Sometime in 2010, it became clear that a new edition of Ronald Johnson’s epic masterpiece ARK was needed. Copies of the Living Batch Press’s edition published in 1996 were scarce, officially out of print and only available on used book sites on the internet for exorbitant prices. In the years since his death in 1998, Johnson’s work has continued slowly to grow in popularity and to exert more influence, something attributable in part to Radi os, Johnson’s writing-by-excision of Milton’s Paradise Lost and one of the first erasure poems. It seemed a shame, then, that ARK, the poem that took him more than twenty years to write and into which he poured the totality of his vision and experience, had effectively become off limits to new readers.
Radi os, originally published in 1977 by Sand Dollar Press in Berkeley, California, was reprinted in a new edition in 2005 by Flood Editions, which had also published The Shrubberies, a book of Johnson’s late poetry, in 2001. I had been discussing other Johnson publication projects with the editors of Flood, Devin Johnston and my brother Michael. It seemed to all three of us that before we undertook any additional Johnson publications, it made the most sense for us to re-issue ARK, his most important work, in an affordable new edition.
As long-time readers of Johnson’s poetry may know, the Living Batch edition of ARK contains significant errors. Johnson had been ill during the time of its publication and therefore unable to give sufficient care to proofreading. For instance, in the epigraphs for “The Ramparts,” the final thirty-three sections of the poem, a quotation is attributed to “Exra Pound.” More seriously, a whole page in “BEAM 5” had been mistakenly cut from the Living Batch edition. From early on, I had been noting typos and other irregularities in the margins, in hopes of correcting them one day. Now was the opportunity.
Initially, we needed an electronic copy of the poem to work with. I asked a student of mine, Jeni Crone, to create a word-processed file of the poem. From there, Devin and I began to edit the poem in earnest. We sought to resolve discrepancies among existing versions and editions of the poem by determining which changes resulted from Johnson’s revisions and which resulted from transcription errors, copyediting oversight, or typographical challenges.
The difficulty of our editorial work was compounded by Johnson’s absence from this process. ARK is complex in sonic and visual terms, making use of rich diction that rarely adheres to conventional syntax. Johnson was an innovator, inventing forms and structures as he went. His vision—a term that gets overused, but that applies on many levels to ARK—proves idiosyncratic, as delightful to readers as it is a challenge to editors.
To give a sense of some of the questions we pondered: Why is ARK in capital letters? Typically, at least in typography, capital letters are used in this way to indicate an acronym. (IBM, for instance.) But ARK clearly isn’t an acronym. Furthermore, why are all the section titles (“BEAM 33” or “ARK 64”) also always in capital letters? Throughout the poem in its previous editions, Johnson modulates between standard American usage of double quotation marks to indicate quoted material and single quotation marks, following British usage. Why? Likewise, Johnson modulates between single and double spacing throughout the poem, especially in “The Foundations,” the first section of ARK, in a way whose consistency is difficult to register. Probably the question we wrestled with longest was how best to represent the fixed-width, concrete sections of the poem.
A word of explanation about this aspect. Johnson was a typewriter poet, in the sense that he composed his poetry on a typewriter (rather than drafting his poems by hand, for instance). For most of the composition of ARK, this was an IBM Selectric, very simple, but including an italics function. For him, the typewriter was a revolutionary compositional instrument, allowing him fine control of how his poetry appeared on the page, an approach authorized for him by the Projective Verse understandings of New American/Open Field composition that Charles Olson and Robert Duncan initiated. Furthermore, Johnson was an active player in the international Concrete Poetry movement, in which poets and visual artists used the canvas of a blank page of paper to compose word images and visual puns.
Using the typewriter, Johnson developed an unusual compositional technique in which he would use the same number of characters in a line of poetry over the course of several lines. Given the fixed-width element of a single character of type on his typewriter, these lines would appear perfectly justified on their right and left margins, rendering this property of his prosody visible and obvious in typescript. Consider “BEAM 12,” whose two lines: “daimon diamond Monad I / Adam Kadmon in the sky,” both consist of twenty-two characters per line (including spaces). When Johnson wrote this poem, on his typewriter, he used this visual limit as his compositional tool, a technique he availed at many different points in ARK. Unfortunately, such a property does not translate onto a typeset page in which a proportional typeface is used. As a result, despite cares taken in previous editions, there is at times a dissonance between the part of the poem as composed and its typeset version. If possible, in our new edition, we wanted to limit this dissonance.
To read a book of poetry for the purpose of editing it is to read it with a fine-grained attention different from the involvements of reading poetry for meaning. I found the pleasures of ARK renewed for me reading the poem this way. Sometimes these were small delights, as in “ARK 76, Arches XI,” where I noticed the line “where heat sweats wheat” for the first time. What a line! Notice how “where,” the one word in the line that doesn’t rhyme with the others, anticipates with its “wh” the “wheat” at the end of the line, which itself grows from “heat” and “sweats.” The line is a perfectly concise description of farming. And a Kansas summer. Other times, however, these were larger discoveries. As I read, I became especially aware that within its Projectivist lineage, Johnson had created something that had never yet been written: an epic concrete poem. He tells us as much at every turn that this is one of his purposes: consider all of the architectural, structural vocabulary, for one thing. But reading through ARK this time, I became keenly aware that it is a built thing whose solidity arises from an imaginal prairie onto which he has carefully stacked his words.
In verifying some of our lingering editorial questions at the Spencer Collection at the libraries of the University of Kansas, I consulted typed drafts of the sections that make up “The Foundations,” where the concrete epic quality of the poem became clear. Each of the early sections in these drafts was given a subtitle of an architectural feature: column, plinth, cornerstone, ornament. Some of these survived into the published versions of the poem, but seeing them indicated on nearly all the pages of this draft made me aware of how deliberately Johnson intended his poem to be a great structure. In this sense, the handprint that survives as “BEAM 18” is clearly meant as the signature of the artisan. “Who touches this book touches a man,” as Whitman said of his Leaves of Grass.
In the end, we decided this new edition of ARK should serve its readers, new and old, above all. We wanted the poem to be as legible and as available as possible, correcting as many of the errors in the previous edition of the poem as we could, while also honoring its incredible grandeurs and subtleties in a way that invites readers to linger with them. As with the previous Johnson books published by Flood, this new edition of ARK has been designed by Jeff Clark of Quemadura. I find it a visionary treatment of the poem, making it available again but also making it new.
The new Edition of ARK is forthcoming from Flood Editions on November 1, 2013.
Peter O’Leary has published four books of poetry: Watchfulness, Depth Theology, Luminous Epinoia, and, in 2013, Phosphorescence of Thought, a poem about the evolution of consciousness. As Ronald Johnson’s literary executor, he has edited several volumes of Johnson’s poetry, including The Shrubberies, Radi os, and a new edition of Johnson’s masterpiece, ARK, all from Flood Editions. Recently, he also edited Is Music: Selected Poems by John Taggart. In 2002, his critical study, Gnostic Contagion: Robert Duncan & the Poetry of Illness, was published. He lives in Berwyn, Illinois and teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and for the Committee on Creative Writing at the University of Chicago. With John Tipton, he directs the small poetry press Verge Books.