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The following essay first appeared as an extended review of Jonathan Williams’ Elite/Elate Poems, Selected Poems 1971-75 and Portrait Photographs in Parnassus: Poetry in Review 8.2 (Spring/Summer/Fall/Winter 1980). It is reproduced here with the kind permission of the author.
We have here two of the latest and most striking evidences of Jonathan Williams’ diverse and remarkable accomplishments as poet and publisher, photographer and prose stylist. Robert Kelly has called him the creator of “america’s largest openair museum"—and this means the exhibits, the guide, the earphone commentaries, the buildings, the gardens, the grounds, everything. No one does this better. Add that he truly does know everyone; and keeps up with the latest in all the arts, sports, popular and arcane culture and lore, and the grand gossip of both the United States and Great Britain (at least); is the greatest enthusiast and promoter for the “really marvellous ‘minor’ or fifth-rate ignored writer” or painter or composer or whatever, since Kenneth Rexroth; is the Compleat Traveller, and Chronicler of the Compleat Traveller — and no one better to hike with; manages a correspondence of upwards of 50 letters a week (there was once a plan to bring out a selection of correspondence, one letter for each day of a certain year, but the book has alas never appeared); is the living exemplar of Lucius Beebe’s often-reaffirmed article of belief: “I don’t ask for much, only the best of everything, and there’s so little of that"; and for over 25 years has published, and kept on publishing, some of the most notable writers and artists of our time (while still remaining friends with most of them), producing a series of books unmatched for elegance of design. Boris Pasternak used to insist that life in order to be life continually has to exceed itself. It would seem that we in Spectator America have come to expect, demand even, that a poet in order to be a poet always has to do something else. But everything that Williams has done, and always so well, we could otherwise expect happening in These States only “when the man in the moon/ comes down in a balloon,” if then — to quote that other great North Carolina poet of the complex actual, Charlie Poole. Now, all this has been said of Williams before, and by people well worth paying attention to — but it always does need to be repeated, and repeated again. Against the unending flood of information and the relentlessly shortening memory and attention span, our common lot, he has made an edge of wit and humor and intelligence and enjoyment, of exact collection and recollection, of what tells, offered in like share. For above all, he is a poet. Even, no, mostly, what he would probably never feel easy with, would always shy away from, Whitman’s “folks expect of the poet… to indicate the path between reality and their souls.” Just in that quickest catch between, maker in act, shared in the catch.
Elite/Elate Poems—in which title it may be remembered that elite also refers to a typewriter type, and derives from a Latin verb meaning to pick out, to choose, from an Indo-European root leg-, to collect, also with various derivatives meaning to speak, including dialect and Logos; and that elate, from the Latin to carry out, to lift up, has the root tel-, which also means to weigh, with derivatives referring to measured weight, thence to money and payment, so that we are also in the company of talent, and toleration, and extol—: “poems chosen and lifted up, neighbors and citizens,” as Thomas Meyer says in his jacket note; poems picked and measured. This collection is made up of five sections, each a previously published book, totaling very close to the same number of poems as pages (taking Zat’s That Rollo! as one poem, there are 220; and 224 pages, numbered or blank). In addition to Meyer’s jacket note, there is an introduction by Guy Davenport; both are of considerable import. And there is a central portfolio of 12 photographs (made a baker’s dozen by the cover take of Little Enis and Company) by Guy Mendes, providing completely independent but consistently apposite counterpoint images to the surrounding words. Following the mode of his two previous large collections—An Ear in Bartram’s Tree and The Loco Logodaedalist in Situ—the author has given us “In Lieu of a Preface” another series of notable, rare, and select quotations from the most amazingly diverse sources.
