Jonathan Williams Ralph J. Mills, Jr. - Essay

Ralph J. Mills, Jr.

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"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.