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Poet, essayist, photographer, and visionary — not words to be tossed about casually —Jonathan Williams may have been best known as the founder and fifty-year drive behind the Jargon Society, the small press that published in that half-century some hundred books of avant-garde writings, art, and photography.
Williams died in Highlands, North Carolina, within a hundred miles of his birthplace in Asheville, but the trajectory of his life was anything but simple. He grew up in Washington, D.C., and after a short stint at Princeton (which he later blasted as ‘an Ivy League chain gang’) he encountered Harry Callahan at Chicago’s Institute of Design. It was on Callahan’s suggestion that Williams applied to Black Mountain College in Western North Carolina (incidentally near his family’s summer house at Scaly Mountain—the homeplace that would be his base in years to come). In the ferment of Black Mountain in the early 1950s, Williams found himself in a mix of teachers and students that included photographers Callahan and Aaron Siskind, artists Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly, Robert Motherwell, writers Francine du Plessix, Joel Oppenheimer, Robert Creeley, and a litany of others. Perhaps most galvanizing, he came in contact with the poet Charles Olson, then the college’s rector, who helped to shape Williams into a writer and hired him to run the school’s press. (One of Jargon’s earliest endeavors was the publication of Olson’s Maximus Poems in 1953.) In subsequent years, Jargon Press would champion writers (among them Louis Zukofsky, Paul Metcalf, Lorine Niedecker, Mina Loy) and photographers and artists (including Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Harry Callahan, Doris Ulmann, R. B. Kitaj). The books are beautiful, crafted with meticulous, human care — and yet only one Jargon title ever leapt off the bookshop shelves: The White Trash Cookbook, with photographs by Ernest Matthew Mickler; royalties from that 1986 book are still rolling in.
As a poet and essayist, Williams had a powerful, fluid, wonderfully idiosyncratic voice. As a photographer, he was modest (he wrote in the foreword to A Palpable Elysium, his 2002 book of photographic portraits: ‘One hopes that “professionals” will simply allow me to be a literary gent who takes the odd tolerable picture’). But his take on photography was adventurous and consuming, and it was perhaps inevitable that he would find his way early on to Aperture, where his writings would appear intermittently over the course of forty years. Williams’s 1961 essay ‘The Eyes of 3 Phantasts’ focused on Wynn Bullock, Frederick Sommer, and Clarence John Laughlin; his words interacted with the work of these wild masters with a troublesome, provoking beauty that was somehow just the right counterpoint. He was a contributing editor to Aperture for nearly two decades, beginning in the mid 1970s, and published writings, both in the magazine and in Aperture books, on Callahan, Laughlin, Art Sinsabaugh, ‘new Southern Photography’, and more.
I was encouraged by friends to look Jonathan Williams up when I moved south from New York with my family about a decade ago. This was to be one of the more meaningful encounters of our new Southern life. Visits to Skywinding Farm, the home that Jonathan shared with his partner Thomas Meyer, were extraordinary events that always included culinary phenomena (jambon en gelée on our first visit, vividly recalled) and a level of conversation that is not encountered every day: a fast-paced meander among friends and acquaintances such as Guy Davenport, Basil Bunting, Thomas Merton, James Broughton, Stevie Smith, Howard Finster, James Laughlin. Unexpurgated gossip and the deeper exploration of ideas intertwined nicely. (When the topic moved to the movies—as somehow it always does—Jonathan would grow irascible and look around for escape. He was an infamous curmudgeon, whose welcome mat bore the terse suggestion ‘GO AWAY’.)
I had a couple of occasions — happily, no more than a couple — to conduct semi-‘official’ interviews with Jonathan. Ordinarily plenty gregarious and hugely generous with his thoughts and ideas, when the conversation threatened to be circumscribed in some boring way, he clammed up, recalcitrant: such discussions were a complete wash. Once I was nervously gearing up for an interview with Henri Cartier-Bresson, and knowing Jonathan was a great fan, I asked him rather lamely: ‘If you could ask HC-B anything, what would it be?’ No pause: ‘I’d just ask him how he got to be so damn good’ (here channeling some laconic mountain man). Jonathan was better approached more obliquely, without preconceived agenda. This because, like any mighty animal, his mind needed to be able to move in any direction at any point. Reading his essays you find a disarming combination of Higher Thought, fantastically wayward references, and hilarious raunch: tough pokeberry and Cumbrian plum, eaten with a raised eyebrow. His poems often grab snatches of local language in which Jonathan discovered cadences interesting enough to isolate —’The Colossal Maw from War-Woman Dell, Georgia’ a title that almost outweighs its poem:
more mouth on
on a goose.
Despite Jargon’s hundred titles, and the many books of Jonathan’s work published by other houses, the theme of underrecognition — and the concomitant need for funds — was ever present. Of course, only hardheaded individuals run small presses for fifty-year stretches. But also, as Jonathan surely knew, he operated between audiences, or rather his audience was a most rarified group of illuminati. He was a self-proclaimed ‘bourgeois bourgeoisophobe’. He asserted of his work that ‘the Great Unwashed will not dig this stuff at all’, following up: ‘However, I do not write for the Great Unwashed. I write for them that wants it’. Them that wants had better be both quick and smart, and their tastes may have to run tangent to at least one of Jonathan’s — but that could mean anything from Catullus to Mingus, Montaigne to Mae West, Charles Ives to Uncle Iv. The field was so wide, and always fertile.
Diana C. Stoll is the Senior Editor of Aperture magazine. She is based in Asheville, North Carolina. This article was originally published in Aperture magazine, number 192, Fall 2008.