Furthermore, each section is provided with prefacing and/or concluding commentaries and/or notes, making an immediately engaging and variously revealing tapestry of setting: place, circumstance, history, method, identification, theoretical rationale, companions of the spirit. It must be said that Williams’ talents are displayed as amply in these settings, and in the titles of the poems, as in any other aspect of his art. In fact, he has an absolute, unexcelled genius for titles (which I, for one, envy unreservedly). For the immensely complex, simultaneously multidimensional result (so admirably constructed that one is instantly drawn into it without any difficulty at all):—POEM (the central irreducible diamond-like artifact), pluse TITLE (more often than not another poem in its own right; and of course the real poem is always the unit of the “title” and the “text"), pluse SETTING, gathered then in a BOOK (more than almost any other poet that comes to mind, Williams writes to be read in a book), and that in turn gathered in a larger COLLECTION of several books (with its further accompanying remarks and embellishments by yet others)—for all this, even “america’s largest openair museum” may not seem enough, like the fig leaf in the old joke, to cover what we have. Whatever and however, museum, encyclopedia, Gesamtkunst, three-ring circus and sideshow, or Mallarmean Livre, a tour of the premises is in order, section by section — bringing to bear consideration of his other work, as well.
The five sections of Elite/Elate Poems: “Pairidaeza,” “Imaginary Postcards,” “Adventures With A Twelve-Inch Pianist Beyond The Blue Horizon,” “A Celestial Centennial Reverie For Charles Edward Ives,” and “Untinears & Antennae For Maurice Ravel.” The first two are predominantly English in setting or source, the last three American. “Pairidaeza,” is subtitled A Celebration For The Garden At Levens Hall, Westmorland, the title itself being an Old Persian or Avestan word for enclosure, a circumvallation, the root of the English word paradise, which was first a garden (as John Evelyn — one of the inspirers of Levens — in his Diary for 11 Apr 1645: “The garden is rather a park or paradise, contriv’d and planted with walkes and shades"; and Milton in Paradise Lost, iv: “where delicious Paradsise,/ Now nearer, Crowns with her enclosure green"). The poems are prefaced with a “Perambulation” (very carefully picking up again the root per- in pairidaeza/paradise), telling us, as Williams is always careful to do, about the poetic method used, and the authorities for its use, and the sources, and the history of the place honored (with a quick disquisition on the art of the topiary), and the nature of the author’s involvement with it; as well as a tribute to the art, and the tradition of that art, of Ian Gardener, whose lithographs accompanied the text in its first publication. These are found poems (one of Williams’ favorite quotations is from John Clare: “I found the poems in the fields and only wrote them down"), selected and arranged from seventeenth- and eighteenth-century accounts of the garden. A number are concrete or visual poems, set out in mimetic, metonymic patterns (of course the poems are all visual objects on the page, but the reference is to those whose special impact cannot be appreciated viva voce). The whole is meant as a tribute to the original gardener, as an artist (the first poem, for instance, entitled An Orthographic Scattering of Bulbs of the Rare Narcissus, Topiarius Gallicus, In the Oak Avenue of “The Great Aire,” is a display of M. Beaumont’s name, in 19 different spellings and types, spread in careful broadcast down the page).
Many people have objected that poems in order to be true poems have to be “in one’s own words” (own by intensity, presumably — one does wonder how any word can be actually owned). Williams, while certainly continuing to say things himself, affirms a tradition of finding one’s voice “outside,” in which the emphasis is on operations of precise attention, selection, and placement, rather than “inspiration” or vatic seizure. (Williams has often said that he makes poems out rather than up—thus providing a perfect replay to the question: “is that a real poem or did you make that up?") In his introduction to a sequence of poems selected from case histories in Havelock Ellis’ Studies in the Psychology of Sex (Part II of Loco Logodaedalist), Williams discusses all this in some detail. Insisting that “poetry is a process, not a memoir” and that “’art’ is in ‘raising the common to grace’,” he cites with approval the Scots poet Thomas A. Clark on the way he had gone about working with Samuel Palmer texts. Clark’s words are worth giving here:
Years working in a short space via haiku, epigram, W.C. Williams, Creeley, Concrete, etc., the trouble was, how to distance it from one’s own mind. The language became more and more self-referent and “obscure” in the worst sense. So I’ve been making poems using texts which were “outside my own head,” and treating them in different ways: permutational, fragmentary, etc…. I set about experiments like cutting columns in half, reading quickly across columns, or placing frames over pieces of prose. I think that knowing to look at all and knowing what to look for is rather a lot…
In Barry Alpert’s interview with Williams in Vort (#4, Fall, 1973), the following interchange took place:
BA: Were the materials you found in Havelock Ellis via the rectangular cutout discovered more or less at random or did you find things you already had in your mind?
