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Jonathan Williams Feature

Guy Davenport

Jonathan Williams, Poet

Section 1

[The following essay was first published in Williams’ An Ear in Bartram’s Tree and later brought out as a pamphlet by Jim Lowell’s Asphodel Book Shop, March 8, 1969.]


Jonathan Williams, poet. He is an entertaining array of other things, too, but they are for the historian of publishing to talk about, the connoisseur of fine books, the biographer, the raconteur, the chronicler, if any ever comes forward, of the poets who in our new intellectual ecology have risked their stomachs, nerves, and reputations to read in colleges, YMCAs, high schools, YWCAs, filling stations (yes, filling stations), universities, YMHAs, churches, and even department stores. There is a reason for this goliardry, to which we shall return. It was R. Buckminster Fuller, on his way from Carbondale to Ghana (and deep in Kentucky at the time) who remarked of Jonathan Williams that “he is our Johnny Appleseed — we need him more than we know.” He publishes poets, introduces poets to poets, poets to readers, professors to poets, poets (perilous business) to professors, and he photographs poets.

Guy Davenport. Photograph by Jonathan Williams.

Guy Davenport. Photograph by Jonathan Williams.


The color slide, descendent of the magic lantern, is still the most charming disseminator of culture, and Jonathan Williams is its master. He is the iconographer of poets in our time, and of the places and graves of poets gone on to Elysium. He is an ambassador for an enterprise that has neither center nor hierarchy but whose credentials are ancient and respected. He is also a traveller, hiker, botanist, antiquarian, epicure, and much else to engage our attention if we wish to look at the poet rather than the poetry. And so, quickly, before the poet gets in our line of sight, the poetry.


Its weightlessness is that of thistledown and like the thistle it bites. Its coherence is that of clockwork, at once obvious and admirable. Its beauty is that of the times: harsh, elegant, loud, sweet, abrupt all together. The poet in our time does what poets have always done, given a tongue to dumbness, celebrated wonderments, complained of the government, told tales, found sense where none was to be perceived, found nonsense where we thought there was sense; in short, made a world for the mind (and occasionally the body too) to inhabit. Beauty, poets have taught us, is the king’s daughter and the milkmaid, the nightingale and the rose, the wind, a Greek urn, the autumn moon, the sea when it looks like wine. None of which appear often in the confusion of our world. Yet, perhaps all too rarely, poets keep to their traditional loyalties —


dawn songs in the dews of young orange trees;
and ranging orisons; and wordless longings

sung in tranquility’s waters sliding in sun’s

and benisons sung in these trees...


That cello passage is Jonathan Williams meditating on Frederick Delius. The imagination of the poet converses with the imagination of the composer. The language for talking to Delius is Delius. And what if the poet wants to talk back to the TV set? It is there that he encounters of a morning rockets blasted toward a star his ancient craft has sung for two thousand years (and probably longer). He switches from cello to clarinet, piano, snare drum, and trombone:


Woke up this mornin’
Cape Canaveral can’t get it up...
Woke up this mornin’
Cape Canaveral can’t get it up...

But sent a cable to Great Venus —
told her, better watch her ass!

"Unravished bride of quietness,"
blasts off in my head...
"Unravished bride of quietness,"
blasts off in my head...

Liable to be a whole lot more people
than just John Keats dead!


Lonnie Johnson and Elmer Snowden, accomplished singers of the blues, were enlisted in this enterprise, for their tradition of eloquent dismay before a world independent of their will and opaque to their evaluation of life has been under refinement for three centuries, and their sly alignment of technology’s troubles with a ribaldry both venerable and primitive is worthy of Brer Fox. The art of Méliès is there too — the poet is remembering The Rocket to the Moon in which Verne’s astronauts smack the planet’s outraged eye. And Keats’ great ode. Poets are licensed idiots and can be counted on without fail to note the change when the silent moon — Sappho’s wild-rose-fingered moon born from the violet sea, Vergil’s friend of silence, Shakespeare’s moist starre — becomes a junkyard.

Sketch of Jonathan Williams by Guy Davenport

Sketch of Jonathan Williams by Guy Davenport


The poet, like the horse, is a mythological creature. The accoutrements of both are the same now as in the days of Hsiang Yü, Mimnermos, and Caedmon. Their duties are the same, their numen, their intractable identity and presence. They are, they have always been. The horse is as archaic as he is modern, forever the “neighing quadruped, used in war, and draught and carriage” that Johnson said he was, independent of time and fashion: which is why the poet Christopher Fry called him the last mythological beast. Eternity seems to have made a separate contract with him, and extended the same gracious codicil to the poet, who also is neither archaic nor modern, or rather is most modern when he is most archaic. For the work of the poet is continuous while all other modes of discourse — mathematics, physics, politics — are wildly discontinuous, repeating stupidities because they forgot the past, stopping and starting because of barbarians, rebellions, and simple loss of vision. The poet works his melodies into the very grain of existence.


