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Jonathan Williams Feature

James Maynard

Some notes on Jonathan Williams and Robert Duncan


One of the scholarly luxuries of the Poetry Collection’s holding of both the Jargon Society and Robert Duncan Collections is the ability to read both sides of the Jonathan Williams / Robert Duncan correspondence in their extant entirety. For Williams, what became a significant literary relationship began, innocently enough, with a letter he typed at Black Mountain College dated 6 October 1951. Having been assigned a paper on Duncan’s writing by Charles Olson, JW wrote to Duncan asking for a list of his available publications. (What young student writing to a poet can ever know where such an overture will lead?) Earlier that summer, Williams had traveled to Black Mountain—where Duncan himself would later teach as Robert Creeley’s replacement in the spring and summer of 1956—from the Institute of Design in Chicago to study photography with Aaron Siskind and Harry Callahan. As he recounts in a 1973 interview with Barry Alpert, prior to leaving for Asheville, NC, Williams had attempted to visit with Duncan during a trip to San Francisco in June of 1951, but the two did not connect. Although Williams’ letters indicate that Duncan responded to his initial query, the first surviving letter from Duncan to JW is from the fall of 1953, in which Duncan describes his efforts to distribute and sell copies of Jargon’s Maximus in Berkeley. In 1954 Williams returned to San Francisco where, in his own words, he “stayed… about 6 or 8 months, [and] became very close to Duncan.” JW’s photographs of Duncan and Jess, taken against an industrial background from the Mission District in the spring of 1955, were later published in Blackbird Dust: Essays, Poems, and Photography (Turtle Point Press, 2000) and A Palpable Elysium: Portraits of Solitude and Genius (David R. Godine, 2002).


For Williams’ collection of poems entitled Elegies and Celebrations, published by Jargon in 1962, Duncan wrote a 1956 preface—reprinted here in this issue of Jacket—praising the writing for, among other things, its “smart enthusiasm.” But just a year later, in a letter to Denise Levertov dated 12 February 1957, Duncan qualified his remarks by stating: “In my introductions to Jonathan’s poems I think I anticipated the disabilities as well as the virtues. He has enthusiasms but not passions. He collects experience; don’t undergo it.” Truth be told, by this point in time the correspondence between Duncan and JW had become severely intense in both frequency and tone in the many months leading up to Jargon’s 1958 publication of Duncan’s Letters: Poems 1953-1956. In his letters Duncan grows increasingly upset with Williams over several frustrations pertaining to delays in the production process as well as Williams’ marketing and pricing of the book. A few of these disagreements are mentioned by Robert J. Bertholf in his afterword to the Flood Editions reprint of the book (2003), which usefully provides transcribed excerpts from Duncan’s detailed memos to Claude Fredericks, the printer chosen for the letterpress publication. At the height of his discontent, Duncan went so far as to confide to Levertov a decision “to strike Williams out of my world entirely.” Nonetheless, the early letters back and forth between Duncan and Williams leading up to the completion of Letters present a remarkable record documenting a crucial period in the emergence of Duncan’s poetics, the early history of Jargon, and the individual actions and communal interactions of the larger group of Black Mountain poets.


Although Duncan never quite cut out Williams “entirely,” after 1960 his letters to JW became increasingly intermittent, with gaps of as many as three or four years in between the occasional short letter or Christmas greeting. Williams, however, continued to write Duncan with some regularity into the 1980s, sending him invitations to visit, reading announcements, Jargon newsletters, and brief updates and notes often bemoaning Duncan’s relative silence. (How ironic, then, that Williams would appreciatively quote several times in print Duncan’s statement that “Responsibility is to keep / the ability to respond.”) And yet, Duncan did contribute a picture-poem entitled “Johnny’s Thing” to Truck magazine’s special twenty-first issue, “A 50th Birthday Celebration for Jonathan Williams” (1979). After Duncan’s death on February 3, 1988, Williams published an obituary for him six days later in the British newspaper The Independent (reprinted in Blackbird Dust), in which, along with lamenting the fact that he hadn’t seen him in twenty years, JW cited their “shared tastes on the margins of American culture” and praised Duncan as “the bard of gay domesticity” who “was the absolute master of the campy imagination.” Surely one could make similar claims about Williams. In hindsight, such a longstanding distance between the two provides an additional layer of irony when reading the following poem dedicated to Duncan by JW, first published in The Empire Finals at Verona: Poems 1956-1957 (Jargon, 1959) and subsequently collected in An Ear in Bartram’s Tree: Selected Poems, 1957-1967 (University of North Carolina Press, 1969) and Jubilant Thicket: New & Selected Poems (Copper Canyon Press, 2005):


A Vulnerary
        (for Robert Duncan)

one comes to language from afar, the ear
fears for its sound-barriers—

but one ‘comes’, the language ‘comes’ for
The Beckoning Fair One

plant you now, dig you
later, the plaint stirs winter

air in a hornets’ nest
over the water makes a
solid, six-sided music…

a few utterly quiet scenes, things
are very far away— ‘form
is emptiness’

comely, comely, love trembles
and the sweet-shrub

James Maynard

James Maynard

James Maynard received his PhD in English from the State University of New York at Buffalo, where he is the Visiting Assistant Curator of the Poetry Collection. He wrote his dissertation on Robert Duncan, the sublime, and pragmatism/process philosophy, and co-edited New Directions’ single-volume republication of  Ground Work: Before the War / In the Dark (2006). His essays and reviews have appeared in such publications as Mimeo MimeoJournal of Modern Literature, and Process Studies, and he is currently editing a collection of essays on Duncan’s late writings and a volume of Duncan’s collected critical prose.

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