Study Guide


by Ronald Johnson

Ark Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

An “ark” is a boat that carries the survivors; the chest containing the Ten Commandments written on stone tablets, carried by the Hebrews during their desert wanderings, also called “ark of the covenant” and thus the Holy Ark; the boat built by Noah for survival during the Flood; or a place of shelter or refuge. Ronald Johnson’s Ark calls to mind all of these definitions. Johnson tells readers in “A Note” at the end of Ark that the work is “Literally an architecture . . . fitted together with shards of language, in a kind of cement of music.” A poetic edifice “based on trinities, its cornerstones the eye, the ear, the mind,” it is “artifact rather than argument,” Johnson’s poetic Watts Towers, owing as much to Simon Rodia as to Louis Zukofsky and Charles Olson, “braving new schemes of language.” Johnson reveals these elements to his readers in “A Note,” but if one has worked his way through the “shards of language” that compose the three books of this intriguingly original and challenging poem, one sees again how “new” a vision a great poet weaves from the stuff he gathers from the physical, mythic, and psychological “places” of his being. While Ark is a “difficult” poem, it is also a rewarding one, a celebration of the extraordinarily complex composition of “America,” the place, the idea, the dream. It is structured in three sections: “The Foundations 1-33 for Donald and Patricia Anderson”; “The Spires 34-66 for Jonathan Williams a solid, six-sided music’”; and “The Ramparts 67-99 for Guy Davenport Mover & Shaker.” The structural components of the Foundations section comprise sections he names “Beams,” usually verse arrayed in various patterns on the page suggesting a very free adaptation of what poets have traditionally called the ode, but sometimes the language is arrayed as sentences and paragraphs so that it looks like ordinary prose. Yet there is nothing “ordinary” in either the “prose” passages or the verse sections where the emphasis here is on “free” in that the tortured syntax and grammatical complexity of Johnson’s use of the form often make Ezra Pound’s verse seem accessible by comparison.

The “Foundations 1-33” section then is an examination of the various “beams” that support the structure of this Ark, this universe of meaning. These beams (which are also at least sometimes illuminations as in beams of light) are the phenomena of existence, the mind which knows (constructs) meaning and form out of these phenomena, and the constructions (physics, poetry, and so forth) of that mind that makes sense and shape of the (apparently) physical phenomena of existence. BEAM 15 for example, “Cornerstone,” quotes Henry David Thoreau’sWalden and alludes humans’ need to know themselves, especially in their spiritual dimensions through the “living waters” of their own experience and thought, the serpent of error entering when they “drink” of the stagnant waters of others’ experiences. In BEAM 17, Orpheus, Johnson asserts a number of propositions, the poem will illuminate, for example, “That one prism holds the spectrumed glory’ as surely as whole populations of droplets strummed by sun./ That the action of the universe is metamorphosis—its articulation, metaphor. White crow, black swan, these are the hinges of Heaven.” In a prose section of BEAM 17, he writes: “In the beginning there was the Word—for each man, magnetized by onrush, is Adam to his Tyger.”

BEAM 18 is a palm print (one assumes of Johnson’s right palm) the meaning of which seems related to the idea of man as maker—toolmaker, maker of music, maker of poetry, maker, indeed, of all meaning. Johnson says that it relates to one of the central myths of the poem, Orpheus and Euridice, and Jean Cocteau’s handling of the “looking back” by visioning a mirror as a bath of mercury, Johnson’s palm print being the “palm going into the mercury to get to the underworld.” Even reading the poem then as an examination of man the maker, of the Ark as a vessel of meaning, one will inevitably ask why Johnson tortures grammar and syntax so? Perhaps he is arguing the inadequacy of “regular” linguistic and rhetorical rules to jar readers into meaning and understanding. Perhaps his “violations” of these rules comprise a meta-poem on the arbitrary (and insufficient) relationships among language, knowing, knower, and the known. Perhaps the most cogent view is to see the central myth of Orpheus creating and enacting the rhythmical, musical aspects of nature rather than the grammatical.

The structural...

(The entire section is 1899 words.)