An eidetic Ezra Pound, we learn from the poem “Some Southpaw Pitching” in this volume, once appeared to the poet Charles Olson to say, “Let the song lie in the thing!” Our other recorded appearance of Ezra Pound as “a familiar compound ghost” was to Air Raid Warden Eliot during the Blitz when he could be discerned “in the waning dusk,” along with Dante and Mallarmé, saying


...our concern was speech, and speech impelled us
To purify the dialect of the tribe
And urge the mind to aftersight and foresight


Eliot of course is here re-imagining Dante’s encounter with his teacher Brunetto Latini — the meeting to which the title of Jonathan Williams’ first book alludes in its elate way, The Empire Finals at Verona (1959).


Poi si rivolse, e parve di coloro
   che corrono a Verona il drappo verde
      per la campagna; e parve di costoro
quelli che vince, non colui che perde.


The ghost also said to Mr. Eliot: “…next year’s words await another voice.” Another master to whom Jonathan Williams has listened with care wrote: “No ideas but in things.” That was William Carlos Williams (no kin), who appears in this volume saying (in “Dangerous Calamus Emotions”):


him and that Jesuit, them with the variable feet —
they changed it!


Walt Whitman, he means, and Gerard Manley Hopkins. What they changed is what Jonathan Williams (with help and in good company) is still changing: poetry. “Next year’s words await another voice.” By paying careful attention to William Carlos Williams, who insisted that the poet’s business is to let the world speak for itself, Jonathan Williams learned to make such poems as this:


Mister Williams
lets youn me move
tother side the house

the woman
choppin woods
mite nigh the awkerdist thing
I seen


The title to this poem is a verbal gesture alerting us to cock our ears: Uncle Iv Surveys His Domain from His Rocker of a Sunday Afternoon as Aunt Dory Starts to Chop Kindling. The poem defines a culture. Edwin Markham was satisfied to let the man with the hoe remain as voiceless as the Barbizon painting in which he found him. That the world they have been so diligently describing might have a voice seems to be a late idea to American poets. James Joyce offered as the purpose of literature the simple but radically unassailable office of making the dumb to speak. And not in paraphrase. The poet locates himself between reality and the poem, and trains himself to be the medium through which reality flows into the poem.


I found the poems in the fields
And only wrote them down


That is John Clare as he speaks in Jonathan Williams’ “What the Flowers in the Meadow Tell Me.” And there is a response:


John, claritas tells us the words are not idle,
the syllables are able
to turn plaintains into quatrains,
tune raceme to cyme, panicle and umbel to
form corollas in light clusters of tones...

Sam Palmer hit it:
“Milton, by one epithet
draws an oak of the largest girth I ever saw,
‘Pine and monumental oak’:

I have been trying to draw a large one in
Lullingstone; but the poet’s tree is huger than
Any in the park.”

Muse in a meadow, compose in
a mind!


Any poem worth its salt is as transparently complex as


air in a hornet’s nest
over the water makes a
solid, six-sided music


wherein every quality is mirrored in another (and an aria and a horn are camouflaged into the richness); that the lines are typographically isometric, seven-syllabled, and inwardly ornamental (-net’s nest, solid/sided, s, m, and n so placed as to make a bass line to the treble) is as native an instinct to the poet as hornet’s hexagonal architecture.


Native, to be certain, but only after much work. Man is the animal that chooses its instincts through emulation, and all his learning has roots and branches. Jonathan Williams’ first masters would seem to be Charles Olson, whose Maximus poems he later published and whose master was Ezra Pound. We cannot draw a direct line of descent from Pound to Olson, however, for there is an intervening generation. Louis Zukofsky and William Carlos Williams are at its center, its Mallarmé and its Whitman. Their admonitions to the young stressed objectivity, technique, honesty, clarity, realism. The European poem was not to be continued in America; it was not republican. Rhyme was feudal; recurring metrical patterns warped thought and natural speech. Images must come not from books but the world. The poet must therefore find a new shape for every poem, and liberty turned out to make far harder demands than the sonnet. Hence Olson’s heroic struggle with balance of phrasing, William Carlos Williams’ plain carpentry and boyish honesty, and Zukofsky’s daredevil integrity and fierce control of rhythm and design — a passionate mathematics engraved on steel with a diamond. Never before had American poetry worked with such fine tools or insisted upon such a craftsmanship. Professors of literature, ever conservative, cautious, and lazy, will discover all this in their own sweet time.


