striped White Throat song .............................. as if a several silver backlit in gust Photons rest at the speed of light, and the sun will fire out photons when electrons in its constituent atoms, raised to a higher quantum level by the impact of one photon, rest to a lower energy level as the atom sends out another. Some of the sunrays that result are Pinwheeled as they enter the pinwheel-shaped iris of a birds eye, while others, reflected back to Earth from Jupiter, are compressed or refracted by the earths atmosphere as the other planet sinks below the horizon. (Since a sparrows eyes are on the opposite sides of its head, able to see the seed beneath its bill--and at the same instant the hawk descending, as Beam 4 explains, the bird may see both eastward and westward sights at the same time.) The wake of those rays, which are themselves waves, or wavicles, wakes an answer in the sound waves of the White Throat song, so that as each bird joins in separately it is as though spots of silver backlit, or reflected, lit-back the sunlight. They do so in gust, or keen delight, as well as in gusts, or surges, of melody; and human song, poetry, which sings from the electrically sparkling nervetree, is by extension an equally natural and reflective pleasure, since out of a stuff of rays, particles, and pulses comes the poet who notes down and writes up the scene. (Mid-age. Brought to my knee.), Johnson calls himself, invoking Dante as he learns himself to be, like any language-animal, the artificer of reality (Beam 12).
The Beams of ARK: The Foundations are a mix of prose and verse, scientific description and etymological inquiry-cum-invention, quotes and concrete poems, even an Orphic writing-through of the Book of Psalms: a summa, in short, of Johnsons earlier modes. Added to these are Beams modeled on Christopher Smarts Jubilate Agno, and a variety of illustrations. The whole is, to borrow one of Johnsons lithe, blithe phrases, lucid as Euclid: a world where all parts, on some level, fit and echo one another, so that the hand-print that forms Beam 18 displays the whorls of fingerprints, a rhyme for earlier references to the whorl of galaxies and to a snails spiralled shell, while the first stage of a cell-division diagram, found in Beam 25, the Bicentennial Hymn, looks like the sunrise with which Beam 1 began, and the last stage shows twin cells pressed against each other like two hemispheres of the brain, or like the balanced dissent of the United States, of matter and anti-matter, and of other divided, procreative pairs mentioned elsewhere in the text. The poem is at once an apotheosis of Johnsons desire to create an Garden or Oz--a world where anything is possible and in which the imagination lives, as he said in the Vort interview--and the fulfillment of his hope to find that Garden outside the act of the mind, grounded in the facts of the physical world. As Paul Lake observed in an admiring essay-review, the poem is a compelling spiritual document, turning a science that has given us nuclear fission and the principle of indeterminacy into poetry, and turning poetry, in turn, into a medium that can once again engage the full range of human thought.
As their place in Johnson's architecture would suggest, the Beams of ARK: The Foundations are both dense and spacious. They outline and support the poetry to come, setting out, the poet has explained, all themes necessary to the work ahead, to have room to turn around in over the years (Planting, 3). Four years passed before the second long section of ARK was published as ARK 50: Spires 34-50, selected for the National Poetry Series by Charles Simic. As a rule, these Spires have a delicate motion quite different from the expansive claims, illuminations, and revelations of the Foundations. More lines are lean and streamlined, composed of one or two words; and there are frequent references to birds, mountains, stairs, and other appropriately rising phenomena. In the first Spire, for example, a lovely elegy for Louis Zukofsky, Lord Hades appears, crackling up / like a wall of prairie fire / in a somersault silver / to climb blank air / around us; in Spire 43, one of three Lots Pillar spires, the poem itself is figured as one lyric / alptly slapstruck / contraption. Indeed, in the Spires ARK becomes increasingly self-referential, naming as well as enacting its Strains / legion and ingenious / put to the uses of blessing in which s h / a p e / s / abound enobled (ARK 46, Fountain I). The earlier concern with cosmic and evolutionary detail has hardly been abandoned, but now the poets desire to Dance / howbeit / about us and ply the nocount / Abyss often involves calling our attention to the art-skill of the Poems plain / as Presbyterian pews he has crafted. Rather than transfiguring Kansas, as the poet did so often in earlier work, Johnson here turns the force of art against the threat of oblivion posed by Lord Hades. We will all meet him, these Spires well know; but to say then head wedded nail and hammer to the / work of vision / of the word / at hand, the Zukofsky Spire goes on, that is paradise...
