March 8, 1998 in Nation/World

Poet Whose Religious ‘Ark’ Drew Praise Dies At 62

Holcomb B. Noble New York Times
 

Ronald Johnson, a visionary poet who wanted to take his God out of church and put Him, or Her, in a science laboratory, say, or in the exploding light of dawn as it rose across the prairie of his native Kansas, died on Wednesday at his father’s home in Topeka, Kan. He was 62.

The cause was brain cancer, his family said.

“Ark,” his 250-page work in 99 sections, which he wrote over a 20-year period in San Francisco, was published in 1996 by Living Batch Press in Albuquerque, N.M. Robert Creeley, a poet and professor at the State University College at Buffalo, said Johnson’s magnum opus, “Ark,” would take “its legitimate place with the great works of the century of like kind: Ezra Pound’s ‘Cantos,’ Louis Zukofsky’s ‘A,’ Charles Olson’s ‘Maximus’ and Robert Dundan’s ‘Passagers.”’

The critic Hugh Kenner said “Ark” was at heart religious; he described the central theme as “Hail, holy light.”

“Ark” was one of 10 collections of poetry Johnson published while supporting himself much of the time as a chef, caterer and bartender. He also wrote several highly praised cookbooks.

He was born on Nov. 25, 1935, in Ashland, Kan. He attended the University of Kansas in Lawrence and completed his bachelor of arts degree at Columbia University in 1960.

The next year, he and another writer, Jonathan Williams, hiked the length of the Appalachian Trail, through the English Lake District and throughout Europe. It was those hikes, Williams said, that taught Johnson to become a writer, since they were when he learned “to pay attention to what he saw.”

Among his other books of poetry were “A Line of Poetry, a Row of Trees” (1964), “The Book of the Green Man” (1967), “The Spirit Walks, the Rocks Will Talk” (1969) and “Songs of the Earth” (1970).

Like Louis Zukofsky, who took 50 years to complete “A,” and another lover of very long poems, Walt Whitman, Johnson believed he could put anything and everything in a poem and seems to have tried to fit his entire life into “Ark.”

He is survived by his father, Albert Ted Johnson; a brother, Kenneth, of Des Moines; and a sister, Jody Panula of Barnhart, Mo.

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