Word Screen Park
Kevin McMahon
Ronald Johnson’s twigged, branchy writing

I wrote this in the Spring of 2009, after many years of reading RJ with pleasure. I was bugged by the fact that nobody seems to recognize his name.

In Urbana-Champaign in the early Eighties, I used to haunt the used book store in the basement of the YMCA to admire their unafordable-to-me copy of an installment of Johnson's ARK. Fortunately I was able to come across another copy, a bit later, at one of L.A.'s wonderful used book stores.



Ronald Johnson is not confiding. In reading him we learn nothing about his life and loves, nothing about his homes and haunts, nothing about his times. When the word “I” appears it always refers to someone other than Ronald Johnson. He took such pains to avoid displaying himself in his writing, it’s no wonder nobody knows about him. He reveals more personal history in his cook books—he published five between 1968 and 1991—than his poems.

There is no inadvertent autobiography, either: Johnson published no juvenilia. The early lyrics collected in Valley of the Many Colored Grasses are fully formed. By 1967, when he wrote “The Different Musics,” Johnson had all the resources and tools he needed.

What his poems do contain, from first to last, is nature:

bounded only by slopes of oak
& of maple,
the woods-apple comes sweet from the hills, both spring

nights & autumn:
a wildflower sharpness, an earthy


A poem by Johnson typically takes the form of a naturalist’s report. The tone can be colloquial, like the letters of Gilbert White (a favorite of his), or it can be opaque, like the plays of Gertrude Stein (another favorite), where a scene and the feeling of a landscape provide a subject and a frame for verbal invention:

Nebula, whirlpool, mist & cloud; knotted, asymmetrical branchings


formed like a labyrinth

—are form, even as a sphere, crystal
& flower.


are temporary boundaries’, the moving countries

where nothing
is seen in isolation.

And Orpheus, the metamorphosis

before us

of coral,

leopard’s-paw, bird’s-foot,



of meadow’
& of rock as it moves



beneath lichen.

For ‘where the figure is, the answer is’.


—it is said—did not show the cause of an apple falling,

only the similitude between the apple


& the stars.

No matter how opaque he gets, everything exhibits a distinct tang and outdoor freshness:

& I (like / Thoreau) sit here engrossed,

‘between a microscopic & a telescopic
attempting to read

the twigged, branchy writing

of frost, spider & galactic cluster. That the syllables!

—rock & flower & animal
among the words,


make Order.

Johnson deals in actualities plus exhilaration, whether he’s dealing with natural history or quantum physics. He can sound like like Richard Attenborough or Carl Sagan. “The Different Musics” ends

THE NEXT SOUND YOU HEAR // WILL BE THAT OF TWO GALXIES, EACH / THE SIZE OF OUR OWN / MILKY WAY, / COLLIDING / IN SPACE, 500,000 LIGHT YEARS // AWAY … /// Centripetal, / Centrifugal: // fugue, & petal.

(Johnson’s typography is too elaborate to reproduce, and henceforth I mostly won’t even try.)

Johnson writes as a natural philosopher, in the antique sense of the term, attempting to collect precise observations and make sense of them.

Johnson especially dotes on plants: flowers, gardens, trees, oranges, sunflowers, Indian corn, and chicory. He has such a passion for natural things, and has so much he wants to say about them, that he doesn’t mention human events.

Johnson’s writing career extended from the Kennedy to the Clinton administrations, but his poems contain no references to the Bay of Pigs, the Grassy Knoll, pop art, Vietnam, Civil Rights, Black Power, the counter-culture, the Yom Kippur War, the Prague Spring, conceptual art, Cambodia, The Troubles, environmentalism, feminism, gay rights, rock, disco, the first Afghan War, punk, the rise of the Religious Right, the rise of literary theory, Thatcher/Reagan, El Salvador, the Falklands War, the Iran-Iraq War, the fall of Communism, the personal computer revolution, the first Gulf War, the Rwandan genocide, the Balkans, or Chechnya.