JW: Well I think that’s the only thing you do find; i.e., what’s already there… I think it’s very much like Thoreau says, he could spend the rest of his life concentrating on a square yard of Concord earth and there would be enough going on… There’s enough in that to keep him going.
Then, speaking specifically about “Pairidaeza” material, Williams goes on:
I used the “facts” and just recombined, took bits, you know, it’s a kind of bouquet — bouquet garni… just an attempt to work with the whole metaphor of clippings, like clipped greens. I have a poem called “Clipped Greens” in which the typography is clipped in various ways. Just the word “clipped greens” has been clipped in different ways. It’s a rather simpleminded but very delightful thing to do. Again, a naturalist’s approach to things.
When one comes to look at the actual poems at hand in “Pairidaeza,” apropos the “that’s the only thing you do find; i.e., what’s already there” above, one must remark on the convergence of the seventeenth-century English of the texts, especially the spelling, with the Appalachian materials in Williams’ earlier Blues & Roots/Rue & Bluets. If we look at this from “Pairidaeza":
The Storm of Early October 1701
it is such a thing as hath not
bene in this Country in no
ag of man
thier is butt one ocke tree butt
it is a very good one
and al sheffeard too butt
bemun is very much disturbed about is trees
he wants stakes
hear will be aboundance
of fier wood
and then look at this from Blues & Roots (from the section “Common Words in Uncommon Orders"):
From Uncle Jake’s Carpenter’s
Anthology of Death in Three-Mile Creek
dide jun 10 1871
grates dere honter
wreked bee trees for honey
cild ratell snak by 100
cild dere by thousen
I nod him well
we can see and hear (and feel in the case of the English piece that we are about to enter one of M.R. James’ stories) exactly what Guy Davenport was talking about in his introduction to An Ear in Bartram’s Tree:
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… as perhaps only a citizen of Appalachia can know
and in fact there is another poem in “Pairidaeza” that exemplifies this continuum perfectly:
A Country Wordsman From the North Carolina Hills
Looks at Levens And Shapes the Language in His Own Way:
’ary toe pie?
which carries this footnote:
This little sonic metaphor does not seem far-fetched to me in the slightest. Any imagination capable of turning a bush into a corkscrew or a “Judge’s Wig” or a rabbit is able to consider making a pie out of toes.
In all of which most definitely echoes the injunction in The Nostrums of the Black Mountain Publican in Blues & Roots:
DON’T EAT NO
And this but further underscores what even a casual browsing of “Pairidaeza” would make clear — that, as Williams says later in Elite/Elate Poems: “I haven’t seen the territory yet that can’t be sexualized” ("or,” the rest of the sentence adds, “examined for its poetic cuisine, or its birds, or for its dialects").
The next section, “Imaginary Postcards,” is made up of 40 “Clints Grikes Gripes Glints” celebrating the Yorkshire Dales, followed by a set of notes and an afterward, in which Williams tells us: “This combination of topography and typography is calculated to open a determinedly small world to mental travelling… the landscape revealed is largely an interior one.” Coleridge’s dictum, “thought follows the line of the mountains,” certainly might be an appropriate epigraph. But that this “small world” is also definitely material and tangible is stressed in the Vort interview: “They’re essentially based on things that one sees or experiences or finds in living in the north of England. It’s this kind of almost stupid wandering through a landscape and being amazed.” (Stupid is not a word one would think of using in connection with Williams’ work, whatever else one thought about it!) Here is an example of the terrain revealed:
A Regional Specialty is Suggested
By a Careless, Coprophilous Sign-Painter
On the A-650 North of Leeds:
which receives this notation:
When recently observed, nettles were beginning to obscure the bottom line. Seasonal variations in poetry have been too little considered.
These are, like so much of Williams’ work, a traveller’s poems (predominantly a peripatetic traveller’s poems)—postcards that a Blakean mental traveller might send back. One may remark on a continuing fascination with postcards through all of Williams’ books — those collected in Lines About Hills Above Lakes; the picture-postcard images reproduced in “The Plastic Hydrangea People Poems” in Loco Logodaedalist; the old messages presented as found poems on p. 134 and p. 198 of Elite/Elate Poems. There is even a tribute paid to this fascination, by Edwin Morgan, in his postcard contribution to the Truck/Gnomon 50th birthday volume for Williams (1979).
