Lee Johnson, who was Susan McCaslin's PhD dissertation advisor at UBC, and her favourite professor, grew up near the centre of the continent on a chain of lakes in rolling countryside and developed a love of Nature in all its forms. His intended careers at that time were to become an ornithologist and an astronomer, depending on the time of day. There were, and are, so many birds around a region of lakes because of the abundance of food; and the night skies in a rural area are compelling. Is it any wonder, then, that, in early youth, the poetry of Wordsworth called to him with the force of a conversion experience, showing how interactions with Nature could be recreated in poetry? Later, as a professor for four decades at the University of British Columbia (1970-2012), Lee even wrote two books on this particular poetic mentor: Wordsworth and the Sonnet (Copenhagen: Anglistica, 1973) and Wordsworth’s Metaphysical Verse: Geometry, Nature, and Form (Toronto UP, 1982).
He works with traditional metric, geometrical progressions, and rhythms in a way that makes Pythagorean and Medieval number theory new for our times.
Interview with Lee Johnson
Interviewer is Stan Burfield, organizer of London Open Mic Poetry Night
SB: Where did you grow up, and what effect did that have on the future course of your studies of poetry?
LJ: I grew up on a chain of lakes in west central Minnesota. The beauty of Nature in my formative years inspired an intense interest in birds during the day and stars at night, as ornithology and astronomy seemed obvious choices for careers. My folks often took us to Winnipeg, and the Red River and the Manitoba landscape added to my sense of Nature’s dynamism and wonder. Watching that river of ice and water in the spring still excites astonishment and calls attention to that other continental divide between the north and the south.
SB: How did you become exposed to poetry? And when and why did you start writing poetry?
LJ: I came to poetry rather late, as a high school student who penned several poems for an after-school poetry group. My main concerns at that time were physics and mathematics, and, as a teenager, I won a national science award for an essay on laser-type phenomena associated with polarized sodium light sent through sodium vapor. Poetry was not a main interest for me until I was about twenty years old, in my second year of undergraduate studies.
SB: In the beginning had you intended to mainly study and teach poetry and to write on the side, or had you wanted to be a poet above all and to teach on the side?
LJ: My main interests in youth were scientific, probably in response to the imperative at that time of an educational system that was trying to identify bright students who could, for example, beat the Russians to the Moon. The educational system did not then, nor has it ever, really tried to identify poetry as the highest good in the national interest! My generation was not unusual for having science as the principal purpose of education: many of my literary colleagues at university started out in a similar way. We were probably the most tested generation in the
history of humanity: IQ, personality, career profile—you name it—the testing industry did very well and prospered exceedingly.
SB: What effect, if any, did your academic studies of others’ poetry, and of classical poetry in particular, have on your own poetry, positive and negative? Did it affect your voice as a poet, your own creativity and your motivation to write?
