Louis Albert Johnson was born in Wellington on 27 September 1924, the son of Albert George Johnson, a police constable, and his wife, Louisa Murray Betts. By 1930 the family had moved to Manawatū, where Louis attended Manchester Street and Lytton Street schools in Feilding. In these years he became acquainted with the bookbinder Edgar Mansfield, who boarded for a time with the Johnson family.
Johnson entered Feilding Agricultural High School at the beginning of 1939, but left at the end of the second term of 1940, shortly before his 16th birthday; family tradition holds that he left after a quarrel with a teacher. He then worked at a number of unskilled jobs before taking up a cadetship as a reporter with the Manawatū Evening Standard in Palmerston North. Towards the end of the Second World War he was manpowered, first as a herd tester and later, briefly, as a policeman in Wellington.
For a brief period he was employed as a publicity writer for the New Zealand Standards Institute, but his ambition was to become a journalist. In 1947 he joined the New Zealand Labour Party’s daily newspaper the Southern Cross as a feature writer and critic, and became the paper’s education specialist. In 1950 he entered the Wellington Teachers’ College, where he trained as a primary school teacher, and then taught in schools in the Wellington region until 1955.
On 21 November 1945 Johnson had married Lois Elaine Hunter in Wellington. The marriage lasted only a short time before the couple separated; they had no children and were divorced in February 1950. Soon after, on 22 February, Johnson married Patricia Lucy Mason in Dannevirke. The couple were to have two sons and a daughter.
Johnson began writing poetry some time before 1945, when his first book, Stanza and scene, was published by the Handcraft Press. In the post-war literary scene Johnson became a prominent figure as a prolific poet and a sometimes controversial editor, as well as a respected critic, writer and broadcaster on literature. He was associated with the so-called Wellington school of poets in the 1950s and 1960s, where his name was often linked with that of his friend James K. Baxter and with a circle of younger writers who were thought to be opposed to the perceived poetic nationalism of the anthologist Allen Curnow and the editor of Landfall, Charles Brasch. In contrast to Curnow (with whom he several times engaged critically), Johnson preferred a greater concern for the universality of the poet’s voice.
For a time after 1950 he worked as an editor and ghost writer for Albion Wright of Christchurch on the Pegasus Press New Zealand poets series. But his most important editing ventures in these years were the annual New Zealand Poetry Yearbook, which he produced in 11 issues between 1951 and 1964, and, in conjunction with others, the periodical Numbers, a literary review, which had 10 issues between 1954 and 1959 from Johnson’s own imprint, the Capricorn Press. In 1963 he was involved in a controversy over the New Zealand Literary Fund Advisory Committee’s decision not to subsidise the 1964 Poetry Yearbook unless he withdrew six poems the committee judged to be offensive. Johnson, Baxter and others regarded the decision as a form of censorship, and when Monte Holcroft, a committee member and editor of the New Zealand Listener, wrote an editorial defending the decision, they made their views clear in the correspondence columns of the Listener in early 1964. The Yearbook, complete with the offending poems, was brought out without a subsidy.
Johnson had returned to journalism in 1955, taking up the editorship of New Zealand Parent and Child, the monthly magazine of the New Zealand Home and School and Parent–Teacher Federation. In 1959 he moved to Hastings to be a sub-editor and feature writer with the Hawke’s Bay Herald-Tribune, a decision that was influenced by his respect for his friend Antony Whitlock, a member of the family that owned the paper.
He returned to Wellington in 1963 to be editor of junior publications with the School Publications Branch of the Department of Education, where his responsibilities were for the School Journal and supplementary social studies bulletins. Throughout these years he maintained a steady output of poems, and every few years published collections. He also undertook regular programmes of commentary on radio and television and wrote columns for the New Zealand Listener, the Dominion, Auckland Star and Hawke’s Bay Herald-Tribune. In 1968 he fronted the television programme of media commentary, ‘Column Comment’.
In late 1968, his marriage to Patricia having ended, he went overseas with a companion, Cecilia Margery Wace Wilson. Johnson took up the post of officer in charge of the bureau of literature in the Department of Information and Extension Services in Port Moresby in the then Territory of Papua and New Guinea. After a year, frustrated by the shortage of funds, he resigned and moved to Melbourne, where for part of 1969 and all of 1970 he worked as a free-lance journalist and a teacher at a technical school. He and Cecilia were married in Melbourne on 15 December 1970 when his New Zealand divorce became absolute.
In 1971 Johnson was appointed to a lectureship in the department of English and modern languages at the Mitchell College of Advanced Education in Bathurst, New South Wales. He was promoted to senior lecturer in 1972 and spent a term from February to July 1975 on study leave in the United Kingdom. He published two books of poems in Australia with the Jacaranda Press. The second of these, Fires and patterns, was awarded the first (equal) award for poetry in the 1976 New Zealand Book Awards.
With his wife and their daughter, Johnson returned to New Zealand in 1980 to take up the writing fellowship at Victoria University of Wellington. A son was born in 1981. Johnson continued to write, publish and edit, though he was now nominally in semi-retirement at Pukerua Bay, north of Wellington. In 1982 he took up the first of two three-year appointments as a PEN New Zealand Centre representative on the New Zealand Literary Fund Advisory Committee. He was president of PEN in 1986–87, and in 1987 was made an OBE for services to literature. His last editing venture was Antipodes new writing, in which, as always, he attempted to foster the work of new and previously unknown writers.
Johnson resigned from the Literary Fund committee in early 1988 to take up the Katherine Mansfield memorial fellowship at Menton, France. He was in Winchester, England, with his family preparing to return home when he died suddenly on 1 November 1988. His funeral was held in Old St Paul’s in Wellington.
A tall, solidly built man, Johnson was gregarious and hospitable, a fluent raconteur and an excellent cook. He published 16 collections of poetry (two of them with other contributors) and three books for children. Posthumous collections were published in 1990 and 1998. In 1989 the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council of New Zealand instituted the Louis Johnson New Writer’s Bursary.
Louis Johnson is remembered as a prolific poet whose best work combined an interest in human conduct and the experiences of commonplace humanity in its local or domestic manifestations, with an often wry lyricism and a strong interest in matters of ethics and social morality. His work has been represented in all the major anthologies of New Zealand poetry since 1956. He showed great energy in the areas of literary administration and politics to which he devoted himself. He was, in addition, a generous editor whose purpose was to encourage writers. In this, as much as through his own writings, he earned the respect of the literary community in his lifetime and after.