Monday, March 17, 2008


In a recent post to the Buffalo Poetics list, CA Conrad remarked that following Jonathan Williams' failing health was like watching a library slowly burn to the ground. The remark is not overstatement and the loss is heavier than most of us will immediately realize.

Since 1951, the year he founded Jargon Society, Williams worked inexhaustibly to produce, publish, and promote the whole art, following without discrimination the shifting landscape of poetry, prose, the visual arts, and music. Friends and correspondents ranged from Black Mountain luminaries Charles Olson, Robert Creeley and Edward Dahlberg to British figures such as James Furnival, Ian Hamilton Finlay and Basil Bunting to outsider artists like Georgia Blizzard and Howard Finster to photographers Guy Mendes, Raymond Moore and Reuben Cox.

Spending much of the 1950s and '60s hauling around the country in a battered old station wagon packed with Jargon titles, Williams devoted a good deal of time to recovering important poets that had somehow slipped between the cracks. Mina Loy and Lorine Niedecker are two. In 1958 Williams brought out Lunar Baedeker & Time-Tables, Mina Loy's first single-author publication since 1924. A decade later he brought out Tenderness & Gristle, the first comprehensive collection of Niedecker's work published in the US.

Williams' exquisite portrait photographs also stand as evidence of his commitment to the arts, if not his restless need to wander the landscape. With nothing more than a simple Rolleiflex or Hasselblad in hand, Williams snapped indelible portraits of poets, artists and musicians which, in addition to Niedecker and Loy, include Harry Partch, William Carlos Williams, Lou Harrison, Kenneth Patchen, James Laughlin, Ezra Pound, Georgia Blizzard, Basil Bunting, Raymond Moore, Charles Henri Ford, Father Thomas Merton, Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Buckminster Fuller, Henry Miller, Paul Metcalf, Tom Meyer, Robert Duncan and Jess.

Commenting on these portraits in A Palpable Elysium, Williams wrote, "You see people both relaxed and ruminating. These people were friends, not celebrities on the prowl, pressing the flesh." Williams famously detested the paparazzi, pundits, fanfare and crowded urban centers. Art often brought him to cities, but he willfully insisted on spending most of his time in the rolling hills of Highlands, North Carolina or daleside at Corn Close in Cumbria. The portraits tell us this, most of them set in rural or remote areas. The poets and artists pictured stand in isolation, given entirely to themselves and the camera that calls. And it is this delight in the remote, this intentioned exile, Williams so highly appreciated in others. Take his blurb for Niedecker's T&G: "She shuns the public world, lives, reads, and writes, very quietly, near the town of Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, by the Rock River on its way to Lake Koshkonong. Her importance to — and remove from — the urbane literary establishment is of the rank of Miss Dickinson's. We are in the presence of a poet whose peers are the Lady Ono Komachi and Sappho. Few others come to mind." For Williams the careful, measured work of poets like Niedecker in Wisconsin, Loy in Colorado, and Bunting in Northumberland reaffirmed his disdain for the crowd and his affection for the remote.

In the obit posted on his blog earlier today Ron Silliman noted that Williams was included on Larry Fagin's neglectorino list, a catalog of criminally neglected poets. More widely regarded as one of America's most important small press publishers, Williams work as poet and essayist has been eclipsed by his publishing accomplishments. It's easy to forget Williams was among those poets included in Donald Allen's New American Poetry and The Beat Scene, edited by Elias Wilentz and published the year before Allen's seminal anthology.

As an adolescent enrolled at St. Albans Academy in Washington DC, Williams occasionally made his way to New York City where he worked intermittently shelving and packaging books for Elias, Jan and Ted Wilentz at now-mythic Eighth Street Books. Here he first encountered, on Ted's recommendation, the work of Kenneth Patchen, Henry Miller, Kenneth Rexroth and others. He continued traveling from DC (and later North Carolina) to NYC, attending readings, gatherings, openings and other events. And it was during these years that Harry Redl took a number of what are, to my eye, the finest photographs of Williams as a young man. The images are striking. One finds Williams, then in his mid-twenties, looking visually determined and even thuggish, hands firmly on hips and a tweed flatcap yanked down low over the brow. I have seen these pictures at Buffalo, where his literary archive is kept, and they're certainly available at the Beinecke where his photography archive is housed, but any attempt to find these powerful images on the web is vain. If they are available on the web (which seems doubtful) they are crowded out by images of Ginsberg, Dylan, Kerouac, McClure and others. Like those poets Williams later struggled to draw into the fold, Williams somehow fell out of view as a poet. Perhaps it is this — the critical and popular attention one deserves as a poet — that is lost when sanctuary and sanity are found in all things remote.

One of the few critical essays which devotes careful attention to Williams' poetry is Guy Davenport's essay Jonathan Williams, Poet. Brought out as a pamphlet through Jim Lowell's Asphodel Book Shop in 1969, Davenport reads Williams work with the critical eye so characteristic of his translations and scholarly work. Unfortunately I don't have the essay with me as I write, but it is indeed one of the few which considers the poem and only the poem, refusing to allow Williams' work as publisher, photographer or book designer to elide his achievement as a poet.

Looking at only the range of his work as a poet, the achievement is broad in scope, the earlier work marked by a gravity informed by Olson and the later work — especially the Meta-Fours — saturated with the scathing wit of a Juvenal or Martial. And even in the earliest work Williams is attentive to the line, painstakingly constructing its limits, sensitive to it's ability to embed itself in the eye and echo off the walls of the mind. We find this in "The Distances to the Friend", a poem that appears in Allen's NAP, Williams' work sandwiched between that of Ed Dorn and Joel Oppenheimer:

grabbing on, hard,

a red, raw
muskrat ...

he ate it,
stifling all repulsion

For Williams living demands a certain courage and graciousness, a disciplined ability to swallow the chaff against fits of nausea. The weight of each line, the ability of each word to project itself outward by way of discipline enacts, within the body of the poem, this gracious and highly disciplined stifling.

