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Birthdays were something Jonathan Williams insisted on attending to closely. In his private correspondence he often included the names of poets, artists and outsiders just below the date of composition, calling attention to the moment of their birth. Publicly he produced countless essays celebrating birthdays. In “Eighty of the Best,” an essay celebrating Basil Bunting’s birthday, Williams writes, “When a man reaches fourscore, it is assumed that he has outlived Wisdom; or is given to the curse of Old-Fartism; or has forgotten most of what he remembers.” Unlike Bunting, Williams never made eighty. March 8, 2009 would have marked that moment. But as Williams approached fourscore he like Bunting convincingly subverted these assumptions, willfully refusing to outlive Wisdom or forget the past. When he quoted Pound — as he quoted dozens if not hundreds of others from memory — he often appealed to Canto LXXXI:
What thou lovest well remains,
the rest is dross…
As his poetry, essays, photographs and the titles he published through Jargon remind us, Williams carefully appreciated, promoted and preserved the things he loved, struggling to guarantee these remained — not only for himself but others. Recognizing this, Hugh Kenner hailed Jargon as “the Custodian of Snowflakes” and Williams as “the truffle-hound of American poetry.” But in pursuing what one loves Williams warned against fetishizing big names and worked instead to nurture the nascent careers of hundreds of emerging or neglected poets, writers, artists and photographers.
The work he produced for more than half a century is such that no one activity or identity takes primacy over any other. He is never only a poet or photographer, an essayist or publisher. What we find instead in the figure of Williams is a continuity that cuts across these practices — something we might call a poetics of gathering. All of his efforts are linked through an unswerving desire to collect and preserve, harvest and distribute. In the long poem Mahler — a work Guy Davenport insisted will mark “the introduction of Blake’s Young Ancients to our shores” — Williams writes:
The Lord of Orchards
selects his fruit
in the Firmament’s
And it is from the breast — what nourishes — that Williams selected, constructing a constellation of cultural figures and objects that brings together in a single orbit the utterly unpolished and the cosmopolitan, the eccentric and the carefully measured, the odd and the familiar. A cursory but by no means exhaustive index of figures Williams supported through the years would easily include: American authors James Broughton, Robert Creeley, Guy Davenport, Robert Duncan, Russell Edson, Buckminster Fuller, Ronald Johnson, Denise Levertov, Paul Metcalf, Lorine Niedecker, Charles Olson, Joel Oppenheimer and Louis Zukofsky; photographers Lyle Bongé, Elizabeth Matheson, John Menapace, Mark Steinmetz and Doris Ullman; British poets Basil Bunting, Thomas A. Clark, Simon Cutts, Ian Hamilton Finlay and Mina Loy; outsider artists Georgia Blizzard, St. EOM (Eddie Owens Martin), Howard Finster, James Harold Jennings and Clarence Schmidt; bookmakers Jonathan Greene, Doyle Moore and Keith Smith.
Celebrated as a Black Mountain poet, Williams’ writing insists on the primary importance of imagination as a foil to ignorance and pinpoints ignorance (whether in the arts, civic or personal realms) as the source of cultural blight. Informed like his other practices by the wide and varied breath of his interests, his poetry has been described as a distillation of Martial, Socrates, Basho, Tu Fu and Richard Pryor. Experimental and open in form, the symbiotic relationship between music and poetic composition and the possibilities found in the high and low, the ribald and the erudite, the metaphysical and the concrete, sets his writing apart as audaciously singular. Oftentimes expressed through word-play, found poems, paeans to pastoral significance, and rails against contemporary despoliation, his poems and essays draw on a range of subjects and themes as broad in scope as the range of figures he published and photographed. In his poems Mahler, Bruckner, Delius, Ives, Satie, Samuel Palmer and William Blake commune with Mae West, Jelly Roll Morton, Thelonius Monk, Frederick Sommer and Richard Diebenkorn.
As a correspondent his private epistles were commensurate with the transnational and cross-cultural scope of his interests. The number of people he regularly corresponded with was legion and his epistolary noms de plume were as rich and varied as the people and communities he brought together. Known variously through his missives as Lord Stodge, Big Enis, Colonel Williams and Lord Nose, for more than fifty years he crafted an average of fifty letters a week, struggling to live daily a statement by Duncan he was fond of quoting: “Responsibility is to keep the ability to respond.”
As a gesture toward Williams’ life-long commitment to this order of responsibility, we have drawn together a wide selection of contributions that address the scope of Williams’ varied practices under the mantle of a single feature celebrating his life and work. Given the number of pieces included here we have, for the sake of convenience, arranged them in four sections.
In “Remembering,” the first section, we have pooled together those works that remember, reminisce and respond to Williams with intimacy and affection. These pieces are situated in conversation with a gallery of photographs of Williams — from his early days at St Albans School in Washington DC, through his formative years at Black Mountain and into the present decade. While many of the essays and poems included in this section are new and previously unpublished, some of these pieces — such as Basil Bunting’s comment on Williams in Cumbria and Ronald Johnson’s prose meditation on his time with Williams in the mid-1960s — are presently out of print and reproduced here for the first time. Others like Aperture editor Diana Stoll’s appreciation and poet-publisher Bob Arnold’s comment are memorial essays published shortly after Williams’ death. Williams himself was a prodigious writer of memorial essays and obituaries, attending to the passing of poets and artists with a sense of duty that makes the inclusion of these pieces an appropriate if not necessary gesture.
