Jonathan Williams
Middle Creek Falls, NC 1975
Photograph by Shelley Brown

gathered from the Quote Gatherer himself

There is little about America that isn’t appalling. People seem greedier than ever, dumber than ever, more deranged and dangerous than ever. They don’t want you playing in their sandbox. I once had a witty friend in New York named Jimmy Spicer. He sighed one day and said that, try as he could, he could not think of a single living human being he would want to know. Perhaps all you can do is keep your head down, try to be kinder, and follow the suggestion of Mother Ann Lee, founder of the Shakers: “Go home, and take good care of what you have. Provide places for your things, so that you may know where to find them at any time, by day or night. Maybe we have only yesterday’s street or a ring of trees on a hill, some daily sight left us?”

To me—Americans are notoriously without reverence for their beginnings, live in terror of Big Daddy, and cop out with no rites or care for the land of their inheritance

I would not want to live in a place where the postmaster couldn’t call you by your first name. Highlands still works that way. (Where else could you be hailed daily by friendly mountain people behind the counter with names like Scratch Reese and Skeeter Cleveland?) And so does Dentdale, the English village in the Cumbrian mountains where I flee now and then when I’ve had all I can stand of virulent consumerism and religious fanatics in general.

I am a bourgeois living in the country -- a bourgeois bourgeoisiophobe. I have no more need of society than society has need of me. Santayana got it right when he said that he had no time for society, politics, money, or power. Religion is what he did with his solitude -- and it was nobody’s business but his own. The same is true of writing. The way to write is well, and how is nobody’s business.

I live in Highlands, North Carolina, “Highest Incorporated Town in Eastern America,” and one of the chief reasons I do is that I know where lam there. If someone asks, “How far is Highlands from New York,” I reply, “Oh, about a hundred days.” That is how long it took me to hike from Springer Mountain, Georgia, to Bear Mountain on the Hudson along the Appalachian Trail. I hear the hornets buzzing, get on with it, get on with it! But, you do not hurry here in Appalachia. It is considered uncultivated. I have stood many an hour while my neighbor, Uncle Iv Owens, prognosticated tomorrow’s weather. Why not? Old Walt told us: “Loaf, and invite the Soul.”

We live in a world of infinite chitchat about artworks that leave the participants in this universe of discourse thinking they are indubitably superior to the images of simple -minded photographers.

Whether it’s poetry or photography or visionary folk-art or persons themselves, I love things that are “bright-eyed, non-uppity, autochthonous, wacko, private, isolate, unconventional, unpaved, non-commercial, non-nice, naive, outside, fantastic, sub-aesthetic, home-style and bushy-tailed.”

Poets are the bane of the sober and righteous. They are idiots and nuts just like photographers, and equally wary of writing down words like chthonic, hagiographic, and decontextualization, even though they know approximately what they mean.

Poets and photographers do not necessarily believe in public audiences or constituencies. They believe in persons, with affection for what they see and hear. They believe in that despised, un-contemporary emotion: tenderness.

Poets are forever seeing things, whether Angels in trees, or just things written on the sides of buses like ‘Jesus Saves & Satisfies. Are You?’ Poets are forever hearing things—’always the deathless music!’ I like to catch people speaking ‘poems’ who never heard of the word poet in their lives. It has been my business, along with others (W. C. Williams, Louis Zukofsky, Lorine Niedecker) to try to raise ‘the common’ to grace; to pay very close attention to the earthy. I no more write for ‘nice’ people that I do for ‘common’ ones. I make poems for the people who want them.

That the word, not anything the word is tied to, is the only substantiality to be discovered in a poem gave Mallarmé ecstatic shivers; to command words’ potencies was to oversee magic; to let them take the initiative was to set in motion glitterings “like a trail of fire upon precious stones.”

New Directions was the model that I needed in 1951 when I started, just one generation after it did (i.e., fifteen years). Laughlin went to Choate and dropped out of Harvard. I went to St. Albans and dropped out of dreaded Princeton. We both like living in High Celtic/Hebraic countryside. We are both easily satisfied by the very best, a requirement defined by the late W S. Churchill. New Directions, in JL’s words: “ absolutely selfish, self- centered, egotistical undertaking it has always been. I did what pleased me or what pleased my friends and what my friends could convince me was worth doing.”

True, absolutely true, ever since I saw Fantasia in 1939 at the age of ten. It was just like Dorothy when she landed in Munchkin Land and opened the door of the farmhouse-- everything out there was suddenly in Technicolor. Who knows, maybe it was just glands? Maybe it was the first shot of testosterone clicking in?

