Jonathan Williams: The Lord of Orchards

JW-Lord

A little late to the party but hugely glad to finally arrive, I’ve been immersed in Jonathan Williams: The Lord of Orchards, edited by Jeffery Beam and Richard Owens.[1] This ‘memorial festschrift’ briefly brought to mind an earlier example, Madeira & Toasts for Basil Bunting’s 75th Birthday, edited by Williams himself, which gathered prose and poetry (and illustrations and music) from almost a hundred writers and artists, published by the Jargon Society and with a cover (a pastel portrait of Bunting) by R. B. Kitaj. But none of those contributions was more than three pages long and most were less than a page, whereas this book of ‘essays, images, and shouts’ (xiv) is not only a good deal heftier, not far short of 500 pages, but also includes substantial studies of several aspects of Williams’ life and work, and is thus perhaps more reminiscent of the ‘Person and Poet’ series of often ground-breaking volumes produced by the National Poetry Foundation (https://personandpoet.wordpress.com/ ).[2]

‘Heft’ is an apposite word, in fact, with its cluster of meanings, some obsolete or archaic, some dialect, ‘weight’, ‘ability or influence’—and one alternative reading ‘a number of sheets fastened together: an instalment of a serial publication.’ Apposite for Jonathan Williams, to be sure. Polumetis—‘many-minded’, versatile—was one of the stock epithets for Odysseus, which Ezra Pound took over and lavished also upon Sigismondo Malatesta; and Williams possessed, and displayed, that versatility in spades, a versatility not only of cultural activities and poetic forms but in his range of reference, from the Greek and Latin classics to Appalachian eavesdropping.

Divided into four sections—‘Remembering’, ‘Responding’, ‘Reviewing’ and ‘Recollecting’—and concluding with two invaluable checklists, of Jargon Society titles and of Williams’s own publications, this volume explores and celebrates that many-minded Williams in a rich array of prose, poetry and, appropriately, illustration—Williams was a superb photographer. There is an extraordinary gallery of images, both of and by Williams, some truly memorable (and also offering a splendid selection of Williams’ hats). A good number of the contributors to Williams’ festschrift for Bunting are represented here too, among them Robert Kelly, Ronald Johnson, Simon Cutts, Eric Mottram, Guy Davenport, Thomas Meyer and Bunting himself.

JW-Jubilant

The last three sections include extensive, thoroughly-researched essays: on Williams and Black Mountain; on Williams’ poetic practice and, more specifically, on ‘metafours’, the form that he invented, refined and extended through several books—‘Williams proves there is always something new under the sun. And that the new is usually found in the glory of the remaindered old’ (195)—and on Williams the photographer. Tom Patterson considers Williams’ long and dynamic engagement with the visual arts: he was a significant collector of folk or vernacular art and, in a talk transcribed here, says that a lot of his poetry of the last ten or fifteen years has been ‘involved with what they call these days, I guess, “outsider art” or “self-taught art” or “naïve art” or . . . Again, it’s essentially people who live in the country who make things’ (416). Patterson’s lengthy essay on this ‘involvement’ details Williams’ discovery of the potter Lanier Meaders and the wood sculptor Edgar Tolson, listing, at one point, nearly forty other ‘self-taught artists’ from Williams’ native region from whom he’d acquired pieces for his collection, not only buying from them but meeting and talking with them too. Much of this was field work connected with the Southern Visionary Folk Art Project though the resultant manuscript, Walks to the Paradise Garden, remained unpublished (338-339).

‘The essential thing in a poet is that he build us his world’, Ezra Pound wrote in 1915.[3] It’s striking just how often the word or the sense of that scope and reach arises in this book. In his introduction, Beam refers to ‘the Jonathan who collected the world and offered it to anyone willing and capable of responding’ (xiii). Guy Davenport points to ‘a long and distinguished history of poets who have balanced a love affair and a feud with the world’, and comments a little later: ‘A pattern of artists emerge—Blake, Ives, Nielsen, Samuel Palmer, Bruckner—and (if we have our eyes open) a whole world’ (118, 120). Kenneth Irby writes that Williams’ is ‘a contemplative poetry, attentive upon the entire world before the clear senses’ and further comments: ‘It is very much a poetry of what Ford Madox Ford called, in that neglected masterpiece, England and the English (1907), assoupissement, “a bathing in the visible world”’ (225).[4] The poet Thomas Meyer, Williams’ partner for forty years, remarks: ‘Here is a man for whom the world cannot be the world until it is palpable, until it can be handled. Or is itself a “handle”’ (247). ‘He has made a great motion in the world’, Vic Brand observes, ‘in his goings and comings, on foot and by car across America’ (278). And Williams himself, in the ‘Foreword’ to his beautiful collection of photographs and extended captions (or mini-essays) A Palpable Elysium, pronounced: ‘So, finally, what we have here is a “Home-Made World,” to use Hugh Kenner’s term.’[5]

