In the spirit of our Undersung series on the great-but-somewhat-unnoticed poets, Denise Low, former poet laureate of Kansas, pens here a passionate, erudite essay on the late Kansas poet Ronald Johnson, as she says, a second-generation Black Mountain poet, who invented a brilliant “cascade” structure for his poems. I love this essay for its close reading of the text, its technical expertise and for its consciousness of tradition and influence. It seems to me that unless you have read for years and studied hard the territory of poetry can seem dauntingly homogeneous. But an essay like this sets out a part of the map. It’s also a part of the map with which I feel an affinity, the San Francisco poets (I practically memorized Kenneth Rexroth’s Autobiographical Novel at one point) and the Black Mountain poets (reading Charles Olson taught me about place and the economy of the parenthetical). I even brushed up against this world (which still seems distant) personally having once had the opportunity to interview the poet Robin Blaser. In any case, what I mean to say is read the essay! Think about the traditions, the landscapes and the form.
In the mid-1990s I saw poet Kenneth Irby at the Lawrence public library, a brief encounter over book shelves, and he mentioned the Kansas poet Ronald Johnson had moved to Topeka. This was the first I heard of Johnson, who had just returned from the San Francisco Bay Area. This lumberyard worker’s son, born in 1935, is one of the most influential second-generation Black Mountain poets. Indeed, he and Irby (born in 1936) both were influenced by Charles Olson’s geography-informed poetics; Robert Duncan’s experience of occultism; and the synergy of the Bay Area during the 1960s-70s.
Johnson wrote one of the first and most influential erasure poems, RADI OS, in 1977 (Sand Dollar Press). For this project, Johnson found copies of Paradise Lost in used bookstores and erased words on each page to create his own text. He experimented with concrete poetry, and he wrote the epic ARK (Northpoint Press, 1980, and Dutton, 1984) in the tradition of Ezra Pound, H.D., and Louis Zukofsky.
His influence is considerable, and as his work becomes more widely available, it will grow. Peter O’Leary, his literary executor, has edited new editions of Shrubberies (2001), RADI OS (2005), and most recently ARK (2013). All of these are from Flood Editions. Kenneth Spencer Research Library at the University of Kansas houses the Ronald Johnson archives, where first editions and journals are available.
Johnson’s last work, The Shrubberies, has apparently modest dimensions, short poems of two to fourteen lines. Nonetheless, the collection innovates a poetic form influenced by botany and optics.
This last work, written from 1994 to 1998, is Johnson’s “own elegy,” his final project, written with full awareness of his own mortality (Naylor 507). He had returned in 1993 to care for his father, but within months he collapsed with symptoms of his own final illness (O’Leary 128). He worked part-time as a groundskeeper and handy man at a public garden in Topeka, and so plants were in his daily sight. The Shrubberies grew to “perhaps 300 poems” (O’Leary 128). The resulting posthumous book, “pruned” by his friend and editor O’Leary, is 125 poems, arranged chronologically for the most part (128). I am most interested in the optics, especially mirrored binary structures, in the poems. Binary couplings appear throughout the work, including life / death, natural / cultural, light / dark—“oscillation between light and dark” (Naylor 513)—and belief / disbelief—“stanzas of belief / strewn with disbelief” (Shrubberies 55).
Johnson does not declare his overall arrangement for the book-length collection of poems in explicit terms, and Naylor see the book as “a long, unfinished series” (507). O’Leary selected a poem from the middle of the manuscript for the opening poem, following Johnson’s own direction: “I have not altered the order of the poems in the manuscript, with the exception of the first poem, which is to be found in the middle of the manuscript. Although it was not the first poem composed, Johnson marked it with the marginal notation: ‘beginning’” (130). The rest is a chronological sequence, with some references to seasons and garden tours, so some temporal and spatial ordering do occur (O’Leary 128). However, because Johnson gardened, I believe he set a master plan, probably in his mind as gardeners plot out their beds before sketching them on graph paper. Johnson structured all his major works deliberately, like the concrete poem projects or the RADI OS erasure based on Paradise Lost. His open-ended plan for Shrubberies is a deliberate if not closed system. He understood the organic composition of a garden and its imperfect symmetries.
