It was a dog that introduced me to the work of Ronald Johnson. Or rather it was the dog’s owner, a friend and poet, who—having named his dog Ronald Johnson—ensured that I’d never forget that rather forgettable name, or that one could yell “Ronald Johnson” into a field. Years later I’d meet a Milton scholar who had never heard of Johnson, a fact which, though it still surprises me today, was downright heartbreaking at the time. I tried to describe Radi os (a sustained erasure of Paradise Lost) to him in earnest, but kept leaping into my different theories for how best to understand the book. More so than with any other poem I admired, I didn’t know where to start.
This essay then is a series of starting points for a reading (or rereading) of Radi os. Its thesis, which these numbered musings snowball toward, is a simple one, though largely unexplored by Johnson scholars: Radi os is an inherently American poem. For that argument I turn to car radios, San Francisco’s “paradise,” speed-reading, and the West. That these musings roam elsewhere is perhaps inevitable with this sort of long poem. Its abundant white space begs us to fill its silence with our thoughts. I know I’ve done so, over and over again, until I’d talk about this poem with a dog, given the proper introductions. I’d talk about it with Ronald Johnson himself.
10—As a Cookbook
Ronald Johnson—who died in 1998—is perhaps the only poet to receive more Amazon reviews for his cookbooks than for his best-known poem. One such collection, The American Table: More Than 400 Recipes That Make Accessible for the First Time the Full Richness of American Regional Cooking, compelled an impassioned reader to jettison her shelf of cookbooks in favor of Johnson’s tome. Why? Because The American Table collects, revises, and edits the best recipes from other cookbooks. It is, like Radi os, an amalgamation of other works.
The great Ed Folsom has described Johnson as a “master at finding poems by opening up silences within other poems,” and Radi os is the banner example, scrubbing Bible and blank verse alike from our language’s most fully realized epic—or at least its first four books. (A fifth, titled “The Book of Adam,” appeared in the Chicago Review in 2010; the others remain in drafts and fragments only.) Johnson’s tool of choice was a black marker, which he applied liberally to an 1892 edition of Paradise Lost “picked off a Seattle bookshop shelf the day after hearing Lucas Foss’s Baroque variation.” Foss’s composition, in Johnson’s description of it, “simply cut holes” in “a piece of Handel.”
So Johnson cuts holes in Milton.
. . .
Read the rest of this essay in the Kenyon Review July/Aug 2015 issue, on sale now!