Williams' Meta-Fours, a project begun in the 1990s, balance out the seriousness of this earlier work, foregrounding a humor and wit found largely in his essays. Here another view of Thoreau forty years later:

estimated acres of forest
henry david thoreau burned
down in 1844 trying
to cook fish he'd
caught for dinner 300

These "meta-fours" — subtitled "Voces Intimae" — appear as occasional and improvisational as the verses WCW scrawled across the pages of prescription pads between patients. Many of them come quick, like a staircase comment uttered in passing and felt not on delivery but moments later:

so life goes on
very much like a
piece of Morty Feldman


Jimmy Rowles (1918-1996)
a voice like a
canoe being dragged slowly
across an abandon road

Situated between his early open-field work and these Meta-Fours is the long poem simply titled Mahler, first published by Marlborough Fine Arts Limited in 1965 and later by Cape Goliard, then under the editorship of Nathaniel Tarn, in 1969. With each of these publishers in the UK, this poem wasn't available to American readers until Copper Canyon brought out Jubilant Thicket in 2005 some forty years later. Yet despite being unavailable and thus under-read, the poem is among the finest of long poems produced in the latter half of the twentieth century. It is a poem situated at the border of the totalizing modernist long poem and the open-ended serial poem.

The first part of the poem begins with an epigraph by Mahler dated 1895 and lineated by Williams: write a symphony means, to
construct a world with all the tools of
the available technique. The ever-new and
changing content determines its own form.

To be sure there is nothing new under. This epigraph strikingly similar to Creeley's well-known statement contained in a letter to Olson and later writ large into law through Olson's "Projective Verse": FORM IS NEVER MORE THAN AN EXTENSION OF CONTENT. And after years spent meditating on Mahler's symphonies, Williams allows the content of Mahler's work to determine the form of his writing. The project is one that explores association, spontaneity, procedure and consciousness. Using Duncan's statement on responsibility as a springboard ("Responsibility is to keep/ the ability to respond") Williams investigates the limits and possibilities of response, titling each section of the poem after the symphonic movement to which he responds. And he responds as he listens, using in spring of 1964 "earphones to listen to the recordings in my collection, which serve to blot out extraneous background noise and enhance concentration."

But this encounter with Mahler as he wrote was not his first. In the preface to the first edition Williams writes: "Since I first heard a performance of Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. I, in D Major by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy on November 8, 1949, in Carnegie Hall, New York, I have been more responsive to his music than any other. In other words, for some fifteen years now. And so it seems fitting, in May 1964, when the Yellow-Billed Cuckoo has returned to these mountains and intimately evokes the First Symphony, to practice these exercises in spontaneous composition to the movements of all the Mahler symphonies."

While listening to the fifth movement of Symphony No. 2, In C Minor — Scherzo tempo: all stops outWilliams wrote the following lines:

The Lord of Orchards
selects his fruits
in the Firmament's

Williams too — devoting more than half a century to selecting the choicest from the arts, however concealed or difficult to reach.


There are a handful of books beside me here which, given their fine quality and limited availability, deserve mention.

Language Led Astray. Designed and printed by Simon Cutts and Erica Van Horn at Coracle Press in Tipperary, this book contains images of travel notes constructed by Erica Van Horn and poems by Richard Deming, Nancy Kuhl, Tom Meyer, Cutts and Williams himself. The poems in the book were composed during a visit Deming and Kuhl made to Skywinding Farms, Scaly Mountain, North Carolina between March 3 and 11, 2006 — around the occasion of Williams 77th birthday.

Catgut and Blossom is another Corcacle publication brought out in 1989 on the occasion of Williams' 60th birthday. As with all Coracle books, the design is impressive. Contributors include a wide range of exclusively British and Irish poets, which points toward Williams' presence in the world as a transatlantic force. Some of these contributors are Ian Hamilton Finlay, RB Kitaj, Richard Caddel, Harry Gilonis, Basil Bunting, Eric Mottram, Gael Turnbull, John Furnival and Alan Halsey.

Futura 15 (1967). Edited by Hansjorg Mayer and published in Stuttgart, Germany, this issue of Futura contains Williams response to Ian Hamilton Finlay "for a one word poem anthology issue of his magazine poor old tired horse". Williams was also strongly connected to concrete poetry, largely through figures like Finlay and Furnival. Williams himself produced a number of concrete poems, as did Ronald Johnson, a poet Williams fiercely promoted and whose Book of the Green Man comes from hiking with Williams through England's fells and dales.

Gay Sunshine. I will try to emend this in the next day or two and get precise information, but far and away the finest interview with Jonathan Williams I've yet read is contained in a 1976 issue of Gay Sunshine. It is a three-way written interview with Jonathan and Tom Meyer covering a wide range of topics, from their first introduction through Robert Kelly, their poetic production and processes of composition, and early Black Mountain and Bard College days. Most importantly to my eye, it marks Jonathan and Tom's enduring connection to one another as both poets and beings in the world, covering the period of their lives from the late 1960s through the '70s, a moment in Williams' life often given short shrift in interviews.

Williams, like most any other poet invested in small press communities, published hundreds of poems in any number of seemingly ephemeral publications. I mention these here because they serve well as representative samples of the type of work which has yet to be gathered into a collected edition and yet to be widely read.

Images above: top portrait of JW by Reuben Cox. Portrait below by Elliot Banfield for an article published in
The New York Times Book Review, February 13, 1983.