The Subtractions of Ronald Johnson

Picture the proverbial razor’s edge. Imagine the challenge of traversing its terrible narrowness without tumbling left or right.

Now a needle’s eye: figure the likelihood of passing through it.

Finally, conjure up a mental image (olive skin, kind eyes, scant beard; gaunt face and fishbone chest) of Francis of Assisi, stripped to his loincloth. His father, a well-to-do silk merchant, is near at hand, gawking at the rich garments his son has cast by the wayside. Confused and frightened—soon he’ll be furious—he turns just in time to watch his son pitch himself, headlong and happily, almost feverishly, into an Umbrian snowbank.

Each vision remains a powerful metaphor for the proposition that all spiritual growth is subtractive. There is nothing to be added to our lives, but much of which to let go, to unlearn, to release. Michel de Montaigne, a member of the ruling class, had something like this in mind when, time and again, he confessed a fondness for the company of peasants, and Nobel laureate Halldór Laxness made a map of this sentiment in the cosmic-comic novel Under the Glacier, in which he describes paint peeling off a parsonage wall in layers of surprising and colorful succession.

Ronald Johnson circa 1963

In 1977, Year of the Chia Pet, the American poet Ronald Johnson published the first four books of a long poem entitled Radi os. Left unfinished at the time of his death in 1998, the poem, a subtractive poem, a poem that is practically unknown today, persists as a high point in the thrilling history of American poetry. A species of the found poem, Radi os (which spells a partial erasure of Milton’s Paradise Lost) follows the same ascetic course toward spiritual enlightenment practiced by self-deniers everywhere. Why the poem does this and what it is exactly are yet to be seen. What we can say with assurance is that it is essentially a tardy endeavor in literary modernism.

It will be instructive to approach the poem in light of a few words tipped out from the pen of T. S. Eliot more than a half-century prior to its publication. In an essay alleging to assess the Elizabethan dramatist Philip Massinger, he wrote:

One of the surest of tests is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.

Let’s break this down.

For starters, Thomas Chatterton. A noteworthy case of the immature poet, his reputation rests upon a collection of manuscripts known today as the Rowley poems—assiduous imitations of real poems written by real medieval monks, so convincingly forged upon old parchment that they made a chump of Horace Walpole, who quickly dispensed with Chatterton when he found him out. (Samuel Johnson appreciated the imagination displayed in the enterprise, though we ought to note that he failed to make room for Chatterton in his Lives of the Poets.) All said, no one paid the stripling-poet or his work much mind, which is precisely why, one evening at the age of seventeen, he sat down and supped on a little mound of arsenic. Did he know what his death would do to render the invisible visible? For the Romantics would turn to his specific example in inaugurating the tormented artist archetype, and although he isn’t much read today, Chatterton’s life represents a kind of life that others, especially modern rockstars, would come to emulate.

Still more interesting than Chatterton, however, is a young up-and-comer practicing in our very midst. The poet, an instance of artificial intelligence, goes by the name of code-davinci-002. Feed some basic parameters into the mail slot of its console—ask for “a Philip Larkin poem about people,” for instance—and out slides a poem:

What do people do all day?
Oh, what do people do?
They walk around and around
And then they lie down,
And that is all they do.

Now, there is little to say about this poem. Admittedly, it makes fast friends with the other, often stunted children of parodists—aping Larkin with all the aplomb of the sufficiently saturated. And of course it was written in less than a second. It is true that the English language has never known a poet so swift. But neither has it known one so totally incapable of composition sans some specific point of poetic influence. This code-davinci-002, for now an imitator merely, is assuredly an immature poet. The upshot is that it is unlikely to self-destruct.

If the maturely poetical Eliot sometimes doubted his own abilities, there is no doubt that he considered Ezra Pound, ski mask-clad, il miglior fabbro, a bonafide mature. For Eliot, only a mind such as Pound’s could legitimize such dappled visions as The Waste Land—a poem that rhymes thunder’s clangor with the dental sounds of Sanskrit keywords from the Upanishads. Without Pound, Eliot probably would not have found a form for his masterpiece. Yet he did, they did, and in the process initiated the practice of what is essentially a vital ethics of theft. Pound’s rallying cry to “Make It New” stood, after all, for the mature poet’s vast omnivorous project of ten-armed reading and radiant quotation—of combing across and lifting from the best of every art and age more heroic than one’s own. Ironically, Pound wasn’t the first writer (not even the first American!) to make use of this slogan. It was Henry David Thoreau who’d noted, from the previous century in his cabin at Walden Pond, “that characters were engraven on the bathing tub of king Tching-thang to this effect: ‘Renew thyself completely each day; do it again, and again, and forever again.’”

