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Jonathan Williams Feature

Robert J. Bertholf

The Jargon Society and Contemporary Literary History


Jim Lowell of the Asphodel Book Shop in Cleveland sold and distributed the early publications of the Jargon Society. He was an ardent reader of William Carlos Williams, had visited Charles Olson in Gloucester, gave D.A. Levy a safe place in Cleveland, and corresponded with writers in England and America. He knew Jonathan Williams and was an enthusiastic supporter of Jargon publications.


When I arrived at his shop in the fall of 1968, he became an immediate source for the publications and most of all news, especially impeccable literary gossip about the society and its writers. Conversations with him soon became documents of essential literary history because so little had been written about the writers whose books and pamphlets were so familiar to the store. He did not hesitate to say read this book, and this one, and please follow this magazine and that one also. In fact, the more I read and talked the more he was willing to talk, so visits to Cleveland and later to Burton, OH, were educational, directive and life changing.


He sold me a copy of Duncan’s A Book of Resemblances, which I thought the most beautiful book I had ever seen, the two early installments of Olson’s The Maximus Poems, Paul Metcalf’s Genoa, Lorine Niedecker’s Tenderness and Gristle, Joel Oppenheimer’s The Dutiful Son, Louis Zukofsky’s A Test of Poetry (He refused to sell me limited editions of Zukofsky’s poems until I had read the Paris Review editions of A), Creeley’s The Immoral Proposition and All That Is Lovely In Men, and, of course, Jonathan Williams’s own books, including Elegies and Celebrations.


Many people have written about Jonathan Williams’s curmudgeonly habits, his eccentric but informed ways of seeing and thinking, his natural habit of finding poems on billboards and menus, and, of course, his dedicated and persistent drive to support his view of the world in Jargon’s publications. Being around him was also fun: the food, wine and conversation were always terrific. From the start, however, my main interest in Williams and the Jargon Society grew from my awareness that his publications constituted part of the literary history of American writing after 1945.


Williams left the Chicago Art Institute for Black Mountain College to study photography with Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind, and ran directly into the powerful authority of Charles Olson, poet, and poetic thinker. Ten years before Donald Allen edited and published The New American Poetry (1960), Olson wrote and published his essay “Projective Verse”(1950). It took a few years for the implications of the essay to penetrate the writing of the new generation of writers, but when it did literary history suffered — or enjoyed, depending on personal views — a drastic break.


Olson’s training reached back into the poetics of nineteenth century American writing and literary thinking, nurtured by F.O. Matthiessen, Frederick Merk and other professors in the new American Civilization program at Harvard. Though he disavowed the Romantic Imagination, even denying the writing of Emerson and Thoreau, he was baptized in the novels of Herman Melville, as well as familiar with the pragmatic thinking of Charles S. Peirce and John Dewey. His essay countered the literary traditions coming from T. S. Eliot —in fact most of the European Modernist assertion — that was in 1950 finding a new credibility in the New Criticism, with the poetry and essays of John Crowe Ransom, Cleaneth Brooks, Robert Penn Warren, and others. He aligned himself with the poetic thinking of Ezra Pound — though there was a serious break with Pound over political issues — and the new writing of William Carlos Williams.


Olson, with Robert Creeley’s support, argued for a poetry containing information, for a poetry which achieved its form as an extension of its content, for a poetry, then, which rejected predetermined structures. He also argued to expunge the egotistical “I” which he called “lyrical interference” as the centering, authoritative voice of the poem. Instead. he thought the poet was an object like other objects in the field of action/information in which the poem took place, and was a participant in the resulting poem as a projection of that field of action. This position was radically against the position of the growing number of poets teaching and writing inside the protection and affirmation of academic institutions.


William Carlos Williams, who was closer to Wallace Stevens’s concepts of the imagination than he admitted, thought so well of Olson’s account that he quoted a long passage in his Autobiography. The Jargon Society published books for nine years amplifying Olson’s concepts of achieved form and the Jargon idea of fine books — and in these ways generated and cultivated the writing and thinking that Donald Allen named “Black Mountain Poetry” in his anthology The New American Poetry (1960).


