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Ronald Johnson's Modernist Collage Poetry edited by Ross Hair

Jeffery Beam

  Ronald Johnson's Modernist Collage Poetry.
Ross Hair, editor.
Palgrave/Macmillan, 2010.
256 pages, $84 (hardcover).
ISBN: 0230108695 (Library of Congress).
Buy at Amazon.

It's a shame that this book, as with many academic publishers, is so expensive, for the subject—the oracular, ocular, transcendent, and mystical modernist poetry of Ronald Johnson will most likely be the work that is still being discussed, cherished, and unraveled centuries from now. Poets (and readers) everywhere deserve easy access to Hair's extraordinary erudition and passion for Johnson's endeavor—to make tangible an Eamesian "Powers of Ten" view of the Universe—a poetic experiential translation of our world—multi-layered at warp speed—Music of the Spheres and all. Hair's book represents the kind of work that Richard Ellmann, Hugh Kenner, and others did for the early Modernists. I think also of the Noonday Press series of Reader's Guides published in the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s that gave me, a young backwater reader and poet in North Carolina, a language and body of thought and symbols from which to learn and absorb those Modernist geniuses who were changing world literature.

Johnson's poetry of daring music and merging of traditional and experimental language, uses collage and visual poetry to re-discover Blake's lost Edenic pleasure in the microcosms of life. The Natural World and Intelligence become revealed symbiotic, and Johnson proved to be their most scintillating and gorgeous interpreter. But Johnson was interpreter as participant—absorbed, like Blake, into his imaginative realms. Hair enters Johnson's assemblages and visionary splendor with a scholar's skill at ferreting out archival secrets, and a sensitive reader's delight in tracing tributaries of textual interrelations. He understands and communicates with ease the path from Johnson's early works such as The Valley of the Many Colored Grasses and The Book of the Green Man on through his fascinating and visionary erasure of Milton's Paradise Lost, Radi os, to the monumental ARK in its growth and progression. (Note: a new clarified edition of ARK has just been published by Flood, edited by Johnson's poetic godson, Peter O'Leary.) It's hard to imagine Hair's work being supplanted for a long time, but Hair has also provided a solid and inspirational foundation for the continued Johnson studies.

I hope someday this book will be more readily and widely available. As Hair observes, "Johnson's poetry gently shows, or reminds us, how to re-engage with the phenomenal world—to reconsider our relation, identity and interdependence with it—and care about it."

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