A disciple of Charles Olson, Ronald Johnson followed Olson’s intuition that a poem must find the form necessary to its fullest expression. For Johnson, this meant the writing of poems that, by conventional measures of poetry, do not seem to be poems at all. Under the pull of energies initially mobilized during the concrete poetry movement of the early 1960’s, Johnson explored the poetic possibilities of typography and the visual presence of a poem as a kind of sign. At the root of his attention is the natural world, its sounds and sights. Out of his deference to this phenomenal world, Johnson devised techniques to register it in a new way. In some of his poems, where his manipulation of typography and instinct for the suggestibility of individual letters is working, the poem becomes a wholly novel visual experience.
From his early concrete poems to his Ark series, Johnson sought to bind the world of poetry to the world of made things, and he regarded this as the poet’s realm—objects as words and words (as attested by the carefully crafted typography of his pages) as objects. Thus, his work is a rare and refreshing turn-away from the hypersubjectivity and confessionalism of much postmodern poetry. Against the ramblings of selfhood, he erects a bright vision, directing one toward the complex and beautiful universe.
Valley of the Many-Colored Grasses
In his book Valley of the Many-Colored Grasses, Johnson quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson in an epigraph to one of his poems. The quotation attributes to nature the power to use creation as a means of expressing itself: “The air is full of sounds; the sky, of tokens; the ground is all memoranda & signatures.” These signs speak to “the intelligent,” or human beings with eyes and ears. If “the intelligent” are not suitably articulate to pass on the language Nature speaks, it “waits & works, until, at last, it moulds them to its perfect will & is articulated.” Reading the poem following the epigraph, one discovers that it is simply the words of the epigraph “aired out” in free-verse lines, Johnson’s spacial arrangement of the words serving to arrest the flow of Emerson’s prose and emphasize key perceptions. A poem has been found in Emerson’s text.
This poem, titled “Emerson, on Goethe,” exemplifies two characteristics of Johnson’s thought and writing. The first is his preoccupation with nature, or everything that makes up the cosmos, from ants to stars and not exclusive of what an architect designs or a composer composes. A person is subservient to nature, inhabiting nature, dependent on nature. Nature produces patterns of order and sentient secretaries, artists of various kinds, who are not justified in feeling alienated from a world so animated and willful. Pervading Johnson’s poetry is the idea that a poet is someone who brings nature to the ears and eyes of nonpoets under the command of nature itself. This mission puts Johnson as a poet outside the trend of contemporary poetry, where the poet seems more often the secretary of himself, that subjective complex that utters forth from deep within its private and often obscure consciousness. Johnson’s heritage as a writer is much more old-fashioned. His poems frequently refer to writers and painters, for whom the real show is the world outside the self. The Johnson heritage includes, along with the transcendentalist Emerson, the poetWilliam Blake, who saw everything in a grain of sand. It embraces the records Henry Thoreau left of his daily walk along Walden Pond and the paintings of Joseph Turner, who had himself roped to a ship’s mast during a storm, the better to know what he was painting. It welcomes the visionary eye of the painter Samuel Palmer, as in Johnson’s poem on Palmer, in which the eye is “covered with fire after every immersion/ in the air” and is taken by nature’s leading beyond the horizon, where “it gathers to itself all light/ in visionary harvest.” It is the same heritage that guided the poet Ezra Pound, in his World War II prison cage, to find in the wasps and midges in the grass a vision of the highest order, an order not created by humans but requiring gifts of sensitivity and vision to recognize.
The second characteristic that Johnson’s Emerson “poem” demonstrates is Johnson’s lack of concern about what is actually a poem. None of its words are Johnson’s, but the perception of the words is Johnson’s. Perception, attention, and observation are of more value to the poet than so-called originality, not that Johnson as a writer is simply copying down what others have written. His attention is arrested by nature and by other writers who testify to similar devotion, so if in the course of writing a poem, Johnson remembers that “to Coleridge, the Marigold,/ Monk’s-hood, Orange-lily & Indian pink/ flash with light—” the poem is not spoiled by borrowing. On this poet’s mind, Johnson’s, happened to be the working of another poet’s mind, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s. Appropriately, then, the line that follows the one just quoted tells about Charles Darwin’s ability to see phosphorus in a horse’s eyes. Perhaps the poetic spell is ruined by telling about what a scientist can do, but Johnson is not particularly concerned about “the poem”; he seeks to evoke dazzling examples of human eyesight working in the real world.
The Book of the Green Man
Johnson is also concerned about “the poem,” however. He wants his poems to be new, bright, as dazzling as the source of inspiration. To readers familiar with what T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound did to the form of a poem, Johnson’s poetry does not seem unpoetic at all. What does seem uncommon is Johnson’s persistent belief in a nature that speaks to human beings. Johnson is not interested merely in objectivity, but in seeing through the objectivity. He pursues the calling of seer, or hearer: A tree and its leaves are never ordinary; commonplace objects speak and establish intimacy, an intimacy that is the vision. Thus, a suite of Johnson’s poems in another early book, The Book of the Green Man, have sweetly innocent titles: “What the Earth Told Me,” “What the Air Told Me,” and “What the Leaf Told Me.” In this book, Johnson mentions the “skiey influences” that entered into Romantic poet William Wordsworth’s pores, sustaining his poetic vision of countryside and lakes. Johnson desires such a relationship. He longs to hear the earth speak, to issue some “dark, meditated/ syllable perhaps—/...
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