Jonathan Williams Edward F. Grier

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Edward F. Grier

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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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 Natur-Philosophie, but rather the simple and sensuous response of a field naturalist like Bartram or the mysticism of Palmer or John Clare. He uses quotations beautifully, for example the quotations from Thoreau, Clare and Palmer in "Symphony No. 3 in D Minor, II." In the third movement of the same poem he begins with a factual comment on the observations of the Georgia Ornithological Society. In a non-lyric mode he can give us "Common Words in Uncommon Orders"—perhaps a bit enriched, but not much. Their power comes not from the Li'l Abner setting or accent, nor even from the pungency of thought and feeling, but ultimately from the sound of sense. Words and rhythms are his art. Even nature must be transformed. There are two apposite quotations, one of which, from a place I can't put my finger on, in connection with hiking, is to the effect that words are ultimately more nutritious than raisins. The other is again from the Mahler "Symphony No. 3, II," (in response to John Clare's "The book I love is everywhere / And not in idle words"): "Muse in a meadow, compose in / a mind!" What the Colonel can do with books and nature can be seen in that very bookish sequence, In England's Green &, which comes to a climax with a hymn to the Appalachian rattlesnake. I fear and hate all snakes, but that poem is one of the great nature poems of the last twenty years.

He is also extraordinarily sensitive to music, verbal or tonal…. His sense of verbal music turns up, of course, often in the form of outrageous word-play. Mahler Grooves is a splendid example…. (pp. 100-01)

Several years ago I ventured to object to the Colonel about his found poems and concrete poems and asked for more Big Poems. I was firmly put down. Nevertheless Mahler Grooves is what I was asking for. (p. 101)

Edward F. Grier, "A Health to Colonel Williams," in Vort, Fall, 1973, pp. 99-102.