Jonathan Williams Essay - Critical Essays

Williams, Jonathan


Williams, Jonathan 1929–

Williams is an American poet and editor. Though often associated with the Black Mountain School and the beat poets, he feels his work is written "for those who long for the saving grace of language." A self-proclaimed ecologist of the word, he is admired for his sensitive chronicling of a rapidly changing language. His poetry mingles elements of word play with pieces of overheard dialogue, the rhythms and structures of music with the cadence of common speech. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

Ralph J. Mills, Jr.

"I do / dig Everything Swinging," begins the Credo Jonathan Williams has placed at the outset of [An Ear in Bartram's Tree: Selected Poems 1957–1967, a] marvelous, handsome selection from his earlier, frequently scarce volumes, and indeed this witty, perceptive poet and printer manifests an individual enthusiasm for everything from Stan Musial, swinging his bat in Wrigley Field, in the first poem, to the jazz swinging of Miles Davis and Bud Powell; in between—or beyond—are Catullus, Tolkien, Edith Sitwell, Charles Ives, Mahler, and such living mentors as he names: Pound, Zukofsky, Creeley, Olson, Dahlberg, Buckminster Fuller. (p. 331)

Perhaps the most obviously striking quality in Williams's work, aside from the erudition and bookishness (which are of the delightful, never the pedantic variety), is the extraordinary acuteness of his ear. As a perpetual traveler, largely a hiker in America and England, he has attuned his sensitive powers of listening to every nuance of speech and sound, and given them back to his readers beautifully articulated…. His knowledge of herbs, flowers, trees everywhere 'pays off' poetically—in a musical catalogue: "a flame azalea, mayapple, maple, thornapple …" And there are other uses for this sharp ear, bawdy, comic, and satirical, in the pieces from Lullabies Twisters Gibbers Drags and Jammin' the Greek Scene. These elements of wit, criticism, and play easily recommend themselves in Williams's writing, and they are admirably polished and alive; but in passing I should like to call attention to his equally substantial gift for the descriptive and lyrical,… encountered throughout this book. Particularly moving are the poems of In England's Green & (which, remarkably, are about an imagined Britain, written before his visits there) and Mahler…. Observant, imaginative, learned, shrewd, these poems reveal the considerable range and strength of Williams's writing, to which the present selection offers a splendid introduction. (pp. 331-32)

Ralph J. Mills, Jr., in Poetry (© 1971 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), February, 1971.

Herbert Leibowitz

Williams's versatility and his labors at unearthing a kind of populist poetry in his backyard are on display in ["Blues & Roots/Rue & Bluets" and "A Garland for the Appalachians"]. They contribute to an unusual view of Appalachia. "Blues & Roots/Rue & Bluets" is a sourcebook … of native forms, rhythms, sights and sounds. Williams listens to and transcribes the homespun sayings, the "vernal, verbal gift," of his mountain neighbors. One is startled by their unforced humor, self-delighting inventiveness, and lack of guile. Take "Aunt Creasy, On Work": "shucks / I make the livin / uncle / just makes the livin / worthwhile." Or "The Hermit Cackleberry Brown, On Human Vanity":

                 caint call your name
                 but your face is easy
                 come sit
                 now some folks figure they're
                 cowflop they
                 not a bit
                 just good to hold the world together
                 like hooved up ground
                 that's what

Dr. Johnson couldn't deliver a moral judgment with more confident finality. (pp. 56, 58)

Herbert Leibowitz, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1971 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 21, 1971.

Edward F. Grier

The Colonel is an adventurous experimenter. I confess to a prejudice against cut-ups, found poems, and concrete poetry, but the Colonel does them splendidly. See "A Mnemonic Wallpaper Pattern for Southern Two Seaters" or "A Chorale of Cherokee Night Music as Heard Through an Open Window Long Ago." Both lose by reduction to book-size format, and "A Chorale" also loses from the lack of its original color, but once they have been seen they are not forgotten.

He is also an ecologist before the letter. He is not, of course, concerned in his poetry about recycling or biodegradability, but with what is there. He knows his home terrain, the Appalachians, intimately, its contours, its flora and fauna, and its people. Although he has never really understood the Great Plains, which still await their poet, nor concerned himself with the Rockies, he has a most unusual sensibility to landscape, whether it is in Appalachia, Wales, or Yorkshire, where there are mountains or at least full-sized hills.

I have never understood the occasional complaint that his poetry is bookish. Of course it is, but bookishness is a hallmark of contemporary poetry. There are fashions in bookishness, however, and the Colonel's books are not modish. No Zen, no Tantrism, no Tarot, no astrology, no politics. Blake is recognizable, but not Samuel Palmer…. Among nature writers, although he knows Thoreau's Journals well he does not seem to be interested in...

(The entire section is 564 words.)

Eric Mottram

Whatever the level of discourse a Williams poem will pun, pause and turn, combine invention with echo, autobiographical experience with literary information. Its sheer liveliness is exhilarating (and, rarely, self-indulgently buoyant, as if the poetic action shifted to formal abstraction only out of pleasure in virtuosity). Few other contemporary poets have his range of appreciation of rascality and corruption, his love of innocence and the ecstatic, and his intuitive and cultivated feeling for the visionary. He can finesse like Sahl or Bruce but he returns to a core of romantic vision for stability: Blake, Palmer, Vaughan in poetry and visual art, the voices of Thoreau and Clare, and the paintings of the Norwich watercolourists and "Mad Dick Dadd". (p. 106)

Eric Mottram, "Jonathan Williams," in Vort, Fall, 1973, pp. 102-11.

John Jacob

[Untinears & antennae for Maurice Ravel] displays Williams' range of abilities as a poet and commentator on contemporary life and culture. The poems acknowledge the talents of musicians from Ravel to Ellington and of performers in other fields, including Mean Joe Greene. The amalgam of stylistic turns is neither confusing nor difficult to accept. Some of the shorter pieces, whose seriousness is easily questioned if they stand alone, find completion among longer poems. Williams' free examination of the relationship—if any—between different types of artistic activity is pleasurable and intriguing. (p. 352)

John Jacob, in Booklist (reprinted by permission of the American Library Association; copyright 1977 by the American Library Association), October 15, 1977.