This is of course a part of Williams’ much larger, on-going concern with the visual in poetry, and the interpretation of the visual and the aural — a concern that is perhaps even more insistent and variously evident in his attention to signs (again, a traveller’s attention). More than half a dozen poems in Elite/Elate Poems are sign texts or make use of sign texts (on pp. 58, 64, 73, 111, 126, 187, and 210); a wall plaque is cited on p. 59; p. 62 presents an imagined sign; p. 69 (!) gives us an elaborate graffito/statistical chart; p. 76, a label. The earlier Blues & Roots is full of signs, one or two probably as well-known as any of Williams’ poems; for example:
John Chapman Pulls Off the Highway
Towards Kentucky and Casts a Cold Eye
On the Most Astonishing Sign in Recent American Letters:
It may be wondered whether this passion for noticing and transcribing odd signs, and as part of literature, is not a particularly American trait — Burma Shave verses flash by — or English language, at any rate? Graham Peck, the American artist, traveller, and writer (whose Two Kinds of Time remains perhaps the finest book written about World War II China), was first in China in the mid-1930s. His account of his experiences, Through China’s Wall—a book well informed throughout with a most salutory sense of the absurd — records a number of truly remarkable English-language signs; e.g., this, from Chungking during the winter of 1936-37:
FALSE EYES AND DENTAL PLUMBING
INSERTED BY THE LATEST METHODISTS
and this, which would certainly be right up Williams’ alley, from Changchung:
THE BLUE SKY AND ART STORE
(alas, it had been long closed, so its wares could not be sampled); and another, for a Japanese nightclub in Peking:
THE WHITE P
which could be placed next to Williams’ even more elaborate example of creative enjambment in Blues & Roots:
Paint Sign on a Rough Rock
Yonside of Boone Side of Shady Valley
Peck and Williams are both men of a developed artistic sensibility and sense of humor (New England on the one hand, Appalachian on the other, both honed internationally)—the kinds of attentions that pick and present the signs are not dissimilar. Reading Through China’s Wall today one may very naturally take the quoted signs as poems, quite beyond their intended 1941 function as bits of socioeconomic color. But of course the major difference between the sign in Peck’s book and in Williams’ is that Williams does present it as a poem. For the existence and development of such an art as his, the creative role of the reader is crucial, something Williams’ never stops saying:
For something as common and ordinary as
to suffer transmutation into something more than
linguistic fool’s gold requires a pact with an
But even more important is the creation of the context in which it is claimed: this is a poem — the surround that very exactly determines how the precise selection is to be viewed. What Stephen Scobie has said about Williams’ colleague Ian Hamilton Finlay applies in every regard to Williams as well:
In many of Finlay’s works, the poetic activity consists largely of establishing… the “field” (sometimes literally) of “being a poem.” Within this field, one concise image — often reduced to a single proper name, number, or fact — can extend its significance in a witty and controlled play among the levels evoked by the context. In such minimal art, as the range of choice narrows (for both poet and reader), so the quality of choice becomes more important, for it is only within the most rigorous limits that the assertion of “being a poem” can be maintained and validated.
The most fascinating aspect of this in Williams’ case may be his use of titles. Certainly in “Imaginary Postcards” their operation is of considerable complexity. In the first place, all the pieces are in one sense actually titles, since they are inscriptions for postcard “pictures” we are asked thereby to imagine. At the same time, in a strictly formal sense — as determined by the location on the page and the use of italics throughout the rest of Elite/Elate Poems—there are no titles at all, only numbers. Nonetheless, often there is an operative title, set a noticeable distance above the text and serving to introduce it — and often much longer and more elaborate, the “poem” functioning rather as a punch-line (e.g., pp. 40, 57, 67). In some instances this operative title is the setting for a text which is a quotation (p. 55); in others, the solitary text itself is made up of both a setting/ title and a quotation (pp. 54, 74). In some cases the title, or an additional title, is to be found in the notes (pp. 47, 61, 64 — the text of p. 47 consisting of the title and author of an imaginary thriller); for p. 53, though there is no title, half the total text — the answer to the question/riddle — can only be found in the notes. And later on in Elite/Elate Poems (p. 131), we find this poem:
where the “real” poem is the one we are called on to imagine by the title that this poem is (which we project as a title because it is so entitled!). This persistent, total interpenetration of what is title, poem, text, context, note, commentary, actual, imaginary, etc., etc., throughout Williams’ work is one of the most notable features of his art.