I’m much too pagan and not enough Christian-From-Hell to handle all of this. I can’t even remember whether the lousy hamburgers at Wendy’s are square or round. Boobus americanus and the barbarians are way past the gates, my friend. They are already on the third floor, breaking down the attic door. To have a viable civilization, people have to have a benign government, a semblance of education, spare time, imagination, and manners. Point them out, please. Such citizens I will invite to sit on the porch and serve them good bourbon whiskey and the finest branch water from the spring on our mountain. We’ll talk about God and the price of toweling-- of ships and shoes and sealing-wax, of cabbages (Scaly Mountain cabbage is the best!) and kings, of why the sea is boiling hot, and whether pigs have wings...

I had made a choice, to betray the Middleclass in favor of something called Art.

Families are the most arcane of institutions -- who learns anything from them? The skeletons stay in the closets; the young never get the facts. Who is really interested in an uncle who is a judge, or cousins who practice law or run the barbershop or the newsstand? We make our own ancestors.

But, after all this time, what interests me a lot too is why I dropped out of Princeton University and ended up at Black Mountain College? Was I certifiably nuts? Was I simply a ‘loser’? Was I merely paying my conservative Southern parents back for their heavy investment in upward family mobility by turning out queer, disinterested in money and economic competition, disinterested in guns. A more pleasant interpretation (at least for me) would be to say that by the age of 19 1 simply felt like a fugitive from what they call Modern American Life. I wanted a literary vocation and I wanted to be part of a community of a few like-minded people— a few idiots, the Greeks would have called them, not members of the body politic. A few caitiffs, loners, and self-initiators.

The undergraduates at Princeton after the war were a gelid bunch, bored by learning, arrogant in their financial security and social status. You would have thought with men like Ernest De Wald, De Tolnay, Kurt Weitzmann, George Rowley, Erwin Panofsky in the Art History Department, I could suffer in relative silence for a few undergraduate years and then find a place in the basement of the Morgan Library, writing on Byzantine iconographic complexities and 1 2th-century stone carving, things I love to this day. But, my classmates! So decorticated and de-juiced. James Baker was a year after; George Bush and Bill Buckley were up at Yale. Did I really want to spend a lifetime with them in boardrooms, faculty clubs, country clubs, chatting with industrialists and bankers, huntin’ and fishin’? The answer was no. Guy Davenport says: “Money has no ears, no eyes, no respect; it is all gut, mouth, and ass.” I wanted hot, intense people and they weren’t easily found at that storied campus in New Jersey.

Like the man says, I couldn’t sell ice to an Eskimo. We have taken such an adversary position for so long that we are stuck in some amber-like limbo. A few persons respect this. Most keep silence and ignore the books sedulously.

I don’t measure up by American standards. I do everything backwards. Or, I don’t do it very well. I’ve never learned how to make money. I hate the agora and the idea of competition. I don’t screw women. I don’t shoot people (not yet, but the temptation grows). These are the classic measurements. I’m the Williams boy. Whuzzat boy do down thar in Scaly Mountain? I suppose I should be locked up in the attic. That’s the way one sometimes feels. Being a good Southern lady, my mother was so embarrassed when I got a Guggenheim, she wouldn’t tell any of her friends. It sounded like what it is, a Jewish word. They wouldn’t quite know what a Guggenheim fellowship was around Macon County, NC. That was kept quiet, along with most of my artistic history. Only gay son, who’s a conscientious objector, who’s a post-modern poet—for lack of a better word—, who’s a hillbilly faggot, who doesn’t make any real money, who doesn’t belong to the country dub, and who doesn’t have grandchildren. I must seem like something straight out of David Koresh. Southern families are masters of making one feel about as good as a plugged nickel.

Outlandish-- the operative word... You recall who the "heathen" were/are? They are the folks who live on the heath, amid the rhododendron and laurel and heather and sand myrtle -- just like me. I live on the heath in both North Carolina and Cumbria: double your trouble! Going back further in time, the Greeks divided the world into the polis, who lived within the city state, and the idioti, who ran wild in the country. I have, finally, thrown my lot in with the idiots. How low the mighty have fallen since the distant days when I danced as a prep-school boy with Jacqueline Bouvier; had my Christmas dinner in 1951 cooked privately by Marlene Dietrich; and had the hand of Sir Anthony Blunt on my knee in Georgetown in 1958. It's been all downhill, friends and neighbors, ever since I took leave of the cosmopolites and took up with the autochthons. This is what happens if you mess about with poetry for ruinous decades and have absolutely nothing to sell to your Mammonite friends. Poetry has no value beyond itself, like clean, clear water when you need it. You lose the urge to compete, to advance a career, to get "ahead"-- all the things we American nobodies are taught in order to become somebodies. It is as simple (and complex) as that. Maybe I feel a little like Dilmus Hall, artist and sculptor of Athens, Georgia, when he was sent over to Europe to be a stretcher bearer in World War I? Dilmus told somebody: "We are from Georgia. We are over here as dumb bells. But I ain't going to be a dumb bell when I go back. I'm going to carry something back from here that I'll be proud of in years to come. So I came back and began to make these different things. The more I would make them, the more I would understand about it. See?"