LJ: Towards the end of my second year as an undergraduate, I had to take a course on English and British literature. One of our tasks was to read large sections of Wordsworth’s long poem The Prelude. My usual habit was to read material for these “incidental” courses in the late afternoon before dinner at the college residence and to work on my “serious” science courses after dinner, well into the night. I started reading The Prelude around 4 p.m. and stopped around twelve hours later, just before dawn the next day, having forgotten to eat or to sleep. Following Wordsworth’s account of his interaction with what he called “the forms of Nature” was like reading my own innermost thoughts from my childhood in another lake district far away from his own. After that, I simply had to read more poetry. Wordsworth spoke to me in no small part because his poetry is intellectually rigorous, even if it evokes the cosmic interconnectedness of all things. It is poetry that would appeal to one trained in the sciences, I would think, more than verse that tried to make a virtue of being irrational or random. It is poetry that defines imagination as “reason in its most exalted mood” and overcomes what Alfred North Whitehead calls science’s “Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness” by taking isolated things out of themselves and by placing them in larger contexts as energy-events that lead, ultimately, to the nature of the mind and to an expanded ontology that transcends Nature itself. Of course, in this view of Wordsworth, I am not in agreement with many academic Wordsworthians. I soon thereafter started to devour poetry from all eras, including eastern traditions, with the Wordsworthian Tu Fu from the Tang Dynasty being another favourite. Wordsworth’s own principal poetic influence was Milton, and I could understand why this was so. In my academic career, I wrote several scholarly essays on the author of Paradise Lost and was thereby led to classical Greek and Latin poetry. I could see a line of influence from Virgil to Milton and from Milton to
Wordsworth: in fact, the Fourth Eclogue, Lycidas, and the Immortality Ode are all deeply interlinked in their themes and even in their smallest details of sound and form in their status as three of the greatest short poems in western civilization. As an undergraduate student who added a major in English to a major in physics,
I also developed an intense love of modern poetry, starting with Hart Crane, whose works still haunt me to this day. It seems clear to me that I have always been most entranced with poetry that “sings” rather than merely “talks”: there is a music in the poems of my most beloved poets, whether ancient or modern. Yeats, for example, often wrote poetry that is intellectually not of the highest order; but, my goodness, does his poetry sing! So much so, that he is probably the finest modern poet who has written in English. My deep devotion to music, which is as necessary to my soul as is breathing, probably has a lot to do with my love of the magic of sound and form in poetry, as well.
SB: When you retired from the academic life, were you happy and relieved to be able to concentrate on writing poetry to a greater degree than before?
LJ: I am still writing scholarly articles, in fact, have a major piece coming out this year on “John Milton’s Poetics for Christ Versus Moloch” as I show why Milton paid so much attention to child-sacrifice in Moloch-worship as the antithesis of the Christ-child. There is also a book on co-presences (a study of strong interactions among poets, composers, and painters) that I continue to chip away at, although, in my recent status as an Idler, I now have the leisure to enjoy poetry, music, and the other arts, plus reading lots of philosophy, that simply could not have been addressed when I was busy giving lectures, grading endless student essays, and going to even more endless committee meetings. Yes, I am very happy to be able to think about language and poetry almost full-time now. If we take language in its largest signification as symbolic thought, including mathematical language, it has obviously been the integrating theme of my life, from those early years in the countryside to my present life near English Bay in Vancouver. For me, poetry is the richest expression of whatever my life has involved: even the academic interests feed into it.
SB: Do you have any advice for young poets who are starting out at university?
LJ: There is obviously a strong connection between what one reads and what one writes. Read as much, and as widely as possible, so that your own voice can be formed without having been commandeered by only one or a small handful of other voices. Say, for instance, that you are “drunk” on Keats, a most understandable condition. Unfortunately, your own poems will sound like recycled Keats but will be inferior to his voice, which he attained, after writing typical verse of his time, when he composed his sonnet on Chapman’s translation of Homer. Typical verse of any era, it seems to me, is likely to assert itself in the critiques that inspire classes in creative writing. Such classes certainly stimulate you to write, but the standard of what is expected will be the collective consciousness or superego of the time. Your own voice will still need to form itself. Perhaps that is best done, as I have suggested earlier, by reading as much and as widely as possible so that no one voice, individual or collective, dominates your sensibility and prevents your own voice from emerging. It is of supreme importance to realize that poets are as distinct and different from one another as people in general are: there is no such thing as The Poet, of which we are all emanations. There are millions of poets, all unique. There is consequently no one right way to compose poetry. Wallace Stevens was a school of one; imagine him having to endure critiques in a creative writing class.
SB: Your poems in the selection below follow traditional forms, for instance with line-ending rhyme. Yet on close reading they each seem to have the perfect form for their content. And to be so beautifully written that reading them feels like reading an old master like Keats or Wordsworth. Yet they feel fresh and new. Can you say something about the use of form, and the art of writing to form?
