A note on Ronald Johnson’s


Bradford Haas

     FlashPoint is pleased to reprint Ronald Johnson’s THE SPIRIT WALKS, THE ROCKS WILL TALK: Eccentric Translations from Two Eccentrics.  Long out of print, it provides an important inroad to understanding Johnson’s major poetry.

     Johnson’s ultimate reputation will rest on his long poem ARK.  While often compared to THE CANTOS, THE MAXIMUS POEMS, PATERSON, and “A”,  when reading ARK it soon becomes apparent that Johnson had his own ‘tack to take.’ (‘A Note’ n.p.)  With the presence of Ezra Pound, Charles Olson, W.C. Williams and Louis Zukofsky looming ever-present, the challenge for a younger poet was to find a way forward, to progress, taking the important innovations of the Modernists, while at the same time avoiding their ‘risks and shipwrecks.’ (ibid.)  But how was one to do this?

     According to Johnson,  ‘A turning point was a visit to Le Facteur Cheval’s Le Palais Ideal in Hautrives, France.’ (ibid.)  The highly eccentric Palais Ideal, a naive structure based on a vision and built by a postman, seemed to provide a way forward from the modernists - not through ‘poetry’, but through a ‘concrete’ structure, an actual building.  Johnson found his ‘own tack’ when he ‘was able at last to conceive it [ARK] a structure rather than a diatribe, artifact rather than argument [...]’  (ibid).   The germ that allowed Johnson to see ‘conceive it a structure’ did not, however, originate with Le Palais Ideal, but with the poetics of Louis Zukofsky.  In the early 1930s Zukofsky had formulated his ‘Objectivist’ view of the poem, that it did not only record objects (as Imagism had previously), but that the poem was an object in its own right.  The discovery of Le Palais Ideal plus his grounding in Zukofsky’s poetics allowed Johnson to take the Objectivist idea of the ‘poem as object’ to a new extreme.  Regarding Johnson’s use of Objectivist poetics, Mark Scroggins has written, ‘Zukofsky’s notion of the poem as autotelic object is considerably more nuanced than Johnson’s, for Johnson interprets the rhetoric of Objectivist poetics to imply that the poem must be an object itself or must structurally mime an object (his preferred model ... being an architectural one).’ (Scroggins 298)  Scroggins’ statement can be supported by Johnson’s own statements, such as one he wrote in 1985, ‘It [ARK] was always conceived to be a Palais Ideal like that of the Facteur Cheval, or his U.S. counterparts, Simon [sic] Rodia’s Watts Towers, and James Hampton’s garage-made Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly, now on view at the National [Portrait] Gallery [in Washington, D.C.].’ (Planting 2)  And if anyone is tempted to take the previous statement as a metaphor, Johnson says elsewhere: ‘Literally an architecture, ARK is fitted together with shards of language, in a kind of cement of music.’ (‘A Note’ n.p.)

     The physicality Johnson declares for his long poem should surprise no one who is familiar with his earlier work.  Through the 1960s and early 1970s, Johnson’s work was split between poems composed through referential collage in the vein of his Modernist predecessors (i.e. A LINE OF POETRY, A ROW OF TREES (1963) and THE BOOK OF THE GREEN MAN (1967)), and those poems which contributed to the international ‘Concrete Poetry’ movement (i.e. SONGS OF THE EARTH and the pamphlets produced by the Finial Press and by Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Wild Hawthorn Press).  While the breakthrough compromise between collage and concrete came with ‘The Different Musics’ (1969 - included in VALLEY OF THE MANY COLORED GRASSES), ARK was the full manifestation of the synthesis, at once a patchwork of quoted material that Johnson had collected, and at the same time a very physical presence, as indicated by the designation of poems as ‘BEAMS’, ‘SPIRES’,  and ‘RAMPARTS’ (indeed, this trend continued into Johnson’s post-ARK work, such as in the large broadside ‘Blocks to be Arranged in a Pyramid’ - ‘to be’ seems strange wording when the blocks ARE arranged in a Pyramid in the broadside).

