- Photograph by Roger Manley
By Jonathan Williams
Those unfamiliar with the actual verse of septuagenarian Jargon Society founder Williams will be surprised at how consistently funny it is, but not at its sophistication. Williams's press, based in his native North Carolina, has long been associated with the Black Mountain school of Olson-Creeley-Levertov, but Williams was also the first to bring out a collected edition of major modernist Mina Loy. Pared down from 1,450 works over 55 years, this selection features jaunty dances through naughty woods ("David Hockney/ met a most ravissant Cockney// with, mirabile dictu,/ no cock to hang onto!"), jokes to and about Ezra Pound, selected listings from the Western Carolina Telephone Company phone book, limericks, "meta-fours" (poems in which each line has four words), a poem for each Mahler symphony and acrostics using the names of friends like Guy Davenport, with some pauses to take dictation in the form of found poems: "LADIES AND GENTLEMEN WILL NOT/ AND OTHERS MUST NOT/ PULL THE FLOWERS IN THIS GARDEN." By the end of the book, it becomes clear that Williams can make a verse out of whatever's at hand; the result is a kind of commonplace book for a life lived, with wry but inextinguishable enthusiasm, in the company of artists and arts. (Mar.)
Asheville Citizen-Times at CITIZEN-TIMES.com
CHOICE BOOKS: Williams' word-fertile world emerges in 'Jubilant Thicket'
By Rob Neufeld
April 3, 2005
What we need in this country are more Davy Crockett-and-Mae-West-type intellectuals. The division between intellectuals and earthy folk, like many other divisions in our society, insults us. And so, we have Jonathan Williams, whose latest unconventional book, "Jubilant Thicket: New & Selected Poems," is a testimony to "Who gives a fig."
"At age 75," Williams says in his "Greeting" to the reader, "it seems a good time to put a gom of poems on the poetry table. Gom's a favorite mountain word of mine."
Commenting on the job Jim Cory did winnowing his oeuvre, Williams quips, "As we know in North Carolina, where God is in charge of the barbecue, there can be 'too much pork for just one fork.' " A few raised eyebrows later, the Highlands poet, publisher, photographer, folk art collector, hiker and lingo-ist admits, "These poems offer no grist for academic mills... But I would venture to say they are 'monastic' and 'tramontane.' "
I call Williams a lingo-ist rather than a linguist because he is well versed in a variety of English-speaking voices. It's not just words, but also sounds, connotations, dialects, buzzwords, pregnant pauses and quotations that are his métier.
Like Davy Crockett, Williams' job is to get your attention, throw you over his left leg and help you back up, best friends. He's a poetic tall-tale teller. Tossing a big word in after a rowdy one, even with a hint of hauteur, is part of the game.
"Jubilant Thicket" contains eight sections, the first being "Meta-fours," coy exercises in concision; the second, "Mahler," a verbal record of listening to Mahler's symphonies; the next, "Apple-pie Order," mischievous light verse; and then "Scumbags from Parnassus," two handfuls of outrageous, real-life headlines. I stop here because after this, you hit pay dirt.
Forget pay dirt; let's try a different metaphor. The first part of the book is like the leaves and sticks you clear away to get at a mountain spring. And when you taste the sweet, bracing, outflow of the second part of the book, you'll agree it was worth the trip.
I don't know what thinking guided the selections for the first 132 pages. There is an over-representation of the naked libido. The clerihews and limericks in section three are often enough metrically off.
What we can celebrate about the first half - as well as about the second - is Williams' inventiveness. Anything that demonstrates how to think outside of the box by simply having fun is a valuable inspiration. Still, the more crafted poem about Anton Dvorak in section five, "Bugtussle," is dearer to my heart than the Mahler improvisations.
In "Paean to Dvorak, Deemer & McClure," Williams puts us into Dvorak's creative mind as, on a tour of America, he had savored the wilderness. He compares Dvorak to Connecticut composer Charles Ives and contrasts him with expatriate novelist, Henry James, who "went around in a closed railroad car in Georgia lamenting ... how dreary/ the land was and/ always would be."
Williams has constructed, over the years, a distinct way of speaking and a coherent universe, including heroes, some of whom had been Black Mountain College cohorts. In the Dvorak poem, Williams breaks into his own song, a characteristic blend of country yawp and Biblical lyricism:
Let's all go to Oregon and eat
yard eggs, drink home-churned whole
buttermilk in stone crocks, bake
bread of whole-wheat flour-
and may orchards and rivers
The poem ends with a bird song: "SYMBIOSIS WE PRAY! SYMBIOSIS WE PRAY! SYMBIOSIS WE PRAY!"
Why not? Zoologists are translating avian whistles and coos into whimsical haikus all the time.
This brings us to another one of the remarkable hallmarks of Williams' poetry: his ear for found (or "heard") poems. Perhaps the most famous of these is one included in this volume: "Your points is blue/ and your timing's/ a week off," attributed to "Sam Creswell, My Auto Mechanic."
Williams' "found" poetry has great range, and enlivens us to our surroundings. For instance, in "Jubilant Thicket," we encounter epitaphs, advertisements, place names, folk sayings and even the sounds of 14 creatures wahuhu-ing and sasa-ing on a summer's night.
In "A Ride in a Blue Chevy from Alum Cave Trail to Newfound Gap," the driver says "here's somethin' else innerestin'," and you know you've subscribed to a reader's non-digest. In "Cousin Poems," the literary convention of identifying characters with taglines ("leitmotifs") is turned into blunt gossip. "Randy: likes to/ kill things// very nice/ to his mama." "Janet: strange as/ they come// a stone/ with a skin."
Finally, it's gratifying to see that "Jubilant Thicket" includes master poems that combine the arts of the epigrams and exhibits. In addition to the Dvorak poem, I'd like to point out "Thomas Johnes, Master of Hafod Ychdryd," an account of the rise and fall of a Welshman's pleasure dome; "The Familiars," a song conceived on March 21 in the Appalachian Mountains; and "Enthusiast," a poem about the writing process.
Here's how "Enthusiast" begins:
"Literature - the way we ripen ourselves/ by conversation, said/ Edward Dahlberg,"
"We flower in talk ... pollen falls/ across the blackened paper," Williams continues. He concludes with the image of "making meat/ of vowels/ in cells/ with sticky feet."
Rob Neufeld writes about books for the Citizen-Times. His "Choice Books" column runs in the Sunday Arts & Living section. Contact him at 768-BOOK or RNeufeld@charter.net .
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