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Jonathan Williams

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Jonathan Williams Feature

Ronald Johnson

Jonathan (Chamberlain) Williams

The following essay originally appeared in 1980 in American Poets since World War II. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 5. Donald J. Greiner, ed. (Detroit: Gale Research) and is reproduced here with the permission of the Estate of Ronald Johnson.


Jonathan Williams was born in Asheville, North Carolina, to Thomas Benjamin and Georgette Williams , a lively couple who soon moved the family to Washington, D.C. They were straight from the gracious strictures of Southern Semi-aristocracy (yet stubborn mountain folk to the bone). Williams’ father was a multi-gifted self-made man, and his mother a talented decorator. In Washington, Williams attended that most British and Episcopalian of schools, St. Albans, attached to Washington Cathedral, and left with acute Anglophilia and a lifelong taste for cathedrals.


Consecutively, without taking a degree, he studied art history at Princeton, painting with Karl Knaths at the Phillips Memorial Gallery in Washington, etching and engraving with Stanley William Hayter at Atelier 17 in New York, and the whole range of arts at Chicago’s Institute of Design. Then, in 1951, he returned to his native North Carolina mountains where the Bauhaus-influenced school, Black Mountain College, was in force with poet Charles Olson as rector. There, he distinguished himself on the softball team, hosted rambles through Southern drawing and dining rooms as well as drive-in cinemas, once dropped a pot of asphalt on a raw canvas from his room window, became friends with what were to become some of the best-known painters, poets, composers, and dancers of today, wrote his first signal poems, and began to produce a series of the finest examples of the bookmaker’s art since William Morris.


To publish poetry alongside the work of contemporary painters, photographers, and typographers, he founded The Jargon Society in 1951, and he has remained its editor, publisher, and designer up to the present — with some ninety titles to his credit. He has taught at the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies, Maryland Institute College of Art, the University of Kansas, Wake Forest University, North Carolina School of the Arts, Salem College, Winston-Salem State University, and the University of Delaware. He has held fellowships and grants from the Guggenheim Foundation (1957-1958), the Longview Foundation (1960), the National Endowment for the Arts (1968, 1969, 1970, 1973), and has received an honorary degree from Maryland Institute College of Art (1969).


One of the happiest legacies of Ezra Pound is the idea that any healthy society is in debt to its imaginative gadflies. Jonathan Williams is one of the wittiest and most daring. Precocious, with early influences ranging from Edith Sitwell, Kenneth Patchen, Robinson Jeffers, Kenneth Rexroth, and William Carlos Williams to Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, and Robert Creeley, Williams has created a distinctive line, sure of foot in a stream of syllables, clearly witty in the splash of its consonants — a line well informed by ear and eye, though innocent of metrics.


He has been deemed ‘democratic’ by William Carlos Williams, ‘our best Greek poet’ by Guy Davenport, ‘salty’ by James Laughlin, ‘unequalled’ by A.R. Ammons, ‘Indispensable!’ by Buckminster Fuller, a ‘joyous laborer’ by James Dickey. Robert Duncan calls him a ‘veritable male Marianne Moore’ — and Thomas Lask says, ‘of all the Black Mountain poets (teachers and disciples alike), Jonathan Williams is the wittiest, the least constrained, the most joyous’. And also a satirist.


The typical attender of Williams’ heretofore unexpected undercurrents, founts, and sidelights of art would find all of the above to be true. The person behind all this hoopla is the crafter of an athletic style, each phrase to be read as if it were a basketball swishing through a net, each dribbled syllable contributing to a never-before-seen game of words. It is true that his more curious stretches of restless imagination may depend for their resultant point on humor dropped in the totally unsuspecting lap, but as poems they are always easy on the tongue and sharp as chitchat in a barber’s shop. All get up and go, he sets us straighter. He has learned, the listener leans back to hear, from both socked fly balls and Charles Olson’s ‘And the mind go forth to the end of the world’. He knows that each one makes an arc.