The young poets who went to school to these hard masters — Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, Jonathan Williams, Robert Kelly, Ronald Johnson — have by now each evolved a style of his own. The spare asceticism of their training remains, however, as an armature within. Jonathan Williams learned how to write a poem as trim and economical as a tree. And like a tree his poems have roots, exist against a background, and convert light into energy. And take their shape not only from inner design but also from the weather and their circumjacence.


Which brings us to the fact that the honey bee has a lethal sting. Were it not for a long and distinguished history of poets who have balanced a love affair and a feud with the world — Archilochos, Catullus, Horace, Villon, Pope, E.E. Cummings — Jonathan Williams’ double-threat handiness with a lyric would seem charmingly schizoid. Odi et amo. A settled hatred for one’s species (Little Harp’s excuse for his terreur, and his last words) is traditionally counterpoised in the satirist by a rich sensuality before all that’s innocent.


The satire has been there from the first; wit and sense do not exist apart from each other in Jonathan Williams’ mind. Pathos must appear in comic socks or not at all. Incongruity seems to be the stuff of existence, and outrage may be our surest response to the universe. There is a moral discourse of some consequence in the poet’s reply to political rhetoric:


Hush, L’il Guvnuh,
don’t you fret...


The genius of Jonathan Williams’ satire is as old as tyranny. The slave learns to speak in riddles and sly enigmas; The Blue-Tailed Fly, homely folksong as it seemed, was in fact a song of emancipation. Look hard at the satires in this volume: their pungency and sass are not irresponsible, nor their wit flippant. In “Faubus Meets Mingus during the Latter’s Dynasty” the particular politician and composer easily translate into the struggle between power and art anywhere. It is Jonathan Williams’ surest instinct that poetry is not ideas or rhetoric. He locates meaning specifically. To the child’s question,


what fer


the reply is:


haint fer
to name! why Adam’s
is thishyar
haint got
no name
but the Lord’s
liable to call
hit’s got
in it


“And out of the ground the LORD GOD formed every beast of the field, and every foule of the aire, and brought them unto Adam, to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof…” The child who inquired about the gingham and calico animals in the patchwork quilt will have heard these words in Sunday School and may never hear Milton’s


The grassie Clods now Calv’d, now half appeered
The Tawnie Lion, pawing to get free
His hinder parts, then springs as broke from Bonds,
And Rampant shakes his Brinded main; the Ounce,
The Libbard, and the Tyger, as the Moale
Rising, the crumbl’d Earth above them threw
In Hillocks; the swift Stag from under ground
Bore up his branching head


nor Jules Supervielle’s


Sombres troupeaux des monts sauvages, étagés,
Faites attention, vous allez vous figer.
Ne pouvant vous laisser errer à votre guise
Je m’en vais vous donner d’éternelles assises.
Les chamois bondiront pour vous...


but has his vision all the same of the Garden, its Tree, and its Serpent.


As we read into this collection we become aware that whereas the satirist’s predilections are as esoteric as the headlines in this morning’s newspaper, the lyricist’s predilections begin to display a wonderful strangeness. A pattern of artists emerge — Blake, Ives, Nielsen, Samuel Palmer, Bruckner — and (if we have our eyes open) a whole world. It is a world of English music, especially the Edwardian Impressionists and their German cousins Bruckner and Mahler, of artists oriented toward Blake and his circle but going off by centrifugal flight into wildest orbits, men like Fuseli, Calvert, and Mad Martin. The poet’s admiration for Edith Sitwell will have had something to do with this exploration of English eccentricity, and the poet’s Welsh temperament, and, most clearly, William Blake himself. The artist is aware of a heritage not only because, like the rest of us, he recognizes in it his origins and values, but because he is consciously adding to it. What Jonathan Williams found in England, Wales, and Scotland was not a second heritage (as it might seem to a casual glance) but the heritage in which he was raised from the beginning. When, for instance, he met the Scots poet Ian Hamilton Finlay, among whose work we can find (in the Glaswegian toungue):


a heilan coo
wis mair liker
    the hiker
hoo hoos
ferr feart
o ma


he was, as perhaps only a citizen of Appalachia can know, solidly within his heritage. Finlay probably got his matter out of the air (the heilan coo can be found in his Glasgow Beasts, an a Burd, Haw, an Inseks, an, Aw, a Fush) without necessarily knowing that he was retelling a song that can be traced to Taliesin (the Câd Goddeu), is known in Spanish, Italian, Roumanian, Greek, and Serbian versions, and is sung in Jonathan Williams’ neck of the woods as “She looked out o the winder as white as any milk.” [1] Finlay has remarked of the Glaswegians that their dialect parodies itself, so that arch comic banter has become the preferred mode of discourse. The same observation describes Appalachia, the linguistic horizon that Jonathan Williams has never cared to stray very far from.