I like both high culture and low life-- that in theory should extend the possibilities.

One kind of vision should not obliterate another, meaning: the art of the quiet is no less than public yelling and propaganda.

The ultimate urban coup degrace in our time was delivered by Mr. W C. Fields in The Fatal Glass of Beer. Sophisticates of the agora, please note: “City ain’t no place for a woman, though a lot of pretty men go there.” One need not be an eremite, misanthrope, or rube to come into conjunction with this word country, which the dictionary tells us is simply the land lying opposite or before us.

The Valley of the Roaring Fork River is very bright under the blue sky and six inches of fresh snow. The Blau Reiter, my faithful VW-1600 companion, alos carries a six-inch mantel of snow as it leaves Aspen.

It is impossible to know this country.

We have no guidebooks.

At Publix, the big supermarket in the mall west of town (New Smyrna Beach), the best buy on shrimp was the frozen tiger-shrimp from Thailand. The halibut bits turned out to be from Nova Scotia. Avocados have replaced what my grandmother would have called alligator pears. Those were big, buttery, and very succulent. The avocados here today all come from California and as are hard as little green hand-grenades. I nearly asked if the orange juice came from Greenland, but irony is not popular in Florida. Four people know what it is-- and two of them don’t like it.

If you had your choice, would you prefer to live in Erect (pronounced e-rect), North Carolina; Monkey’s Eyebrow, Kentucky; Odd, West Virginia; Hot Coffee, Mississippi; Buzzard Gut, Louisiana; or Finger, Tennessee? Me, I think I’d choose Finger. You could say to people: “Yessiree bob, I live in Finger. All we do all day long is stand around and give each other the finger. We don’t even have time to go to work.” And, of course, it would turn out that all the houses in Finger were built to look like stone fingers, like those tufa cones in Cappadocia in Turkey; and that they were designed by an erotomaniac architect named Claude “Bad Hands” Crawlspace. That means that the next edition of Self-Made Worlds will have to include my hometown and I will get to meet lots of interesting photographers and poets. Having put rocks in our heads and having pawed the ground sufficiently for a writer of Southern extraction, I move on to heavenly things in paragraph two.

A song attributed to one D. Nix on the LP, The Earl Scruggs Review Live at Kansas State, is titled “Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven, / But Nobody Wants to Die.” That works for most of us, rings the gong, and wins the big Kewpie doll.

Art (the Insider kind and the Outsider kind) is one strategy devised by Man the Maker to outlive his body. “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings, look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” proclaims the Ancient Pharoah (Rameses II, in fact) in Shelley’s poem. George Carlin figures the power of the Deity in another way: “My God’s got a bigger dick than your God!” Again, that works for a lot of people. Ozymandias has this phallocentric statue half sunk out there in the lone and level desert sands that stretch far away— and some pilgrims come by and think it’s cool.

"Our bodies are our gardens, to the which our wills are gardeners; either to have it sterile with idleness or manured with industry,” said the Bard of the Warwickshire Avon.

Since the beginning of language every generation has been told: let each man save himself as best he can. Salvation, then. It is accomplished by love — what else to call it? At this point all dichotomies go. There is no I versus what is out there; no subject versus object; no form versus content. The state is called atonement — the words being at-onement. (I find myself using the terminology of religion because it is valid here too.) Before this state is available to the poet, he must be in a condition of grace before his muse, his tongue. The atunement to the language permits the transfer of its total force of sights, sounds, and intellections. I take it that poetry may become a division of oecology. The need, as in all relationships of all the animals, vegetables, and minerals on the plant — and the signs that stand for them — is for awareness of balances, the spaces between them, reverence for what goes next to what, insistence on equality and allowance of differences; i.e. all conditions to make viable connections. Most poets, surely, sense this already, but many readers will want to examine the work of a number of extraordinary generalists who prefigure the world’s next phase. The message is very plain: ‘Only when love takes the lead will the earth, and life on earth, be safe again. And not until then.’ (Lewis Mumford)

ASHE (pronounced “ah-shay”) is a Yoruba word meaning “the power to make things happen.” It is what one requires of one’s writing. It is what one hopes for one’s self. I, after all, was born in ASHE-VILLE, North Carolina. By application of Paracelsus’ “Doctrine of Signatures” (like heals like, so a leaf shaped like a heart cures the heart, etc.), I assumed I’d never be short of ASHE. Long years on the Road to the Palace of Wisdom perhaps begin to indicate otherwise.

