Friday, July 29, 2005

Ronald Johnson: Radi Os

I am by turns making my first serious pass thru The Maximus Poems – that is, reading them all in a relatively concentrated period of time, with Butterick’s Guide and a stack of other critical works at hand – and savoring Flood Editions’ new edition of Ronald Johnson’s Radi Os, one of the great formative works of my largely misspent youth. The folks at Flood, in particular Jeff Clark of Quemadura, the designer, have done a wonderful job. (My only quibble in the Gothic title type, to which I think I’m just genetically allergic.) The book’s just a skoche bigger than the 1977 Sand Dollar edition, which I gather was set directly from the 1892 Paradise Lost from which RJ “excavated” his poem. Clark’s digitally reset the whole thing, preserving all of the spacings beautifully, and adding (wonder of wonders) page numbers, a very useful thing indeed.

I wasn’t sure how I felt about the new typeface – I don’t know from typefaces, but this rather anonymous contemporary face initially made me kind of nostalgic for the clearly archaic typeface of the 1977 Radi Os; then I decided that I liked it, especially to the extent that it worked to jimmy RJ’s poem away from its default description: “contemporary poem ‘composed’ by erasing words from the 1st 4 books of Milton’s Paradise Lost.” There’s no getting around the fact that RJ made his own poem out of Milton’s words, in Milton’s order, and in an 1892 typesetting, but the 2005 typeface helps to draw one’s attention from the historical aspects of RJ’s borrowings and place it more where it belongs – with the fact of Radi Os as a poem of the late 20th century.

There has always stuck in my mind a phrase from Ron Silliman’s review of the first Radi Os in Eliot Weinberger’s Montemora, something about RJ’s choice of source texts being too “literary,” too obvious. Which of course brings to mind the other text that always gets invoked when one talks about Radi Os – British artist Tom Phillips’s A Humument (“quoted” above). I love Phillips’s work (anybody notice that he did the covers for Eno’s Another Green World and King Crimson’s Starless and Bible Black?) early and late, and especially A Humument, which is based on a Victorian novel, A Human Document, by a chap named Mallock. What’s most striking is that in contrast to Radi Os, where the words stand alone on Johnson’s page, floating in a sea of white, Phillips paints or draws over every page of Mallock, so that the clusters of words he preserves from his source text become only one element in a rich visual mixture. And well they might: for all the humor and whimsy TP can generate from A Human Document, he’s hard pressed indeed to come up with sorts of lyricism and sublimity that Johnson can get out of Milton. Yes, trying to extract a sublime poem out of Paradise Lost is like shooting fish in a barrel (LZ did it in “A” in about a half-dozen pages) – but choosing your source texts is about as key an operation in a “contingent” poetics as choosing the words you want to preserve from them. I suspect RJ could have pulled a poem about the eye, the mind, and the universe off of the back of a carton of Wheaties, but by opting to do Milton he both made his sublimity-work a heck of a lot easier and positioned himself in a long line of prestigious Milton-interpreters from Blake on. (Guy Davenport says much of what needs to be said there in his afterword.) Go buy the book – and pick up a copy of the latest Humument edition, while you’re at it.

[I begin to tremble – the first thing I did after reading Radi Os back in the day was to start doing my own Johnsonizing of Emerson’s Nature. In the last few months I’ve gotten a few whiffs on the blogosphere – and not the “post-avant” blogosphere – of folks starting to “Radi-o-ize” texts as something of a Creative Writing exercise. God forbid! Excavating texts becomes a workshop exercise on the level of “write a sestina with the first six words that catch your eye” or “write a poem in the voice of…” or any damn thing to do with a villanelle or pantoum.]

1 comment:

anon said...

Hey, you know who else did text-pruning poetry? Bill did it! To impress the beatniks! In "As You Were, Bill!"

"As you were, Bill" doesn't appear to be up on Project Gutenberg, but "Dere Mable" and "Same Old Bill, eh Mable?" are both there.

I love Bill, so I couldn't resist sharing.