Jonathan Williams (1929-2008)

So Jonathan Williams, poet & gentleman, bon vivant & wit extraordinaire, walker of great distances and smoker of cigars, photographer of poets’ graves and collector of all things popular & earthy, resident of Ashville NC and Dentdale, Cumbria, lover of John Ireland and Nono (& Slow-Drag, Creole George Guenon, One-Eyed Babe Philips, Jelly Roll Mortyon, Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson, not to mention Chopin, Elgar, Satie, Brahms, Mahler, & a hundred other composers), champion of the avant-garde and connaisseur of the arrière pays, has called it splitsville. This is a major loss for his friends (my heart goes out to Thomas Meyer, his companion for 40 years) and for poetry – & not only American poetry. JW was an ambassador to the world. If he is often called a neglectorino, he is that due to the abysmal state of Kulchur in this country today, but he is much more: a poet who published some fifty books of his work (see partial bibliography here) and went about the job of writing and publishing with absolute grace and seriousness, but without irritable reach after publicity and warholian fame. “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.

I will keep rereading his work – not only those wonderful hilarious gems in, say Elite/Elate, that make him pun’s persnickety pundit, the meta-fours’ switch hitter, the metamorphodite’s southpaw anchorite, but also those less “typical” other poems, such as the improvisations on listening to Mahler, or the Elegies. And I will cherish the memories of the times spent together, especially those days in Dentdale, around the dinner table, when, after the magnificent meal Tom had cooked, the dishes were cleared away, and Jonathan broke out the single-malt to lubricate Basil Bunting’s tongue (Basil a semi-permanent house guest in those days) and get him to tell yet again how he won WWII single-handedly, with Jonathan chiming in and spurring his guests on to ever greater feats of loco logodaedalist exertions – and we would sit until late at night, doing that most human of things: enjoying the company of those with whom we love to break bread, share a glass of spirits and talk. Adieu, old friend!

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  1. girl says:

    hello. i wanted to let you know charles plymell sent me to yr blog and i am enjoying each and every one of yr posts. as a collective, they are wonderful blogs you’ve posted and i’ll visit often.

    cheers-
    ginger killian eades

  2. jeff says:

    Nice appreciation of Jonathan, Pierre. He and Tom, though, lived not in Asheville, but in Highlands, about an hour and a quarter west, and much more mountainous country than city – though wherever Jonathan was he took with him the trappings of urbanity and his own rich culture; his home was an ark of delights.

  3. Jeffery Beam says:

    Dear Pierre, thanks for posting this. I’ll be in Scaly Mountain with Tom as of tomorrow for the weekend and I know he will be pleased by it and the other blogs that have appeared. In truth, Jonathan and Tom lived at Skywinding Farm in Scaly Mountain, NC a good ten miles south on those lustrous mountain roads from Highlands. I had the pleasure only for a week back in the early 80s of the contentments of the Dentdale table, but for almost 25 years many many meals, no better described than you have done, in Scaly. I feel such a ragged hole in all things at the moment. But, as Jonathan would have said, the work abides. I was looking through the quotes from Jonathan I’ve collected over the years and today this one seems right: “I love sweet-corn thoughts.”

  4. jeff says:

    Thanks to Jeffrey for further specifying the location of Scaly Mountain. I stopped with Highlands because it’s on the map, and Scaly Mountain isn’t – yet, though it should be. Maybe one day it’ll be a literary historic site, like Walden Pond or the home of Thomas Wolfe. Would Jonathan appreciate the humor of that? I think so.

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