From 1951 to 1960 The Jargon Society published books by central poets of the new American poetry, including Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, Robert Creeley, Paul Metcalf, Joel Oppenheimer, Michael McClure and Jonathan Williams. The record is impressive and needs to be set out in more detail, though a full bibliographic record will wait for another publication. The two volumes of Olson’s The Maximus Poems (1953) and (1956) set a standard for book design and printing that would be one of the signatures of Jargon publication. But the volumes also lead forward to joint publication with Corinth Books of New York of The Maximus Poems (1960), the volume which spread Olson’s achievements to a wider audience and helped to define an era of American poetry.


Robert Creeley’s Jargon publications followed a similar course from The Immoral Proposition (1953), All That is Lovely in Men (1955), and A From of Women (1958) to For Love (1962) by Charles Scribner’s Sons, that began the transforming of Creeley from an interesting writer to a major poet.


In like fashion Robert Duncan’s Jargon book Letters: Poems 1953–1956 lead on to his trade publication with Grove Press, The Opening of the Field (1960) and fixed him as a rising poet in the San Francisco Renaissance of poetry but also a part of the group called by Donald Allen “The Black Mountain Poets,” centered in Jargon’s publications, Robert Creeley’s editing of The Black Mountain Review and Cid Corman’s editing of Origin. [One small press and two journals made up the energy of the shift in direction of American poetry.]


Jargon also published Michael McClure’s first book Passages before he emerged as a main writer of the “Beat Generation,” and Denise Levertov’s first Jargon book Overland to the Islands (1958) initiated a series of trade book publications in the 1906s that made her a major literary figure. By 1958 she was in correspondence with Robert Duncan through the Jargon Society’s ambience, and that correspondence lead to the decisively crucial discussion of the relations and interrelations of poetry, politics, and the Vietnam War. Joel Oppenheimer’s early Jargon book The Dutiful Son (1957) developed into another later one Names & Local Habitations (Selected Earlier Poems 1951–1972) (1988), his column in The Village Voice and a distinguished career as a poet who used only lower case letters. Louis Zukofsky’s first Jargon book, Some Time (1956), and then later A Test of Poetry (1964) brought the “Objectivist” movement of American poetry of the 1930s, where William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens were also active players, into the Jargon ambience before Zukofsky jumped ahead with the publication of his long poem “A” as a major poet, and who with George Oppen and Lorine Niedecker, beginning with her Jargon book, Tenderness and Gristle: The Collected Poems (1936–1966) (1968), brought a new discipline to the views of the objective status of the poetic line and the poem itself. Jonathan Williams’s interest in and care for the British poet Basil Bunting was so admirable and actual that Bunting could not have written his late, grand poem Briggflatts (1966) without them — and the attention of Tom Pickard.


Examples proliferate and though this essay cannot be definitive, some additional example help clarify the lines of growth: Mina Loy’s Jargon book, The Last Lunar Baedeker (1982), filled up a gap left in the older Modernist movement; James Broughton’s, A Long Undressing. Collected Poems 1949–1969 (1971) brought a poet from the original, indigenous San Francisco poets into the Jargon world where Larry Eigner, with his On My Eyes (1960) and Canadian poet Irving Layton with his The Improved Binoculars (1956), and Kenneth Patchen’s Fables & Other Little Tales (1953) were already settled residents.


Ian Hamilton Finlay’s The Blue and the Brown Poems (1968) and Thomas A. Clarke’s Some Particulars (1971) focused Jargon’s attention to the lineup of British concrete poetry. Paul Metcalf’s Will West (1956) followed by Genoa (1965) brought the greatgrandson of Herman Melville into the mix that Olson’s studies in the American West had created. Ronald Johnson’s A Line of Poetry, A Row of Trees (1964), Guy Davenport, Flowers and Leaves (1966) and Tom Meyer, The Bang Book: Poem (1971) and At Dusk Iridescent: A Gathering of Poems 1972–1997 (1999) all exemplified the clarity and intelligence of the new in poetry; Tom Meyer also introduced a different discipline of seeing and writing initiated by Robert Kelley at Bard College.


