Thursday, May 22, 2008

Jonathan Williams: a discovery and a loss

Yesterday as I was reading a blog named Nomadics by the poet Pierre Joris, I happened to come upon a write-up in memorial to the passing of the poet and publisher, Jonathan Williams. In the post, Joris writes:

"The pleasure dome of American poetry," he once called his friend, the poet Robert Kelly – a description that fits Jonathan to a t. He was a student of Charles Olson at Black Mountain, but dedicated his first book to Louis Zukofsky, though he will probably be seen more the spiritual son of William Carlos Williams – no poet of his or any generation since then has had as fine an ear for American speech as JW, nor been able to score that speech on the page with greater accuracy of tone and phrasing. And between writing what must come to about 2000 poems, he managed to found & keep alive for more then half a century one of the greatest poetry presses in this country, Jargon Books, which published over a hundred handsomely printed books.

Being a fan of Olson and William Carlos Williams and poetry that tries to capture the joy and beauty of our lives, as well as a fan of small presses, I was intrigued and went to the Jargon Books site, where I found a wonderful essay called "A Snowflake Orchard & What I Found There," by Jeffery Beam.

The essay did a wonderful job of describing Williams and his small but influential press. Some excerpts:

Whether celebrating backwood visionaries or oddly precious examples of contemporary art, Jargon endures as a mother-lode of the essential. Enduring art not only affirms what is best within us, but also illuminates the dizzying variety of forms, destroying all illusions that what is Other, seemingly alien, is outside us. Jargon aims to show that what is there, is there, and that no amount of fancy word play, paint manipulation, or back-slapping can prove otherwise. The result constantly reminds me that for every artist hailed and recognized for her or his work, another hundred languish unlauded by the force of the current. . . .

At Skywinding [where Williams lived in North Carolina], Art (read Freshness) counts for something. What transpires inside this world reflects the natural world outside. No politics, no backslapping and bribery to muddle the words. No greed or prostitution or pollution to sour the voice. Only the human ache to make something of worth which stands on its own, and which instructs and deepens the quality of Being. Cleansing and lifting up. Elite/Elate.

Reading this led me to Jeffery Beams webpage, where I read a number of his poems, liking in particular, "I Have Never Wanted."

I have also listened to the two readings of Jonathan Williams that are archived on Pennsound, and read this lovely interview of him by Jeffery Beam.

What a lovely journey and what wonderful discoveries. I look forward to ordering Jonathan Williams', Jubilant Thicket: New and Selected Poems, and to continue to read more of Jeffery Beam as well. And in keeping track of Jargon Books as it begins the difficult transition with the passing of its founder and champion.

As the title of this post implies, I am very happy to have discovered the work of Jonathan Williams, but feel that it is a great loss that I did not discover him earlier.

1 comment:

GSK+ said...

I've thought many times how diminished my imaginative life (lives?) would have been had I not found, fairly early on, the 2 great/historic anthologies, "The New American Poetry" & "A Controversy of Poets". What also strikes me is that, while "Postmodern" was birthed in such poetry/poetics (Olson is often credited with the term) -- it has turned out to be the poets, eg, the faith-full scribings of such as Koch & Williams & Snyder, etal, which has held the line at the degradation of our prose which often seems to be pomo's most-enduring contribution....