English eccentricity goes back to the Druids and beyond — the Sutton Hoo jewelry discovered in 1939 looks remarkably as if it were what Jonathan Williams calls Theosophical Celtic Art Nouveau. From Blake’s Ancients (Samuel Palmer and Edward Calvert) stems a tradition. The Rossettis belonged to it; Browning paid it his respects; but for the most part it is a tangled and untraced path in and out of official literature and art. There’s Charles Doughty whom entire departments of literature university after university have not read, a state of affairs roughly analogous to a department of physics sublimely ignorant of Proteus Steinmetz. There’s Stanley Spencer, J.R.R. Tolkein, Edith Sitwell. And Bruckner and Bax and John Ireland. And Odilon Redon and James McGarrell. And more — we await the historian of these visionaries. Literature, as Harry Levin is wont to say, is its own historian, and Jonathan Williams’ honor to his spiritual forebears may be the beginning of a resuscitation. Meanwhile, we must recognize that they constitute a tradition, and that he has taken up their torch, and carries it to and fro in the United States. His Mahler, responses movement by movement to the ten symphonies, will mark (once the dust has settled) the introduction of Blake’s Young Ancients to our shores, a hundred and forty years later. If Walt Whitman had married the Widow Gilchrist as she proposed, we should not have had to wait so long, perhaps. And that speculation makes it clear that I have wandered far enough into an unwritten history.


Poetry is always inviolably itself, and it is always something more. Jonathan Williams offers us in every poem a lyric line of suave clarity and a highly involved verbal harmony. The poem itself finds and articulates a single image or action. This is an art like pole vaulting: the center of gravity is outside the trajectory. Build-up and follow-through are not the poem, though the poem depends upon them; the one is in the poet’s control, the other in yours. We are not surprised to learn that the poet is an athlete.


And the poet is a wanderer. If his poetry defines and extricates a tradition from his past, his wandering (as Buckminster Fuller points out) defines the curious transformation of the shape of American culture. There is no American capital; there never has been. We have a network instead. A French poet may plausibly know all other French poets by living in Paris. The smallest of American towns contain major poets, and all other kinds of artists. In no other country does such a distribution of mind appear. Milledgeville, Ga., contained Flannery O’Connor (and at one time Oliver Hardy); Minerva, O., Ralph Hodgson. Jackson, Miss., contains Eudora Welty; Rollinsville, Col., Stan Brakhage. If you know where Carl Ruggles lives, Ray Bradbury, Michael McClure, or Edward Dorn, you may count yourself a learned man indeed. For a decade now Jonathan Williams has made it his business to go from point to point on this network: there has been nothing like it since the medieval scholars who for want of any other means of communication wandered from university to university. His long zig-zag trips can easily be explained by noticing that he is a publisher of books unwelcome to commercial publishers (who are closer to the grocery business than to that founded by Gutenberg); by invitations from universities to read, show slides, lecture on book design, architecture, and poetry; and by the fact that to know artists and poets one has to go to Pocatello, Id., and Pippa Passes, Ky. The true significance of all this gadding about is this: the poet with his preternatural, prophetic sense knows that this is the way he must live. Buckminster Fuller, who has also been on the road for the same decade, knew why Jonathan Williams is there, too: for the simple fact that they are each in his own way doing the same thing. Each has perceived that all other lines of communication are overloaded. Anything worth knowing passes from one man to one man. The book is still a viable way of communicating, provided one has taught oneself to find the book one needs to read. It isn’t easy. All the electronic media are a flood of noise. And no medium can replace what may be an essential need in the poet: an audience. Homer recited his poems to people who cheered and even gave prizes; at least they passed around wine. Chaucer read his poems in warm firelit rooms. Every line of Shakespeare was written to move a paying audience. The next time you read a slack, obscure, convoluted poem, reflect that it was written in an age when printing has replaced recitation, and that the poet cannot tell his good poems from his bad except by fortuitous criticism. Jonathan Williams’ books have been published in fine editions, many of them collectors’ items from the moment of their printing, and all of them by this time scarce. It is therefore not hyperbole to say that thousands of people have heard them at colleges and auditoriums (and at that one filling station) for every five who know them on the printed page. Their clarity to the ear and the inner eye has been tested in the classical weather of poetry, listening faces. This collection, chosen by himself, is the first to be offered to that charming fiction, the reading public.

 [1]  Ian Hamilton Finlay’s little book is based on the transformation theme. The protagonist shifts shape from one animal to another for various reasons. See Buchan’s Ancient Ballads and Songs, I, p. 24, and Child’s English and Scottish Ballads, I, p. 244 [Davenport’s note].

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