Then there are the books of Jonathan Williams to fill up the record. The two early books Amen/Huzza/Selah (1960) and Elegies and Celebrations (1962), both Jargon books, are classic examples of Williams’s electric style of picking up found lines and rearranging them in a poem. His sense of form inside the poem is as specific in two books published outside Jargon, Mahler (1969)—which might be Williams’s most accomplished poetry— and An Ear In Bartram’s Tree: Selected Poems 1957–1967 (1969)—matched by two Jargon books Get Hot or Get Out: A Selection of Poems, 1957-1981 (1982), Elite/Elate Poems: Selected Poems, 1971-75 (1979). He cultivated the views of an outsider, at times outraged, but also perceptive in his poems as well as in his support of folk art.


Literary history does not take place alone. Before he started publishing books, Jonathan Williams knew that poetry was integrally related to photography, painting, drawing and music. Williams’s first publication, Garbage Litters the Iron Face of the Sun’s Child, contained am engraving by David Ruff, and Joel Oppenheimer’s The Dancer contained a drawing by Robert Rauschenberg. Williams himself contributed the calligraphy for Olson’s The Maximus Poems 1-10, while René Laubiès made the drawings for Creeley’s The Immoral Proposition, Al Kresch the drawings for Levertov’s Overland to the Islands, and R. B Kitaj provided the cover for Williams’s Lullabies Twisters Gibbers Drags.


Williams went to Black Mountain College to study photography so it is natural enough that photographs appear in Jargon’s publications, Williams’s own in Creeley’s All that Is Lovely in Men, or Aaron Siskind’s in Williams’s volume Elegies and Celebrations, and Harry Callahan’s in Larry Eigner’s On My Eyes. Ralph Eugene Meatyard was a favorite of Williams, so his works appears in several books including Douglas Woolf’s Spring of the Lamb. Jargon published Meatyard, The Family Album of Lucybelle Carter as well as Lyle Bongé, The Sleep of Reason, and The Photographs of Lyle Bongé. Including works of art was inside Jargon’s commitment to publish beautiful, well designed books, finely printed. Late in his career Williams published a collection of his photographs with a commentary A Palpable Elysium: Portraits of Genius and Solitude. His portrait of Kenneth Rexroth could be Williams’s signature photograph.


At the same time, Williams was equally enthusiastic about the music of Gustav Mahler, Anton Bruckner, Edward Elgar and at times Pierre Boulez — these and other musicians show up in his poetry, essays and correspondence.


The Jargon Society under Williams’s direction developed its own ambience, and writers and artists communicated with one another mostly by letter. Olson’s Maximus Poems were after all “Letters.” Before and after “Projective Verse,” Olson and Creeley corresponded often several times a day. Duncan and Olson provoked one another in their letters and Duncan and Levertov in their letters produced a massive commentary on poetics and the poets’ response to the Vietnam war. Levertov corresponded with William Carlos Williams, Creeley with Levertov, and so on.


The letter was the medium of communication, and Jonathan Williams was tireless in keeping up the flow of the mail and when he had a chance to travel he expanded the ambience of the Society wider and wider. As a result, the Jargon writers left a massive record of their thinking, interconnections, their passions, personal and professional — in fact a rich deposit of the very best literary gossip and a huge assemblage of historical information.


A final note: When I went to Buffalo as Curator of the Poetry Collection in August 1978, the Jargon Society Archive had been appraised and was for sale in the manuscripts market. The Poetry Collection’s focus on the poetry of William Carlos Williams and avant-garde writing of the Pound/Williams line created a necessity to bring the Jargon Archive to Buffalo.


There will be another time and place to tell the long story of the negotiations, compromises, even disputes, that made the purchase possible. Now I am more interested in saying that the papers are a huge reservoir of research materials to study how a small press managed its literary life, how one group of smart, articulate poets managed through their interconnections and their publications to define a kind of contemporary literary history. Smaller manuscript purchases followed and each gradually found relationships with the Jargon papers. Then the manuscripts of Robert Kelly arrived as a complement of the Jargon manuscripts for each had an ambience of publication and letters that went together, provided pieces of information that made the literary history possible.


With each smaller acquisition the larger collection “cured,” and when the Duncan materials and his library arrived the archive revealed its greater depth and spread of the interrelations. The poets whose papers were in the library gave poetry readings, lectures, and came to talk about this and that. It was and is an active, living perhaps, archive day by day achieving its own history.

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