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James Laughlin, Meadow House, Norfolk, Connecticut (1988)
Photograph by Jonathan Williams

AN ECLECTIC ELITE: NEW BOOK OF PHOTOS AND TEXTS OPENS EYES TO THE WIDE-RANGING WORLD OF JONATHAN WILLIAMS

A Review by Tom Patterson

One of the most memorably eye-opening cultural experiences of my early adulthood was a slide lecture by poet-publisher Jonathan Williams that I attended as a senior in college.

In addition to writing and publishing, Williams also makes photographs—very good ones, as was immediately apparent in the selection of color slides he showed and talked about on that occasion. His approach as a photographer is straightforward, and his preferred subject matter includes unusual places he has visited, the graves of great artists, and people he has known. Because a list of the latter reads like a selective Who’s Who of 20th-century American and British art and literature, his informal portraits have an added dimension of interest.

On that spring afternoon Williams showed an audience of about 100 students and several professors intimate portraits of poets and other writers including Wendell Berry, Buckminster Fuller, Michael McClure, Thomas Merton, Henry Miller, Lorine Niedecker, Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams. His slides of gravestones included those of E.E. Cummings, H.P. Lovecraft, Charlie Parker, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Wallace Stevens and Walt Whitman. And there were views of amazing visionary art environments like Joseph Ferdinand Cheval’s “Ideal Dream Palace” in Hauterives, France; Pirro Ligorio’s “Garden of the Monsters” near Orvieto, Italy; and Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers in Los Angeles, Calif.

I won’t pretend that I was already acquainted with all of the names on that eclectic list, but Williams’ lecture fortunately inspired me to investigate the ones not already familiar to me. Hardly a formal lecture, really, it was more knowledgably off-the-cuff commentary, revealing a sharp-eyed observer and a droll raconteur—clearly someone from whom a great deal could be learned, but also an idiosyncratic, entertaining character.

Now, nearly 30 years later, something of that experience I found so inspiring as a student is available in the form of Williams’ latest book, A Palpable Elysium: Portraits of Genius and Solitude, published late last year by David R. Godine, an art book house in Boston. Its 175 pages include 80 of Williams’ color photographs and accompanying texts in the form of mini-essays, expanded captions, poems or some combination thereof. The photos turn out to be just as good as I remember, and there are a number of newer ones here. The texts have much the flavor of the informal lecture I recall, and the design is elegant.

Reproduced on the cover in full-bleed form is Williams’ photo portraying his fellow poet-publisher, James Laughlin, darkly silhouetted in profile against the light in a window as he lights his pipe and stares down at the tiny yellow flame on the tip of his otherwise unseen match. As a visual encapsulation of the book’s subtitle—the genius in a moment of solitary contemplation—it’s just right.

Williams was born in 1929 in Asheville, grew up in Washington, D.C., and has lived for most of his adult life on a small farm near Highlands, traveling often and extensively. In the early 1950s, after dropping out of Princeton University, he returned to North Carolina to attend Black Mountain College near the town of that name, and it was at that short-lived, experimental school (it existed from 1932 to 1956) that he began making photographs. His instructors in the medium were Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind, who both later gained international renown for their work, like so many of the students and teachers who passed through the college.

While at Black Mountain, Williams honed his writing skills under the guidance of Charles Olson (1910-1970), an influential poet who was a mentor to a number of other budding writers from the late 1940s through the 1960s. One of my favorite portraits in the book shows Olson, post-Black-Mountain, wearing a black fedora, black overcoat and black, horn-rimmed glasses, exuding gravitas as he peers intently at something outside the frame.

To give you a sense of Williams’ refreshingly non-academic language, here’s a sample of the facing-page text: “The Big O (about 6’8’’, weighing in at 275 lbs, minimum always said this photo of him in front of lobster pots in Gloucester, Massachusetts, made him ‘look like a Nazi physician.’...I miss him a lot. The bigness, the genius, the fun. He said Elvis was the young Orpheus. He’d never heard much Elvis either...No matter. Poets talk more trash than politicians. VOTE FOR O! If he were here now, I’d suggest Roseanne (Barr) for President, Robin Williams for Vice President, and Charles Olson for Secretary of State. Working people would be well served, the arts would be well served, and it would drive the fundamentalist assholes around the bend and over the cliff....”

As a publisher, Williams founded his Jargon Press 52 years ago and continues to operate it with his longtime companion, fellow poet Thomas Meyer, from their home near Highlands. Organized since the late 1960s as the non-profit Jargon Society, the press has published more than 100 volumes—many of them by individuals portrayed in Williams’ own new book—and maintains a business office in Winston-Salem.

Just as he was mentored by the likes of Callahan, Siskind and Olson, Williams has served as an informal mentor to many younger writers over the years, including this one. Immediately after witnessing that 1974 slide presentation at St. Andrews College in Laurinburg, I introduced myself, and I’ve followed Williams’ career with interest and admiration ever since then. I’ve learned much from him, and we’re now longtime friends.

In fact, Jonathan—or JW, as he often signs himself—was instrumental in my move to Winston-Salem. I came here in 1984 from Atlanta after the Jargon Society hired me to run a three-year research project on “visionary folk art” in the South. I liked it here and chose to stay after finishing the project, one result of which was my first full-fledged book.

JW’s enthusiasm for the work of self-taught artists is reflected in his new book in portraits of Georgia Blizzard, Miles Carpenter, Thornton Dial, “St. EOM”, Howard Finster, Carl Mckenzie, Elijah Pierce, Vollis Simpson and James Harold Jennings. There are also several well-chosen detail shots of outdoor art environments built by some of these artists.
Translate this book’s main title into into pedestrian speech and you get something like “A Paradise You Can Feel”—or “Heaven in Yo Hand,” as JW’s fellow poet Robert Kelly suggested it be called instead. But those variations just don’t sing like A Palpable Elysium.

Say it aloud, slowly.

It’s a gem of a book—a pleasure to look at and lots of fun to read, as JW always is.


(This review originally appeared in The Winston-Salem Journal, Sunday, May 25, 2003)

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