The main impressions—either new or enhanced—that I take away from this remarkable collection are, firstly, the truly multifarious nature of Williams’ activities and enthusiasms. ‘His wide-ranging passions and interests were omnivorous. Literature, photography, hiking, food & wine, folk art, music were just a few of his serious preoccupations’ (Jonathan Greene, 202)—and he means serious: Williams’ knowledge of these things was deep and detailed. Jeffery Beam, friend and colleague of Williams for almost three decades, writes that ‘his work of more than half a century is such that no one activity or identity takes primacy over any other—seminal small press publisher of the Jargon Society; poet; book designer; editor; photographer; legendary correspondent; literary, art, and photography critic and collector; early collector and proselytizer of visionary folk art; cultural anthropologist and Juvenalian critic; curmudgeon; happy gardener; resolute walker; and keen and adroit raconteur and gourmand’ (xiii). That ‘resolute walker’ takes in the Appalachian Trail (close to 1500 miles, walked with poet Ronald Johnson over some four months) and later the fells and dales of Cumbria and Yorkshire, while the ‘legendary correspondent’ kept up an average of fifty letters a week for fifty years.

Secondly, I’d say, a much better grasp of Williams’ complex relationship with the Black Mountain poets (so many of whom he published and, often, launched), the subject of Ross Hair’s thirty-page essay: Williams’ strong admiration for Charles Olson coupled with his understanding that, ‘You ran a risk being a student of his of being kind of smothered’ (393). Hair is very good on the paradox of Black Mountain College’s being so liberal and advanced in many ways while still strikingly conservative in its gender politics and the prevailing view of the men as ‘shakers and makers’, while women ‘cooked the cornbread and made children and kept quiet’ (Williams, quoted, 138).

JW-Blackbird

Thirdly, the Jargon Society’s irrefutable importance in the history of American literature in the second half of the twentieth century: look at the authors of the first twenty Jargon titles, famous now but many or most of them far from famous then. Apart from Williams (volumes of his own poetry as well as his calligraphy and photographs deployed in several others), they include Oppenheimer, Patchen, Olson, Creeley, Zukofsky, Duncan, Levertov, McClure – and Henry Miller, Mina Loy and Paul Metcalf are just around the corner, as are introductions by William Carlos Williams and Kenneth Rexroth. Nor are we seeing only the names of writers: here are Robert Rauschenberg, Paul Ellsworth, Dan Rice, René Laubiès, Aaron Siskind – and drawings by Miller, Patchen and Fielding Dawson.

Fourthly, the extent of Williams’ enthusiasm for the chance encounter, the overheard remark, the glimpsed roadside sign, the ready-made. One of his favourite quotations (and one cited several times by other contributors here) is from John Clare: ‘I found these poems in the fields and only wrote them down.’ Jim Cory asserts that, more than any other poet in the postmodern schools descending from the Pound–William Carlos Williams line, Jonathan Williams ‘made the found poem central to his enterprise’, believing that ‘discovery was at least half the process of creation’ (197). As far back as the Black Mountain years, Hair points to Williams sharpening his ears on local speech at Ma Peak’s Tavern, three miles from the college: ‘The beer joint in Hicksville, USA should never be underestimated’ (Williams quoted, 156). Eric Mottram quotes Williams (in the London Times, 1970) saying that, ‘Poetry to me is a kind of field—a place in which things happen’ (187-188).[6] Their happening requires a democratic openness, a quickness of response and recording, a detailed memory—but, above all, attention. ‘It is the life of attention which is life itself for the Epicurean, the panoply of detail and experience’, Thomas Meyer writes. ‘Pay attention. Close attention. Is his credo. / For attention is the highest form of delight’ (250). As Williams himself said, ‘I don’t make much distinction. I like to find things, and then I like to make things. I don’t particularly like to make up things. I just like to make things, and they’re usually things that I’ve found—either signs or conversation or words out of some stranger’s mouth, which struck me as terrific’ (383).

