Ronald Johnson was influenced by Louis zukofsky and the black mountain school, especially Charles olson, he is unique in the visionary character of his poetry, most fully manifested in his long poem, ark, which took him 20 years to write. The technical innovation of his work, combined with the insistent strength of his insight into nature, language, and science, has established Johnson's position as one of the most original and compelling poets of the late the 20th century.
Johnson was born in Ashland, Kansas. On the G. I. bill, he went to Columbia University in New York City, where he met Jonathan WILLIAMS, the founder of the Jargon Society, which published Johnson's first book, A Line of Poetry, A Row of Trees (1964). After graduating in 1960, Johnson moved with Williams to Great Britain, where a walking tour inspired The Book of the Green Man, one of the American Library Association's Notable
Books for 1967. In 1971 Johnson was writer-in-resi-dence at the University of Kentucky and in 1973 held the Theodore roethke Chair for Poetry at the University of Washington. In 1983 he received the National Poetry Series Award and in 1994 was the Roberta Hol-loway Poet at the University of California, Berkeley.
ark is Johnson's most fully realized work; he brilliantly combines his early interest in concrete poetry and collage with his quest to understand the shape of being, the "compass beyond confines / music of the spheres solved, / mosaic of Cosmos." Using the myth of orpheus as a guiding structure and collaging texts as diverse as Tory Peterson's A Field Guide to Western Birds (1961) and Milton's Paradise Lost (1674)—much like "found materials" are embedded in the Watts Towers sculptures in Los Angeles, an inspiration for ARK—he sought to create an ahistorical poem: "a structure rather than diatribe, artifact rather than argument, a veritable shell of the chambered nautilus, sliced and polished, bound for Ararat unknown" ("A Note" 274-275). After ARK, Johnson wrote "Blocks to Be Arranged in a Pyramid" (1996), a memorial to AIDS victims in San Francisco, and The Shrubberies (2001), which were written during the last five years of his life in Topeka, Kansas. The Shrubberies, while ostensibly concerned with the idea of gardening and its attendant themes of growth, death, and exile, particularly humanity's exile from the Garden of Eden, addresses not only the minutiae of the natural world, but the nature of language, vision, and even existence itself; in that book Johnson questions if he will live beyond the 20th century and wonders if he will then be able "to part the night of orbs in galaxy / the congeries of word and light" ("Form").
Johnson, Ronald. "A Note." ARK. Albuquerque, N. Mex.:
Living Batch Press, 1996, pp. 274-275. O'Leary, Peter. "Quod Vides Scribe In Libro." In To Do As Adam Did: Selected Poems of Ronald Johnson. Jersey City, N.J.: Talisman House, 2000. Stratton, Dirk. Ronald Johnson. Boise, Idaho: Boise State University Western Writers Series, 1996. Selinger, Eric Murphy. "Ronald Johnson." In Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 169, American Poets since World War II, edited by Joseph Conte. Detroit: Gale Research, 1996.
JORDAN, JUNE (1936-2002) "The creation of poems," June Jordan said, is "a foundation for true community; a fearless, democratic society" (qtd. in Muller 3). One of the most prolific African-American writers, with more than 25 published books, Jordan regarded poetry as her primary calling, although her works also include plays, essays, memoirs, and children's books. A contemporary of Amiri baraka, Nikki GIOVANNI, and Audre lorde, Jordan's early poetry reflects many of the concerns of the black arts movement. Since the 1970s her writing has come to explore more broadly the conditions necessary both to attain and to maintain "freedom" for everybody, regardless of race, gender, class, nationality, or sexual orientation, while at the same time staying committed to the expression of her individual vision. In a 1977 essay, Jordan wrote: "I should trust myself in this way: that if I could truthfully attend to my own perpetual birth . . . then I could hope to count upon myself to be serving a positive and collective function, without pretending to be more than the one Black woman poet I am" (126).
Jordan was born in Harlem, New York City, to Jamaican parents and grew up in Brooklyn. Educated at Barnard College and the University of Chicago (1953-57), she started to teach English and creative writing in 1966—first at City College, the City University of New York, where Adrienne rich, Lorde, Toni Cade Bambara, Barbara Christian, and Addison Gayle, Jr., were colleagues and friends, then at Sarah Lawrence College and the State University of New York, Stony Brook. She taught African-American studies and women's studies at the University of California, Berkeley, where she founded Poetry for the People in 1991. She described this as "a marvelous adventure in democracy and education" (Muller 3): It encourages students to become poets and to carry their commitment to "the power of the word" into the surrounding communities (Muller 4). Jordan's honors include a Prix de Rome in environmental design (1970-71), a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship (1982), and a Lila Wallace Writers Award (1995). In 1998 Jordan received the Student's Choice Louise Patterson African-American Award for most outstanding African-American faculty at Berkeley.
