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A SNOWFLAKE ORCHARD
& What I Found There

THE JARGON SOCIETY
ONE VILLAGE IDIOT'S OH-SO PERSONAL APPRAISAL

By Jeffery Beam
(The bushy-tailed sub-aesthete)

It seems to me this country is so local and so particular and so ordinary that I like people who start there and then, of course, change it and become extraordinary. But they have to be ordinary first. (Dana 190)
 

The history of the small press in America, littered with the carcasses of aborted dreams and singular, often quiet, ambitions, has produced a handful of internationally respected presses. The Jargon Society, of Highlands, North Carolina, has not only survived but has placed itself at the forefront of the avant-garde, while celebrating and preserving the best in the traditional, raising, in the words of its founder, Jonathan Williams, "the common to grace," paying "close attention to the earthy." (Williams Jonathan C. 92) "Jargon remains a stubborn, devoted refuge for the pariah and the excellent lazar, the non-starter in the bushes, the underestimated, the internationally unknown." (Williams Jargon 42 Years 1) As always, vinegar and irony flow readily from Williams' pen.

Try telling Jargon's history separate from that of Jonathan Williams'. It can't be done. Williams is Jargon, and the remote, stubborn, reckless, autocratic idealism which characterizes one dignifies the persistence of the other. A 1975 catalog states, "It is (the artist's) business to make; (the public's) business to make use of. And make possible." (Williams, The Jargon Society 1971-75 3). This credo has worked for and against Jargon's aim, making at times enthusiastic converts, and at others, enemies when there should be none. I have had a difficult time rationalizing to myself, much less to my friends and comrades, the quality, the necessity of this unique approach to funding. However, this hardly supportable mode of operation (at least to a banker's or grantor's ears) has definable roots, not only in Williams' personality, but in the development of his role as publisher and artist: "I would not say I am marginal, in terms of quality, but I'm peripheral in my vision. I'm looking for the edges." (Dana 220)

The influence of Black Mountain College and writers such as Kenneth Rexroth, Edward Dahlberg, Sherwood Anderson, and Charles Olson weigh heavily in the formation of Jonathan Williams, his business and artistic aesthetic.

A self-proclaimed curmudgeon, Williams is more cur than mudge.* An artist who demands as much from the world as he does from himself can find the world a disappointing place. Nevertheless, as Guy Davenport once wrote, Williams "publishes poets, introduces poets to poets, poets to readers, professors to poets, poets (perilous business) to professors." (Davenport 180) This holds true for painters, musicians, photographers - anyone he meets struck by the visionary disease, Craft. Like all good editors/publishers/mentors/friends, and true to the Black Mountain experience, Jonathan willfully takes a raw talent and nurses, pampers, chastises, and challenges it, in order for it to discover its own abilities, strengths, and prejudices. For Jargon, the product counts last; the cultured person first.

For Williams, the new sound that the avant-garde brings to the familiar contains "the hint in trying to read it with understanding." (Lindau) Jargon is about seeing, whether it is seeing through sounds, images, words, and phrases, or the silences between, the sounds inside the head. This focus on the visuality of perception which permeates the work of Jargon's artists fulfills the promise of early 20th century modernists such as Sitwell, Cummings, and William Carlos Williams, and continues to define the influence Black Mountain, which Williams attended, has on the American arts. Buckminster Fuller once called Williams "our Johnny Appleseed" (Davenport 180) and Hugh Kenner hailed Jargon as "the Custodian of Snowflakes" and Williams as "the truffle-hound of American poetry." (Williams Nest 1) Indeed, Jargon's books are tangible evidence of a more singular and independent reality, a symptom of something greater right outside our poor mall-encrusted vision - William Carlos Williams' "pure products of America" gone "crazy." In fact, some would call Jonathan Williams, his choice of artists, and his mode of operation purely wacko - not a "compliment" from which he shys: "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-commerical, non-nice, naive, outside, fantastic, sub-aesthetic, home-style and bushy-tailed." (Williams Jonathan C. 91)

Whether celebrating backwood visionaries or oddly precious examples of contemporary art, Jargon endures as a mother-lode of the essential. Enduring art not only affirms what is best within us, but also illuminates the dizzying variety of forms, destroying all illusions that what is Other, seemingly alien, is outside us. Jargon aims to show that what is there, is there, and that no amount of fancy word play, paint manipulation, or back-slapping can prove otherwise. The result constantly reminds me that for every artist hailed and recognized for her or his work, another hundred languish unlauded by the force of the current.


