The Operating System

5th ANNUAL NAPOMO 30/30/30 :: DAY 22 :: STEPHEN ROSS on RONALD JOHNSON’S ‘ARK’

It’s hard to believe that this is our FIFTH annual 30/30/30 series, and that when this month is over we will have seeded and scattered ONE HUNDRED and FIFTY of these love-letters, these stories of gratitude and memory, into the world. Nearly 30 books, 3 magazines, countless events and online entries later, and this annual celebration shines like a beacon at the top of the heap of my very favorite things to have brought into being. [If you’re interested in going back through the earlier 120 entries, you can find them (in reverse chronological order) here.]

When I began this exercise on my own blog, in 2011, I began by speaking to National Poetry Month’s beginnings, in 1966, and wrote that my intentions “for my part, as a humble servant and practitioner of this lovely, loving art,” were to post a poem and/or brief history of a different poet…. as well as write and post a new poem a day. I do function well under stricture, but I soon realized this was an overwhelming errand.

Nonetheless the idea stuck — to have this month serve not only as one in which we flex our practical muscles but also one in which we reflect on inspiration, community, and tradition — and with The Operating System (then Exit Strata) available as a public platform to me, I invited others (and invited others to invite others) to join in the exercise. It is a series which perfectly models my intention to have the OS serve as an engine of open source education, of peer to peer value and knowledge circulation.

Sitting down at my computer so many years ago I would have never imagined that in the following five years I would be able to curate and gather 150 essays from so many gifted poets — ranging from students to award winning stars of the craft, from the US and abroad — to join in this effort. But I’m so so glad that this has come to be.

Enjoy! And share widely.

– Lynne DeSilva-Johnson, Managing Editor/Series Curator

STEPHEN ROSS on RONALD JOHNSON’s ‘ARK’

Untitlrjjwed

 The arc of ARK is a lyric architecture, an arcadian Noah’s ark turned ark of the covenant turned spaceship bound for Arcturus, an archaeology of a future modernism. Reading ARK makes you want to write sentences like that. It is a silly book, in Auden’s Old English sense of the word relating to the soul. Of the great 20th -century “poems of a life”, it is by far the most thrilled with itself. 

When I discovered Ronald Johnson around 2010, it was impossible to find a copy of his masterpiece, ARK, online for less than a few hundred dollars. The first and only edition, by Living Batch Press in Albuquerque, had been out of print since 1996 and was scarce—prime fodder for an algorithmic mark-up. After months of assiduous scouring, I eventually found a cheap(ish) copy of ARK online sold by a human not an algorithm. Until that happened, I carried around a photocopy of my library’s copy like a sacred codex, proselytizing anyone who would listen. This was right before Flood Editions published their gorgeous reissue of ARK in 2013, which now gives everyone access to this remarkable book.

For those susceptible to its charms, ARK emits an irony-dissolving radiance. It is an ecstatic modernist sci-fi epic “excluding history” / grand concrete poem and monumental work of “outsider art.” It is completely lacking a plot or overarching message other than “everything is awesome all the time,” as one critic has put it. The arc of ARK is a lyric architecture, an arcadian Noah’s ark turned ark of the covenant turned spaceship bound for Arcturus, an archaeology of a future modernism. Reading ARK makes you want to write sentences like that. It is a silly book, in Auden’s Old English sense of the word relating to the soul. Of the great 20th -century “poems of a life”, it is by far the most thrilled with itself—full of shimmering wordplay and credulous wonderment, echolalia and glossolalia, naïve exuberance and erudite echo chamberings. After heavy doses of Pound’s “Adams cantos” or Olson’s maritime trivia or Zukofsky’s sheet music, it works like a spring tonic.

Johnson’s “house style” is a center-justified lyric mode, a kind of spinal column for the body of the book; though, the sections that deviate from this model tend to be my favorite. The poem is a hodgepodge of different forms, ranging from concrete poetry and documentary collage to erasure poems (of Milton’s Paradise Lost and the psalms) and science textbook entries about the human sensorium and cellular division.

Prosperocell

The eighteenth section is a photocopy of the poet’s hand:

Johnson Hand

One time I called up Johnson’s early collection Valley of the Many-Colored Grasses from the Bodleian library and discovered he had traced his own hand inside the cover and decorated it into an eccentric hamsa. I seem to remember his inscription was a quotation from Keats’s ghost poem-fragment, “This Living Hand.” I’m reminded of Paul Celan’s statement that a poem is a handshake—for Johnson, it’s more like a high five.

Johnson’s immediate creative coordinates are Black Mountain and the San Francisco Renaissance. He takes his cues from the late-modernist nexus of the “New American Poetry” and its modernist predecessors, but also calls on a broader tradition of western “naïve art,” namely the Palais Ideal of the Facteur Cheval in France and the Watts Tower in Los Angeles (a picture of which appears on the Living Batch edition’s cover). Like these “naïve” structures, ARK is cobbled together from bits and pieces of text drafted into a new architectural whole. The book is divided into three sections reflecting this architectural governing metaphor: “Foundations,” “The Spires,” “The Ramparts.” The first two appeared as stand-alone volumes in the 1980s. For my money, “The Foundations” is the best installment of ARK, and the prose and concrete poetry sections are the best parts of “The Foundations.” Consider “Beam 24”:

Beam 24

Earth ear the art heart.

During the sixties, Johnson traveled extensively in Europe and up and down the Appalachians with his partner, Jonathan Williams, of the Asheville-based Jargon Press (if you go to The Captain’s Bookshelf in Asheville you will still find a large collection of Jargoniana and, as I write this, Williams’ dedication copy of Johnson’s Book of the Green Man). After they split up, Johnson moved to San Francisco, where he lived for over twenty years and made a living as a cook. His cookbooks, including the minor classic, The American Table, have always been much easier to acquire than his poetry collections. There’s no accounting for taste!

Stephen Ross is a literary scholar, translator, and editor. He earned his PhD in English from the University of Oxford in 2013 and is a founding editor of the literary web-journal, Wave Composition. With Ariel Resnikoff, he is working on the first-full length translation and critical edition of Mikhl Likht’s Yiddish modernist long-poem, Processions. He is a contributing editor for The Operating System’s Unsilenced Texts series, and also co-editor with Dr. Alys Moody of the forthcoming anthology, Global Modernists on Modernism (Bloomsbury, 2017), a 190,000-word sourcebook that draws on a large archive of historical materials — statements, manifestos, letters, prefaces, introductions, hybrid works, etc — by modernist practitioners across the arts, with a special focus on untranslated, poorly disseminated (in English), and ‘forgotten’ texts. His current book project is a study of modern American poetics and objecthood.

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  1. […] Waheed, Johnny’s piece on Raymond Roussel, Phillip’s piece on Essex Hemphill, and Stephen’s piece on Ronald Johnson’s Ark, while you’re at […]

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