From the beginning of her career, Jordan's writing was dedicated to exploring the possibilities of community building through art. Her "most fundamental commitment," according to Peter Erickson, was to "a rigorous scrutiny of democracy that focuses not only on its history of exclusions, but also on its potential for expansion" (132). As a poet—and as a novelist, essayist, activist, and teacher—Jordan addressed a wide spectrum of personal and political concerns. Her early work shows a strong commitment specifically to black issues and explicitly addresses an African-American audience. Her first book, Who Look at Me?—a poem illustrated with representations of African Americans in visual art—was published in 1968; it was followed in 1971 by the first novel to be written entirely in Black English dialect, His Own Where. Since the 1970s Jordan's explorations into what "freedom" and "democracy" can and should mean to the individual and her or his communities have come to include, more broadly defined, the perspectives of "minoritized" groups in the United States, as well as international concerns: the situations in South Africa and in Lebanon in the 1980s, the war in Yugoslavia in the 1990s, and the plight of the Palestinian people. Important collections that include poems with a wide thematic variety are Things That I Do in the Dark (1977) and Naming Our Destiny (1989). Jordan was also a regular columnist for the Progressive from 1989 to 1997; Soldier, the autobiography of her childhood years, appeared in 2000. Despite her long career as a poet and her public visibility, however, Jordan's work has not yet received the sustained critical attention it deserves.
Regardless of some clear thematic and stylistic developments, Jordan's poetry is characterized by, as Jacqueline Brogan observes, "recurring themes and motifs of love and desire, of family, of social injustice, of suffering, and of joy" (200). In "Who Look at Me" (1968), a poem dedicated to the poet's son, the speaker sees herself "stranded in a hungerland / of great prosperity." This notion of the inherent contradictions and tensions between democratic ideals and social and political realities is one of the constants in Jordan's work. The position of the poet, however, is anything but static or passive. "Poem about My Rights" (1977), which Jordan described as both a "conceptual [and]
emotional breakthrough" for herself and which is possibly her most anthologized poem, moves the speaker from being "stranded" to an active role characterized by defiance and self-confidence in the face of continuing violence (Quiroz n. p.): "I am the history of the rejection of who I am [but] / I am not wrong: Wrong is not my name / My name is my own my own my own." While vigilance might be necessary, she argues, paralyzing fear should not be: "I / invent the mother of the courage I require not to quit," the speaker says in "War and Memory" (1989). Throughout her work, Jordan's goal is to achieve connection, community, and love: "I will make myself a passionate and eager lover in response to passionate and eager love / I will be nobody's fool" ("Resolution # 1003" ).
Brogan, Jacqueline Vaught. "From Warrior to Womanist: The Development of June Jordan's Poetry." In Speaking the Other Self: American Women Writers, edited by Jeanne Campbell Reesman. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1997, pp. 198-209. Erickson, Peter. "After Identity: A Conversation with June Jordan and Peter Erickson." Transition 63 (1994): 132-149. Jordan, June. "Thinking about My Poetry." In Civil Wars.
Boston: Beacon Press, 1981, 122-129. Muller, Lauren, et al. June Jordan's Poetry for the People: A
Revolutionary Blueprint. New York: Routledge, 1995. Quiroz, Julie. "'Poetry Is a Political Act': An Interview with June Jordan." ColorLines 1.3 (winter 1999). Available online. URL: www.arc.org/C_Lines/CLArchive/story1_3_05. html. Downloaded May 2003.
THE JOURNALS PAUL BLACKBURN (1975)
The Journals, comprising most of Paul blackburn's final poems, is a milestone in the history of literary innovation, beyond the open-field poetry of the black mountain school and, earlier, the free verse of the imagist school (see prosody and free verse). Blackburn wanted to create open-ended occasions out of ordinary, everyday experiences, thereby shaping a form that appeared to be, paradoxically, formless. He rejected traditional poetry's point of view, which saw certain historical events as grand or monumental and others as inconsequential and which, accordingly, insisted that poetry follow rhetorical principles of argument first established in classical times and later reaffirmed in the Renaissance. He replaced syllogism with juxtaposition or contingency, logical deduction and inference with the "logic" of experience, such as what a person sees or hears, and he relied on nouns and verbs, not adjectives and adverbs, and on metonyms, not metaphors or symbols. Likewise Blackburn avoided standard meters and employed irregular spacing of words, characteristic of Ezra pound, Charles olson, and others. His demonstration that words could be used for their visual effects, often in conjunction with graphics, influenced later visual poetry, such as Armand schwerner's the tablets. Robert Buckeye notes how Blackburn's "use of juxtaposition . . . equalizes the elements of the poem: one thing, no matter how different, is just next to another" (157). Blackburn's visuality might also have been influenced by downtown Manhattan painting during a period in the 1950s and 1960s when poets later to be grouped in various schools—beat, Black Mountain, and new YORK—were intermingling with each other, as well as with painters and musicians.