"Imaginary Postcards” is followed by a selection of photographs by Guy Mendes. Besides the enjoyment they afford us by their own elegant accomplishment, they also serve to shift the focus of the local back to the United States, while still suggesting the England we have just visited — as in the Lexington 1974 depiction of two chairs (much less ornate but very similar to the pair of “Carved Walnut Chairs. English, early 18th century.” in Plate 1, Fig. 6, of the Furniture article in the 11th edition of the Britannica). Though Mendes’ images and Williams’ poems function entirely on their own, in two cases they do share the same subject matter: Campton, Ky. 1974 lets us see the sculptor, Edgar Tolson, who speaks in Williams’ poem on p. 205; and the cover photograph gives us a view of Carlos Toadvine (and friends), the subject of Who Is Little Enis? (pp. 104-05).
While thus diverted by Mendes’ picture, we might turn aside from our tour of Elite/Elate Poems to investigate the portrait gallery of Williams’ museum, as represented by the book of photographs under review. This extraordinarily handsome volume of 2¼” x 2¼” tipped-in color prints of poets, painters, photographers, and composers, each with a facing note of identification and characterization, allows us to look at 30 “friends in the arts with faces too interesting to be missed even by a poet on the run,” from William Carlos Williams to John Jacob Niles. Williams’ photographs are an important part of his oeuvre. For years he toured the country in a VW bug, giving combination poetry readings, cross-culture group-gropes, and slide shows, bringing light and delight to the benighted. This reviewer first had any idea of what Louis Zukofsky looked like (at a time when that was a matter of some curiosity to him) from such an event in Berkeley in the mid-1960s; was first introduced to the wonders of Louis Sullivan’s late-period, small-town Midwest banks; first had a glimpse of Walt Whitman’s tomb — riches not forgotten. The present portrait selection, in addition to providing a great deal of pleasure just to wander about in it, is valuable to look at in connection with poetry. The photo of WCW in Portrait Photographs, for one instance, is the same that the Elegy for a Photograph of William Carlos Williams in Loco Logodaedalist addresses. It does help to see the red dahlia the poem refers to, but nothing in the photograph alone could prepare us for the end of the poem:
You taught us to
scrape all the leaves off the Bottom of the Barrel,
because the Leaves can equal
the Sacred Red Anemones of Osiris
falling in the Blue Waterfalls of
and you knew it
One only hopes that eventually photographs from Williams’ architecture and birth- and burial-place series will be published too, and as impressively as these portraits.
The 35 poems of “Adventures With a Twelve-Inch Pianist Beyond the Blue Horizon” were written in the Spring of 1973 while the author was visiting poet at a number of Winston-Salem colleges — one poem a day between Spring Equinox and Shakespeare’s birthday, as example and impetus for his students. Dedicated to Bette Midler — on being told that her visitors were poets, she replied: “I hope you write hot ones. I like ’em hot."— they are not so simply just poems of the relentlessly sexual ("variously satiric and randy, about pederasty,” as Guy Davenport says in his introduction) as, even more deeply, poems of longing and arousal, spring paeans, indeed. “It may be that the satiric spirit is always in defense of some deep and unquestioned love,” concludes Davenport.