The only historical event that Johnson mentions in print is the AIDS crisis, and even then the word “AIDS” is only used once, in a subtitle.

As a consequence his poems feel untied to any specific epoch. There is no period air. He is particularly painstaking about avoiding pop culture references.

His poems are also devoid of the kind of local color that can lure readers into a difficult writer. Johnson’s poems contains no slice of life vignettes, no transcriptions of slangy speech, no picturesque cityscapes. It’s characteristic that Johnson’s curious, exacting eye and ear discovered nothing about San Francisco, his home town between 1970 and 1992, that he felt compelled to commit to print. Johnson is the antithesis of Armistead Maupin: in vain will the San Francisco Convention & Visitors Board scan his poems for a phrase suitable for a PR campaign.

Which is not to say that Johnson is a misanthrope who rejects humanity. On the contrary: he is a passionate admirer of the part of humanity that sees.

Johnson is the kind of natural philosopher who is concerned with both sides of the situation: the specific phenomenon observed at a specific time, and also with the openness to experience, the knowledge and alertness necessary to receive the impression and to make sense of it. On the human side, there is the keenness of perception, an effort to exactitude. On the side of nature, there are expressions of ubiquitous patterns, and the force that powers those expressions.

Perception is Johnson’s second great theme. References to sight and the mechanics and psychology of perception, especially vision, occur in all his poems. The main subject of his poetry is the experience of the world: not love, not conflict, not the tragedies and comedies of human life. The world is something that must constantly be discovered, and poetry is the best tool for the job.

His poems celebrate observation not for its own sake, but as the exercise of the human faculties. Which is to say, for Johnson, observation is inspiration. Whether they are presented in the context of science, religion or literature, inspired acts of seeing command Johnson’s respect. The poems and essays and letters that document these acts of vision constitute a corpus of inspired texts that augment and extend each individual’s growth in perception.

And these acts of seeing are a fact of nature, worthy of observation as any other curiosity. Johnson treats the words of Leonardo, Fibonacci, Milton, Gilbert White, William Blake, Samuel Palmer, D’Arcy Thompson, J.J. Thompson, Ezra Pound, Wolfgang Pauli, and Edwin Hubble as facts that exist every bit as much as the spiral pattern found in sunflower florets.

In fact, Johnson doesn’t just allude to other writings, or quote good bits, or steal lines: he makes whole poems out of writings of other people. It’s one the characteristics of his poems.

It seems a paradox: if Johnson is so intent in expressing the beauty to be found in the careful observation of nature, and the profound exhilaration this prompts, why wouldn’t he employ his own personal observations and his own personal accounts of exhilaration?

Is it a hoax? Indeed sometimes his quotations have a strange-making eeriness. The fourth section of “When Men Will Lie Down as Gracefully & as Ripe—“ presents a paragraph by Emerson that Johnson found quoted in Elizabeth Sewell’s Orphic Voice. Then it repeats it, word for word, aerated, broken up typographically:

“NATURE WILL BE // reported. / All things / are engaged in writing their history. / The air is / full of sounds; / the sky, of tokens; / the ground is all memoranda & signatures / & every object / covered over with hints / which speak // to the intelligent. / NATURE CONSPIRES. /// Whatever / can be thought can be spoken, & still rises for utterance, / though to rude / & stammering / organs. / If they cannot compass it / it works & waits, until / at last it moulds them // to its perfect will, // & is // articulated.”

Are Emerson’s words being celebrated, or subjected to icy irony à la Pseuds Corner? The quote could be Johnson’s own artistic credo. Or not. Either way, it’s dizzying they way he declines to speak for himself.

As in so much of Johnson, there is are classical precedents. Pseudoepigraphy is the practice of attributing your own words to someone else. Declamatio is the practice of speaking in the place of another person. Either way, the biographical facts of the writer are treated as irrelevant.

