Sunday, February 10, 2008

Jonathan Williams, poet

Jonathan Williams, poet. He is an entertaining array of other things too -- biographer, raconteur, chronicler, photographer; a publisher of other poets, of whom R. Buckminster Fuller remarked "he is our Johnny Appleseed, we need him more than we know" -- he introduces poets to poets, poets to readers, professors to poets, poets (this a perilous business) to professors. Since the 1970s, The Jargon Society is his one-man publishing venture. He is also a traveler, hiker, botanist, antiquarian, epicure, and much else if we want to look at the poet rather than the poetry. And so, too quickly, to the poetry, before the poet gets in our line of sight.

Beauty, poets have taught us, is the king's daughter and the milkmaid, the nightingale and the rose, the wind, a Greek urn, the autumn moon, the sea when it looks like wine. None of which appear often in the confusion of our world. Perhaps all too rarely poets keep to their traditional loyalties, and Williams sometimes obliges:
dawn songs in the dews of young orange trees;
and raging orisons; and wordless longings
sung in tranquility's waters sliding in sun's
and benisons sung in these trees ...
That is Williams meditating on the music of Frederick Delius. The language for talking to Delius is Delius; and what if the poet wants to talk back to the TV set? Williams makes room for the blues -- a vernacular with its own special way of expressing eloquent dismay:
Woke up this mornin'
Cape Canaveral can't get it up ...
Woke up this mornin'
Cape Canaveral can't get it up ...

But sent a cable to Great Venus --
told her, better watch her ass!

"Unvarnished bride of quietness,"
blasts off in my head ...
"Unvarnished bride of quietness,"
blasts off in my head ...
Liable to be a whole lot more people
than just John Keats dead!
Williams finds his poetic grist in the stars as well as ourselves, to twist a Shakesperian line, and he's not one to shy away from other masters to whom he's listened with care. Ezra Pound is Williams's "familiar compound ghost," and appears to Charles Olson ("let the song lie in the thing," from "Some Southpaw Pitching"). There is an echo in that from another, William Carlos Williams -- no relation -- who insisted "no ideas but in things." To let the world speak for itself, Jonathan Williams learned to make such poems as this:
Mister Williams
lets youn me move
tother side of the house
the woman
choppin woods
might nigh the awkwardest thing
I seen
The title to this poem is a verbal gesture, alerting us to cock our ears: "Uncle Iv Surveys His Domain from His Rocker of a Sunday Afternoon as Aunt Dory Starts to Chop Kindling." The poem defines a culture, an eccentricity only to those whose lives are not defined by the living of it. Jonathan Williams writes poetry as trim and economical as a tree. Like a tree his poems have hidden roots, exist against a background, and convert light into energy. The tree and the poem take their shape not only from inner design, but also from the weather and their circumstance.

Jonathan Williams, poet, is a Southerner by birth but by no means a parochial one, and a wanderer too. What Williams finds in England, Wales, and Scotland (as well as Spillville, Iowa: "between Eldorado and Jericho/west of/US 52") is not a second heritage but one in which he was raised from the beginning. He's aware of this heritage because he is consciously adding to it, a tangled American idiom largely untraced in and out of officially-sanctioned literature and art. His long zig-zag trips can easily be explained by noting he is a publisher of books unwelcome to commercial publishers, and by the fact that to know artists and poets of a certain stripe, one has to travel to the smallest of American towns. He persists, because that's where the poetry is.

These are days, Williams aims to mean, that reading is still a way of communication, even if "the figure of 85 genuine poetry readers seems much too high to me." This is assuming that one has taught oneself to find the book one needs to read; it's not easy. No medium can replace what may be an essential need for the poet: an audience. Homer recited his poems to an audience; they at least passed around wine. Chaucer read his poems in warm, firelit rooms. Every line of Shakespeare was written to move a paying audience. The next time you read a slack, obscure convoluted poem, reflect that it was written in an age when printing has replaced recitation. Remember too that the best poetry still resounds in the inner ear as much as it appeals to the scanning eye. Thousands of people have heard poetry for every five readers who know it on the printed page. A poetry collection, like An Ear in Bartram's Tree, is an offering to that charming fiction known as the reading public, best to be read out loud.
solid, common, vulgar words
the ones you can touch,
the ones that yield
and a respect for the music . . .

what else can you tell 'em?

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