LJ: My creative process is different, I suspect, from many others in the sense that I often think about a poem for many months, even years, before it is written. And I cannot write it until I have imagined and created the form in which it will be incarnated. So, in this way, the form of the poem, the One, precedes the actual linguistic structure of the poem, the Many. It is also true, however, that, in the course of composing a poem, its form may be altered to evoke another form of even greater interest. This allows for spontaneity. The final poem, for me, is not simply another personal outburst like a diary entry in verse but is an attempt to add something to the nature of poetry itself: to change and augment what poetry can be or do. When Keats created his odes out of Pindaric and Horatian forms, he added something new that no one had ever thought of doing before: the Keatsian Ode. Milton and Wordsworth, in their blank verse paragraphs, showed how sonnet-forms and mathematical symmetries could take a line of unrhymed iambic pentameter far beyond ten syllables to powerful imaginative and intellectual constructions. T. S. Eliot, in the Four Quartets, perfected a three-beat accentual line in such as way that he made it his own. Shelley took tripartite Pindaric forms, via Milton’s Nativity Ode, to new heights of complexity in the lyric forms of Asia’s songs in Prometheus Unbound and in other poems and did something in poetry no one had ever really done before. These are landmark achievements in the history of poetry, and it is my hope that, in however modest a way, some of my own poems may partake of this achievement. It is clear that doing something interesting with language and form in relation to the history of poetry is more important than simply expressing oneself in verse. My only claim for Poetria Nova is that it offers something a little bit different by emphasizing form and the art of poetry itself.
SB: In these poems, light and darkness is a recurring theme. The Moon, and (presumably a metaphysical) You, show up in the darkness. One of your scholarly works, entitled Wordsworth’s Metaphysical Verse: Geometry, Nature, and Form (Toronto UP, 1982), would seem to point to much of what is in your own poetry. Can you say something briefly about how these aspects fit together? (Even though, to be fair, one would have to read the book.)
LJ: Light is a supreme theme not simply because it is essential to life. It is also mysterious because we define time by means of its cycles associated with the Sun and Moon, and, yet, light itself is timeless, experiencing no duration. A photon created nearly fourteen billion years ago is not even a nanosecond old, given that time goes to zero at the speed of light. We hardly understand the physical Universe of space and time, not to speak of the metaphysical Universe that interpenetrates it! My academic interests, such as those in my 1982 Toronto Press book on Wordsworth, simply feed into my larger interest in being alive with such a keen sense of strangeness about being alive in such strange things as the Universes of space-time and mind. Poetry is thus not an end in itself but a major way of exploring the nature of Being.
SB: What do you generally try to accomplish in writing a poem? What makes you feel it is finished?
LJ: Yeats mentioned that he knew a poem was finished when he felt it “click” with that perfect blend of form and expression. I know exactly what he meant, but it is not something one can explain all that clearly. The literary experience is far too complex for that. Some of what I think of as my best poems achieve that perfection only in the final syllable, as timeless form and temporal structures intersect in their ultimate clarity, as they recall all that was prefigured in the opening syllable.Perhaps another way of saying this is to point out that the ending prefigures the beginning. All art, as Stravinsky noted, is motion tending to a condition of rest; yet the sense of rest, which is often at another ontological level, gives the motion of the work its significance.
SB: What can we expect from you in the future?
LJ: It will be interesting to see whether, at the urging of friends, this publication of a little selection of poems I have written over the years, will silence me with a sense of completion or stimulate me to express more fully what I have started. It all depends on how restless I will feel: the restlessness that leads to more creativity.
Poems by Lee Johnson
from Poetria Nova (The St. Thomas Poetry Series, 2014)
My silent watercraft glides on the lake,
And so I move through time. White waterbirds,
Like undulating triangles of light,
Spiral above the water, answering
Slowly the glittering sunlight on the waves
That, to the sunward eye, become a line
Of dancing light measuring out the day,
And all days, here, as a remembered line
Moving across the circle of the lake,
Where I still move through time to move through light.