Another part of this is Johnson’s literary materialism: he treats words as things, and rather than mimicking speech, telling stories, or making assertions, Johnson composes collages of words, juxtaposing words so that their musical content or etymological content, or connotations resonate. A single word, or two, or three can suffice. Johnson presents these collages as objects for contemplation. They may take the form of riddle, of a joke, or of an oracle. They are composed by Ronald Johnson, but they are only partially “by” Ronald Johnson. Sometimes they seem to be English speaking itself.

Johnson earliest writing was laconic, and over time it became more and more opaque and fragmented. In the High Modernist game of the Evocative Fragment. he actually succeeded in making fragments that evoked something. In part because he manages to deploy his fragments musically—they sing and speak engagingly, even colloquially.

And Johnson takes care that the visual effect of his words on the page is significant. His concern with the visual is not merely conceptual: he is a visual artist. It’s another aspect of his literary materialism.

Even more significant is Johnson’s practice of working in large forms. After the first two books of lyrics, all his subsequent poems were composed parts of cycles.

I suspect there were two issues. First, there was the difficulty of making his elegantly attenuated, highly visual kind of poem have any kind of presence for the reader. The nuances of the mood and the typography require space, and separation from other writings. They are rarified and precious. In isolation, or in juxtaposition with more conventional verse, they might seem frail and meaningless.

Second, Johnson probably learned from his predecessors how difficult lyric fragments gained resonance and significance by being incorporated into a larger structure. Being part of a big book gave them heft, and also protected them.

His first cycle The Book of the Green Man is structured according to the seasons, which is to say a framework into which one can insert almost anything, and which is instantly comprehensible to everybody. A season can be as full and various as nature itself. There's a pleasantly antique neoclassical feel to it.

Not only is the book organized according to the seasons, but each section focuses on a specific English region, and takes the words of different English naturalists as its guide: “Winter” is set in the Lake Country, with Dorothy and William Wordsworth; “Spring” occurs in the Wye Valley in Wales, with Francis Kilvert; “Summer” in Nottinghamshire, with Gilbert White and Geoffrey Grigson; and “Fall” takes place in West Sussex, with Samuel Palmer. They each have a different mood: “Winter” is heraldic, “Spring” vividly present-tense, “Summer” shows plants and animals at their apex of bloom, “Autumn” is retrospective and visionary.

The places and their flora and fauna reverberate with literary and historical associations. It is a pilgrimage through a magically alive landscape. It is also the journal of happy holiday. If death and decay exist, it is as elements of a magnificent vista:

Two days of mossy mists,
soft & clinging. The river, a single grey thread
to be followed through other greys.

Quiet brown blurs
of Hereford cattle, shadowy

Only the harsh clamor of rooks penetrates.

Though once, a dead sheep floated downstream, every curl,
of its coat, distinct as the bubble

in a house-of-spittle.
Its head like a withered apple.

And guided by the writings of Francis Kilvert, William Vaughan, William Blake, Christopher Smart, and James Hervey, Johnson, in this book, discovers the poetic possibilities of the Christian tradition, approaching its symbols and mythology as a natural component of his love letter to Nature, England and the English language.

After The Book of the Green Man, Johnson began working on another long poem. Ten years later, in 1980, the first of the three parts of ARK appeared.

The 33 sections that make up The Foundations are each titled “Beam,” as in the unit of lumber, and the structural element that withstands a load by resisting bending. And also, of course, as in the waves and particles of light:

186,282 cooped up angels tall as appletrees

The Foundations is an unsystematic Imagist allegory of light, sight and perception, along the lines of Romance of the Rose. The complications of perception are presented—the possibilities of hallucination, insight, discovery—but the emphasis is on the triumphs of human perception: the detection of geometrical patterns that are expressed in matter, movement, and life:

After a long time of light, there began to be eyes, and light began looking with itself. At the exact moment of death the pupils open full width.

