Wednesday, January 4, 2012

An April Fool's-type test from Jonathan Williams

Jonathan Williams (1929-2008), that Jack-of-all-verse from Skywinding Farms up among the Franklinia there in the North Carolina hills, liked to remind us that poets and poetry are a force beyond all abilities to quantify or explain, but with a powerful ability to entertain and amuse. Williams will be gone up country four years already this next April, but a good well-meant jibe in the service of education is always worth repeating. His laughter resounds.


(JW gave this test to his Wake Forest University students, April 2nd, 1973)

If you have read the various epistles I have been passing out, been attending class and evening hoe-downs, and digesting slowly the books I have recommended to you, then you might be expected to answer the following questions. Have a go!!!

(1) In tracing the background of Ragtime, I stressed two composers with French backgrounds (one frog, one cajun), and one black pianist from Texarkana, Arkansas. Who are they? Please spell them correctly.

(2) Ezra Pound and Louis Zukofsky concur that the pleasures of poetry are three. I.e., they are the supreme qualities of what three faculties brought to bear upon the words?

(3) What has President Nixon brought us?

(4) What Japanese haiku-master wrote a travel journal which can be considered indispensable to all poets, particularly those studying with Jonathan Williams this very month?

(5) What are your five favorite architectural structures, or landscapes, or wilderness areas?
(6) What drunkard’s last half-dollar climbs, with how sad feet, the sky over town?

(7) List 10 poems that stick in your head. From Homer on down. If you can’t remember the names of 10 favorite poems, then we are wasting our time...

(8) What does the title
An Ear in Bartram’s Tree mean?

(9) What spring flowers (or birds or flowering trees) have given you pleasure recently? Name at least ten. Use local names, not scientific ones, when you can.

(10) Why did you not come to see the films of James Broughton or hear him read his poems? One student said he didn’t like to be intimidated by people from the outside—an honest answer, if a deplorable one. I do not take poetry casually, I admit to being bemused by people who do, and I am always interested in such ticklish matters. (I sometimes think that the students in Winston are spoon-fed, much too comfortable, and more than a little vague. I have been known to be wrong...) The School of the Arts, Wake Forest, Reynolda House, and I spent $500 to bring him here; and Mr. Broughton travelled hundreds of miles for the occasion. The arts are a community and we owe each other attention, especially when we are as accomplished as JB.**
(** from question 10: Those who did not come to Trap Hill today, Sunday, April 1st, for the centenary celebration of Sergei Vassilievich Rachmaninov (1873-1973) missed a very fine afternoon of music, beer, and warm, sunny weather—the Lewis’s waterfall was at its best. You got no chill at all after swimming because the wind was warm. The only people who accepted my invitation were friends from Penland School, who had to drive 3 hours (one way) up the Blue Ridge Parkway from Spruce Pine. This occasion assures me that it is silly to schedule any more such events for the benefit of Laodicean & Midianite students with an advanced case of the Mississippi-Fat-Ass. The hike on the Appalachian Trail (April 14-15) may be enjoyed by whomever, but don’t ask me a thing about it. Find Mt. Rogers, Virginia for yourself. Nothing in life is more dangerous in life than expressing, or expecting, enthusiasm.)

(11) I have said on many occasions that a course in reading and writing could perhaps be better taught as manners or decorum. I.e., that craft, in large part, consists of being receptive, democratic, ecological and in not thinking that the world rises and sets in our own private anal orifice. Do you agree? More particularly, do you see that poetry can sometimes be the making of refined art objects, not simply forms of therapy, self-expression and gunning for people?

(12) Bucky Fuller says: “The possibility of the good life for any man depends on the possibility of realizing it for all men. And this is a function of society’s ability to turn the energies of the
universe to human advantage.” Buck Johnson says: “Music is to make people happy!” Francis Bacon says he wants: “ make the mind of men, by the help of art, a match for the nature of things.” Comment, very briefly, on one of these three; or, give us your own basic definition of why poetry is worth writing and reading.

(13) Baker’s-Dozen Question: Just what does Mae West mean when she says: “Use what’s lyin’ around the house!”?

If the 13 questions strike you as preposterous or silly or hopeless, then either you haven’t been paying attention or I have been assuming you were capable of study without being belabored and yelled at. I am certainly willing to take some of the blame, since I lead my life among people who are working artists and not people at the beginning of careers, with various vague ambitions, whims, fancies, etc. You can write me a paper on this subject if you care to. I like cards face-up, on the table... If you get through this period of three or four months and feel more encouraged than discouraged, that is actually quite a lot. If poetry just isn’t worth it to you, then by all means get a job selling tires, insurance, or Judo & Karate for Christ. Orpheus will respect your decision.

(Jonathan Williams, from the website of The Jargon Society: Musings for the Season, Late Spring, 2002)

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