A "mosaic of Cosmos": Bricolage in Ronald Johnson's ARK
A "mosaic of Cosmos": Bricolage in Ronald Johnson's ARK
I wanted ["The Ramparts] to be constructed in a way so that I could get a source anywhere, from any source whatsoever, a word spoken, a word read, a sight, whatever, so that I could make a mosaic out of it.
- Ronald Johnson[i]
Begun in the 1970s and finished in the early 90s, Ronald Johnson's ARK is a significant, if somewhat overlooked, contribution to the American modernist canon. ARK consists of three books—"The Foundations," "The Spires," and "The Ramparts"—each of which is comprised of thirty-three poems. A complete edition was published in 1996 by Gus Blaisdell's The Living Batch Press. Drawing extensively on contemporary science and American Transcendentalism, ARK is, above all, a cosmological poem that posits and celebrates world and mind as cosmos—as an ordered or harmonious whole.
Johnson's sense of cosmos in ARK pertinently echoes the ideas expressed by the depth-psychologist James Hillman in his essay "Alchemical Blue." According to Hillman:
The world is as we see it in our dreams and poems, visions and paintings, a world that is truly a cosmos, cosmetically adorned, an aesthetic event for the senses because they have become instruments of imagining.[ii]
Like Hillman, ARK posits the world as "an aesthetic event for the senses" whose multifarious phenomena provide the eclectic "instruments of imagining" which offer insight and revelation about the nature and mysteries of the universe.
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Cosmos as an aesthetic event: as adornment, embellishment, and arrangement. The cosmetic implications of cosmology become evident when we begin to examine the ways in which Johnson maps his own cosmographies in ARK. What I want to discuss today are the ways in which Johnson uses a poetics based on bricolage—which denotes the eclectic practice of making new objects out of found material—to create, what he calls in "ARK 99," a "mosaic of Cosmos."[iii] For, throughout ARK's 99 poems Johnson tessellates and cements a range of subjects and themes—natural history, biology, physics, light, vision, the mind, art, literature, music, myth and the numinous, along with the truncated shards of personal history—into his ambitious cosmology. Like the Transcendentalists before him, Johnson is essentially a world-builder presenting, in the form of ARK, a vision of how the external world interacts and corresponds with the interior regions of the mind. Furthermore, Johnson's recourse to Transcendentalist inspired cosmography in ARK and the bricolage poetics he uses to build his visions, indicates a growing ambivalence about the American modernist tradition as Johnson's "mosaic of Cosmos" tacitly revises and questions dominant modernist ideas concerning history and individual experience.
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Johnson's ambivalence about the American modernist tradition is evident in the Note he appends to the complete edition of ARK. In it Johnson tentatively situates ARK within a Poundian heritage:
To spend twenty odd years writing a poem, undeterred by risks and shipwrecks of those before, would seem sheer folly. They stand before me, great obstacles. Pound, only a long afternoon in Venice, waving his cane farewell in sparkling background the canal he associated with the writing of A Lume Spento . . .W.C.W. maybe a half-dozen visits to Rutherford, when a student at Columbia, rife with sparky theories for the American vernacular. . . More closely, Zukofsky and Olson, braving new schemes for language—the Minimalist and the Maximus—such opposing poles of influence: parities (ARK: "A Note").
Like Bunting in "On the Fly-Leaf of Pound's Cantos" Johnson sees these modernist forbears as "obstacles" that have to be confronted if one is to get beyond them.
However, after establishing this Poundian tradition, Johnson then distances himself from it by asserting his own maverick spirit:
But I knew I'd my own tack to take. If my confreres wanted to write a work with all history in its maw, I wished, from the beginning, to start all over again, attempting to know nothing but a will to create, and matter at hand (ARK: "A Note").
