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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