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A late William Carlos Williams poem called ‘The Act’ describes a backyard encounter between neighbors. A woman cutting roses is urged by the man who lives next door to spare them because ‘they are so beautiful’.
Agh, we were all beautiful once, she said,
and cut them and gave them to me
in my hand.
The poem turns on what reads like (and presumably was) a direct quote, five words that summarize with bitter resignation life seen from the vantage of age. Dr. Williams, an intrepid reporter, never ceased recording and collecting overheard speech, portions of conversations, and stray sentences. Around these he built some of his best poems.
Jonathan Williams, a fan and friend of WCW and like WCW a believer in ‘the democratic idiom’, built on Dr. Williams’ innovations, moving the oft-neglected and sometimes scorned genre of the found poem in new directions. More than for any other poet in the post-modern schools descending from Pound and WCW, JW made the found poem central to his enterprise. A man of broad interests that were also often arcane, he used as his compass an intelligence hyper-alert to irony in all forms and as his shaping tool a wry and engaging wit. He believed discovery was at least half the process of creation. All the ways he invented to use found materials complemented his passion for assembling lists of quotes into books, his fascination with outsider artists and his lifelong interest in photography. His was the art of the unnoticed, the discarded. ‘I haven’t seen territory yet that cannot be sexualized; or, examined for its poetic cuisine, or its birds, or for its dialects’, he wrote, in the collection Elite/Elate.
That territory was essentially anyplace with which he was unfamiliar, and there anything seen, heard or overheard was fair game. Into his poems he worked graffiti (‘Ass is Nice’ reads a poem called ‘Lipstick Sign under the Concrete Bridge over Middle Creek’), epitaphs, road signs, headlines (‘Nancy: Together We Can Lick Crack’), maps, intercepted postcards, answering machine messages and much more. The content of the local phone book became a list poem titled ‘Selected Listings from the Western Carolina Telephone Company’s Directory’, and includes individuals named O.U. Muse, Zero Webb and Lily Quiet. An entire poem consists of nothing but the stranger names among Kentucky’s towns. Examples: Hell for Certain, Disputanta, Bugtussle.
Like WCW, he found grace, wit and insight in what sophistication would not ordinarily deign to notice, let alone record. Ransacking the culturally invisible and intellectually obscure for rough diamonds, retrieving the inventions of the untutored, was to some extent what he was about. Consider, for instance, this message, resurrected from a tombstone in an English graveyard and titled ‘On the Stone of Aaron Isaacs, Easthampton’:
That eight word elegy is not only a model of economy but a banquet for thought on the subject of anti-Semitism and its discontents.
Of course the point was far more typically humorous than elegiac. Often JW charged quoted material with irony by composing a title two or three times longer than the actual found poem. For instance, ‘raised manholes / for next mile’ is almost meaningless without its title: ‘ADUMBRATIONS OF MEPHITIC PHANTASMAGORIA PRODUCED BY A ROADSIGN IN MILD & SUNNY KIRKBY LONSDALE’. Title and text combined gesture to the lasciviousness Freud noted was never far from human thought. The text of a poem titled ‘Piedmontese Easter Sunday Home Truth’ offers this bit of folk wisdom, picked up somewhere:
never bare your soul
to an asshole
The rhyme, no doubt, appealed.
JW published many books, chapbooks and broadsides of his work in a long and varied writing life. Out of this corpus, Blues & Roots, Rue & Bluets — its title borrowed from Charles Mingus, its method from anthropology — offers perhaps the best overview of his approach. The book contains all manner of found poems, including road signs (‘EAT/300 FEET’, and ‘O’NAN’S AUTO SERVICE’), epitaphs (‘LIVED ALONE / SUFFERED ALONE / DIED ALONE’) and a phonetic approximation of the sounds a pileated woodpecker might make feasting on dogwood berries. But in a handful of the poems in Blues & Roots JW took the whole idea a step further. Rather than appropriating what was stumbled on and already notated in some form, or even what was accidentally overheard, he sought people out — namely fellow residents of the Southern Appalachians —interviewed them and pared their musings on life, love, and liquor into stripped down post-modern forms that owe as much to the authenticity of the speaking voice as they do to his skills in arranging what he heard into lines and stanzas:
took me a pecka real ripe tomaters up
into the Grassy Gap
and two quarts of good stockade
and just laid there
So begins ‘Custodian of a Field of Whiskey Bushes By the Nolichucky River Speaks’: In poems such as that or in ‘Old Man Sam Ward’s History of the Gee-Haw Whimmy Diddle’ or ‘The Hermit Cackleberry Brown, On Human Vanity’: JW refashioned verse into a vehicle in which the unrecorded and unheard finally have their say. Where poetry is often seen as exalted speech delivered downward from on high, these poems are sourced from below. They are common — to invoke that ultimate pejorative of British English — and therein lies their authenticity, their eloquence and their power, which is similar to the power of documentary film or outsider art.
In the latter third of his writing life JW created a kind of poem called the meta-four, the only real rule of which is that each line contains four words. Into this almost always untitled form he poured all kinds of quoted and overheard language, to wit:
an edinburgh publican has
a sign over the
bar that says if
assholes could fly this
would be an airport
thereby offering further proof to the aesthetic argument that poems are everywhere around us, if only we open our eyes and ears.
Baffling how few followed JW down the road of found poetry, or, I should say, down any of the many trails he blazed for it. Maybe that’ll change as fashionable obscurity collapses in on itself. Or did he do it so well, in so many ways, that to attempt to emulate his achievement could only result in something second tier?
Hard to say. He knew that, just as in everyday conversation, raising a laugh, or only just an eyebrow, was the surest way to arouse interest and hold the reader to the page. JW is one of the few poets whose work is genuinely funny, but the whole point, of course, is that poetry must never take itself too seriously. When it does, no one listens.
Poet Jim Cory looks out on the world from the third floor of a row house on the edge of South Philadelphia where interesting things are often seen, heard or smelled. His interview with Jonathan Williams appeared in the James White Review in 1994. He also published a memorial to Williams in the May 2008 issue of the Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide.