Ronald Johnson was born and grew up in Ashland, Kansas. He briefly attended the University of Kansas before spending two years in the U.S. Army, earning as a result the post-Korea veterans’ benefits that allowed him to attend and be graduated from Columbia University, New York, in 1960. During the years in New York, he became acquainted with many other artists, poets, and scholars, including poets, such as Charles Olson, associated with Black Mountain College in North Carolina.
In the early 1960’s, Johnson traveled in England with poet and publisher Jonathan Williams, and he received inspiration from the country for many of his most memorable poems. During this time, he participated in the concrete poetry movement and became a close friend of Ian Hamilton Finlay, one of the best-known poets in the movement.
In 1968, Johnson moved to San Francisco, where, with the exception of two teaching jobs, he was to make his permanent home. He taught creative writing at the University of Kentucky (1971-1972), held the Roethke Chair for Poetry at the University of Washington, Seattle (1973), taught at the Wallace Stegner Writing Workshop at Stanford University (1991), and was Roberta Holloway Poet at the University of California, Berkeley (1994). In 1996, Living Press, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, issued a special broadside edition of Ark, “a pyramid of eleven levels and sixty-six quatrains fram[ing] Johnson’s darkest work of verse,” as Paul Naylor put it. Johnson died of brain cancer on March 4, 1998.