The poem Johnson chose to open the book creates a template for physical construction of the rest of the book’s poems, at micro- and macro-levels. Here is the first The Shrubberies poem in its entirety:
mostly circadian rhythms
“and words to jointly knit”
a series of circumlocutions
eye in the eye of things
mirror cascade of asphodel
yet delight in spectacle (1)
The most important trope is “mirror cascade.” This splicing of two similar but unlike things joins opposites—human-constructed “mirror” and the parallel term “cascade,” a natural water feature. This parallels how a mirror reflects a Plato’s cave dyad: flat cave wall reflection and its intangible and complex physical form.
The opening two lines set the pattern of balance between natural and imaginative qualities: “Circadian” references human measurement of daily cycles, in latinate vocabulary—Johnson used European tropes as the deep text within his writings. “Rhythm” is abstraction of time intervals, vague and unquantifiable. The quotation “and words to jointly knit” is from Richard Tottill’s description of Queen Elizabeth I’s acceptance speech for a gift, a purse of gold, presented in a public procession. This was just before her coronation, January 12, 1558-9. Tottill described the great woman’s rhetorical craft: “. . . if it moved an extraordinary shout [from the crowd] and rejoicing, it is not to be marvelled at, since both the heartiness thereof was wonderful, and the words so jointly knit.” Johnson “jointly knits” his own procession through a rhetorical garden of delights.
Nature and culture interweave in the work and in this poem, with language as the medium. Johnson’s choice of “circumlocutions,” in the third line emphasizes speaking around meanings, as in riddles, and the concise poem-lets are indeed like word games. This set of poems is a “series,” writes the poet, not just isolate occurrences.
Next, the poet is the human “eye” or “I” or “aye” within “the eye of things”—and despite his dire health, Johnson, found affirmation, and indeed “delight,” through his inner- and outer-directed sight.
But most important are the last two lines. The “asphodel,” or white asphodel, is a plant associated with death in Greek mythology. Robert Glen Webb agrees that Johnson felt his mortality as he opened The Shrubberies with this flower symbol: “I’ve always felt the asphodel had the echo of the Greek Asphodel Meadows and thus his foreknowledge of death.” The spectacular spike-like asphodel has myriad small blooms, each with five sharp petals. Their translucent, white texture would reflect that hue intensely in direct Kansas summer solstice sunlight, with sap visible through the light-colored petals. The effect would be a clump of prisms, so indeed asphodel is a “mirror cascade.”
So the entire The Shrubberies cascades, one page after another. Poems are similar but not identical, like Kant’s mitten pairs. Johnson himself writes of his use of accretions and bricolage. He described Sam Rodia’s building Watts Towers, as “realm of mosaic” and used it as a model for his deliberately built ARK (311-2). But cascading tiles are linked even more closely to each other than mosaic pieces. They have intentional overlaps and reflections of parts. They create a more liquid effect, like waterfalls. To emphasize this fluidity, the poet uses no line capitals or end punctuation, so the individual verses read as a continuous sequence, all parts of the whole stream. Poems were interchangeable parts because of their shared structures. Johnson did not know the final make-up of the book, but any assembling order would create his “cascade” effect.
The poetics itself is mirror-based. The lines have a binary, reflective quality within themselves, and the sequence from one line to the next is a continuum. This entire opening poem has a doubled quality, a mirrored symmetry. At each level—from line to couplets to entire poem—the composition is like paper snowflake cutouts, made by folding paper in half to create repeated patterns. This initial poem has three beats to the line, asymmetrical, with perhaps the fold in the middle of the line.
Match-ups within lines are: “circadian” and “rhythms”; “’words’” and “’knit’”; “series” and “circumlocutions”; “eye” and “eye of things”; “mirror cascade” and “asphodel”; “delight” and spectacle.” The pairs repeat each other, and the lines, one after another, re-contextualize the ideas and sounds of the line before. Lines one, three, and five, use latinate terms—circadian, circumlocution, “cascade of asphodel.”Even-numbered lines two and four have one-syllable Anglo Saxon words like “words,” “knit,” “eye,” and “things.” The poem ends with a rhyming couplet, end-words being “asphodel” and “spectacle.” Latinate and Anglo Saxon words balance in the first four lines, and the ending couplet is its own sets of more cultivated Graeco-Roman-based words.
