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Jonathan Williams Feature

Thomas Meyer

JW Gent & Epicurean


The whole dream of democracy is to raise the proletarian to the level of stupidity attained by the bourgeois.

 — Gustave Flaubert

America is a mistake, a big mistake!

 — Sigmund Freud

We are the last first people.

Charles Olson


Words. Words. Words.


Like his master before him, like Edward Dahlberg, Jonathan Williams is a delver of words. Some old, some new, and some blue. Salty, simple, elaborate.


What he looks for first in them is not the power to move, or to name, that comes later, rather he looks for the power to delight as they sound in the mouth, thrumming the lips, wiggling the tongue, and rattling the teeth.


Even the smallest glossary made from his personal lexicon provides us with a chrestomathy; a chrestomathy: a bit of useful knowledge about these phenomena called Jonathan Williams.


So I would like to mention some, as a way of beginning, just a few of his words from that category I’d call Gob-Stoppers, words guaranteed to ‘shut your cake-hole’ as the Geordies of Newcastle, England say.



A sudden burst of silence. Or ‘Shut my mouth wide open!’


Consider for a moment a man who titles a recent book of poems Aposiopesis, and when that draws a blank, a man who, in explanation, provides you with an alternate pronunciation: apo-si-oposis.


That takes self-confidence in these matters so supreme that it borders upon insouciance. If not Zen.



‘A handbook’ meaning literally ‘in the hand’: there is not a word, a phrase, an idea, a poem of Jonathan William’s that he has not held in his hand, has not pressed with his thumb, spit upon and polished on his shirtsleeve. Here is a man for whom the world cannot be the world until it is palpable, until it can be handled. Or is itself a ‘handle.’ And here we come to the spring and source of Jonathan William’s Grand Paternity: William Carlos Williams, who told us, ‘a poem is a machine made out of words.’


A Jonathan Williams poem usually fits in the palm of your hand and has very few moving parts.


They sometimes glow in the dark.



Out of embarrassment when Freudian psychoanalytical theory was introduced to English; that is, when the works of Sigmund Freud were translated, it was decided to dress up his simple homespun German terms in Greek buttons and Latin bows to make them into a Jargon. So that the German besitzung became cathexis, when in fact it was almost, nearly, albeit false, a cognate of our English ‘beset’, ‘being set in the middle of it all,’ being filled suddenly and passionately, filled to overflowing with the quality of a thing, to be overwhelmed. Besieged. To be possessed. For Jonathan Williams, the ultimate state of grace. To glow: ‘An apostle who does not glow, preaches heresy...’ The poet is quoting Arnold Schoenberg, in the Rondo-Finale of the ‘Symphony No 5, in C Sharp Minor’ from The Mahler Poems:


Schoenberg: ‘I should
even have liked to observe
how Mahler
knotted his tie,

and should have found that
more interesting and instructive
than learning how
one of our musical bigwigs composes
on a quote sacred subject

... An apostle
who does not glow
preaches heresy.’



That which is said, or spoken of, discussed, or ‘taught’ in the garden, or the orchard. As opposed to the market place, or the center of the town, well away from the hustle and bustle. That which becomes discourse when we ‘loaf & invite the soul,’ to quote Jonathan Williams quoting Walt Whitman.


The word belongs to Epicurus, of whom the great Friederich Nietzsche said: ‘Never has the voluptuous been so modest.’ And with whom in mind he wrote:


Reason is crisp and businesslike — a flood
That gets us all too quickly where we want to be...

To think about things in solitude makes sense;
To sing about things in solitude is very silly...


And so I come in my meandering to the title I have given these remarks


J. Williams, Gent. & Epicurean


Epicurus was a Greek philosopher who bought a house with a small adjoining orchard in Athens late in the 4th Century BC. This became the headquarters of his operation. And there he taught and had his offices, as it were, rather than downtown, which was the usual location for all such businesses.


He allowed women to attend his seminars and conferences. This was considered unheard of at the time.


He once advised a young man, ‘Get into a boat and sail away, as far from culture as you can get.’


He also said: ‘Yes, a man with sense will speak in public, but only when asked.’


For 21 years I have been Jonathan Williams’ compatriot, companion, and amanuensis; I was very pleased when I was asked to say something about him this evening.


Words. Words. Words.


This Johnny Appleseed, as Buckminster Fuller dubbed him, who delves for words in books, has also dug for words, for the poems themselves, under the cabbage leaves, among the dog roses, between the clumps of blue chicory along an interstate.


He is fond of quoting John Clare’s remark:


I found the poems in the fields and only wrote them down.


A man is most eloquent — Dante proclaimed in La Vita Nuova — who uses the speech of ordinary men. The secret, Dante knew and Jonathan Williams knows, of the vernacular, of the way we talk, is its openness, its alert sensual tones (its vowels actually). To raise the common to the estate of the uncommon by the grace of language is certainly one of Jonathan Williams’ prime æsthetic passions.


There is a great and necessary honesty of heart required in all this.


I am reminded of the rumors spread abroad about Epicurus during his own lifetime: They said no man was kinder than he was... but that he talked dirty.


The more obvious earthinesses aside, Jonathan Williams finds in the dirt of his scrutiny words like: gee-haw whimmy-diddle, slop-jar, popskull which are in their way as exotic as logodædelist, heuristic, hermeneutics, given the lives that engage us day after day, shopping at K-Mart, watching ‘Entertainment Tonight’, eating a Big Mac.