Two other poets to be associated with The Journals are William Carlos WILLIAMS and Robert creeley. In its attention to the details of daily life, Blackburn's poetry embraces and extends Williams's dictum, "no ideas but in things," a plea to ground poetry in concrete images, and provides another version of the precision celebrated in Creeley's lines, "and and becomes // just so" in his homage to Williams ("For WC.W" ). Yet Blackburn aims for a new kind of poetry, as if the poem were a painting that refuses its frame; his is not simply the collage technique Pound made famous in the cantos. Blackburn's work can also be thought of within the context of confessional poetry—wherein the poet's life is available for viewing, the doors of his home flung open. In this regard, these poems are similar to the work of the New York school, especially Frank o'hara's. As Peter Baker has commented, "So little [may] apparently [be] going on in [a Blackburn] poem that it may seem beneath our notice" (44); still, the experience of reading it is palpable as momentary occurrences become events and then rituals, just as in O'Hara's "I do this, I do that" poems, which note oth erwise unimportant details in a person's day. Creating the impression of relaxed candor, Blackburn is able, ultimately, "to resist the pull toward transcendence that the romantic and American post-romantic traditions have forced on several generations of poets, readers and interpreters" (52).
on the other hand, this apparent spontaneity is hard won. Blackburn's poems, Gilbert Sorrentino observes, "are journals only in that they purport to follow the events of the last four years of the poet's life, but the selection of the important elements out of the sea of experience ... is rigorously formal" (103). Each poem has actually been worked by Blackburn to great effect. "AUG/22. Berkeley Marina," for instance, begins with a simply contrasting observation: The day is cold and the sun is bright, the strong wind holding the flags out flap/flap as the poet's eye alights on the legs of his wife while she is exercising on the deck of their swaying boat. The couple is perfectly composed, recalling "the 3 graces & the 4 dignities" of ancient Chinese philosophy, which Blackburn sets out on the page as two lists placed beside one another, each encased within a simply drawn rectangle: "grace of word, / of deed, / grace of thought," and, "standing // sitting / walking // & lying down." How are these to be read? There is to be no prescribed method. What is important, however, are the two people "at peace" with the world. In this poem, language, in and of itself, and phenomena, the world taken in by the poet, seamlessly merge as one through the graphics on the page.
Another key aspect of The Journals is its examination of dying. Blackburn learns that he has terminal cancer. His characteristic frankness becomes especially memorable when chronicling physical deterioration as the world begins to slip away. He is direct and graphic. "27. VI. 71," for example, records a morning's thoughts, beginning with the exclamation "sundaysun-daysundaysundaysunday" and then the observation of the essential elements of the day: "empty walks," a "single bird," a "blue sky." The enumeration leads to a crisis; the phrase "EMPTY AND ALIVE" is repeated three times going down the page. Blackburn notes how his simplest acts—fastening his belt, washing, writing in his diary—are made difficult by pain. Yet this pain, in an apparent contradiction, makes the present vibrant. He notices "the promise of death" in the daylight spilling across the objects in his room; with the "window open, the day comes in, o fade the carcinoma." This blending of diction is remarkable—the contemporaneity of "carcinoma" juxtaposed with the romantic apostrophe "o fade." Finally, there is a bitter turn as he struggles to slip out of death's trap, when he parodies the song "The Girl on the Flying Trapeze": The cancer "floats thru the blood / with the greatest of ease . the pain goes and comes again."
In The Journals, no other but the present moment exists, fleeting yet permanent. The typical Blackburn poem, Baker has noted, "stands outside of time while foregrounding time itself' (45), an effect resulting in The Journals's formless formality, which was a breakthrough in new verse possibilities. Blackburn's contribution is utterly original, as well as a stage in the evolution of experimental poetry. "We hear the echo in Blackburn," Joseph Conte writes, "of olson's statement in 'Projective Verse': 'One perception must immediately and directly lead to a further perception' [see ars poeticas]. The poetry of process is opposed to the notion of progress, and in Blackburn . . . we hear a denial of telos, closure, or climax—'any sense of an ending'. Each arrival signals a new departure" (48-49). Gloriously unrestricted, seemingly at loose ends, The Journals created, for later poetry, a new aesthetic sense of what a poetic statement could be. This posthumous work culminated the poetic project that had consumed Blackburn throughout his adult life, representing the ultimate refinement of his technique and the distillation of his vision.
Baker, Peter. "Blackburn's Gift." Sagetrieb: A Journal Devoted to Poets in the Imagist/Objectivist Tradition 12.1 (spring 1993): 43-54. Buckeye, Robert. "'Rock, Scissors, Paper.'" North Dakota
Quarterly 55.4 (1987): 153-161. Conte, Joseph M. "Against the Calendar: Paul Blackburn's Journals." Sagetrieb: A Journal Devoted to Poets in the Imagist/Objectivist Tradition 7.2 (1988): 35-52.
Sorrentino, Gilbert. "Paul Blackburn ('Singing, Virtuoso: The Journals, edited by Robert Kelly')." In Something Said: Essays by Gilbert Sorrentino. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1984, pp. 103-113.
Was this article helpful?