Friday, March 17, 2006

Notes on Ronald Johnson Panel

On the way there on the 86 crosstown bus I notice a teenage girl writing her "Social Justice Paper" on her laptop, a woman reading about the Pataki-Silverstein brawl in the Post, and a middle-aged man sitting in the bus' center "elbow" nearly finished with Swann's Way. The subway is a zoo and I'm a couple of minutes late.

Joel Bettridge is first with a selection of Johnson's letters, mainly to Jonathan Williams, aka "Big Bear," "Banana," and a host of other affectionate nicknames (RJ himself is "Little Bear"). Starts with a letter from the 50s when RJ was a student in New York writing to Williams about a visit he's paid to the Zukofskys who fed him "sardine salad and peaches with cottage cheese." I retain some fragments from the letters that follow: "We discovered a new Palais Ideal in Chartres." On Ian Hamilton Finlay's proposed anthology of one-word poems: "They are beastly hard to write, except for amusing ones." Turns out RJ wrote many mostly unpublished poems about his cats. Then letters about ARK, "The first space-age epic, by gum!" (RJ's corniness part of his appeal.) "Also I've been working on the mind to go with the ear and eye." Prose poems as core of The Foundations. "I should give up on trying to make the 70s out of the smables of the 60s... It seems written against windmills." "I made The Garden as though it belonged in the body." Joel concludes by reading a page from RADI OS and then plays a recording of Johnson himself reading "BEAM 30, The Garden." I haven't heard him read before: he's got a slow, smoker-husky, Kansas drawl of a voice that can turn breathy, incantatory. Sometimes long pauses as if he were thinking what to say next. Not a trace of the diffidence or affected cool that can sometimes infect poetry readings.

Jena Osman is next, talking about the visual elements in RJ's early work. Originally she saw his concrete poetry work as in service to his transcendental vision rather than being particularly concerned with the materiality of language, but then her view shifted. She shows us some images from a poem called "io and the ox-eye daisy" that was published in Finlay's magazine poor old tired horse in the 60s. Mentions a book I should look into (turns out it's archived on the web), Mary Ellen Solt's Concrete Poetry: A World View. "io" is delightful, lots of play, as you might expect, on I/eye. Then a book of visual poems, Knitting Poems, published by an outfit called ExLax (!). Copied one down:
Knitting for Beginners

net net net
net net
net net net
net net
net net net
And then there's a bit from the 1966 Gorse Goose Rose:

RADI OS directly inspired by Tom Phillips' A Humument, but RJ much sparer, much more interested in white space.

I was next; I talked about RJ as "ecoleur" or practitioner of ecolage, a term I thought I invented but which is actually usefully defined here in a statement by its apparent inventor, artist/sociologist Gene Rosa. My reading includes RJ's early poem "Shake, Quoth the Dove House" and "ARK 34, Spire on the Death of L.Z."

Barbara Cole followed with a discussion of RJ and gender, beginning with a story of how she had been scheduled to read with him while an MA student at Temple in the late 90s but that he took ill and died before she could meet him—in the meantime, however, she, Joel, and others had taken part in a reading group that devoured ARK (while living on Ashland Street—RJ lived in Ashland, KS). Looking for female influences on RJ, finding only at first a few epigraphs from H.D., Dickinson, Stein. ARK as overtly masculinist project? Female writers as a fig leaf? Points to celebration of "the penis-pen of the Orphic poet" in BEAM 16. But then talks about a shift to a less essentialist view of RJ and gender in the presence of Adam & Eve in the work and an Eden that does not forbid knowledge. Eve as "even," Adam "who thinking about thinking moves atoms." Knowledge of multiplicity versus an ignorance enforced by patriarchy. Ultimately finds ARK capacious and inviting, "the body of questions." Reads ARK 50, Adamspire: "probeable as possible / be, but bear / at most the least belief."

Jonathan Skinner is last: "The more you look the more you find." Nature as fractal and the poems imitate this fractalness; quotes Gilbert White on how the most diverse of districts is the district that has been most closely examined. Talk focuses on "ARK 37, Spire called Prospero's Songs to Ariel (constructed in the form of a quilt from Roger Tory Peterson's A Field Guide to Western Birds)" and "ARK 38, Ariel's Songs to Prospero" (the latter Johnson calls "the invisible Spire" because it consists of a tape recording, "just over six minutes of 'musics' constructed out of recordings of songs of the birds of eastern United States." Jonathan quotes RJ: "I guess I wanted one coast to reverberate against the other coast." (This casts Prospero as a denizen of the West Coast and Ariel as a denizen of the East. Can't help thinking of the eponymous compass-names of the witches from the Oz books.) Jonathan points out that the "birds" of ARK 37 are "Frankenbirds," composed of fragments of description of many different birds from the Peterson guidebook, "constructions illustrating the deliberate nature of hearing." Zuk's work on herbiaries as word-hoards (I also talked about this a little bit) is extended to birding books by RJ. Invisibility of sound fascinated him. Jonathan alternates reading the five sections of 37 with playing from the recording of the six sections of 38, which I've never heard: fascinating. I tried to write down descriptions of the birdsongs:
1. Of Time and its Tree
(a bolero for one white-throated sparrow)

phwee-phwee-phwee! This sparrow opens ARK; song rendered at start of ARK 37 as hear hear hear hear / see-see-see.

2. The Origin of Language
(homage to Harry Partch)

Birds tweeting plus a knocking and thumping—human made? a sound effect? a woodpecker?

3. The Emptying of Hell
(nocturne for loon and full orchestra)

loon cry and flutter and hoot—intensifies into a great flock—then do I hear a chicken clucking? a jet engine?

4. Where the Fire Takes Me
(a souza for daylit forest)

chirps, then the tape speeds up and slows down for an eerie singsong

5. Full Fathom Five
(synthesis for slowed meadowlark & chorus)

long swooping tones like a cartoon character falling from a height—pheeooooo. Then rhythmic hooting.

6. How Feels the Fine Mesh of Space
(adagio for thrushes and woodpecker quartet)

There's the real woodpecker thrum. hi-lo hi-ho chirping, a sound like see-swing see-swing.
Talk about the inadequacy of words!


Geofhuth said...

Thanks for this, Josh. Since I couldn't attend this event, I appreciate the summary of it.

Funny, tho, how points of views, sources of knowledge, can differ so. Your saying "a poem called 'io and the ox-eye daisy'" was a stunner. It's one of the classics of concrete poetry, beautifully visualized compared to much of the work of its time, and efficient in its use of language (as most of the best visual poetry is). And to find out you're just learning of Mary Ellen Solt's "Concrete Poetry: A World View" is much the same surprise.

I mean this not as any criticism at all. I was long in finding Johnson's non-concrete, but visualized poetry, basics like "ARK" and "RADI OS." The lacunae in our knowledge are merely the results of the different crossing paths we've followed.


John said...

Thanks for this. RJ is capacious.

E. M. Selinger said...


I just returned to the blog-world, and stumbled on this through Mark Scroggins. I'm glad to know that some of the work we gathered for the RJ collection at NPF is making its way into the world, however slowly and in whatever form. I hope to have news about the book itself soon, now that I'm out from under a fistful of deadlines.


Popular Posts