Skywinding and the Orphic Gospel 

Anyway, I have turned more and more away from the High Art of the city and settled for what I could unearth and respect in the tall grass. (Johnson 226)

 
Ten miles southwest of Highlands, between the saddleback shadows of the Smokies and the Nantahalas, stone columns unexpectedly appear from which two Brobdingnagian wrought iron gates, apparently twisted and rusted open by time, sag and signal the onset of a visit with Jonathan Williams and editor/amanuensis, Thomas Meyer, mountain inheritors of Catullus, Stevie Smith, Sappho and Brer Rabbit. There is a photograph taken some years back by Guy Mendes of the farm's now deceased caretaker, Leonard Webb, standing at the entrance between the gates with a cap-bedecked cow - symbol of fertility, funkiness and earth. Bucolic and rurally redneck, the image evokes a reversed procreative underworld.

Those who know of The Jargon Society, and have had the opportunity to visit Skywinding Farm, Macon County are fortunate. It's hard to believe as I pass Scaly Mountain and head up the winding gravelly drive to the house, that here nourishes the tendrils of a vast network representing the oddball, the maverick, the pretersensual and comely in American and British arts and letters. From the moment I come upon the entrance, life's dirt and grunge drop off. Entering these gates is to enter an evergreen shaft which enhances and anticipates arrival. Williams' beloved H. P. Lovecraft could have created the scene, gothically sexual and lonely.

Immediately the drive opens into a meadow where stands, morosely in the bright sun, a small cottage. From the meadow, the view reveals the fields and highway below, and the unfortunate burgeoning development above. Then, once again the drive penetrates the protective green of vegetation, the verticality of the trees. Behind the cottage and below the drive down to the main road creeps a tangled wood of rank old apple trees and blueberry shrubs. The road continues, twisting, until on the left, about halfway up the mountain, sits the house, nestled among large boxwoods and protected by hemlock, dogwood, beech, oak and hickory. Birds sing, the thwack thwack of woodpeckers resonate through the woods. Inside, domesticity and industry; a house filled with the humility of grand old things, self-assured like the chestnut of the panelled walls and bulky rafters, un-opinionated, but elegant and cheerful.

The interior, of course, reflects the vision of Jonathan's parents, Ben and Georgette, who over their years together conceived and crafted Skywinding Farm on Happy Hill. But the house is Jargon's place of choice also, half of the year, for here "the quality of local speech is more imaginative than it is among the urban poets in San Francisco or New York City." The "farm" has taken on Jargon's newness, its modernity, its sense of adventure. On the hall floor lies a small hooked rug, which states "They only visit/That visit them." This rug, with its folksy homily has become emblematic of my visits to Highlands. The honesty, the directness, the loveliness, are all there as we walk across it numerous times during the day and night.

Herbert Leibowitz, publisher of Parnassus and an early believer in Williams, once said, "It requires toughness, affability, stamina, a sense of mission and a touch of madness to don the mendicant cowl of a non-commercial publisher and to solicit for the muse among his countrymen." (Leibowitz 54) Jonathan asserts his nature quite succinctly, "I am a stubborn, mountaineer Celt with an orphic, priapic, sybaritic streak that must have come to me, along with H. P. Lovecraft, from Outer Cosmic Infinity. Or maybe Flash Gordon brought it from Mongo?" (Williams Jonathan C. 89) For me he expresses the strong, isolated groundedness of the Celtic race. His spirit is of the practicality of the Tao, and of the Mabinogion. Tom Meyer, however, is Druid spirit personified; earthy as the Venus of Willendorf, but airy and heavy as Pan. Together these two remarkable men endure the short days of Winter, and the fresh invigorating Orpheus of Spring.** Intermittent (sometimes seemingly unceasing) excursions to Jargon meetings, readings, lectures, folk-art jaunts, art openings, and visits to the printer and to friends break the quietude of place - never monotony of activity. Occasional pilgrims visit for a few days to a week. All is quiet as a hive. Letters, phone calls, books, and manuscripts flow endlessly in and out of the gate. The hive works even when asleep, and always the buzz of music and symbolic dance of the worker bees point to the next source of nectar: organized and honeyed, enthusiastic and unassuming, drudgery and bacchanal. Poet Michael McFee beautifully described the quality of the process, "Work, work, work. Constant individual effort; a steady investment in tire rubber and shoe leather, elbow and axle grease; a willingness to go solo and above all to go, make disciples, "preach the Orphic gospel" - these are givens." (McFee 103)

Visiting Skywinding I feel the current of thought, of art, music and poetry, as an active principle - not the catatonic, homogenized ingeniousness experienced so often in the world of arts councils and workshops proliferating over the land. Or as Jonathan has put it: "I have an ancient horror of blue-haired academics, Nice-People, and southern poetry-lovers. An image of linguistic vasectomy flocks to my wary mind." (Williams Bottom 4) At Skywinding, Art (read Freshness) counts for something. What transpires inside this world reflects the natural world outside. No politics, no backslapping and bribery to muddle the words. No greed or prostitution or pollution to sour the voice. Only the human ache to make something of worth which stands on its own, and which instructs and deepens the quality of Being. Cleansing and lifting up. Elite/Elate.

TOP | SNOWFLAKE ORCHARD continued

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