The introduction to this book did exactly what any introduction to a selection of poetry should do: made me very, very excited to discover the poetry within. Contextualizing it in the Olsonian projective verse tradition, and then explaining how Johnson’s work evolved into the world-wide concrete poetry movement, before finally emerging into a “big” poem he imagined in the tradition of A, The Cantos, and The Maximus Poems. I was absolutely enticed, and some of my anxiety (that it was going to be all Christian/religious/transcendental poetry, given the title) was relieved.
This book is a selection of the complete poems of Ronald Johnson, a poet I hadn’t heard of before this book. It starts collecting some of his early work, which I actually rather enjoyed against all odds. Influenced by the Black Mountain poets, it is a kind of American bucolic, but without the romanticization of a lost wilderness, etc. And in quite interesting language, peppered with quotations in a collaging gesture that I like a lot.
Then I sort of lose interest for a while – the concrete stuff is interesting, and in general I like exploring the possibilities of concrete poetry, but I’ve been spoiled by the successes of the Portuguese- and Spanish-language traditions of concrete poetry and so found this a little wanting. I loved the idea of an ekphrastic poem for a piece of music (an idea I’ve been contemplating in recent weeks) but didn’t think the concrete form was the best for the idea.
Then, into ARK, the “big” poem, selections of which take up about 1/3 of the collection. It was….fine. I loved BEAM 30, ‘The Garden’ from which the title of the collection is taken. But BEAM 21, 22, 23 which includes a kind of acrostic of the Psalms, grew tedious. And the ARK poems didn’t hold my attention either. The nearly randomly juxtaposed lines didn’t open to possibility in the way I’d hoped for. There was something almost arbitrary about them.
Anyways, I’ll be discussing this book with some friends later today so perhaps my understanding of it will change based on their insights. I loved a couple of poems in the collection: The Unfoldings, and BEAM 30. I found some absolutely stunning phrases and ideas peppered throughout. But as a whole I felt something ineffable was lacking.