The potential errors of perception are balanced by the corrective of imagination. Poetry and science continues Adam’s task of naming. The subatomic and celestial pulsations are seen to echo each other:

A man once set out to see birds, but found instead he’d learned to listen: an ear better unwinds the simultaneous warblers in a summer birchwood. There, he came upon an Orpheus, all marble, spiral shell to the ear of his Eurydice. Turning the other way, he saw Orpheus again, listening to harmonies of midges in sun, the meadow like a nightingale around him. Cat’s purr, moth-wing.

The physicists tell us that all sounding bodies are in a state of stationary vibration, and that when the word syzygy last shook atoms, its boundary was an ever slighter pulse of heat, and hesitation of heat. Matter delights in music, and became Bach. Its dreams are the abyss and empyrean, and to that end, may move, in time, the stories themselves to sing.

The Foundations is the summation of Johnson’s first mode. From 1960 to the late 1970s his subject is: attending to reality, and the act of perceiving it:

the mind become its own subject matter:

bent ambient
(all meaning is an angle)
the optimum play at any one moment spray of curvature
falling off toward the edge great gold sunflowerhead of photons
sum of sun and moon
in array the flicker of diamond-lattice pattern
against a complex dappled back-
ground also moving.

Ratio is all.

Whether they fall under the category Poetry, Science or Religion, what matters to Johnson are seers, observers who surrender their self to the thing:

… and if we could only ‘see’ more widely the night sky would be ‘brighter’ than the moon. … One quantum of light unlinks one molecule, and five rods are needed to perceive the difference. Some stars are at this threshold, and can only been seen by the sides of the eyes.



In 1977, while he was in engaged in The Foundations, Johnson found himself producing another book, RADI OS, a distinct departure from his earlier poems, and one that was to color his subsequent poems. In RADI OS, he abandons the viewpoint of the natural philosopher standing in a landscape for a viewpoint considerably more removed:

Who, from the terror of this / empyreal / Irreconcilable / of joy / answered

(The original typography is not reproducible.)

From a perspective more remote than the throne of God, Johnson contemplates visions of order and chaos, and extremities of bliss and suffering, to make a reeling cycle of metamorphosis, thesis and antithesis:

man / passed through fire / His temple right against / The black / realm, beyond / The flower / who, from the bordering flood / Dilated or condensed, / of love / left / star … bright image / heart, / like heat / Ezekiel saw, / His eye / against the / Is

History appears in RADI OS as the conflict of Blakean powers:

thunder / flaming  wheels / frame / Man: him, through / Father / matter / harp / the Starry Sphere, / and hymn / The luminous / inroads of Darkness / from the wall of / glimmering air / at large in / snowy / flesh

RADI OS is that most neoclassical of forms, an imitation. It is a quotation, a learned allusion, but with a difference. In a prefatory note, Johnson explains

The type stands as is: the ‘words’ are those of an 1892 edition of Paradise Lost I picked off a Seattle bookshop shelf the day after hearing Lucas Foss’ Baroque Variations. He writes of Variations I, on Handel’s Concerto Grosso, Op. 6, No. 12, ‘Groups of instruments play the Larghetto but keep submerging into inaudibility (rather than pausing). Handel’s notes are always present but often inaudible. The inaudible moments leave holes in Handel’s music (I composed the holes). The perforated Handel is played by different groups of the orchestra in three different keys at one point, in four different speeds at another.’

This is the first of three sections of four—Milton’s divisions being twelve. It is the book Blake gave me (as Milton entered Blake’s left foot—the first foot, that is, to exit Eden), his eyes wide open through my hand. To etch is ‘to cut away,’ and each page, as in Blake’s concept of a book, is a single picture.

Hence the riddle of the title is revealed: RADI OS derives from X-X-R-A-D-I-X-X X-O-S-X, originally P-A-R-A-D-I-S-E L-O-S-T. It is poem made up of those words of Milton left after Johnson etched most of them out.