The range is from
The New Gripping Sleazo-Western at the J&J Newstand:
whirring in the woods
and back again on the trail. Williams has argued (in the Vort interview) that sexual material in poetry “needs many techniques to keep it from being platitudinous, too easy, too indulgent.” A deeper problem with “hardcornponeography,” however, is: where is the heart? In his Paris Review interview Christopher Isherwood proposed: “We’re not afraid of what’s called pornography, but we are terribly afraid of what we call sentimentality — the rash, incautious expression of feeling.” Some ten years back, in a review of Bartram (in Caterpillar #10), Robert Kelly asked if Williams were not afraid of his own tenderness ("& no business of mine to pry, since he would turn our eyes outward so well"); and Guy Davenport, introducing the same book, felt: “Pathos must appear in comic socks or not at all.” Next to all this the following lines, the beginning of Lexington Nocturne in the present volume, should be considered:
don’t you want to
a gentleman doesn’t ask young men
questions like that;
he probably begins with reveries on the French word
and how much better it is than our own
what you find in Adagio
of Rachmaninov’s E minor Symphony
after the Largo, which was so
and full of longing…
to be long, to belong to the company of those
who trust the holiness of the heart’s affections…
and to be long gone
up the dirt road to Eros,
as prone to the emotions as Sebastian,
full of his arrows…
Certainly, though the definition in these next lines may be questioned (though recognizing the vir in virtue):
this is not just semen up your ass,
this is class, is areté, this is how
you learn to be a man
the restraint and exactitude of the whole account and the intensity of the actual touch in:
thus I see you as your eyes open in the Lexington dawn
and put my hand in your hair and
let it hang
just an instant
and let that be all
are undeniable. (The image of the hand in the hair appears very early on in Williams’ poetry, in the elegy for Rainer Gerhardt, “He Was Alone When He Died,” in Loco Logodaedalist, and reappears in the first March 4 section of the suite, Strung Out With Elgar On A Hill, also in that book — this is a work remarkably similar to Lexington Nocturne in situation and expression of “feeling.")
Afraid of tenderness? no, though neither could one ever expect Williams to be rash or incautious in expressing anything. And comic socks? well, not always, though always returned to, persistently. It is rather restraint that is the keynote throughout: restraint, and courtesy, candor, precision, self-awareness, care and respect and equality of treatment for all of the complex actual — a gentleman’s virtues, in short, entirely of a piece in the man and his work. Russell Banks, in the Truck/Gnomon birthday volume, has used the word grace to speak of Williams: “a kind of politeness toward the universe"; Robert Kelly, in the same collection, has called it gentility: “to respect, as the renaissance dukes were said to, the proportions and graces of the actual…. Gentility is kind, is behaving how it ought to.” Williams himself, in his Vort interview, sums it up:
I think that poetry is probably a branch of manners. Who would say that — would Confucius say that? I don’t know who would say that, but one could almost… It’s a kind of neighborliness that I like. Again, communities… ecosystems…
And this is also a matter of subject, of subjects, of the immense range of material, information, people known, Williams deals with and keeps in measured motion, the greatness as inclusion of the work — as the heart of manners.
Both of the last sections of Elite/Elate Poems are dedicated to composers, honoring respectively the centenary birthday of Charles Ives and of Maurice Ravel, linked, other than by the affection of the poet for their music, only by Ive’s denunciation of Ravel’s work as being “of a kind/ I cannot stand:/ pleasing enough,/ if you want to be/ pleased.” The selections of “A Celestial Centennial Reverie for Charles Edward Ives, (The Man Who Found Our Music In The Ground),” have been chosen from Ive’s own writings and then “pushed around” by the poet. Part I, Zat’s That Rollo!, offers two pages of highlights from the memos on the Concord Sonata, without any basic alteration. Part 2, Essays Before A Sonata, presents 91 brief excerpts from the book of that title (on the same piano sonata), rearranged into concise, short-lined, Imagism/Objectivism-derived poems. Williams tells us in his introduction that his intention has been “to work motifs I find there into new forms… there may be something there he didn’t quite realizing he was aiming at. I’ll make my own noises — with some of his words.” This is very much in the manner, or in the mood, at any rate, of Ive’s continual quotation and remoulding of quotation from other music in his own compositions — with a great variety of tone, from homey musing to crusty invective to democratic affirmation to cosmic exaltation. The results are often things we might imagine Williams saying himself frequently enough, as: “always doin’ something’—/ doin’ somethin’/ within"; but there are other pieces that Williams would clearly be far less likely to say “on his own":
cherished thoughts, sacred communities
yet America is not too young
to have its divinities
beneath our Concord elms—
of humblest clay,
"instinct with celestial fire"
yet all are things that Williams obviously has wanted to say, a basic testament of belief in Ive’s guise.