This attempt to start all over again and know nothing, puts ARK at opposite poles to The Cantos and Pound's attempt to retrieve a European culture that he believes has gone to Hell. As Pound remarks to Donald Hall in 1967:
If I am being "crucified for an idea"—that is, the coherent idea around which my muddles accumulated—it is probably the idea that European culture ought to survive, that the best qualities of it ought to survive along with whatever other cultures in whatever universality.[iv]
Where Pound is retrospective in The Cantos, keen to retain the "best qualities" of a European culture in decline, Johnson's scope in ARK is wide-eyed, contingent, and prospective. Yet, Johnson's attempt "to know nothing" and start from scratch is not wilful ignorance but, rather, an idealistic innocence that recalls the Adamic, New World, optimism of nineteenth century Transcendentalism, particularly Emerson's desire in Nature to "enjoy an original relation with the universe."[v]
Johnson's claim that ARK is composed surreptitiously from what comes to hand also reveals his strong affinities with bricolage. This mode of praxis defines numerous activities and crafts: from the assemblage art of Kurt Schwitters and Jess to numerous forms of folk and outsider art: in particular, memory-jugs and visionary or vernacular art environments such as Le Facteur Cheval's Ideal Palace in France. Claude Lévi-Strauss in The Savage Mind defines the bricoleur as "someone who works with his hands and uses devious means compared to those of a craftsman." He emphasises that, "the rules of the [bricoleur's] game are always to make do with 'whatever is at hand,' that is to say with a set of tools and materials which is always finite and is also heterogeneous."[vi] The bricoleur tends to utilise the worthless discards and by-products of consumerism—glass, ceramics, toys, scrap metal—and coarse inexpensive materials such as concrete, rock, and lumber. Thus, bricolage is a resourceful praxis borne out of circumstance, stealth, and contingency.
A striking example of bricolage is The Watts Towers, a visionary environment built by the Italian labourer Simon Rodia in Los Angeles. Johnson claims that the Towers gave him "a new armature of possibilities" for his own designs in ARK. Built single-handedly by Rodia over a period of thirty years, the Towers are constructed out of the material he salvaged in and around the Watts district in LA. This material includes broken bottles, ceramics, and shells—all of which Rodia cemented into the brightly elaborate mosaics adorning the Towers' spires, sculptures, walls and arches.
It is this kind of praxis that Johnson adopts in ARK. And, while ARK may seem initially to utilise similar principles to Pound's ideogrammic method (i.e., the juxtaposition of "luminous details") it is the type of material that Johnson uses and the function it serves that sets ARK apart from poems like The Cantos. For, essentially, bricolage provides Johnson a way of bypassing the problems he identifies in the modernist long poem. Dissatisfied with the pedagogical agendas implicated in Pound's referencing in The Cantos, Johnson envisions ARK as a poem that uses quotation pragmatically and innocuously (despite whatever devious means it is acquired). Quotation is seen as the raw building material for a poem conceived as the literary equivalent of a vernacular environment. Recalling Goethe's suggestion that "architecture is frozen music," Johnson claims that ARK is, "Literally an architecture ["?] fitted together with shards of language, in a kind of cement of music" (ARK: "A Note"). And, because of the practical nature of quotation in ARK, Johnson is insistent that "nowhere does it require arcane learning like The Cantos, Maximus, "A", etc."[vii]
The notebooks that Johnson kept from the early 1970s through to the early 90s while writing ARK exemplify this pragmatism. These notebooks are spontaneous, sketchy affairs in which literary quotes jostle with material sourced from less prestigious, more quotidian, contexts such as fragments of speech copied down from television programmes. In one, from 1986, Johnson scans a phrase from a television advert for odour eaters.