Johnson insists on the typographic/physical materiality of words as found in his source text. They are vividly present as Milton’s words. Johnson finds his poem.

RADI OS imaginatively imposes fragmentation on a work normally understood to be whole, rather than the more usual neoclassical procedure of imaginatively reconstructing the wholeness of a work understood as fragmented.

It is an imitation that renders the original sense inaudible. But don’t they all? Familiarity has dulled the strangeness of translating a temple of Athena in Athens into a church consecrated to the Virgin Mary in Venice.

It’s true that in RADI OS the neoclassical tradition intersects with another venerable artistic heritage—that of Dada. And Ronald Johnson is not the only Dada classicist: think of the work of Anne and Patrick Poirier, or Giulio Paolini, or Johnson’s colleague and publisher Ian Hamilton Finlay.

But it is a mistake to emphasize the technique; what matters about RADI OS is that Johnson discovered a way of treating history and conflict, myth and darkness, which he was to exploit in his subsequent poems.

The change in tone is striking in the next installment of ARK. The Spires are concerned with the fundamental forces of nature—the forms, colors and sounds of natural things—as expressions of the same force that fuels and informs human perception:

these are the carpets of
protoplast, this
the hall of crystcycling waltz
down carbon atom
this, red clay
where the cloud steeds clatter out wide stars
this is

Spires unlike steeples are symbolic rather than functional, they do not house clocks or bells, but point up to the sky:

nested cycles
receding as apple blossom
to the head of a pin
inkling windfall
curve of wave, cave of air
asunder unto Rubicon

off and running
wind in arms, rove forever
target galaxy
swan above lilypond
man, the dreamed by God

The Spires deal not just with perception, but take on human technology, culture, history. Instead of the rarified abstractions of The Foundations, we have observers whose vision expresses itself in a poem, a plow, a cathedral, a carousel or exact attention to a bird song or a quantum of energy.

The particulars hum with energy whether they are a dance, a poem, images of Adam or Hermes, or pulsations of an atom, a vein, or a star. And it is not just human endeavor: in bird song, we see nature singing itself, the force of desire taking form.

The form of the The Spires progresses from the earlier open collage style towards condensed, center-spaced lines arranged in varied stanzas, borrowed from Henry Vaughan.

A battle of the titans, echoed in the industrial revolution, ends, for Johnson, in a vision of mineral, astral, vegetable energy:

rose might of the winds
blind fold
shadow forth stilt thyrsus thus
who once have sung
snug in the oblong
soon life bright spent

Planted at stake
Old Sarpint
himself, bent at the outfoot
everyday Arbor Vitae:
turf fit to burst
shall see us off.
Holy Ghost
praise be, knocking bedrock
like the screen door
in a dust storm,
pitched Lord knows how
all of a piece
peculiar grace

that yet
brancht forth.

In the third and final part of ARK, The Ramparts, this energy separates into a spectrum of distinct elements—poetic inspiration, religious inspiration, scientific inspiration—unifying heaven and earth through art, with a message of metamorphosis:

bow and lyre, minutest
riff Harp Star pure Sickle

The form becomes soberer: each section of The Ramparts consists of 18 three-line stanzas, printed six to a page (so each section is exactly three pages long). Most stanzas contain merely 16 to 20 syllables, imposing regularity and density. While the meter and syllable count of lines varies, each stanza seems to have its own shape: short-short-short, short-long-medium, medium-long-short, …. There’s a detectable pulse, to use a very Johnsonian word.

While being open to almost every kind of word and idea, it is also imposes a neoclassical appearance on the page. Perhaps Johnson is remembering Poe who remembered Ramon Llull writing “The soul is saved through the conservation of a specific form.”