Maurice Ravel has been honored by Williams various times before (the 93rd birthday piece in the Elgar sequence, for one example); in the 40 poems of “Untinears & Antennae” he appears in person only once, imagined staring in amazement at his own excrement, but his presence has been felt by the poet throughout, “always demanding something more exalté.” These elegies and celebrations (also the title of Williams volume of 1962) are arranged as carefully to complement, reflect, and heighten one another, to face, to follow, and juxtapose by theme and tone-leading, as any book of poems of recent letters (as Edward Dorn’s Hands Up!, say, or Gerrit Lansing’s The Heavenly Tree Grows Downward, or Robert Grenier’s Oakland). There are homages and dirges, acrostical portraits, signs, postcards, hales and farewells, “Vulgar, Trivial, and Exalted,” dedicated to notables as diverse as Joseph Pujol, Le Petomane, and John Coltrane, James Broughton and Art Blakey. There is an elegy arranged, in the fashion of Ives sequence, from the mysterioso words of the photographer, Ralph Meatyard; there are two facing pairs of vales opening the suite, very quiet, very restrained, of that apparent simplicity which Jarry characterized as complexity refined, synthesized, drawn taut; and there are all the varieties of multiple-word-play highjinks we always expect from Williams, as the following, where the title serves as a sideshow barker’s cry to rivet our attention just before the curtain is flung back to reveal the label on the invisible offering:
A Scientific Breakthrough!
Now, For the First Time:
An Instant Aphrodisiac and A Laxative,
With the Senior Citizen in Mind
& Based on An Ancient Chinese Medical Formula
(for Paul Metcalf)
But the crowning achievement, and one of the finest poems of Williams’ entire career, is the last poem of the book, honoring the 300th anniversary of the building of the Quaker meeting-house, Briggflatts, drawn on the words of the poet, Basil Bunting (as a preface one might look at the five-years-earlier poem on Briggflatts in Loco Logodaedalist). It is a truly noble ars poetics, a fit response to the demand of Ravel’s spirit for the Exalted:
whether it is a stone next to a stone
or a word next to a word,
it is the glory—
the simple craft of it
and money and sex aren’t worth
solid, common, vulgar words
the ones you can touch
the ones that yield
and a respect for the music…
what else can you tell ’em?
Williams has many times been praised as a light poet, that is, as a writer — indeed, perhaps our greatest writer — of light verse. Now, there is no doubt, at least not in my mind, that he is one of the funniest and wittiest writers alive. But any such qualification as “great poet of light verse,” “great concrete poet,” “Great Gay Southern Gentleman Poet,” etc., etc., no matter what praise, inevitably means that the writer is to be taken as being something less than simply a poet, the real thing, true makaris. ("If you’re capable of writing a quote funny unquote poem, it’s somehow an implication that you can’t write anything else.") And in this case, ignores the other areas of Williams’ work than the quick, deft, satiric, humorous — the serious, the elegiac, the visionary strains present throughout the poetry, from the beginning. It is true that there are many kinds of poetry and areas of experience that Williams simply does not take on. He does not work in the longer forms, nor the epic nor mythopoeic modes. He is not concerned with the ideal or the abstract, the “big subjects.” The poems are not written to fit into some “grand design” nor to prove some “higher truth.” Very little in the way of politics and economics appears; no such causes are espoused. Except for “the Revolution of the Word,” the poetry is not “At the Service of the Revolution” (in actual effect, however, it may be so). Nor is it poetry of total, overwhelming seizure (but certainly is “hot, celebratory, and juicy"); contrast Robert Duncan: “in a poem you don’t get to drive the car.” But reading through the entire body of Williams’ work it simply will not do to characterize it as light in any sense of being frivolous or “merely entertaining” or lacking in intensity — though other senses definitely do apply: bright, quick on the feet, unencumbered. Or as Edward Dorn put it in the Preface to his Hello, La Jolla:
These dispatches should be
received in the spirit
of the Pony Express:
light and essential.
Though the critical use of these terms later in the book should also be noted:
Rauschenberg’s Untitled (Early Egyptian Series
Some viewers might imagine
art is worth its weight. A work
which depicts that expectation
but which is essentially light
is Brilliant and worthless.
