Wednesday, October 01, 2003

In recounting his visit with collagist Wendy Kramer on the Philly Sound website, CA Conrad mentioned of Jonathan Williams that “so many writers my age and younger seem to be ignorant of the man and his press.” This may well be true, but, if so, the loss belongs to these younger writers. Williams has been, from the beginning, a one-of-a-kind renaissance tucked down there in the western mountains of North Carolina (albeit with more than a few visits to the United Kingdom). His influence pops up in the oddest places in poetry – you can find it, for example, in the uses of humor in Clark Coolidge’s verse* – & to some degree, conscious or otherwise, in the verse of any writer who gives him- or herself permission to joke in the poem.


Among other things, Williams is not only a master punster, but the first of the Black Mountain poets – and him you can legitimately call such, since he not only went to that august but dishabille institution, but has lived nearby most if not all of his life – to understand that Projectivism’s rigorous scoring of the line for sound could be used with a much sharper sense of satire than, say, Pound’s mere mocking of southern accents in The Cantos. Williams ear, as well as his wit, turns out to be far sharper. Here, almost at random from the earliest book of Williams I have, Amen / Huzzah / Selah, published as Jargon 13 in 1960, is “Hojoki


If you can keep straight you will have no friends
but catgut and blossom in seasons.

— Basil Bunting, from Chomei at Toyama


no loot, no

lust to string a catgut

in a banjo


to hoot

or holler into

Nawth Jawja


too effete to

chant “Chattahoochee

in trochaic feet


all’s quiet at

Hut City


It’s hard to imagine a poem in English more organized around the regional possibilities of h, u & t, not to mention ch, as this. That last line echoes long after – indeed the whole poem has stuck in my head for at least 35 years.** Conrad or someone is sure to point out that the word “straight” in Bunting’s poem here is heard as a binary pair to the unspoken “gay” by Williams’ own text & that this poem invokes the particular problems of cruising in the rural south of the 1950s, a circumstance I can’t even fathom in that era of institutionalized homophobia. 


Within a decade, Williams’ work would appear to be everywhere – a selected poems, of sorts, from New Directions, An Ear in Bartram’s Tree, a booklength long poem, Mahler, from Cape Goliard/Grossman & a large, fabulously daffy collection, The Loco Logo-Daedalist in Situ, as from Cape Goliard/Grossman** & then another, Blues & Roots, Rue and Bluets: A Garland from the Appalachians. But as Projectivism itself receded in the 1970s after the death of Olson & divergences by Creeley, Dorn, Baraka, Levertov & then Duncan’s long hiatus, the context in which Williams work had first been received itself seemed to dissolve. Since then, Williams has been one of poetry’s great secrets, central to almost anyone familiar with the work, but apt to be bypassed by less careful students of the form’s heritage.


Fortunately, he seems to keep writing and his press, Jargon, has proven critical over the years – giving us Lorine Niedecker’s work, for example, at a time when it could be found nowhere else. Williams is himself also a master photographer. I’ve had the Gnomon edition of Portrait Photographs since Jonathan Greene first published it in 1979 & Williams’ photos of a young Robert Duncan & Louis Zukofsky, torn from a Poetry Society of America publication, stare down at now as I type. Check out this history of the press and, while you’re at the site, marvel at the galleries of photographs.


Back in 1999, Sylvester Pollet published Amuse-Gueules for Bemused Ghouls in his Backwoods Broadsides Chaplet series. It’s the most recent Williams I have on hand. As I read “La Grande Cuisine Corniche,” I’m happy to report that, as that one line poem aptly attests, Williams unique combination of ear & wit is as vigorous as ever:


soggy ratty tatty oggy






* Indeed, it was recognizing the Jonathan Williams’ influence that first made it possible for me to really get into Coolidge’s work, realizing that it was not, as Robert Sward once charged, mere psychedelic word salad.


** In my mind, I inevitably pair it with Grenier’s famous ”Wintry,” which ends


oh vell I, oh well, I

well I don’t know

oh, vell, I don’t know


Ah yah

ah, yah


a sod hut


*** Check out the options for Daedalist in Microsoft Word’s spell check!