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
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:
WE CAN LICK
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.
fr. Gr. athanasia
it takes of
he takes of
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.