Its tempting to see The Foundations of ARK as under the sign of Johnsons mother, the dancer, since they're choreographed to melodies and harmonies taken from Physics, the music of our time. The Spires, in turn, recall the poet's childhood in the fathers lumberyard: theyre a structure where acrobat thought will bounce planed planned plank to handstand more split images than you could shake a stick at. But in the reeled world this poem captures, such distinctions, temporarily helpful, never hold. Step it up a round, a voice calls to acrobat thought, and the high-stepping grace of Johnsons artistry bows to its carpenter partner in a sort of square-dance logopoeia (the dance of the mind among syllables, in Ezra Pounds phrase). As you leave the spiral-staircases of ARK 50 and move on to later, as yet uncollected Spires--that stair a figure for the double-helix of DNA, you note in passing, and for the twined snakes of Hermess caduceus as well--you reach not only a waltzing Balanchine Spire (ARK 53), but a luminescent set of Fireworks Spires, composed of a vast smithy spray from the poets foundry of hammered trouvailles.
Unlike ARK: The Foundations, which was acclaimed The Threepenny Review and Parnassus, among other journals, ARK 50 received only a few reviews. Without a narrative hook or thematic fanfare (like the remarkable transcendental physics of the earlier volume) the book rewards close and playful attention, but doesnt force or command it; and it seemed out of key with the political poetics championed by a wide variety of poets and critics, experimental and otherwise, in 1984. Since the publication of ARK 50 Johnson has finished ARK, and most of The Ramparts (each one an Arch, as each part of the Foundation is a Beam) have been published in literary journals. Like a few of the Beams, and like a number of the later Spires, almost all the Arches are written in a highly compressed verse whose syntax is either implicit or absent altogether. Grouped in trios of Arches, each written in mosaic tercets, the Ramparts thus glint as much as they flow.
While Johnson continues to display his legerdemain in the Elaboratory, as he puts it in ARK 72, there is often a sadder, darker tone to the Arches. The Zukofsky Spire was set in sunlit summer, and artifice could stand as paradise; but in the vigil elegiac of these later verses a moment comes to click the ruby slippers and return to, if not bare Kansas, at least a more wistful mood. Many tutelary dead are mentioned: Robert Duncan, Apollinaire, Mallarm, Emily and Walt," along with a figure named only in initials, who seems at once Henry James ("my true Penelope," Johnson has called him) and the poets mother, Helen: like silver smiting silver / H. J. on the harp / behind order / Utopia cut figure. And, sometimes, between the lines, perhaps a certain sadness over the poets neglect by readers, the loneliness of his effort to extract the singing necessities from his material, and leave not a whit one mightnt want about. Along with Arches taken from Thoreaus Journals and from various Protestant hymnals there is one, Arches IX, drawn from Van Goghs Letters. I have rented a house / yellow outside, whitewashed within / in full sun, the artist writes. Wishing to see a different light, / exile and stranger / I am dead set on my work.
Johnson's studies in "a different light" indeed set him apart from most contemporary poets, not least in the detailed, researched sense of the world as a Cosmos that underwrites his postmodern poetics of the Beautiful. (Beauty is difficult, says Beardsley to Yeats at several points in the Cantos. Beauty is easy, Johnson retorts in Beam 14 of ARK. It is the Beast that is the secret.") Insisting on a link between the self-referential construction of the poem and the mathematical coherence of the natural world, Johnson suggests that the stochastic style of textured information characteristic of so much late-century American poetry (according to Roger Gilbert, among others) may be at least as much a distortion of the ordering impulse of the human mind as linguistic structure and closure are a human imposition on the buzzing, booming chaos of events.