Time dwells in darkness . . . and depends on light
To take its measure; thus, I seek you here
Where white wings multiply into a sea
Of radiance, all-surrounding, ever still;
Instruct me in the language of the birds:
Make my dark words transparent to your light.
(For B. J.)
I saw a sly Green Heron take
A feather from its breast and make
A lure to float, whirl and enhance
The wind and water with its dance.
I move in rhythms of surprise
To light from your inquiring eyes,
And, when I close my eyes, it seems
We counterdream each other’s dreams.
You move so gently through the air
And on the surface of the sea . . .
Distracted, I become aware
That You are dancing with me where
I once was, and again, will be.
(“A Green Heron [Butorides virescens] uses a feather as a fishing lure, placing the feather at various spots on the surface of a pond to try to attract small fish.”—Sibley Guide)
Ice-Fishing Over Christmas
(To My Brothers)
Somewhere above me in the windless cold,
Soft midnight clouds drift slowly back and forth . . .
I draw a circle on the plane of ice,
Cut and remove the frozen cylinder,
And stare into a darkness without depth,
A black intensity that gazes back
As if it were a mirror of the mind –
When suddenly within the void a glow
Takes shape, the arched flash of a graceful fish
Arising, or perhaps the gracious light
Of Moon or star admitted through the clouds
To glance across the circle I have made.
Something beyond has caught the fisherman
Where three worlds meet: the time and space of ice,
Fractured in symbols breaking as we look –
The darkness of the mind’s designs on light,
Circling an absent centre – and the dark
Time of the year that circumscribes all time,
All darkness . . . and surprises us with light.
My lust for happiness
Wants all, will not take less;
My wealth of self-regard
Increases and grows hard;
Why do you ask of me
Nothing but poverty?
My mastery of the night
Does not require your light.
I ask because my light
Cannot but love the night
In acts of poverty
To set the spirit free
Of all that self-regard
Makes vanishingly hard:
For I will have no less
Than all your happiness.
There Have Been Great and Extraordinary Lovers,
My Dear, But We Are Not Among Them
Orpheus lost Eurydice
But once;* how therefore can it be
That lovers in an earthly way
Must lose and win their loves each day?
So rudely are the pansy’s flowers
Plucked—yet restored through humble powers
That heal all by the morning dew
And bring sweet blossoms back to you.
Whatever rudeness I may speak
In losing all that I would seek,
Our daily love renews once more
What Orphic song could not restore.
*In Hades: on Earth, Orpheus was usually an ordinary lover.
WHERE: The Mykonos Restaurant at 572 Adelaide St. North, London, Ontario. The restaurant has a large, covered terrace just behind the main restaurant, which comfortably holds 60 poetry lovers. Mediterranean food and drinks are available. Except for the coldest months, the terrace is open to the parking lot behind. Overflow parking is available across the side street and in the large lot one block north, in front of Trad’s Furniture.
WHEN: May 7th, the first Wednesday of the month.
LIVE MUSIC: Singer/songwriter Carly Thomas will open the event, at least by 6:30. She will also perform during the intermission and at the end of the event.
THE FEATURED POETS, first Lee Johnson, followed by Susan McCaslin, open the poetry portion of the event at 7:00, followed by a Q&A. Read interview and poems by Susan McCaslin
OPEN MIC: Following the featured poet, there is about 1.5 hours of open mic, ending about 9:00 pm. Each poet has five minutes (which is about two good pages of poetry, but it should be timed at home). Sign up on the reader`s list, which is on the book table at the back. It's first come, first served.
RAFFLE PRIZES: Anyone who donates to London Open Mic Poetry Night receives a ticket for a raffle prize, three of which will be picked after the intermission. The prizes consist of poetry books donated by Brick Books and The Ontario Poetry Society. Donations are our only source of income. We still haven't paid off our initial debt!