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Remembering Jonathan Williams (March 8, 1929–March 16, 2008)

I miss the elegance of the man, the energy of the poet, and above all the generosity that made sure publishing was publick-ing, and that brought to the commonwealth (as he might call it), the shivering needy children we are, news that concerned us and made us better—or at least (often) made us laugh.

Jonathan Williams, Skywinding Farm,  Scaly Mountain, North Carolina,  2003.  
Photo Credit: Dobree Adams (c)2008
Jonathan Williams, Skywinding Farm, Scaly Mountain, North Carolina, 2003. Photo Credit: Dobree Adams (c)2008

The first publisher of Buckminster Fuller, Guy Davenport, Charles Olson—yes, of course they had other little books, but Jargon, with the always beautiful big format, lucid printing, visual sense of importance, endurance—Williams put their names and work out where the hungry poets and readers of the late ’50s and early ’60s could find it, did find it. We were sick to death of the gentrified poesy of that era, and the books Jonathan made us read (made the Eighth Street Bookshop stock, display) cured us, gave us a fresh wave to ride.

I first met him when I was a frantic reader buying on credit (they kept tally for such ravenous ones) and he was working in Ted and Eli Wilentz’s stockroom—a tall slender not very articulate young man, much callower (for all the work he’d done, his travels, his Black Mountain days, his publishing) than the upright gent I’d meet a decade later, when he came to read at Bard College. Or maybe he just didn’t like me then.

What am I to do with his death? Same month as Robert Owen Callahan, the San Francisco poet whose own publications reminded me a little bit of Jonathan’s, and reminds me too that the great publishers are not those who print and distribute great books but those who create a great new zone of intersection of idea, image, music, and history—a new zone in which books can be read, and our minds can be made known, shared and renewed. That’s what Jargon did, and Barney Rossett’s famous Grove Press, and Dalkey Archive, and McSweeney’s, and Black Sparrow, and some few more.

As they say in the newspapers, Jonathan is survived by the poet Thomas Meyer. They met in my house on that visit to Bard in 1969, fell in love, and lived together ever since, mostly in North Carolina (where Jonathan was born and died, hard by Black Mountain College, of which he was one of the most distinguished alumni) and in Dentdale in Cumbria. Thomas Meyer is, in my opinion, the strongest, strangest, richest poet of his generation, and has contented himself with the quiet, the mysterious domestic peace that nestles inside the wild gay life of London and New York in which they also moved. In that quiet (as Schiller famously remarked), his talent ripened. They supported one another, these two poets, their work radically different, Jonathan moving steadily into the gaffes and grandeurs of American talk, roadside signs and malaprop miracles; his work moved over the years from complex music towards wise, witty, foolish one-liners, if sometimes into Deep Whimsy where I dared not follow. Williams and Meyer, Meyer and Williams, wise critics in days to come will analyze what I can only intuit, or foreshadow: each enriched the other’s freedom to investigate areas of extreme poetics. To study their work—which always abstained from any trace of the collaborative—would be profoundly important for a study of the psychology of the writer. (Their surface image was appealing but misleading: the portly Henry James keeping house with an even more angelic Arthur Rimbaud.)

Jonathan is survived too by their heart-son, Reuben Cox, the photographer. And that is apt. Williams made thousands of photos, the real things, 2 ¼ x 2 ¼ glass slides, of poets and poets’ graves and gloomy places that make us glad. And into the great zone of meaningfulness that his writing and publishing both declared, he drew also American photographers—Meatyard, and Laughlin, and Lyle Bongé—who were creating a new vulgaris eloquentia for us, the images of our condition.

Jonathan knew and revered Mahler and Elgar way back when nobody played them, when academic composers dismissed them as pompous romantics. Long before the recent fashion of rediscovering tonality, Jonathan was humming Mr. Delius to me on the phone, or reminding me of anecdotes in Bruckner’s sad little life around his immense music.

What am I to do with the death of any friend? Any one? I have to understand that the last gift a friend gives is his death. The death is a gift. Not in the narrow, cynical sense of leaving stuff for his heirs, or leaving space for his competitors, crowing room for his rivals. Not at all—those aren’t gifts, they’re obligations or commitments or curses. No, what is a gift about the friend’s death is that he has, now, at last, given himself completely to you, in peace and thoroughness. He is yours now, to hold in mind, to be reminded by, to talk to and, who knows, be answered by. Death takes away the alterity of the friend, and brings him to you, me, in the place of sameness, where we know ourselves. And where our own death is waiting.


Robert Kelly


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2008

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