Another couplet illustrates this bisymmetry, not quite half-way through the collection: “a plummet depth / death plumed / heights prized / into Empyrean” (60). Here deep earth—the site of graves—couples with flames of the Greek heaven, where fire originates. “Plummet” is a fall, while plumes are agents of flight. Indeed, the next poem takes up the mirrored themes of human and natural, with the opening line “tigered orange & black / a gathering of Monarchs.” The themes of “spectacle” and royal procession overlap this as well.
And so the cascade moves forward, from one sight to the next, from one dance of verse to the next. The entire poem is overlapping, paired lines, stanzas and individual poems. Bradin Cormack describes the mirror-like quality of lines in a later The Shrubberies poem: “The way that one body mirrors another is an instance of the repetition whereby the singular moment or event is preserved even as it is woven into a complete and recursive whole” (521). Each poem is an individual reflecting tile, assembled into a spire of a larger aggregate. The model of the asphodel spiked blooms is both regular and irregular, an overlapping of natural and cultivated geometries. Kenneth Irby did visit with Johnson briefly, during the composing of The Shrubberies, and they had brief correspondence. From both Kansas-by-way-of-Black-Mountain poets I learn to look closely at each word, how each evokes etymological lineages, other imperfect and overlapping sequences.
Based on comments presented on the occasion of the Kenneth Spencer Research Library- Special Collections exhibit of Ronald Johnson manuscripts, 16 April 2013.
Cormack, Bradin. “A Syntax of Vision: The Last Poems of Ronald Johnson.” Ronald Johnson: Life and Works,” ed. Joel Bettridge and Eric Murphy Selinger. Orono: National Poetry Foundation, 2008. 517-528.
Johnson, Ronald. ARK. Chicago: Flood Editions, 20013.
—–. The Shrubberies. Edited by Peter O’Leary. Chicago: Flood Editions, 2001.
Naylor, Paul. “After ARK.” Ronald Johnson: Life and Works,” ed. Joel Bettridge and Eric Murphy Selinger. Orono: National Poetry Foundation, 2008. 505-516.
O’Leary, Peter. “Afterword.” The Shrubberies by Ronald Johnson. Chicago: Flood Editions, 2001: 127-31.
Tottill, Richard. “The Passage of our most drad Sovereigne Ladye Queene Elyzabeth through the Citie of London to Westminster, the day before her Coronation, Anno 1558. Imprinted at London in Flete Streete, within Temple-Barre, at the Signe of the Hand and Starre, by Richard Tottill, the WWIIII day of January, quoted in John Gough Nichols’s compilations of accounts of royal processions – 1837 – City of London (England) p. 57
Webb, Robert Glenn. Personal correspondence. 1 April 2013.
Denise Low, 2nd Kansas Poet Laureate, has published 25 books, including Ghost Stories (The Circle -Best Native Am. Books of 2010; Ks. Notable Book). Heath Fisher writes: “Filled with vivid imagery of the land and the culture, and both verse and prose, Ghost Stories is an enchanting tribute to the plains and the history (Rain Taxi). Low’s Natural Theologies: Essays (The Backwaters Press, 2012) is the first critical review of mid-plains literature. Mary Harwell Sayler writes: “The literature of the ‘New Middle West’ seems to adapt, innovate, and follow Low’s insightful view” (Rattle). Low is a former board member and past president of AWP. She writes articles, blogs, and reviews and also publishes a small press, Mammoth. A critical article on the poetics of Kenneth Irby is forthcoming from Jacket 2. Her heritages include British Isles, Delaware, and German. Recent writings appear in American Life in Poetry, Yellow Medicine Rev., Virginia Q. Rev. New Letters, Yukhika-latuhse, Unraveling the Spreading Cloth of Time (rENEGADE pLANET), I Was Indian (Foot Hills), I-70. You can find Denise Low on the web at http://deniselow.blogspot.com and www.deniselow.com.