This is a world that still matters, in which care may rule, as in Thoreau’s meadow where so much was going on—if you looked. Like the blazon of peonies, sprung up seemingly overnight and amazing in their whiteness: and almost too good to be true.

Naturally, I have a mind that wanders as my steps do, so I like to think on peregrinating feet.

I have a mind like a blue darter (a kind of Appalachian lizard-- I don’t have a lizard book at hand and can’t give you the proper Latin formalities).

Which reminds me twenty-two years ago l used to carry a hik-o-meter provided by sending a quarter and some Wheaties boxtops to Jack Arm- strong. I now find I used it to measure the same Blue Ridge country that Vachel Lindsay charted in A Handy Guide for Beggars. Moral: each man must save what he can from inattention and all destruction.

I feel as comfortable in Macon County, NC as the average amiable Timber Rattlesnake; i.e., keep cool, stay out of sight, and speak to nobody. This place, with its three houses and 45 acres, is as much of a retreat from Contemporary American Life as we can make it.

Consider this: four men are hiking the Appalachian Trail. The mycologist is the one who knows to look for oaks and apple trees on a north slope and, hence, for morels. The archaeologist won’t have to stub his toe to spot the arrowhead or the pot shard. The ornithologist will laugh like a pileated woodpecker if he thinks he’s heard Sutton’s Warbler in a place it couldn’t be. The poet (the guy who knows how to put all the right syllables in their proper places) is the one who wants to stop with the local boy who is digging ramps on the side of Big Bald Mountain and hear what kind of talk he has in his head.

Poets are forever seeing things, whether Angels in trees, or just things written on the sides of buses like ‘Jesus Saves & Satisfies. Are You?’ Poets are forever hearing things—’always the deathless music!’ I like to catch people speaking ‘poems’ who never heard of the word poet in their lives. It has been my business, along with others (W. C. Williams, Louis Zukofsky, Lorine Niedecker) to try to raise ‘the common’ to grace; to pay very close attention to the earthy. I no more write for ‘nice’ people that I do for ‘common’ ones. I make poems for the people who want them. ‘He was Southern, and he was a gentleman, but he was not a
Southern Gentleman’ which is Allen Tate talking about Edgar-Allen-Poe-White-Trash. I sense a tradition there.

Those of us who moan about the environment and privacy and quietude and balance, etc., etc. have about as much chance of being heard in the market place as Shortia, the Timber Rattler, or the Pileated Woodpecker, those equally endangered, elite species.

There are certain things I must see, or I lose track of time, of what I am doing, or where I am. The April day when the bloodroot appears in its delicate white blur by the trail; the September day in the high mountains when the viburnum is in color (yellow/green/brown) too rare and too translucent to describe; the shade and quality of galax and dog hobble on crisp blue days in January along the icy creeks; the wood thrush at dusk in June; the mare’s-tail clouds in late afternoon in November; the meadow time of joe-pye weed, oxeye daisy, and ironweed; the migration of the hawks over Wesser Bald at that same season. These are the things that bring oneself to oneself.

From this desk in the library at (born Close I regularly look out across the valley of the River Dee to a cluster of Scotch pines in a field of grass. The light in Dentdale, Cumbria, is unusually dim and the pines are inconspicuous and unremarkable. But, let the late sun shine its rays up the dale—particularly in a month like October—and the trees become transfigured, with the forms of the foliage and the trunks and those of the elongated shadows endlessly fascinating to the eye. The air is as cool and palpable as amber. Everything is seen “in a new light.”

Writing is a cottage industry—one of the last—approximately like what the women in the Hebrides do: weave sheep’s wool into Harris tweed that is dyed with a mordant of male urine and lichens collected locally. It has to do with privacy and the quiet of the hearth. The desk and the hearth are sacred places to the devoted writer and reader. Note the multitude of warming particles in the word hearth: hear, heart, ear, earth, art. They are what it is all about.