It is slightly perplexing, maybe even a little irritating, that Eliot seems to accord maturity to the bad poet. But then, it would appear that stealing is but a beginning. Watch, Eliot says, as the bad poet thieves and then does a bang-up job of botching the grafting process, so that the pieces refuse to fit.

Every reader of Roger Shattuck’s The Banquet Years remembers the electric effect of its eleventh chapter. Such a text asks us to forget for a moment the concomitant acts of Taking and Making, suggesting in place a modernism that meant, more than anything, moving away from an aesthetics of transition toward one of juxtaposition. It was no longer sufficient simply to filch the candlestick. One had then to find its proper place within the larger tableau, grafting the bronze limb with an almost visionary care. Here’s how Eliot saw it:

The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion.

The good poet, then, is the poet who steals what is worth stealing and, by way of radical transformation together with the geomantic focus of feng shui, makes astonishingly good use of the theft. We need look no further than the last hundred years for enough Eliotically “good” poetry (Pound’s Cantos; Eliot’s Four Quartets; Olson’s Maximus Poems; Zukofsky’s “A”) to keep several headsworth of eyes busy for a long time. Yet clearly Eliot did not intend, in setting this manner of critical goodness before his readers, to put forward any immediate claims upon new phenomena. Remember that his primary purpose in wielding this system of classification was the assessment of another, much older poet’s artistry. He wrote:

A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest. Chapman borrowed from Seneca; Shakespeare and Webster from Montaigne.

Milton borrowed from Shakespeare, and Ronald Johnson borrowed from Milton.

Indeed, Johnson’s borrowing is so sweeping it feels natural to question whether we should think of him as a poet at all. As Guy Davenport once wrote, “If a poem has ever occurred to Mr. Johnson, he has never written it.” That’s how it appears to have broken down when, one day, not setting out to write a poem, Johnson visited a local bookstore and purchased a copy of Milton’s epic. He carried it home, sat down at his desk, uncapped a Sharpie, and started chipping away. Here the poetic process yielded more readily to the sensibilities of a sculptor than, well, a poet. Johnson’s aim, an aim intuited only as the creeping block of ink resolved itself into a sort of colander of peeping meaning, was to discover the poem within the poem. The result is a text that is as revelatory in the reading as it must have been in the unearthing of it. This is how it begins:

Of Man’s first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste
Brought death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful seat,
Sing, Heavenly Muse, that, on the secret top
Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire
That shepherd who first taught the chosen seed
In the beginning how the heavens and earth
Rose out of Chaos: or, if Sion hill
Delight thee more, and Siloa’s brook that flowed
Fast by the oracle of God, I thence
Invoke thy aid to my adventurous song,

How would Eliot have approached such a poem, one that manages to mature the immature, to good the bad? Watch how we can variously construe Johnson’s poem: as an imitation of some Sapphic, time-shot papyri (immature), the wholesale lifting of Milton (mature), a barbarian’s vandalization (bad) or a subtractive transfiguration (good) of the same. Maybe this is what makes Radi os so compelling—not that it resists categorization, but that it gluts such distinct chambers with equal facility. The very narrative of the poem’s composition agrees at every point with the greatest stories ever told—stories, mind you, of redemption amidst incalculable loss. Sometimes, like Job, we are stripped of everything by outside forces. Other times we come into the possession of inspiration, foresight, or some somnambulatory impulse to give it all away of our own accord. It is not clear that Johnson knew what he was up to when he first struck from the opening line of Paradise Lost thirty-three of its thirty-four letters. But for his readers the message is inescapable.

After completing the first four books of Radi os in the seventies, Johnson took a twenty-year detour to attend to other literary projects. Only after finishing ARK in the early nineties, the long poem by which he is meant to be remembered, did he decide to turn his attention back toward the project of blotting the Miltonic page. But by then it was too late—if not for him then for us.

When Wheel of Time author Robert Jordan died in the fall of 2007, only a couple of months passed before the publicity people at Tor, his long-time publisher, announced that another author, Brandon Sanderson, would step in to complete his epic fantasy series. The question we’re left with at this point in time is: Who will step in to complete Johnson’s project? Who will help us clear the space in Milton’s poem? The conditions for such an undertaking have possibly never been better. We know the direction he intended to take—at the very least that he meant to make Swiss cheese of the remaining leaves of Paradise Lost. Would Ariana Reines or Nate Klug be willing to assume the mantle? Just please don’t let it be code-davinci-002.

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Eric Bies is a high school English teacher in Southern California. His work has appeared in 3 Quarks Daily, The Collidescope, and Essay Daily, among other outlets, and his eco-poem, “I Cannot Save My Own Skin,” won the 2022 Aquarium of the Pacific Poetry Contest.

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