“He Did Not Call Himself an Artist”: Revisiting Ronald Johnson’s Outsider Aesthetic

Author:Norman Finkelstein Time:2019-07-09 Click:

Ronald Johnson’s relationship to outsider art has long been recognized as crucial to our understanding of his poetry. In interviews and other statements, the poet often affirms his connections with the self-taught makers of fantastic, visionary sculptural environments. The works of such figures as Simon Rodia, le Facteur Cheval, Raymond Isidore, and James Hampton serve as formal and thematic models for the enormous verbal construction that is ARK. In this essay, I argue that although Johnson is by no means an outsider artist—he is a formally schooled, sophisticated late modernist poet—his fascination with these figures betrays a powerful longing to achieve a state of original innocence which he perceives in their work, but which he knows that he cannot claim. The gates of Eden, as it were, are closed to the poet. By examining a number of passages in ARK, I determine that the great poem which Johnson composes serves as the gorgeous compensation for the loss of belief that artists such as Rodia and Hampton still hold. Treating language as bricolage, in much the same way some of these artists gather the basic material for their work through oddments and cast offs, Johnson transforms his poem into “scrapture”—a text made of scraps that form a scripture leading poet and reader to a state of rapture.

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