"tamé ferˇcious snéaker ˇdor" [sic]
- and they call me"... [viii]
Johnson's scansion of the fragment indicates how he is looking at textual material practically: in this particular instance, scanning the fragment's iambs and trochees. Perhaps it was the soft stresses in "sneaker" and "odour" that caught Johnson's attention, or the vowel rhymes in "ferocious" and "odour." Although the quote isn't actually used in ARK, it does demonstrate Johnson's pragmatic use of quotation and indicate the way the meaning of a phrase can change when used out of context. "Tame ferocious," for example, becomes something of an oxymoron if "tame" is read as an adjective rather than a verb. Johnson's scansion and the syntactic ambiguity that ensues from such truncated quotation illustrates how it is not simply semantic content that he is concerned with, but also the prosodic effects of quotation. Indeed, the distinctive tetrameter in "tame ferocious"?" is ubiquitous in many of ARK's poems.
Similar practices are implemented throughout ARK. In "ARK 60, Fireworks I," for example—included on your handout—Johnson quotes from one of Abraham Lincoln's Messages to Congress.
"Will light us down
to the latest generation"
vast smithy spray
ignite to day
scribe sky, spark clay
In its original context, Lincoln's message, delivered to Congress on December 1st 1862, reads: "The fiery trial through which we pass will light us; in honour or dishonour, down to the latest generation." The quote refers to Lincoln's concluding remarks concerning the ideals of the Union, and his speculations about the way those ideals will be perceived by the rest of the world, and history at large.
By excising the moral subtext of Lincoln's phrase—"in honour or dishonour"—Johnson manipulates the quote to fit the context of a fireworks display. The solemn urgency of Lincoln's speech is radically diffused, so that the hazardous "fiery trial" of a political ideal becomes, instead, a fiery display of pyrotechnics, perhaps, as part of Independence Day celebrations. Thus, the lines "Will light us down / to the latest generation" now suggests the momentary illumination of a night sky filled with exploding fireworks which "ignite to day." This reading of the Lincoln quote is reinforced by the new context in which it is put to work as Johnson likens the exuberant display of exploding fireworks to the scintillating sparks of a smith's anvil.
But Lincoln also transfigures the fireworks into something far more revelatory, even apocalyptic. For, Lincoln evokes the figure of Adam, who appears throughout ARK, as the first human. Significantly, as Adam Kadmon in Jewish Kabbalah, this figure represents "the first configuration of divine light."[ix] Thus, as well as suggesting a golem—the animated creature in Jewish folklore made from clay—Johnson's phrase "spark clay," also evokes Adam; who likewise is formed from the earth. In this respect, Lincoln's words "latest generation" pertinently echo the generations of Adam enumerated in Genesis. Furthermore, the awe and wonder that the fireworks elicit not only become analogous for the kind of wonder witnessed by Adam—the first human—but also imply that we all still retain something of that prelapsarian light within us. Thus, the spectator finds themselves, to quote Johnson in "ARK 61": "back in the Garden / no Fall before." With that Adamic light continuing to illuminate "us down / to the latest generation," Johnson proposes that it is still possible "'To do as Adam did'" and behold the world with wonder, as if for the first time.
Indeed, bricolage encourages us to read ARK with innocent Adamic eyes. In contrast to Pound in The Cantos or Olson in Maximus, Johnson places little emphasis on the provenance of his quoted material. The contextural properties of quotation (the effect it has on the poem's surface texture and sound) are more important in ARK than its contextual properties; the intertextual and referential significance they might afford the poem. Johnson may very well be making an assumption about Lincoln as an American Adam, who, in his Message to Congress urged his country to "think anew, and act anew." However, in order to understand this section from "ARK 60" Johnson does not imply that we need to school ourselves in Lincoln in order to elucidate the poem. Rather, we read Lincoln in the new, scintillating light of Johnson's poem.
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This apparently na´ve approach to quotation has significant implications for Johnson's reassessment of the modernist long poem and ARK's cosmographies. Essentially, Johnson's Adamic imperatives in ARK stem from his desire to write a major long poem that, in contrast to his modernist predecessors, is without history. Misattributing to Olson Pound's remark that an epic is "a poem containing history," Johnson asserts his own approach to history in his interview with Peter O'Leary.
