Poem: From ‘Letters to Walt Whitman’

If you grow up in Kansas, as both Ronald Johnson and I did, you learn very quickly that beauty is too often kept secret. It is easy to believe that no one else could know the sublimity of fields. Johnson’s poem, however, wagers on the transmissibility of awe. His work has always been like a secret beauty, too — often circulating in poetry’s subterranean networks, treasured by readers but difficult to find. Johnson’s 1969 book “Valley of the Many-Colored Grasses,” in which this poem appears, has been reissued by The Song Cave, a small poetry press, making this early book available to a new generation of readers.

From ‘Letters to Walt Whitman'

By Ronald Johnson

I hear you whispering there O stars of heaven,
O suns—O grass of graves…
If you do not say anything how can I say anything?

Let us tunnel

the air
(as a mole’s green galleries)
toward the ultimate

— the square of gold, & green, & of tassle

that rustles back at us —

let us burrow in
to a susurration, the dense starlings,

of the real —
the huge
sunflowers waving back at us,

— the great grassy world

that surrounds us,

Anne Boyer is a poet and an essayist. Her memoir about cancer and care, “The Undying,” won a 2020 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction. Ronald Johnson was born in Ashland, Kan., in 1935 and died in 1998. He was romantically involved with the poet and publisher Jonathan Williams throughout the 1960s, and they walked the Appalachian Trail and wandered around England before Johnson moved to San Francisco. There, Johnson managed a famous gay leather bar, wrote a number of cookbooks and became a founder of the Rainbow Motorcycle Club, a gay social club. His other books of poems include “A Line of Poetry, A Row of Trees” (1964), “Songs of the Earth” (1970), “Radi os” (1977), “ARK” (1996, 2013) and “The Shrubberies” (2001).

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