Jonathan Williams, 1929-2008

Sunday, April 20, 2008

"Compose aloud: poetry is a sound."

The words are by Basil Bunting, a neglected friend of Ezra Pound and author of the great poem "Briggflatts." Jonathan Williams, a poet who never neglected a friend's poetry, took Bunting's directive and printed it on a postcard, because finding words and printing them and showing them to other people and making them pay attention was what Jonathan did.

Sometimes, he printed the words he found as found-object poems of his own, by turns bawdy and diffident about their own beauty. Other times, he printed the words and photographs of others, offering their work in beautiful volumes through his Jargon Society (founded in 1951, while he was at Black Mountain College), which published more than 100 titles by Charles Olson, Guy Davenport, Denise Levertov, Louis Zukofsky, and on and on.

If poetry is a sound, Jonathan made it. For years, he drove across America in a battered Volkswagen, its trunk full of boxes of books, and spread poetry -- "our Johnny Appleseed," Buckminster Fuller called him. When he stood up to read -- tall, imposing, masking shyness with a forbidding sternness -- the poems became sound, rolling out with the rich savor of whisky and cigar smoke that colored his voice, and gradually sweeping away the reservations of listeners who, braced for Great Thoughts, found instead humor and homespun truths and even gleeful obscenity. You never knew what was coming. It might be "Leconte High-Top":

under the rondelay

the sun

into the wind and rain a

winter wren

again, again --

its song

needling the pines

Or it might be "Painting the Daisies with Larry":

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