The second section, “Responding,” brings into focus both new statements on Williams work by poets David Annwn, Jim Cory and others as well as a host of previously published but presently out-of-print introductions and critical essays by contemporaries like Guy Davenport, Kenneth Irby, Ronald Johnson and Eric Mottram. This section also contains prefaces by Charles Olson and Robert Duncan included in two early Williams titles — Jammin’ the Greek Scene and Elegies & Celebrations — both of which have been out of circulation since their first appearances in these Jargon titles nearly half a century ago. A brief essay by Assistant Curator at the Buffalo Poetry and Rare Books Collection, Jim Maynard, contextualizes Duncan’s preface and maps the shifting contours of the relationship between Duncan and Williams forward from their years at Black Mountain. Lastly, we have included in this section a facsimile reproduction of the typescript for Olson’s 1953 poem “For a Man from Stuttgart,” a work dedicated to Williams and included in Williams’ Elegies & Celebrations. Here the typescript is juxtaposed against an image of the poem’s first published appearance in Elegies.
The next section, “Reviewing,” foregrounds Williams’ work in photography. Despite the persistent circulation of his photographs within poetry communities, this section is paradoxically the shortest — yet the two essays contained in this section are rigorous in orientation. While poet-critic Richard Deming’s essay investigates the way Williams’ photographs gave shape to an emergent avant-garde community at Black Mountain and beyond, Vic Brand carefully considers the photographers Williams promoted and collaborated with, closing his essay with a photographic bibliography of the Jargon Society. These essays are complimented by a gallery of twenty-four photographs by Williams — several previously unpublished and many scanned directly from prints held in the Jargon Society Archive at the Buffalo Poetry and Rare Books Collection.
The fourth and final section, “Recollecting,” is two-fold, addressing not only Williams as a collector committed to selecting his fruit from the Firmament but also the work involved in collecting Williams. An essay by friend, Williams bibliographer and bookseller James Jaffe begins this section, locating the Jargon Society in a broader fine press tradition while poet-critic and publisher Kyle Schlesinger reinforces this view of Jargon by historicizing the press, investigating several Jargon publications and calling attention to Williams’ relationships with various typographers and designers. Critic Tom Patterson picks up on a different thread, focusing on Williams’ interest in collecting Outsider art, a thread poet-critic Dale Smith also investigates with attention to Williams’ deep affection for the strange. Next, in an interview conducted in June 2007, Williams speaks to his life and work himself and responds to a range of topics comparable to the scope of his interests. Finally the archive itself is addressed. Former curator of the Buffalo Poetry Collection Robert Bertholf points toward the centrality of Jargon Society to twentieth-century American poetry while Michael Basinski, the present curator, speaks directly to the present state of the archive, which he reminds us is “the largest single manuscript collection” at Buffalo. Two checklists are also included here, a bibliography of works by Jonathan Williams and a bibliography of Jargon Society publications from 1951-2008. Both of these checklists aspire to completeness, but given the number of ephemeral and otherwise uncatalogued items produced by Williams and published through his Jargon Society, neither pretend to be so.
Throughout his life in poetry and the arts Williams preferred active involvement with artists and the world at large over cloistered study or administrative labor: “I clearly did not want to become a Byzantinist in the basement of The Morgan Library; or an art critic for The New Yorker; nor did I want to live in the world of competitive business.” His work in the arts thus demanded direct and persistent engagement with the world — a form of engagement that gave rise to both enduring friendships and irreconcilable conflicts. In his effort to “raise the common to grace” Williams often encountered resistance, yet it was precisely this resistance that signaled for him the importance of his work. As he remarks in an essay on the southern experience, “So, life is not the eyrie I would choose it to be, the poet living quietly, invisibly, making his poems as a peony bush makes peonies. There are demons about to chop through the poets and peonies, and other people too. One is engage.” If Williams maintained any commitment to Duncan’s sense of responsibility this was a commitment that anticipated active engagement in advance in order to preserve for us the choice specimens he gathered across the span of a lifetime. And it is with this in mind that we hope you will engage the work gathered here in celebration of his commitment to selecting, harvesting, producing and preserving.
Richard Owens edits Punch Press and Damn the Caesars, a journal of contemporary poetry and poetics. Recent poetry, essays and comments have appeared in On:Contemporary Practice, Mayday, Inter, Little Red Leaves and elsewhere. Delaware Memoranda, a poem of moderate length, was brought out through BlazeVox in 2008. A selection of shorter poems, Embankments, is forthcoming from Interbirth Books later in 2009.
Jeffery Beam’s recent books include recent Gospel Earth (Skysill Press, England), An Invocation (Country Valley Press), The Beautiful Tendons: Uncollected Queer Poems 1969–2007 (White Crane Books/Lethe Press), On Hounded Ground: Home and the Creative Life (Bookgirl Press, Japan) and Visions of Dame Kind (Jargon). He is also the editor of A Hornet’s Nest, a book of quotes by Jonathan Williams — (Jargon Society 2008). His song cycle, Life of the Bee, produced with composer Lee Hoiby, continues to be performed on the international stage. The Carnegie Hall premiere can be heard on Albany Record’s New Growth. He is poetry editor of the print and online literary journal Oyster Boy Review and a botanical librarian in the Biology-Chemistry Library at UNC-Chapel Hill, North Carolina.