The Ramparts are an echo chamber of urgent public service announcements regarding transubstantiation, creation, motion, decay, and dissolution. There are glimpses of the work of titans who unify earth and sky, through vision and desire. The symbols of Christianity in the form hymn-book clichés, are revealed as glimpses of fundamental truths of energy, struggle, triumph:

’tell us, Watchman, of the night
the raven fire celestial
clear trumpet call

firmament to climb,
Who snare the clouds their way
Shaping a larger liberty

Human art, and beasts and flowers are embraced and admired, as are heaven, earth, hell, geology, and life’s cosmological origins.

replica of the upper room
(the lower as yet unfinished)
charimas, Chimaera

register canticles,
every atom once within a sun
sailing on reflected sky

And in a final burst of light, the energy behind human endeavor and human vision triumphs over mercenary, revealing a glimpse of apocalypse and resurrection.

all arrowed a rainbow midair,
ad astra per aspera
countdown for Lift Off

So what is ARK about? The word, as usual in Johnson, is pregnant with meaning: there is the “ark” in the sense of the receptacle for a synagogue’s Torah scrolls, and in the domestic Latinate sense of a “chest,” or in the sense of the ship that held Noah, his family and a pair of every creature.

But Johnson isn’t especially spiritual, he’s not obsessed with questions of the soul. There is a visionary element, but his visions are fantastic only to the degree sanctioned by modern science. Though he admires the visions of Blake and others, he doesn’t pretend to have such visitations himself.

Johnson is not a metaphysical poet; he is a physical poet: concerned with physics in the original Greek sense, i.e. nature, the observation of nature. In ARK he writes about permanently recurring processes: the natural patterns observed in nature, and the mythological patterns of human reality.

He especially dotes on the recurrence of patterns of motion: spirals, vortexes, directed rays, trajectories of motion:

That clockwise, counterclockwise, as blue bindweed to honeysuckle, the cosmos is an organism spirally closed on itself, into the pull of existence. In the beginning there was the Word—for each man, magnetized by onrush, is Adam to his Tyger.

Throughout ARK, subatomic and celestial forces echo each other, their patterned dance descend to earth, and rise up again as biology and history.

The fundamental forces of nature—the forms, colors and sounds of natural things, as well as man’s technology, craft, art—are viewed in ARK as expressions of the same energy.

Johnson dispels any sense that any of this is esoteric. He presents poetic inspiration, religious inspiration, scientific inspiration as natural phenomena, common as sunlight, making life possible:

The lines are fallen to me
in the night seasons.

though the earth be removed,
There is
a river, not moved:
were moved: in the fire.
with the sound of a trumpet wind ends of the round
ear to a parable:

I will open my dark

Hence the predominant mood of ARK is celebration:

Stand in
your own heart,
and be still,
the light upon us
in time to the voice of ice:
no throat out in the multitude of ions belled But
for joy.

Of course this is speculation. ARK has no narrative, no argument, no characters, no setting, and often no syntax. The words are presented on the page as specimens. It seems just this side of what mystics call divine union, the last moment utterance in human words is possible, when the words of the visited person come out disjointed exclamations. It is the mode of the the riddles of the oracle at Delphi, or of the the wind-blown oak leaves on which the Cumaean Sibyl wrote her prophecies. The phrase, the voice breaks off, cut off by excess of wonder. Everything reverberates with bird-song.



One of the peculiarities and pleasures of Johnson’s world is how little darkness it contains. It is Edenic in its absence of wickedness. In his revision of Paradise Lost, Johnson even imagines a Satan unencumbered by malevolence. Up to and including ARK, Johnson seemed destined for the patch of Parnassus occupied by Charles d’Orleans, Campion, and Robert Herrick—poets of intellectually refined contentment.

This ends in 1996, with his last completed poem, Blocks to Be Arranged in a Pyramid. If ARK is a celebration of the natural world and the capacity to perceive it, Blocks is a memorial the extinction of perception, and the awful reality of annihilation.