Alert for eccentrics, roadside cafes with the accent over the f, stray-cat-scratched wisdoms of the urinal, foibles and follies, slips of the tongue, seers and doers, masters of schtick and spiel from sidewalk to bedroom and back, he seldom errs with eye or ear. This kind of Catullan spunk may be side by side with deep, moving, bucolic lyrics, one after another extolling the cow bells and cuckoos in Mahler, or Thoreau coming on a muskrat. Here, puns are a kind of gloire; musics of the spheres may be traced through the relation of o’s and a’s both stressed and muted throughout what seems but brusque statement and rude sentiment.


Amongst this ruckus, Jonathan Williams’ strength as a poet lies in a nearly tireless questioning of the extra-traditional lyric, in a time that believes with him that ‘form is only an extension of content’ (Robert Creeley‘s words). If we take lyric in its first sense as song from a lyre, then we understand that in Williams’ poetry, from the early book Jammin’ The Greek Scene (only published in scraps and pieces), in which he turns up rather like Edith Sitwell playing Ovid on the saxophone in a New Orleans dive, to the masterly later poems written one each to movements of Mahler symphonies, his words present themselves, one after the other, as equivalents of notes of music plucked still ringing from the air. He stands as one always in dialogue with Orpheus himself.


In the splendid books clustered around Jammin’ The Greek Scene, Amen / Huzza / Selah (1960) and Elegies and Celebrations (1962), the reader’s ideas of music are stretched to include the lilts of energetic local speech, speech furthermore in terms vastly unconscious, yet honed to his most polished, terse wit. The intensity of psychic thrust in these poems is undiminished after two decades. ‘Enthusiast’ and ‘The Distances to the Friend’ (both elegies to older writer figures) are poems in which ‘song sweats through the pores’ and the depths of one man swim before us ‘stifling all repulsion’ ‘into the sounding keyboard’.


Although published in 1959, his first widely remarked book, The Empire Finals at Verona, was written largely after the three books noted above. It includes the poems Williams wrote in correspondence with Louis Zukofsky at the time they both decided to translate Catullus — Williams in the argot of American jazz and Zukofsky after the sound of Latin. The volume also contains some of the best sports poems ever written, and surely some of his most democratic, witty, and lovely work:


mute, flat on the planet,
eyeing a jet-stream eight miles out,
full of fall-out, waste and fragrance
from Nevada

going out to seed the plankton,
sink atolls
and burst
       the livers of great whales.


This book contains three especially fine short lyrics: ‘Autopsy’, ‘A Vulnerary’, and ‘The Grounds’. The first is Walt Whitman’s autopsy report and contemporary newspaper obituaries. The second is Williams at his most sparely beautiful, in a poem dedicated to Robert Duncan; while the third, under a feisty epigraph culled from an Edward Dahlberg letter, stakes itself out squarely on the boundaries of Eden — a place he is to return to often in later work.


With In England’s Green & (1962), he continues to walk this new imagined realm, propelled by Blake although arm in arm with Emerson and Thoreau:


in the monocular sunlight
three miles wide
lid to lid.


Note also, in this book, the end lines of a Southern poem titled ‘Cobwebbery’, which is among the best of Williams’ recreations of common talk:


Maw, rip them boards off
the side the house

and put the soup pot on

and plant us some petunias
in the carcass of the Chevrolet

and let’s stay here
and rot in the fields

and sit still.


In that soup pot seems to stew the nurture of the whole blasted South, to Williams’ mind, a pap of spiders. ‘Cobwebbery’ indeed. The concluding poem of this volume is called ‘The Familiars’, which relates a strange myth of a poet-planted ‘Rattlesnake Master’ who takes ‘masses of rattlers large as washtubs’ ‘into the crevice into / the central den’. From this inner center, perhaps Jonathan Williams’ Eden, words shed their skin to hear in a world where paine is become paean, and where common experience is scripture plain as birds singing in a tree. He finds a spot where each bud or bulb or den is literally a ‘crawl’ of exits. It is a wonderful tale.


