Saturday, June 04, 2005

Before I headed out last Wednesday for a few days of birding along the Eastern Shore & Tred Avon river in Maryland, I got a note from Peter O’Leary about my comments on Ronald Johnson’s Radi Os that I thought readers here would want to see. Peter has kindly agreed.


Dear Ron/

 I was happy, as ever, to see you write about Ronald Johnson. I agree that this new publication of Radi os is something great, returning to availability a book that is better known than actually read, if only because the original edition is so scarce.

  I'm writing to expand on some of the points you bring up in your post from May 25, & to clear up some misperceptions.

  Radi os was originally intended to inaugurate a complete excision of all twelve books of Paradise Lost. When Radi os was published in 1977, Ron was already seven years into the composition of what was then called "WOR(L)DS," but which he would retitle ARK (note the spelling, which is always in all-caps). Given the scope & scale he was imagining for ARK, it was natural for him to include Radi os into the master plan for that poem.

 Toward that end, he continued to work, somewhat sporadically from what I can gather, on Radi os, producing typescripts for books V - IX & doing the initial crossings-out for books X - XII. However, as he completed ARK in the early 1990s, he decided that he was only repeating what he had discovered in Radi os as published in 1977. Not wanting the redundancy, he let the project go.

 Ron never intended to publish those additional excisions, nor do I. I'm glad they exist, & I suspect they will be of interest to curious scholars somewhere in the future, but with Radi os, as is, he achieved what he set out to accomplish. One of Ron's strengths as a poet is that he knew when to stop - that he was a stringent editor of his own work.

 In the mid-1990s, Ron assembled a collection of poems called The Outworks. As you may know, he experienced some difficulty finding a publisher for ARK. My suspicion is that, somewhat anxious for & frustrated about his work, he put together The Outworks under some stress, hoping to get as much of the available work into print as possible while he could. He even had a contract with a press to publish it, but it became clear it was unlikely ever to appear.

  After Flood Editions agreed to publish the book, I had discussions with its editors - my brother Michael & Devin Johnston. We decided that the problems of this book outweighed its advantages, most especially that it would be a large book for the still-small Flood, & that it brought together work from two very distinct - & different - periods of Ron's career: Radi os from the 1970s & the later work from the 1990s.

 With these thoughts in mind, I decided it would be of more value to re-issue Radi os in a new edition for a new audience. Jeff Clark's amazing design, which is reverent to the first edition of the poem but reimagines it through the new technologies of book design, brings the poem to life again. I hope the book gets read & savored anew.

 This said, Flood will publish a book called The Outworks in the future, which will include the late work Ron intended to surround his vision of ARK, including "Blocks to Be Arranged in a Pyramid" (which, as Tony Tost clarified in his comment to your note on May 25, was indeed written as a progressive sequence, later to be re-imagined as a broadside), some additional later concrete-inspired poems, as well as some uncollected sequences, & a few unpublished poems.

  The day you posted your note, I was in Topeka, Kansas, for the dedication ceremony of a monument for Ron, set in Ward-Meade Park, which is the place where Ron worked during the last years of his life, & where he wrote The Shrubberies. It was an amazing event. Here's a link to a page put up by Washburn University, which is located in Topeka. There are photos there, including a good close-up of the monument itself, another of Jeff Clark's designs - a thing of beauty.