Then with a sweep
blindly eradicate
perception itself
afire with egress

step in a blink
blank as paper
few fields beyond
pure fallen Snow

rolled door aside
And stood beside space
a place of sepulcher
in splice of time

Johnson discovers decay makes men grotesque.

bathed in light
Shadow gather
lion in the path
behind beyond

remember the dead
beating floorboards
of the Above
forehead first

whittle an Indies
scalpel frontier
step right into it
whistle the wind

Blocks is the book Prince Siddhartha wrote after he escaped from his enclosed paradise and discovered disease and death ruled the world.

What happened? Block’s subtitle is “in memoriam aids,” providing an explanation and another puzzle.

Blocks is a memorial, a commemoration; it is not a lament, nor any kind of eulogy. It is as rigorously impersonal as ARK. The discovery of suffering prompts no anecdotes, no portraits, no local color, no politics, no outrage. Blocks might have been writing in 1340s Italy or 1660s England—eras troubled with their own plagues. Blocks is not about AIDS but the struggle to reconcile life and death, and it does not pretend to succeed.

The title hints at Egypt, which is one clue. The form of Blocks is both blunt and transcendental: 22 sets of three stanzas, each of four lines. 55 stanzas contain one word beginning with a capital letter. In 17 of the sets, the stanzas are made of lines of four to two words. There is only one line that contains five words, and it is “end on end on end”.

In ARK, death is glossed as metamorphosis, dust to dust. Here death is confronted in its unsavory specificity. Johnson records the horror and the release found in gallows humor.

wings’ intersections
almost nothing
Sky to themselves
blanket the earth

So darksparkling souls
as flame licketh up
consuming flesh
speak in cataract

dangle Scaffold
dread hammered nail
and hang by a thread
my daily bread

The only consolation offered is the ancient pagan one, of death’s inevitability and necessity. Christian ideas of the afterlife are presented as poetic analogies to natural processes of death and decay, translating the consolations of Christianity into the consolations of nature.

watch out the light
Sentinel utmost dark
once and for all
under roll diurnal

route to summit
drowned in labyrinth
eagle aperch pyre
& levitate Leviathan

stirring at core
galaxy revolved
and winding cloths
of design diverse

Blocks completes the arc of ARK, providing a corrective and counterargument.



Blocks was Johnson’s last poem. I doubt the posthumously published Shrubberies are anything more than notes for a book Johnson unfortunately didn’t live to write. There is no structure to the book and no uniform stanza form. The editor’s suggestion that it was to be organized around the plants of Kansas in the four seasons is attractive, but nothing about the published fragments clearly points to this.

The notes do suggest a newer Miltonic synthesis, in which the Christian and pagan and scientific co-exist in an effervescent Baroque harmony.

part foliage to see
the Goddess triumphant
recumbent Hercules

Zeus, Jesus, jeeses
on breeze, cicadas
swallowing the sword

And so to the end Johnson was engaged in equating things. In the words of Ernest Fenollosa that Ezra Pound appropriated:

Relations are more real and more important than the things which they relate. The forces which produce the branch-angles of an oak lay potent in the acorn. Similar lines of resistance, half-curbing the out-pressing vitalities, govern the branching of rivers and of nations. Thus a nerve, a wire, a roadway, and a clearing-house are only varying channels which communication forces for itself. This is more than analogy, it is identity of structure. Nature furnishes her own clues. Had the world not been full of homologies, sympathies, and identities, thought would have been starved and language chained to the obvious.

Ronald Johnson wrote into being a vast public park, in which a botanical garden adjoins a humane zoological garden, above which towers a welcoming astronomical observatory. His books are festivals of analogy and isomorphism. Despite a surface ease, he is ambitious to synthesize myth, observation, natural history, and human history. His poems are concise equations, presented with impersonal, loving care.

He was born in Kansas in 1935 and died in Kansas in 1998. He wrote:

I have attempted a temple as if hierarchies of music
beating against time gone adagio, that is the Secret Pool we
to. And not to stone
but to the world behind its human