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":

I'd love to be

his jockey shorts

on Friday night

"Some people . . . find the poems vulgar," he wrote. "I no more write for 'nice' people than I do for 'common' ones. I make poems for the people who want them."

Jonathan collected things the way he collected words. Hugh Kenner called him "the truffle hound of poetry." He collected poets and artists, living and dead, capturing portraits and gravestones with Rolleiflex and Polaroid (some gathered in A Palpable Elysium). Other quests included outsider artists long before "outsider art" was a term; hikes in beautiful landscapes such as the Yorkshire Dales, where he spent half of each year in a 17th-century stone cottage; recorded music from Mahler to Mojo Nixon; and gourmet food (often thanks to Tom Meyer, his partner of 40 years, whose own poems -- collected in At Dusk Iridescent-- twine through the Jargon oeuvre with balletic grace).

He wanted to share all this bounty. When you visited, he would present you with stacks of books or sit you down for single-malt scotch and a recording of Messiaen's "Turangalila" Symphony. And he felt keenly that not enough people wanted what he had to offer. But he was allergic to anything that smacked of the establishment. Jargon's one commercial success (ultimately sold to another publisher who could handle the demand) was the cookbook White Trash Cooking, by Ernest Matthew Mickler, and it was quintessential Jonathan: seen as being in poor taste by many people, focusing on a marginalized population, and including some seriously good food.

Many of Williams's poems (collected in 2004 in Jubilant Thicket) and essays (sampled in the exuberant Blackbird Dust) are memorials, valedictories, obituaries: a last chance to let people know about somebody they should have heard of, long past (painter Samuel Palmer) or recent (photographer Raymond Moore). For Basil Bunting, who led him to the Dales, Jonathan erected a postcard memorial that, like many of his poems, sneaks around so-called literary standards to lodge in the consciousness like a found beach pebble, smooth and solid and reassuring in one's palm. It stands, now, for him as well:

At Briggflatts Burial Ground

Dear Basil,

Eighteen months after you left us,

poetry (that abused & discredited substance;

that refuge of untalented snobs, yobs,

and bores)

sinks nearer the bottom of the whirling world.

For the rest, you there in the earth

hear the crunch of small bones

as owl and mouse, priest and weasel,

stone and cardoon, oceans and gentlemen

get on with it . . .

-- Anne Midgette is a music critic for The Washington Post and knew Williams for many years.

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