     This brings us back to THE SPIRIT WALKS.  If we consider the year of its first publication - 1969 -  we can see that it comes at a pivotal point in Johnson’s career.  As mentioned above, 1969 was the same year that ‘The Different Musics’ was released, and it was about this time that Johnson conceived of the plan for ARK, the long poem he would work on for the next twenty years.  That THE SPIRIT WALKS played an important role in the conception of ARK is emphasized in Dirk Stratton’s brief but useful monograph on Johnson’s work.  In it he states:   ‘Johnson believes that this work of translation [THE SPIRIT WALKS] is “definitely a precursor to ARK” (letter to the author, 25 Jan. 1995), but it is not these men’s words as much as their actions, their methods of finding and building, that truly help us understand ARK.’  (Stratton 28)  The methods of the naive artists, such as the Cheval Facteur, Raymond Isidore - and later Sam Rodia and James Hampton - were to follow a vision, and to use whatever was at hand - rocks, shards of glass and tile, discarded cardboard and tinfoil - and to turn these fragments into private structures that strained towards paradise.

     Johnson would do the same.  His monument, to be dedicated ‘Bison bison bison (imagine it so carved),’ and to be placed - ‘if place could be put’ - on the prairies of his native Kansas, between Ashland and Dodge City, over Jacob’s Well, has a physical shape:

The model in my head includes 3 books of 33 sections: The Foundations, The Spires, and The Outworks, then eventually that rewriting of Paradise Lost by excision (the first 4 sections published in 1977 as RADI OS) which when complete will mark ARK 100 - conceived as kind of Dymaxion Dome over the whole.

    ... With stones of words and mortar of song ...

    Inscribed over the portals would be these quotes from Cheval and Isidore: (quoted in Stratton 28-9)


At this point in the note, Johnson repeats the source texts for THE SPIRIT WALKS, THE ROCKS WILL TALK (which are included as part of the FlashPoint text, as they are in previous printings).  At least in 1982, when the above note was written, Johnson saw the statements by Cheval and Isidore as central to the conception of ARK.  As Stratton suggests, the statements were ‘fragments’ that Johnson picked up in France, as Cheval and Isidore had picked up stray rocks and bits of glass, and he took these fragments, and made ‘eccentric translations’ of them - the poems of THE SPIRIT WALKS - just as he would use other found fragments and ‘shards of language’ to create the elegant architecture of his long poem.  In this tiny collection, we see the light bulb switch on in Johnson’s mind, and the conception of ARK take place.

     Despite its importance to Johnson’s oeuvre, THE SPIRIT WALKS has been out of print for thirty years.  It first appeared in 1969 as a limited edition pamphlet issued by the Jargon Society, with marbled paper covers, illustrations by Guy Davenport, and an unusual typographic arrangement - designed by Jonathan Williams - of blue and red type printed letterpress on orange paper.  The edition consisted of 500 copies signed by Johnson and Davenport, most of which were sent out as greetings to Jargon patrons.  The ‘translations’ were reprinted in the little magazine TUATARA 10 in the summer of 1973.  The typography and formatting, as compared to the eccentricities of the Jargon pamphlet, were wholly conventional. THE SPIRIT WALKS has been out of print ever since, waiting to be included in a future volume of Johnson’s collected shorter poems.

     In the meantime, Peter O’Leary - Johnson’s literary executor - has kindly given FlashPoint permission to make THE SPIRIT WALKS available to a wider audience.  Hopefully this online publication will bridge the gap until this work can join Johnson’s other short poems in book form.

Works Referenced:

Johnson, Ronald.  ‘A Note’, included at the end of ARK.  Albuquerque, NM: Living   Batch Press, 1996.  This edition of ARK does not have page numbers.

---.  ‘The Planting of the Rod of Aaron.’  In NORTHERN LIGHTS: Studies in Creativity,   No. 2, 1985-6.  University of Maine at Presque Isle, 1986.

---.  THE SPIRIT WALKS, THE ROCKS WILL TALK: Eccentric Translations from TwoEccentrics. With vignettes by Guy Davenport.  Designed by Jonathan Williams.  The Jargon Society, 1969.

---.  THE SPIRIT WALKS, THE ROCKS WILL TALK: Eccentric Translations from TwoEccentrics. Published in TUATARA 10, Summer 1973.  pp. 2-9.

Scroggins, Mark.  LOUIS ZUKOFSKY AND THE POETRY OF KNOWLEDGE.  Tuscaloosa:  University of Alabama Press, 1998.  Chapter 11 of this book is in part dedicated to a discussion of Johnson’s work.

Stratton, Dirk.  RONALD JOHNSON.  Boise: Boise State University, 1996.  A brief but useful introduction to Johnson’s work, which includes occasional quotations from letters from Johnson to the author.