A recent discovery for me (well, admittedly, one more akin to Columbus’s “discovery” than Mme. Curie’s) is the poet/ publisher/photographer/provocateur Jonathan Williams. Although I had long known about Williams and was aware of his publishing company, The Jargon Society, which produced books for writers I admire (Joel Oppenheimer, for one) I had never actually read anything by him. So, when I found out he had died this past March, I sought out his books. Oh, how I wish I knew then what I know now.
First I picked up Jubilant Thicket, a collection of new and selected poems published a few years ago by Copper Canyon Press. Like the poets he championed with his press, Williams considered himself an “outsider.” So I shouldn’t have been suprised to find this book brimming with the kinds of prosody you won’t find on the Academy’s Web site: limericks, clerihews, found poems and his own invention, “meta-fours.” Along with an amalgam of wild words, both salty and stately, erudite and earthy, and gobs and gobs of cultural references, both high- and low-brow. Not to mention a laugh-outloud sense of humor. And a naughty streak (some of his limericks would make “The Man from Nantucket” blush like a school marm). So, in other words, a surprisingly delightful grab-bag of highly readable, highly entertaining poems for people who don’t like (or are legitimately wary of) Poetry.
Williams’ rebel spirit spilled over to his prose writing, as well. In Blackbird Dust, from Turtle Point Press, Williams offers a collection of cock-eyed essays that covers, as he says, “food, drink, sex, sport, walking, manners, music, writers, artists, photographers” — what more could you ask for? And the voice here is as “companionable, jocular, and curmudgeonly” as that of the poems, musing on the lives and work of writers and artists, both well-known (Robert Duncan, Basil Bunting, Kenneth Patchen, Henry Miller) and overlooked (Ernest Matthew Mickler, James Harold Jennings), as well as the joys of reading undervalued books and the pleasures of exploring cemeteries.
The latter notion was the impetus behind (at least in part) A Palpable Elysium, a collection of his photographs and essay-captions chronicling the lives and, in some cases, deaths of poets, painters, writers, and musicians he knew and wished he’d known (David R. Godine, Publisher). Like the eponymous legendary Greek plains, this delightful book provides the final resting place for such disparate artistic souls as Kenneth Rexroth, Thomas Merton, Erik Satie, Charlie Parker, Vincent Van Gogh, William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, Lorine Niedecker, James Laughlin, R. Buckminster Fuller, Walt Whitman, H.P. Lovecraft, and Howard Finster, to name just a few. These congenial, intimate portraits, along with Williams’ often personal and whimsical comments, make for an engaging read and, at least to this late-comer, educational experience.
In fact, the book reminded me of the old ritual of being invited into a neighbor’s living room for a slide show chronicling a family outing or gathering. Does anyone remember this? The darkened room, the soft hum of the projector, the occasional outburst of “Oh, look. That’s you!” Where is it now, in the age of surround-sound-home-stereo-DVDedium? A lost art form that, like Williams, I have become acutely aware that I’m missing, now that it is gone.