Olson said that an epic is a poem with history. Zukofsky put a lot of contemporary history and Marxist politics into his poem. William Carlos Williams had a topography, a history of all of the people around him, you know, kind of a Whitman, he was a new Whitman. But I thought that ARK would be like the Watts Towers, like the Ideal Palace of the Facteur Cheval. I wanted it to be without history, that it was constructed of things in my time. It's just filled with snippets: things from books, things on television. When there was a good nature program on, sometimes I got a Rampart or two [laughs]. I keep my ears open and my eyes open and when I see or hear something I write it down in my notebook. [x]
But can a poem constructed largely out of found material be innocent of history? Levi-Strauss notes with regard to the bricoleur's materials that "the possibilities always remain limited by the particular history of each piece and by those of its features which are already determined by the use for which it was originally intended or the modifications it has undergone for other purposes."[xi] In other words, the bricoleur's material retains traces of its prior history despite the new uses it is put to.
For an artist like Rodia whose bricolage asserts a spirit of individuality against the homogenising effects of late-twentieth consumerism, this is something of a paradox. Writing on the Watts Towers, Roger Cardinal remarks that: "The surrounding wall is high enough to dismiss the outer world from one's consciousness" making the site a kind of enclosed concrete garden "which nourishes the sense of wonderment and refuses the ordinariness of its suburban context."[xii] But, Rodia's Towers do not entirely dismiss the outer world or completely refuse their surrounding suburban context. Rather, Rodia reuses those ordinary contexts by exploiting the by-products of a society that his Towers defiantly transcend. Rather than being mere escapism, Rodia's Towers transfigure and transform their material, redeeming the worthless matter of American consumerism into the creative gold of a compelling counter vision. Thus, in their recycling of such worthless matter, the Towers assume a regenerative, even redemptive, quality. As Erika Dross writes with regard to vernacular environments, "creative difference challenges the presence and authority, the predictability, of the nation's cultural mainstream. Yet, it also enlivens it, reshaping and regenerating—reinventing—American culture, and America itself."[xiii]
Johnson's use of quotation in ARK follows a similar principle of transmutation and redemption. Quoting what appears to be Jacob Boehme in "ARK 98," Johnson writes:
frome byss to abyss
all elements transfigured,
give voice to prophecy
But what exactly is it that is transfigured in ARK and what does it prophesy? Despite his claims to the contrary, Johnson's poem does in fact contain history, even if he doesn't acknowledge it as such. However, ARK is not interested in the "books, arms / And men of unusual genius" which occupy The Cantos.[xiv] Rather, ARK's idea of history is closer in spirit to the democratic vistas of Whitman and what Emerson, in "The American Scholar," calls "the near, the common, the low" (N 101).
I ask not for the great, the remote, the romantic; what is doing in Italy or Arabia; what is Greek art, or Provenšal minstrelsy; I embrace the common, I explore and sit at the feet of the familiar, the low. Give me insight into to-day, and you may have the antique and future worlds.[xv]
Indeed, Emerson provides a useful vantage point for understanding the prophetic and cosmological aspirations of ARK. Throughout his first series of Essays, Emerson repeatedly asserts that prophecy arises from the quotidian and vernacular and encourages us to heed the present, "this thought, this hour, this connection of events."[xvi] To press this point, Emerson claims in his essay "History" that there is no history, only biography:
The world exists for the education of each man. There is no age or state of society or mode of action in history to which there is not somewhat a corresponding in his life. Everything tends in a wonderful manner to abbreviate itself and yield its own virtue to him. He should see that he can live all history in his own person.[xvii]
It is not egotism that Emerson proposes when he talks of individual experience but a larger ontology—"the universal mind"—of which, he says, "each individual man is one more incarnation" and "nothing less than the miniature paraphrase of the hundred volumes of the Universal History."[xviii] In any individual's life, Emerson writes in "Intellect," "the greatest part is incalculable by him, unforeseen, unimaginable, and must be, until he can take himself up by the ears."[xix] Thus, for Emerson, "history is an impertinence and an injury if it be any thing more than a cheerful apologue or parable of my being and becoming."[xx] Anything that distracts or obstructs the individual from verifying the facts of history in their own private experience distorts history and prevents the individual from truly knowing themselves as a portion of a greater ontological reality; as an integral part of a wider cosmology.
