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A "mosaic of Cosmos": ARK's bricolage poetics

 

 

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.

                                                            — Ronald Johnson

 

 

Taking over twenty years to write, Ronald Johnson's long poem ARK (c. 1970-1994) is a major contribution to the American modernist canon and the long poem form. As Robert Creeley points out, ARK "takes its legitimate place with the great works of the century of like kind, Ezra Pound's Cantos, Louis Zukofsky's "A", Charles Olson's Maximus and Robert Duncan's Passages."

 

Like these poets before him, Johnson is committed to the modernist principle of collage. ARK, however, adopts bricolage as its formal mode. Bricolage refers to a range of outsider and folk art practices which fashion new creations from salvaged material. Johnson consistently describes ARK's poetics in these terms, drawing attention to the poem's eclectic range of source material and its function as building material for a poem conceived as the literary equivalent of a visionary environment (Simon Rodia's Watts Towers, for example). 

 

I will discuss how Johnson develops ARK's bricolage in response to the problems he identifies in the modernist long poem typified by The Cantos. Dissatisfied with the pedagogical and socio-political agendas implicated in The Cantos' references, Johnson envisions ARK as a poem that uses quotation innocuously. But can a poem constructed largely out of found material be as innocent of history as Johnson desires? What exactly does Johnson mean by "history" and how does it differ from Pound's understanding of the word? Are Johnson's quotations as "innocent" as he wants us to believe, or do they in fact serve his own concerns and agendas?

 

Ross Hair is a PhD candidate at the University of Southampton writing his thesis on Ronald Johnson.