Tuesday, March 18, 2008
Jonathan Williams, 1929 – 2008
Education is a rhizomatic affair – or at least mine has been, a matter of following leads in all directions, running down stray references & following intriguing names. I can date one of my own most important introductions to 20th-century writing to around 1985 or '86, when Tom Gardner handed me his copy of Guy Davenport's The Geography of the Imagination, knowing I was interested in Pound, & said "I think you'll enjoy some of these essays." To say the least. I think I've followed up maybe two-thirds of the scores of leads Guy proffered in that collection: one of them, Louis Zukofsky, has proved personally & professionally absorbing; another, the poet, publisher, photographer, & all-round cultural cheerleader Jonathan Williams, turned out to be almost a fruitful as Davenport himself.
I was lucky, reading Guy's essay on this latter-day backwoods North Carolina Catullus, to be at Virginia Tech. One of the art professors there, Ray Kass, was a member of the foundation of the Jargon Society, Jonathan's exquisite publishing outfit (does one need to run thru the names he published?: Zukofsky, Olson, Ronald Johnson, Mina Loy, Lorine Niedecker, Paul Metcalf, among many others), & Jonathan was wont to make Blacksburg a stop on whatever promotional tour he was pursuing, whether he was showing slides he'd made of British poets' gravesites or curating shows of wacko-spiritualist-outsider artists. (He knew Howard Finster before R.E.M. & the Talking Heads had ever heard of him.) I was walking downtown one day when I almost ran into the tall figure I recognized from the jacket photo of Rues & Bluets/Blues & Roots. "You're Jonathan Williams," I said; "Why yes I am, young man," he replied, "And do you know where I can buy a cigar?" A year or two later my then girlfriend bought a copy of his Portrait Photographs, where I first saw the stunning portrait of Zukofsky that I sometimes imagined might one day appear on a book of mine. (That particular imagining came true – tho Shoemaker & Hoard, quite rightly, opted to put the rather benign full-face photo on the front cover of The Poem of a Life, reserving my own favorite – the mantis-like profile – for the back cover and frontispiece.)
I bought practically every Jargon book I could find, & have collected JW's own books for over two decades. (My copy of Get Hot or Get Out was purchased in a Memphis boutique called "Men of Leather," & was probably the only volume of poetry on display among the chaps, codpieces, & motorcycle boots.) His recent career-spanning Copper Canyon volume, Jubilant Thicket, is a treasury of well-wrought, funny, & sometimes spectacularly indecent poems, a book that just gets better & better as one reads & rereads.
I had known Jonathan was in declining health (tho his letters to me in re/ the LZ biography-in-progress were models of Williamsesque jauntiness), but I was surprised & deeply saddened to learn – from a comment by Don Share to, & then a last-minute revision of, Ron Silliman's post today on the essay collection Blackbird Dust – that Jonathan had died. It is of course a great loss to American poetry. It feels like a personal loss to me, a severing of the last link between my own experience of poetry & that generation of heroic post-war modernists (LZ, Olson, etc.). My father's generation is dying around me: Guy Davenport, Robert Creeley, & now Jonathan Williams.