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To conclude, in ARK it is a matter of how one perceives and values the ordinary as the portentous facts of the extraordinary. As Thoreau—the very cornerstone of ARK—writes in his Journal: "The question is not what you look at—but how you look & whether you see."[xxi] And, for Johnson, how one sees can change the world:
The artist or scientist or philosopher sets out to find something new in the world so the world will never be the same again, what Emily Dickinson calls: "a certain slant of light."[xxii]
ARK's visionary bricolage repeatedly casts transfiguring slants of light on the old world, encouraging its readers to re-engage with the bright and wonderful things found therein and see, however momentarily, the wonder and splendour of a new world. What Emerson writes in "Self-Reliance" stands as a fitting motto for Johnson in ARK and all the bricoleur's who have realised their creative visions in the discards of a society they seek to resist: "Abide in the simple and noble regions of thy life, obey thy heart, and thou shalt reproduce the Foreworld again." [xxiii]
[i] Ronald Johnson interview with Peter O'Leary, 1995 in Joel Bettridge and Eric Murphy Selinger, eds. Ronald Johnson: Life and Works (Orono, Maine: The National Poetry Foundation, 2008), 564.
[ii] James Hillman, "Alchemical Blue and the Unio Mentalis," Sulfur: A Literary TriQuarterly of the Whole Art (1981). Reprinted online: pantheatre.free.fr/pages/writings_blue_gb.rtf.
[iii] Ronald Johnson, ARK (Albuquerque: Living Batch Press, 1996), np.
[iv] Ezra Pound interviewed by Donald Hall ("The Art of Poetry" No.5) Paris Review 28 (Summer/Fall 1962), 28. Online: http://www.theparisreview.org/media/4598_POUND.pdf.
[v] Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature and Selected Writings, ed. Larzer Ziff (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2003), 35.
[vi] Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Savage Mind (London: Widenfield and Nicholson, 1966), 16-17.
[vii] Ronald Johnson, undated letter (typescript). Courtesy of the Literary Estate of Ronald Johnson.
[viii] Ronald Johnson, Arches Notebook c. 1986. Courtesy of the Literary Estate of Ronald Johnson.
[ix] Gershom Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (New York: Schoken Books, 1974), 265.
[x] Ronald Johnson interview with Peter O'Leary, 563.
[xi] Lévi-Strauss, The Savage Mind, 19.
[xii] Roger Cardinal, Outsider Art (London: Studio Vista, 1972), 172.
[xiii] Erika Dross, "Wandering the Old Weird America: Poetic Musings and Pilgrimage Perspectives on Vernacular Art Environments" in Leslie Umberger, ed., Sublime Spaces and Visionary Worlds: Built Environments of Vernacular Artists (New York and Sheboygan, Wisconsin: Princeton Architectural Press and John Michael Kohler Arts Center, 2008), 29-31.
[xiv] Ezra Pound, The Cantos (London: Faber and Faber, 1997), 51.
[xv] Emerson, Nature and Selected Writings, 102.
[xvi] Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essays: First and Second Series (London: J .M Dent, 1938), 181.
[xvii] Emerson, Nature and Selected Writings, 152.
[xviii] Ibid., 150. Emerson, Essays, 185.
[xix] Ibid., 181.
[xx] Emerson, Nature and Selected Essays, 189.
[xxi] Henry David Thoreau, A Year in Thoreau's Journal, ed. H. Daniel Peck (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1995), 147.
[xxii] Ronald Johnson, Notebook c.1995. Courtesy of the Literary Estate of Ronald Johnson.
[xxiii] Emerson, Nature and Selected Essays, 199.