JW-Palpable

Fifthly, the extent of his concern to commemorate and celebrate those—poets and others—who have gone on to Elysium. Gary Carden remembers that Williams ‘was fond of addressing his dead friends, saying things like, “If there is a flight out of the Elysian Fields tonight, old friend, I’ll pick you up at the airport.”’ (49). And Guy Davenport described Williams as not only ‘the iconographer of poets in our time’ but also ‘of the places and graves of poets gone on to Elysium’ (111).[7] Indeed, some of the most resonant photographs in A Palpable Elysium are of the many and varied graves: Jelly Roll Morton, Kenneth Grahame (‘who passed the river on the 6th of July 1932’), Erik Satie, Wallace Stevens, Rachmaninoff, Charlie Parker, Vincent and Theo Van Gogh in Auvers-sur-Oise, E. E. Cummings and H. P. Lovecraft, James Thurber, Edgar Tolson (‘the Woodcarver’) and the mausoleum of Walt Whitman.

Attention and death— they come together in Tom Meyer’s elegant and often intensely moving poem Kintsugi. Robert Kelly, in his foreword, notes that, ‘When we are that close, so close that the whole of one’s attention is given to that person who is going away, love means little more than paying attention’ (98). Meyer writes:

Walk into a room.
Not know where I am.
Once it was Love
had me so distracted.
Now it’s Death. (103)

As soon as I came across Jeffery Beam, in his introduction to this print edition, quoting a 1991 letter from Williams that starts by recommending Alan Judd’s fine biography of Ford Madox Ford, I knew that the omens were good, at least for this reader. And so it proved, to a greater extent than I’ve managed to outline here – and a sense of Williams’ real significance is brought into sharp relief by the extraordinary range and variety of the contributors gathered in The Lord of Orchards, to remember, bear witness, respond, review and celebrate the poet, the publisher, the photographer and the man.

In his 2007 interview with Beam’s co-editor, Richard Owens, Jonathan Williams remarked of Lorine Niedecker: ‘It’s hard to imagine people not being interested in her but most people do manage not to be interested and it continues on’ (367). Most people do so manage and it does continue on – but it’s at least as hard to imagine anybody with an interest in Jonathan Williams, or Charles Olson and the other Black Mountain poets, or small press publishing, or Anglo-American literature from the 1940s to now, not finding a great deal of intense and lasting interest—and enjoyment—here.

 
References

[1] Jonathan Williams: The Lord of Orchards, edited by Jeffery Beam and Richard Owens. ISBN 978-1-63226-087-1. Westport and New York: Prospecta Press, 2017. The title is taken from Williams’ ‘Symphony No. 2 in C Minor’, v (‘Scherzo tempo: all stops out’): ‘The Lord of Orchards/ selects his fruits/ in the Firmament’s/ breast’. See Jubilant Thicket: New & Selected Poems (Port Townsend, Washington: Copper Canyon Press, 2005), 61. The book is an expansion of the feature on Williams which appeared in late 2009 in the online journal Jacket: http://jacketmagazine.com/38/index.shtml#jw

[2] Sensibly amalgamated from the earlier ‘Man and Poet’ (William Carlos Williams, Eliot, Bunting, Zukofsky, Bunting) and ‘Woman and Poet’ (Mina Loy, Lorine Niedecker, H. D., May Sarton, Marianne Moore).

[3] Pound, ‘Hark to Sturge Moore’, Poetry, VI, 3 (June 1915), 140. The line was used as epigraph to ‘Part One’ of Ezra Pound, Selected Prose 1909-1965, edited by William Cookson (London: Faber and Faber, 1973), 19.

[4] Indeed he does, in The Soul of London (1905): see England and the English, edited by Sara Haslam (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2003), 75.

[5] Jonathan Williams, A Palpable Elysium: Portraits of Genius and Solitude, introduction by Guy Davenport (Boston: David R. Godine, 2002), 10. The Hugh Kenner book referred to is A Homemade World: The American Modernist Writers (1975).

[6] This may recall William Carlos Williams’ ‘The Poem as a Field of Action’ (1948) – ‘we here must listen to the language for the discoveries we hope to make’: Selected Essays (New York: New Directions, 1969), 290.

[7] In his ‘Introduction’ to A Palpable Elysium, Davenport notes of Williams: ‘It is his opinion (in conversation) that lots of people who think they are alive are actually dead’ (11).