Since these books of the early 1960s, Jonathan Williams’ productions have multiplied, sometimes to the point of ephemerality. Among this work, his Mahler (published first in 1967, then further expanded in 1969) stands paramount in its sustained maturity and lyric zest. These splendid poems were written both out of a long early listening to the music of Gustave Mahler during a time when Jean Sibelius was the darling of the concert hall, then a further compressed listening during the months of May and June of 1964 at his mountain home in Highlands, North Carolina. In a complex series of intro-, retro-, and circumspections, the images appear in interlacing circles like the first drops of rain on a reflecting pond, deceptive as to depth. Certain of these images appear to float through whole gilt clouds of unknowing that some black (or even ever bluer) empyrean might support. Witness from two movements of ‘Symphony 5’:


    II. Stormily agitated

to be a block of flowers
in a wood

to be mindlessly in flower
past understanding

to be shone on

to be there, there
and blessed

III. Scherzo

one two three
one two three

little birds waltz to and fro
in the piano

at Maiernigg on the

and up the tree:

one two three.


Every page bears the stamp of Williams’ rangy intelligence, from local reference, to Eros Creatrix, and back to the heart. This collection has justly remained Williams’ most popular book with critics, fellow poets, and readers alike. Yet one might equally praise Blues & Roots / Rue & Bluets (1971), which the author called a ‘Garland for the Appalachians’ of ‘common words in uncommon orders — conversations quoted exactly but cast into line to reveal their native invention’. Along the way there are also road signs, more snakes off the road, and a lot of whittling on porches. Take ‘The Hermit Cackleberry Brown, On Human Vanity’:


caint call your name
but your face is easy

come sit

now some folks figure theyre
cowflop they

not a bit

just good to hold the world together
like hooved up ground

thats what.


These poems should sit on our shelves alongside Uncle Remus (1880), a book Jonathan Williams’ father used to read to company. Alone, they would make another poet’s reputation.


No one should miss, either, ‘Excavations from the Case-Histories of Havelock Ellis’ (published in the 1972 selected poems The Loco Logodaedalist in Situ). The title is unusually direct for Williams , and what he unearthed in these texts is by and large his most direct work to date — if also his most dark. Stark history after stark history is revealed, each in a kind of Piranesi of closets. Their only kin are such as Henry James ‘s ‘The Jolly Corner’ (1908), long snatches of Proust, and Poe at his best. One ‘History’ reads baldly: ‘it is a dark crimson / it affords me relief’. It could be the burnt scraps of Count Dracula’s memoir. Another affords this little vision of hell:


       the sight of the naked
               increased by
   a young Turk smoking
                  below the waist.


We have no other poems as naked (and smoking) as these.


At the height of his career, what later explorations might we expect? Not since James, certainly, has there been an artist so in touch with everyone, so aware (a lesson he learned, as did Olson, from Edward Dahlberg) that style could be built soundly. Grit and vision seem to sum up the career of this strange man. His support of other artists is unparalleled in our time. Because of this younger man, some now undenied elder masters have been published again, among them, Kenneth Patchen, Louis Zukofsky, Basil Bunting, Stevie Smith, Mina Loy, and Lorine Niedeker. He has also republished early editions of Olson, Creeley, Duncan, Levertov, and many others. At his table one can meet anyone from Buckminster Fuller to William Burroughs, and often at the same time.


The fate of multitalented men, from Leonardo da Vinci to the composer Lord Berners who dyed tumbler pigeons shades of mauve, cerise, and chartreuse, all for delight of a guest, is often that their art is not comprehended by more direct minds. It may be, though, peeping through exactly these so often cranky, cross-grained, quirky minds, that one focuses best on a complex time. It is easy to imagine a future critic’s zeroing in on Jonathan Williams as a window to what could comfortably be called a ‘period’. Jonathan Williams is like Ezra Pound and Ruskin before him, that rare breed of proselytizing exemplar to whom each act of art constitutes an impetus for freedom.

Ronald Johnson and Williams were partners for ten years. Ronald Johnson (1935-1998) was the author of the long poem ARK, as well as several shorter collections, including The Book of the Green Man, The Valley of the Many-Colored Grasses, RADI OS, and The Shrubberies. For over a decade, beginning in the late 1950s, he was Jonathan Williams’ companion, during which time they hiked together the length of the Appalachian Trail, traveled extensively around the British Isles, and made a Grand Tour of Europe. Born in Kansas, educated at Columbia University, enlisted in the U.S. Army, Johnson lived for over twenty-five years in San Francisco, before returning to Kansas, to Topeka, where he lived with his father for the final four years of his life.

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