The uses to which poets put words are all for other human beings. Not to con them, not to sell them, not to derigrate them; but to move them by the free play of the mind, the eye, and the ear. Which means, simply, to remind them of their own selves, to light their eyes, to feed their imaginations, to warm their hearts. Millions die yearly in the modem world from hearts that are cold and hard. Words are clear about that.

Tradition could be defined as (i) what you care to remember; or (ii) what you simply cannot forget.

A tradition is what the making of poems is celebrating. I’ll enumerate some of what goes into my own. The point about “caring” is that it is inclusive. As a poet one does not divide the world up into its innumerable factions: white, black, male, female, old, young, good, bad.

So one remembers fishing trips with granddad to a marvelous place called Sweetwater Creek in the country west of Atlanta. Undoubtedly, all of it is now at the bottom of a polluted reservoir, but no matter. There were summers spent playing with white and black kids on my great-grandmother s farm near Cartersville, Georgia. Everybody was poor; the geraniums in the empty lard can and the dirt yards swept clean looked the same at the white tenants’ (people named Chirwood — straight out of Tobacco Road) as they did at the black.

Personal cooking-- it is what one asks of life now and then,

A shrug of the shoulders may be the only healthy solution, but there are days when I feel that celestial wrath should descend on the keepers of the sacred word—these lackluster ladies and gentlemen with spirits as benign as bookburners and draft-board members.

It is a rare pleasure to read a man of integrity and engagement; an even rarer one to published him. Who gives us a work “to make the mind of men by the help of art a match for the nature of things.”

In the most exact and useful meaning of the term, authentic— which means made with an honest human hand for human needs and joys. Given time, peace, and quiet, poems can light up the sky and enkindle a mind in return.

There is a lot to be learned from how a man plays poker or softball or treats waitresses in a restaurant. (I keep thinking that, finally, poetry is a branch of manners.) There was a lot to be learned from what Charles Olson confided over a beer one evening: “The only requirement for a poet is to write fresh lines.”

I go about my business as a monk, an Apollonian monk. I just ‘do stuff,’ as they say, the things that please me. . . . Some things are on the outside and some things are on the inside, and I have a predilection for the edges.

If I were to give up (in disgust) the habit of writing poems and essays, because the literary world is simply too pig-ignorant, flash, and debased to think about, I could easily become a cicerone for foreign pilgrims wishing to explore the British Isles. Not so much the usual stuff but genuine très soignée oddities tucked back in the countryside

There are days when I suspect that all of my readers are either defunct or not yet born. Yet, a letter filters in from the void every few weeks, announcing the existence of another unabashed fan. I don’t care about the myriad non-readers. I care very much for the few who bother to read. There is no way to figure out why they do. The most interesting recent arrival is Patrick O’Shea, an Anglo-Irishman who lives in New Jersey and works as a computer analyst for a firm of actuaries. Say what? An obvious miracle!

Now and then you come across buildings that actually reveals what black people still have to put up with in the South (and everywhere else). Take a look at any 'juke joint'. It shows how simple people manage to rest, drink a beer, play pool, eat some fried chicken, be amorous and enjoy themselves in abandoned buildings that whites wouldn't even use for their dogs or for liberals. The black people in the Delta not only make use of these pathetic buildings, but decorate them and re-vivify them. And they don't discard their emotions. There's a sign in "Juicy's Place," Marcella, Mississippi, that says: BE NICE OR LEAVE THANK YOU.

One‘s aesthetic demands become very intense, and very, very particular. Listening constantly for over 50 years will only expose you to a small part of the incredible legacy of music that exists for us.

People’s sexual fantasies are more various than we know. And society has seen to it — up till now — that most quote homosexuals unquote were married, just like whitefolks.

There’s an old dyslexic saying, “You can’t turn a silk purse into a sow’s ear.” Sure you can. We do it all the time. Most of us view “the ordinary” with just about enough perception to keep from being run over by a milk lorry. I think I have seen that phenomenon referred to as “the economic determinism of vision,” but you will pardon me if I eschew abstract nouns and the lingo of the academy.

However, back to “coolness” and that Zen monk who found out a bereaved woman was weeping over the death of her only child, and then he hit her with a stick a bit triumphantly, declaring that’ll give you something really to cry about. Passion is a factor—what do you do with that? The cheek cannot turn to stone.

Like Thomas Dekker’s warning in Newes From Hell: “Take heed of criticks: they bite, like fish, at anything, especially at bookes.” (An even more scintillating remark has been made by André Gèdalge, the teacher of Darius Milhaud: “Critics make pipi on music and think they help it grow.”)