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‘Compose aloud: poetry is sound’. The words are by Basil Bunting, the neglected friend of Ezra Pound and author of ‘Briggflatts’, one of the great modern epic poems. Jonathan Williams, a poet who never neglected a friend’s poetry, took Bunting’s directive (the words are the start of an encomium to young poets headed ‘I SUGGEST’) and printed it on a postcard, because finding words and savoring them and printing them and showing them to other people and making sure they paid attention was what Jonathan Williams did.
Sometimes he printed the words he found as poems of his own, like found objects: now irreverent or bawdy, now slightly diffident about their own beauty. Sometimes he printed the poems and writings and photographs of others (the neglected, the underread), 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, Robert Creeley, Denise Levertov, Louis Zukofsky, Guy Davenport, Lorine Niedecker, Thomas Meyer, and on and on. Jonathan liked lists (one of his poems is simply a list of remarkable names from the phone book in the area around his home in Highlands, North Carolina) and most writings about him involve long lists of the names of the people whom he sought out and befriended and to whom he pounded out letters on his massive electric typewriter while Ravel or Delius or Arnold Bax played on the stereo behind him.
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, delighted at its own naughtiness. You never knew what was coming. It might be
under the rondelay
into the wind and rain a
again, again –
its song needling the pines
And it might be
SPRING THAW AT THE OLD GOODMAN PLACE
THE MORE YOU COME
THE MORE YOU CAN!
‘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 a lot of things the way he collected words. He approached the world with the attitude that there were many great things in it that not enough people knew about, and set about finding them with a tenacity that earned him the epithet, from Hugh Kenner, ‘the truffle hound of poetry’. First, he collected poets and artists, living and dead, capturing portraits and gravestones with his Rolleiflex and Polaroid (some of them gathered in the beautiful eclectic book A Palpable Elysium: Portraits of Genius and Solitude). 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; all manner of recorded music; 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 great stacks of books (Kilvert’s diaries, Mervyn Peake, the latest Stephen King), or sit you down, after another stunning dinner, for single-malt scotch and a recording of Messaien’s ‘Turangalila’ Symphony, whether or not that was what the assembled company really wanted. He felt keenly that not enough people wanted what he had to offer. (’Only about 83 people read poetry’, he would grouse, in his favorite pose of alienated curmudgeon.) But he was allergic to anything that smacked of the establishment. Jargon’s one commercial success (which finally had to be sold to another publisher who could handle the demand) was White Trash Cooking by Ernest Matthew Mickler, which was quintessential Jonathan: seen as being in poor taste by many people; focusing on an overlooked, marginalized population; and including some seriously good food.
Many of his 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 (the painter Samuel Palmer) or recent (the photographer Ray Moore). For Bunting, who led him to the Dales, Jonathan erected a postcard memorial that, like many of his poems, sneaks around so-called literary standards and into the consciousness, where it lies like a found beach pebble, smooth and solid and reassuring in the palm of one’s hand. It stands, now, for him as well.
AT BRIGGFLATTS BURIAL GROUND
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…
A version of this piece originally ran in The Washington Post, where Anne Midgette is the classical music critic. She first met Jonathan Williams when she was two through her father, the painter Willard Midgette, and thanks to her stepfather, Donald B. Anderson, who owns Corn Close, continued to know him all her life.