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Idaho Poet Marries Music, Rhythm And Poetry

Idaho poet Bill Johnson is fascinated with the similarities shared between poetry and music. 

Some of the world’s earliest poems were actually chanted or sung in ritual and dance.  And, like music, poetry intensifies and clarifies the human experience. 

Johnson just wishes more of us could hear the music embedded in poetry. As part of our occasional  "Art and Soul," profiles of Idaho artists, correspondent Guy Hand visits with poet Bill Johnson.

Bill Johnson tunes his guitar in the living room of his Lewiston home.   This recently retired professor at Lewis & Clark State College is fascinated with ancient poetry and how it was likely performed with music.

 Bill Johnson
 Bill Johnson

Bill Johnson: "I’ve listened to some of the renditions and tried to come up with one of my own that might be a reasonable facsimile, but heaven knows.  So the opening of Beowulf… and in Angelo Saxon it sounds like this…."

Johnson has the focused yet far-away eyes of a poet.  He says music isn’t essential to great poetry, but he does believe music and poetry have much in common.  Both employ cadence, echoes, slants of sound, and phrasing. 

He says more of us would appreciate the art of the spoken word if we could hear the music embedded in poetry.

Bill Johnson: "We’re all in the rhythm business.  I have a little two-year-old grandson and any kind of rhythm, if you’re clapping your hands or beating a drum, he just bursts into dance, just spontaneous dance.  He hasn’t been trained to do that, we don’t do that around him, but I think that sort of muscial, rhythmical field that a child is in is innate in all of us."

Johnson touches on that innate musicality of childhood in a poem he wrote for his daughter years ago.  It’s called "My Daughter’s Song."

Bill Johnson: "When soft fingers of heat come twitching up…."

Johnson says a child’s sensitivity to rhythm comes from the same well of curiosity and creativity that springs from each of us — at least, when we’re young.

Bill Johnson: "But then we get into school and they kind of train it out of us for the most part.  We’ve got’a do grammar and do math ‘cause those are the really important things and if we can squeeze a little art or dance in on the side. I sort of look at it as the other way around.  At the heart of a child’s education should be in the arts first."

Johnson was in his 30’s before he realized he too was "in the rhythm business" and started composing poems. 

His late awakening made it that much more important for Johnson to wake up the sleeping poets (or at least the appreciation of poetry) in his students at Lewis and Clark State College.  But how do you teach something as gossamer, as dream-like as poetry?

Bill Johnson: "In some ways it’s unteachable I think, but I try to keep it simple at first.  I think the worst thing you can do is start on the intellectual level.  I remember when I was a senior in high school we were going to read the Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, this wonderful narrative ballad by Colleridge.  My teacher, bless her heart, Mrs. Baker, she said now students, there are five major symbols in this poem—and I want to know what they are."

Suddenly, it wasn’t a poem, but a problem to solve.

Bill Johnson: " And I think that’s the quickest way to kill it.  I think there’s a place for analyzing art, but it’s only after art has had an impact.  Otherwise, what are you analyzing?  There’s nothing there … The reason a painting or a poem grabs you is it triggers a felt change of consciousness, you know your routine sense of awareness gets momentarily tweaked or snapped  or just jolted a little bit to one side … It’s like life is vertical all of a sudden; it has all this depth and resonance in it."

Johnson evokes that sudden verticality in his poem "Cadences of Hooves."

Bill Johnson: "… Hours before another war,  driving up canyon under cold March sky, I spot a chestnut mare nuzzling fence wire … ."

You can hear the Idaho landscape, as well as music, in Johnson’s poetry.  He says the West’s wild nature has infused his life and his work.  He has the lean lines of a hiker and frequently glances out the window as if eager to hit the trail.  Instead he plays his guitar.

Bill Johnson: "Thank heaven for the creative life … It’s kind of like an answered prayer for me.  It’s what keeps me alive (laughs)."

Bill Johnson won the Idaho Book Award in 2000 with a collection of poems called "Out of the Ruin."  It was the first book of poetry to win that award.


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