When Johnson's work is all brought back into print with the publication of the complete ARK and a collection of shorter and concrete poems he will at last be read in the broad context he deserves: not only as a student of Olson and Zukofsky, more mellifluous than either, and not only as a late-century Transcendentalist, with the smarts to make his observations and his visions new; but also as an American counterpart to the great Spanish modernist Jorge Guilln, whose Cntico (Canticle) is like ARK at once a hymn to light and to the triumphant pleasures of finding oneself invented by a world that calls us to its praise. And, perhaps most of all, as the only American poet to transplant the aesthetics of the garden into poetry: an English garden like that of Pope at Twickenham, with its mix of formal elegance and wilder Follies and Grottoes; and an American garden like Thoreau's at Walden. Here the gardener decides not only to "make the earth say beans" at his command, but to listen as well to the "cinquefoil, blackberries, johnswort, and the like" that are its native song. In the eyes and hands of The Gardener, as Johnson signs himself in ARK's Beam 30, the buzzing, booming chaos blooms from chaos into complexity, drenched with sunlight, heady with bees.
Thomas Clark, Review
of A Line of Poetry, a Row of Trees, Poetry 107 (2), November 1965: 123-4.
Guy Davenport, "Introduction" to Valley of the Many-Colored Grasses and "Afterword" to RADI OS, collected in The Geography of the Imagination (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1981): 190-204; ---.
"Whitman a Century after His Death" [essay on Johnson's "Letters to Walt Whitman"], Yale Review 80 (4), October 1992, 1-15;
Theodore Enslin, Review of RADI OS I-IV, Ironwood 5 (11), 1978: 103-104;
Norman Finkelstein, The Utopian Moment in Contemporary American Poetry, Revised Edition, (Lewisburg: Bucknell UP, 1993);
Ed Folsom, "Whispering Whitman to the Ears of Others: Ronald Johnsons Recipe for Leaves of Grass", in The Continuing Presence of Walt Whitman: The Life after the Life, Robert K. Martin, ed. (U of Iowa P, 1992): 82-92; Roger Gilbert, "Textured Information: Politics, Pleasure, and Poetry in the Eighties." Contemporary Literature 33 (2), Summer 1992: 243-274;
William Harmon, "The Poetry of a Journal at the End of an Arbor in a Watch" [Rev. of ARK: The Foundations], Parnassus 9, 1981: 217-232;
William Heyen, Review of The Book of the Green Man, Poetry 111 (5), February 1968: 330-331;
Dan Jaffe, Review of Valley of the Many-Colored Grasses, Saturday Review, Sept. 6, 1969: 29;
Paul Lake, "Unfolding the Manifold" [Rev. of ARK: The Foundations], Threepenny Review 8, Winter 1982: 12-13.
Steve McCaffery, "Synchronicity, Ronald Johnson and the Migratory Phrase," Vort 3 (3), 1976: 112-116;
H.M. [Howard McCord], Review of ARK: The Foundations, Mid-American Review 1 (1), 1981: 188-190.
Charles Philbrick, Review of The Book of the Green Man, Saturday Review, June 3, 1967: 33-34;
Margaret Randall, Review of Valley of the Many-Colored Grasses, Poetry 115 (1), October 1969: 51-52;
Mark Scroggins, "Two Limits of the Objectivist Equation: The Poetics of John Taggart and Ronald Johnson," unpublished;
Eric Selinger, "'I Composed the Holes': Reading Ronald Johnson's Radi Os," Contemporary Literature 33 (1): 46-73; ---, "Important Pleasures and Others: Michael Palmer, Ronald Johnson." Postmodern Culture, 4.2 (May, 1994) (Electronic journal, unpaginated);
Ron Silliman, "Space May Yet Produce New Wor(l)ds" [rev. of Radi Os], Montemora 4, 1978: 289-291.
Papers: A collection of drafts, typescripts, and corrected proofs of published and unpublished poems, as well as a selection of the poets correspondence with Guy Davenport, Jonathan Williams, Ian Hamilton Finlay, and others, is housed in the Spencer Library of the University of Kansas.