But the true Epicurean — and not just the ‘party animal’ so often and so mistakenly called Epicurean — embraces it all precisely because for him or her there is nothing else, absolutely, resolutely nothing else.


The true Epicurean takes the crap, the glitz, the Bud Lite along with the Gabriel Fauré, the woodland path, the mountain sunset, the eau de vie Framboise.


For Epicurus tells us:


All thoughts have their origin in sensations and depend upon the coincidence of things, their likenesses, and their coming together or coming apart; and sometimes (he concedes), sometimes thoughts will have something to do with thinking.


Or as William Carlos Williams so tersely put it:


No ideas but in things.


It is the life of attention which is life itself for the Epicurean, the panoply of detail and experience.


I remember a friend Jonathan Williams and I were visiting in Dorset saying: ‘What a splendid thing a day out with Jonathan is. Most people don’t notice anything, but Jonathan notices everything!’


Or is it — as Oscar Wilde might observe — that what Jonathan Williams notices becomes everything. His attention when it focuses centers. There is no background, foreground, or middleground. There is only what is there — a kind of ‘in-your-face’ phenomenology.


Pay attention. Close attention. Is his credo.


For attention is the highest form of delight.


Epicurus confesses:


I do not know how I would be able to decide what was worthwhile if I abandoned good food, making love, and stopped listening, shutting my eyes to everything.


Which brings to mind an observation made by Clement Freud, British journalist and politician, and the grandson of Sigmund Freud:


If you give up sex, and if you give up smoking, and drinking, and eating well, it’s not that you live longer, it just seems longer.


These antiphonal comments on Epicurus are part of the Jonathan Williams canon. If ever there were a living breathing proof of hypertexuality, it is he.


The Compiler of Lists. The Chronicler of Day Books. The Maker of Itineraries.


To quote Jonathan Williams is to quote him quoting someone quoting someone else.


The world is a mare’s nest of interlocking details, an endless network spread out like a patchwork quilt, so dense and so extensive that it is unlikely that any hierarchy, any ranking of things can finally survive the glorious welter of particularities.


Hence it is the function of attention to isolate for a moment the single, luminous detail. Hence the lists, the compendia, the dispatches which constitute Jonathan Williams’ natural form, poetic and prosaic.


Such a total belief in things, in the delights of material reality, and the ceaseless reporting of this results in a pure Epicurean disposition.


Just as it results in a shunning of the eternal and all ultimate convictions.


Close and passionate scrutiny combined with an unflinching curiosity develops in a man or a woman a sensibility which will dig its claws into everything questionable about this life.


And he or she is eventually overwhelmed with an aversion to big moral words and sweeping gestures.


In a pinch, I am describing Jonathan Williams the gad-fly, the satirist, the exploder of balloons. While we are startled and amused by his observations and pot-shots, we seldom, in this day and age, in this culture, feel anything but the quick sting of their recognition.


And we miss an essential aspect of an intelligence like Jonathan Williams’.


A quality that Nietzsche describes as crucial to an Epicurean sensibility, but more often than not obscured by the action of that sensibility:


Whenever I hear or read Epicurus — Nietzsche says — I enjoy the happiness of antiquity. I see his eyes gaze upon a wide, white sea, across rocks at the shores that are bathed in sunlight, while large and small animals are playing in this light, as secure and calm as the light itself and his eyes. Such happiness could be invented only by a man whose eyes have seen the sea of life’s details become calm, and now they can never weary of that surface and of the many colors of this tender, shuddering skin of the sea.


The same might also be said of Jonathan Williams, except that when we read or hear him, we enjoy the flickering, happy light of Jeffersonian democracy, not antiquity.


And we see his eyes gaze out, not upon the sea, but out upon:


A vast expanse of green meadows and strawberry fields; a meandering river gliding through, saluting in its various turnings the swelling, green, turfy knolls, embellished with parterres of flowers and fruitful strawberry beds; flocks of turkeys strolling about them; herds of deer prancing in the mead or bounding over the hills...


That next passage describing what is today Franklin, NC comes from the great 18th Century botanist, William Bartram, one of Jonathan Williams’ acknowledged mentors — of language and of character. A perfect adagietto upon which to end my remarks.


But I think the last words should be those of the gent and Epicurean himself.


This short passage follows almost directly upon the one from William Bartram, it appears in an essay called ‘A White Cloud in the Eye of a White Horse’. And such juxtapositions are the stuff art is made from:


The town of Cherokee in the Qualla Indian Reservation is one of the outstanding abominations in the U.S. — a horrendous conglutination of bears in cages, junque shoppes, genuine Indians jogging about in pseudo-Navajo headdresses made in Hong Kong out of plastic; reptile gardens; and millions of decorticated modern American white folks (only) in duckbilled caps and air-conditioned automobiles looking (as far as the ends of their bony, blue noses) for the Lost America.

This text was presented as a talk in 1989 for Williams’ sixtieth birthday celebration at the Rare Books Collection, Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Poet Thomas Meyer was Jonathan’s partner for forty years, and the amanuensis of Jargon. He is the author of a selected poems At Dusk Iridescent (Jargon) and other books of poems. His translation of the Daode Jing (Flood Editions) was a finalist for the Pen Award for Poetry in Translation.

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