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While I was surfing the Internet last week, I stumbled on this: ‘Jonathan Williams, poet, dead at 79.’ For a moment, I sat attempting to absorb the fact that tall, courtly Jonathan, was gone. Then, I immediately recalled my most cherished memory of the Bard of Scaly Mountain.
Over a decade ago when I was bemoaning the approach of my 64th birthday, two of my friends asked me what I wanted to celebrate my ‘natal day.’ At the time, I was reading An Ear in Bartram’s Tree, and I quipped, ‘Jonathan Williams.’ My friends laughed and I went back to my book.
However, a few days later when I drove to Mirror Lake Road in Highlands for my ‘birthday dinner,’ I was ushered into a dining room, lit by candles. There were only two chairs at the table. In a few moments, there was a soft knock at the door and Jonathan Williams entered. I remember that he was all rumpled tweed and tousled hair and that he smiled and said, ‘Happy Birthday, Gary.’ I gawked like a fool and my friends said, ‘Jonathan can only stay for two hours.’
Then, they departed, leaving me with a great deal of food, several bottles of wine and Jonathan Williams.
And so we talked … or rather, Jonathan talked and I listened. I asked about Black Mountain College, his friendship with Henry Miller, his awesome folk / outsider art collection, his publishing press (the Jargon Society) and his efforts to save Pasaquan, the fantastic ‘one-man paradise’ of Eddie Owens Martin in Buena Vista, Ga. He told wonderful anecdotes about his trips down the back roads of America to find the multitudes of untrained artists who paint on cardboard, rusty tin and masonite, people who whittle, carve or make whirly-gigs — all compelled to create a personal vision that Jonathan found as deeply moving as a Degas or a Cezanne.
Jonathan also loved baseball and the recipes in White Trash Cooking (published by Jargon Press). He was a discerning collector of blues recordings and the works of unknown photographers, such as Ralph Eugene Meatyard.
During our conversation, I noticed that Jonathan had a small notebook in his vest pocket, and that he occasionally made notes in it. When I asked about it, he said that he collected things other people said, and that he liked my comment about falling in love with the folksinger Hedy West because ‘she had hairy legs.’ Of course, I knew that he sometimes converted a chance remark that he had heard in a barber shop or a garage: ‘Your points is blue and your timing is off a week from Thursday’.
Several years after our conversation, I heard Jonathan read his poems in Asheville and was flattered to find a note that I had once written him transformed into a poem. As best as I remember, it went something like this:
Report from Gary Carden at the Coffee Shop in Sylva
A friend approached while I sat reading.
What you reading, Gary?
‘Jonathan Williams,’ I responded, holding up the book.
‘Oh, that funny feller.’
‘No, you’re thinking about Winters.’
‘Damn straight. It was down to 20 last night.’
After that night on Mirror Lake Road, we maintained an uncertain correspondence. Jonathan seemed resigned to both his own obscurity and the decline of all that was fine and good in America. He despised most modern poetry and felt that theatre had died with Tennessee Williams.
Although he continued to publish his own poetry, he seemed to devote the majority of his efforts to calling attention to the works of others. Occasionally, he would venture out for a reading and he often acted as a commentator for exhibits of his folk art collection. As for the recent popularity of folk art, he noted that the field had been taken over by money-grubbing opportunists and fakes.
However, each time he found himself making grim observations about a world where bad food and deranged politicians held sway (Jesse Helms seemed to epitomize the worst in Southern culture), Jonathan would suddenly change the subject and, retreating behind his shield of humor, laugh, quote a bit of doggerel and sing a song. As many of his later works attest, he was fond of addressing his dead friends, saying things like, ‘If there is a flight out of the Elysium Fields tonight, old friend, I’ll pick you up at the airport’.
Over the years, I have often searched for a fitting icon or symbol for Jonathan Williams. Aside from the undeniable merits of his poetry, his greatest gift was his amazing knack for perceiving talent in others. Whether it was Edgar Tolson, the carver in Compton, Ky., Vollis Simpson and his wind machines in Lucama, N.C., or artists like James Harold Jennings down in Stokes County, Jonathan always saw what the rest of us missed. That includes the art critics who often made belated acknowledgements of his unerring judgment. Finally, I can pick my icon.
Jonathan is a magpie!
I have watched a magpie stalking through a landfill and I’m thinking of his discerning eye. In the midst of all that plastic and Styrofoam, he will halt, peer into the debris and extract something … a colored stone, a bauble or an earring. Then, taking flight, he will carry his discovery home to his nest where he will give it a choice setting, a niche that displays its merits. Jonathan did that. He waded through the wreckage of our culture, indifferent to the gaudy fakes. Yet, he sometimes saw it (the real thing!) glinting down there under the debris, and when he saw it he lifted it up and said, ‘Look what I have found.’
Ave, to the Bard of Scaly Mountain.
Gary Carden is a writer, folklorist, and storyteller from Sylva, North Carolina. Carden has authored a number of collections of Appalachian folktales, and a volume of original stories entitled Mason Jars in the Flood and Other Stories. His piece appeared in the Smoky Mountain News, Sylva, North Carolina, in March 2008, a few days after he posted it on the Netwest Mountain Writers and Poets Blog.