Some people have concluded that there is a geographical difference in the essential weight of Williams’ poetry. Robert Kelly, in his 50th birthday piece, has argued that, though Williams brings to bear “an identical enthusiasm and rapt eye, faithful vocabulary, brain full of scherzo” when he writes about England, nonetheless:
the results are not at all like those dozens of quickstep books that have made his american reputation. We dont [sic] laugh in the same way, though the pretenses and inadvertencies detected are just as ridiculous as those of Possum Bottom, N.C. Instead we feel, or I feel, a closer trembling of the veil. It is a Masque of Yearning to rehearse the world, and fondle it part by part, in and out of humor.
The point is well taken, but at the same time it must be pointed out that this “closer trembling of the veil” and “Masque of Yearning,” a verge of revelation in the attended physical world, is also very much present in Williams’ American work, starting long before he ever went to England — as in The Grounds, from The Empire Finals at Verona:
Lusters, stir the row! Poe’s
the Vale of Arnheim. Potomac’s Valley shall become
a domain we create, inchoate
scene where snows wane
and bulbs burn under the winter ground.
At the margins of thought, on the margins of the river, the winter
surrenders to the hosts of Great Venus.
Or witness the coming of the rattlesnake god in The Familiars; or this, in the heart of the Appalachians:
I do not know the Ironweed’s root,
but I know it rules September
and where the flowers tower
in the wind there is a burr of
sound — empyrean… the mind
glows and the wind drifts…
epiphanies pull up
from The Deracination in Blues & Roots.
Whether about England or the United States, Williams’ non-satiric, non-erotic poetry deals with some sense of “otherness” (of course this is true of all the poetry, finally)—exaltation, awe, immense quietude, transfiguration — before Nature. As the elegiac poems again and again find their exact term of bidding farewell in a natural object, most often a plant, a growing thing. Part of this is an intense poignancy felt in the face of the transitoriness of all things (and so his deep share with Delius); part — but it is really all the same — a kind of native Buddhist sense of Emptiness. For Williams, too, “the idea of emptiness engenders compassion"; and
a few utterly quiet scenes, things
are very far away—’form
comely, comely, love trembles
and the sweet-shrub
which also has part in a visionary tradition of seeing through Nature, which would have been encountered in American Transcendentalism as well as in the English masters Blake and Palmer — the elder Henry James finding the Shekinah on the trolley car; or Ives of Thoreau, that “he knows now/ he must let Nature/ flow through him.” So, definitely, other senses of light apply: angle or aspect of view; illumination; enlightenment; animation or liveliness of the eyes; the guiding spirit in each human being.
Williams’ is a contemplative poetry, attentive upon the entire world before the clear senses, intention in abeyance except to be “scrupulous to the momentary actual,” in Kelly’s words; and of the exact sudden light flash of wit, image, word-play, revelation — not a meditative poetry, concerned with turning thoughts over and over. It is very much a poetry of what Ford Madox Ford called, in that neglected masterpiece, England and the English (1907), assoupissement, “a bathing in the visible world"—and of Ravel’s sites auriculaires. In the preface to his most recent collection, Glees… Swarthy Monotonies… Rince Cochon… & Chozzerai for Simon Williams tells us:
From Corn Close I daily look out across the valley to a group of Scotch pines in a field of grass. The light in Dentdale is unusually dim and the pines are inconspicuous and unremarkable. But, let the late sun shine its rays up the dale and the trees become transfigured, with the forms of the foliage and the trunks of the elongated shadows endlessly fascinating to the eye. Everything is seen “in a new light.”
For Williams’ work, too, it is fit for us to use the title William Carlos Williams gave to a book of short stories, in the fullness of its intended meanings: Make Light of It.
Jonathan Williams is one of the most considerable poets of our time. His work may be returned to again and again, with ever renewing delight in the fineness of its workmanship. In conclusion, the following words of Virgil Thomson on Williams’ revered master, Maurice Ravel (quoted in Hoover and Cage’s 1969 study of Thomson), are humbly offered as also providing a characterization of Williams that does him no disservice — for he, too,
is at once an intellectual by his tastes and an artisan by his training and his practice. He is not a bourgeois nor a white-collar proletarian nor a columnist nor a priest nor a publicized celebrity nor a jobholder nor a political propagandist — but simply and plainly, proudly and responsibly, a skilled workman.