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Jonathan Williams Feature

Jonathan Greene

Jonathan Williams: Taking Delight In Two Worlds


Thinking of Jonathan Williams, I remember reading an essay by Heinrich Zimmer in The King and the Corpse that set out to rescue the word ‘dilettante’ from its unfortunate current day pejorative meaning and restore its original meaning of ‘taking delight.’ Jonathan knew how to take delight in the panoply of what interested him.


He lived in stark contrast to today’s world with the weight put on a dry professionalism, being a ‘specialist’ in one small territory, becoming an expert in the art of self-promotion. For poets, it seems that 99% become teachers as their vehicle of sustenance with the attendant creation of a small tribe of student groupies. Then outward to network with similar folks at meetings of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs. Jonathan ‘networked’ before the word existed, but often across disciplines and in altruistic fashion. Who knows if Guy Davenport would have ever met the photographer Gene Meatyard without Jonathan telling them they lived in the same town and should look up one another. Hundreds of other examples of this generosity should be in the record.


In the past poets led different lives: one might marry money (Pound) or be a priest (Hopkins, R.S. Thomas) or doctor (Williams) or banker (Eliot) or work in insurance (Ives, Stevens). Or take the other route and honorably be a ‘Bohemian’ and perhaps agree with Thoreau (via his reading of Indian philosophy) that living in semi-poverty was the proper lifestyle for concentration on the higher calling of Nature and Art.


The route for Jonathan: to take to heart the George Herbert saying that ‘living well is the best revenge’ — and he lived well though often without the means that would make that an easy task. Often he was a mendicant for Art as publisher of his Jargon Society books and his begging bowl was out, scrounging the means to publish the next book. My wife, who for a time was Jargon’s Treasurer, called those pleas for money ‘whine-o-grams.’ He had no real feel for the preservation of money and as soon as some appeared, he knew beforehand how to spend it.


His wide-ranging passions and interests were omnivorous. Literature, photography, hiking, food & wine, folk art, music were just a few of his serious preoccupations. If we just wanted to zoom into music and his wide and eclectic taste, just look into what is filed under M: Mahler, Magnard, Martinů, Moeran, Mompou, Mingus, Monk. For starters. The last two paragraphs on the original LP of Mingus’ Ah Um is a quote from Jonathan that ends, ‘Poetry and music are for those with straight connections between ears, eyes, head, heart and gut.’


For many years Jonathan divided his time in these pursuits between Scaly Mountain, North Carolina, and Dentdale in the Yorkshire Dales of England. Who knew that both would be ‘found’ and become trendy years after he was ‘in situ’ in both places.


From both places he could venture forth on hikes — in the Smokies and the whole Appalachian Trail here, and throughout the Dales and other long walks in Albion. And more than once he took off to walk in Germany’s Black Forest. In fact all that hiking punished his feet (he always seemed to be breaking in a pair of new hiking boots) and might have led to the painful peripheral neuropathy that he suffered from at the end of his life.


There are many ways Corn Close (the house in the Dales) and Skywinding (the house in the Nantahalas) mirror similar worlds that would have the tropisms to feed Jonathan’s interests. They both have good views and are happily away from the snobbism of the ‘centers’ of civilization (big cities) he scorned. Both have a feeling of genuine warmth and good taste. At both places there would be bouts of drought and water troubles. Both have roads to houses that UPS trucks cannot manage with ease.


In England, JW would have the hiking guides by Alfred Wainwright (Walks in the Howgill Fells and others) and handy at Skywinding was the Guide to the Appalachian Trail in the Great Smokies, the Nantahalas, and Georgia by Lionel Edney, Rufus A. Morgan, and Henry B. Morris. In both places he would naturally ‘kvetch’ about some of the locals, though he was quick to celebrate others as well. It was only natural Jonathan would buy and display facing outward on his living room mantelpiece the Born to Kvetch book by Michael Wex.


He had a keen ear for the dialect of both places and you can see the results in his poetry, especially in Blues & Roots, Rue & Bluets, A Garland for the Southern Appalachians and ShakumNaggum where he has some work in Cumbrian dialect. Both books are in part homages to the old-timers like Rufus Morgan who climbed Mount LeConte in the Smokies 173 times and Allen Beresford, ‘the remarkable Yorkshire hill farmer’ who died the day after Jonathan photographed him ‘in Oughtershaw in Upper Wharfdale’ and it is that photograph that graces the cover of ShakumNaggum.


His collecting of regional craft and folk art went on in both residences. In England he collected walking sticks and shepherd’s crooks; in America pottery and traditional folk art. He was an early collector of ‘naive’ artists of which Kentucky has its share.


In Blues & Roots I often liked the long title with the short poem — in many cases a ‘found’ poem. If he had not had the ears to hear or eyes to see these, then for all of us they would have been ‘lost’ poems. A prime example:



I figured
anything anybody
could do a lot of I
could do a little



Ah, we all do what we can. Jonathan did way beyond most.

Jonathan Greene

Jonathan Greene

Jonathan Greene, the author of 22 books of various sizes, has been a published poet for 50 years. He first got in touch with Jonathan Williams in 1963, writing from San Francisco to England. His Gnomon Press published five JW titles including Portrait Photographs (co-published with Coracle); he designed other titles of JW for Duke University Press, University of North Carolina Press, Wesleyan University Press, Copper Canyon, etc. and over the years designed a number of books for The Jargon Society.

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