Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Poems to Know: Radi Os

If you teach Paradise Lost, you owe it to yourself and your students to teach at least a page or two from Radi Os, Ronald Johnson's extraordinary "rewriting by excision" of the first four books of the Milton.

Newly republished by Flood Editions, here in Chicago, Radi Os consists of pages from Paradise Lost with most of the words erased, so that an elegant constellation or lace of poetry remains. The first page of Radi Os thus revises Milton's famous invocation "Of man's first disobedience, and the fruit / Of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste / Brought death into the world, and all our woe," etc., into this: "O / tree / into the world / Man / the chosen / Rose out of Chaos: / / song."

It's quite a revision! Along with the dense syntax of Milton's sentence, Johnson has thus erased the divine Sentence (of death, of punishment) that Milton so reveres. There's no disobedience anymore, no death, nothing forbidden about the Tree, nothing greater about the "Man" (Christ, in the original) that arises. Here "Man / the chosen" simply "Rose out of Chaos," not by the fiat of his Creator, but according to the universe's own blessed rage to order, to beauty, and to song. Think of it as Blake crossed with complexity theory, all discovered as the hidden or latent argument of Paradise Lost. (Johnson once said in an interview, "I was taken over by Blake, but with my vision of the physical universe to try to figure out how we order the universe now. Blake couldn't even look at Newton. I felt if I were to do this, I would have to be a Blake who could also look at what we know of modern cosmology.")

As a teacher, you could have students figure out Johnson's argument with Milton by comparing his pages with the originals from Paradise Lost, or you could have them compose their own rewritings-by-excision from the same passages, or from later in the book, and then figure out what arguments they have advanced. My old friend Nick Lawrence thus once composed, on a lark, two new versions of that opening gesture, using what Johnson left out. The first was called Par se Lot, and started something like "disobedience, and / taste / Restore us / that secret / Seed"; I don't remember the second off-hand, but it seemed pretty frisky, too.

Or, if you like, you could have them do a rewriting-by-excision of some other book entirely! I have been working on my own rewriting-by-excision of Pride and Prejudice for a while now, off and on, but still can't decide whether to call it ride and dice or id and ice. (Byron's Manfred, though, is an easy one: Fred.)

I'm a big fan of Johnson, and actually wrote the Dictionary of Literary Biography essay about him, once upon a time. More on him anon, no doubt, now that I'm home.

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