Wednesday, May 18, 2005

 

Two of the oldest – and most cherished – volumes in my library are Amen, Huzzah, Selah and Elegies and Celebrations, technically volumes 13(a) and 13(b) of Jargon magazine, before it fully conceded that it was, indeed, a press more than a journal. These books, published in 1960 & ’62, are the work of Jonathan Williams, the most cantankerous & unique contributor to the New American Poetry. One of the most important publishers of the 20th century & one of the best photographers of the past fifty years, Williams tends to have been the exception to every rule of thumb one could make about the New Americans in general & the Projectivists in particular. They were urban – he stayed on in Highlands, N.C., not far from his birthplace in Ashville. They were serious – he is the ultimate poet of the wisecrack. More than a few of them were practitioners of the Wounded Buffalo school, a testosterone heavy approach to the world & personal relations – Williams turned out to be a domestic poet, whose life has been spent in two major relationships, first with Ronald Johnson & then, and for far longer, with Tom Meyer.

Now Copper Canyon, of all presses, has seen fit to issue a big, juicy “new & selected poems,” entitled Jubilant Thicket. It is just that, a volume far larger than its 301 pages suggests, maybe 500 or 600 poems in all – out of an oeuvre of some 1,450 – as raucous as anything in recent writing. At the same time, sans index, there are poems of Williams’ not just from these two early books, but even from his earlier selected volumes, An Ear in Bartram’s Tree & The Loco Logo-Daedalist in Situ (just possibly the best book title ever), that I cannot find here. Indeed, the only earlier publication that appears to have made it into this collection in toto is Mahler, Williams’ one extended suite of poems. This is not atypical for a poet like Williams who, like Phil Whalen or John Wieners – just to pick among the Ws in the New American vein – never has had a consistent publisher. The volumes, when they emerge, tend to represent what was possible at the time to get into print. So if you own one Williams’ selected, you still need all the others, and the smaller, earlier volumes as well. Hopefully, at some point, each of these writers will be gathered into a large Collected. Yet, among the New Americans, that hasn’t even happened as yet for Robert Duncan & the four-volume Spicer collected is still just something that we can salivate at the idea of – who knows exactly when that will emerge? So Jubilant Thicket is a wonderful event – far larger than any previous volume. But it will leave Williams’ older fans sighing, wanting & waiting for more.

The dozens, the wisecrack, the sardonic aphorism have a heritage in poetry that is as old as Catullus, at the very least. In our time, hardly anyone has done more to plumb this rich vein of possibility than Jonathan Williams. He is, easily, our most obscene – and yet our most fastidious – poet. Thus, alluding to the former first lady all in caps, we read:

NANCY:

“TOGETHER
WE CAN LICK
CRACK”

or, from the series of “Meta-Fours” that opens the book, mostly untitled poems printed several to a page whose only formal requirement is that their lines should have exactly four words each:

O.J. IN SOUTH FLORIDA
i met this girl
once and she tells
me she only dates
guys with ten inches
i said baby i
ain’t cuttin’ off two
inches not for nobody

And yet from the same series we find a one-liner worthy of Robert Grenier:

bucket of blue smoke

Or this, from the selection of homages, elegies & valedictions that concludes the book:

COMPANIONS FOR THE DARK SLATE HEADSTONE OF CHARLES JOHN OLSON JR.

small,
yellow

flower
heads

of
tansy

Tansy,
fr. Gr. athanasia
(deathlessness)

because of
the characteristic
permanent possession
it takes of
the soil

he takes of
the soul

That last piece works so carefully via its use of words per line – the three three-worders are key to it all – and its use of imagery & enjambment is so perfectly tuned to Olson’s own way with the language – that Williams approaches a kind of perfection that objects made of words seldom attain.

Jubilant Thicket is one of those absolute must-have books of poetry. I just hope we don’t have to wait another 30 or 50 years to have a collected in hand.





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