Newton Smith   •  October 25, 2002

Salutations and Cornpone on Parnassus

A Review of Jonathan Williams’ Blackbird Dust

Blackbird Dust: Essays, Poems, and Photographs, by Jonathan Williams.
Turtle Point Press, 2000. 243 pgs. $16.95 (paper) ISBN: 1-885983-49-2

It is hard to imagine what the unsuspecting reader might think opening this book that declares in its forward note from the author that it is “another celebration of Outsiderdom,” a mix involving “food, drink, sex, sport, walking, manners, music, writers, artists, photographers—much that has been sternly isolated and sedulously ignored.” And then to read: “I have tried to be as companionable, jocular, and curmudgeonly as possible in our poor literary times. Southern-fried bourgeoisophobes don’t come along every day, so I must beg charity and forbearance.”

My god, the poor reader might imagine, what must this book be? It is unlike most any book you will encounter. It isn’t immediately accessible; in fact it may put off the conventionally trained reader. Yet what other book do you know that has a dedication page actually listing some of the new young readers the writer appreciates and names a bibliographer, James Jaffe, “who goes to the hoop!”? This is no ordinary book. For some it may seem a hodgepodge, for others who know what he has done or are willing to wade into turbulent waters, this book is a delightful reminder of Jonathan Williams the man and the writer, grand example of courage in matters of art, culture, exploring, and being fully alive.

Jonathan Williams is a national treasure, one who deserves recognition for his iconoclasm, for his fierce exploration of the marginal and outsider art, for his eclecticism and refinement mixed with down-home Appalachian crudities, for his brazen pleasures and subtle delectation in music and art, for his persistent humor underlying a righteous indignation at the unwashed effete and illiterate culture we have bred in our universities and literary establishment, and mostly for championing and publishing for 50 years through his Jargon Press some of the best and some of the most ignored poets of our generation as well as photographers and artists off the beaten path. It should be stamped in gold leaf across the cover: Jonathan Williams is a national treasure, as unique, contrary, and magnificent as the mountains he traverses, and as perverse and sweet and ill-tempered and thoroughly intriging as this country he keeps goading.

But it will be hard for those who have not encountered Jonathan before to appreciate from this book what he has done for us in this country. His style and the almost defiantly capricious gathering of texts and poetry and photography almost defy the new or uninitiated reader from staying long enough to enjoy and delight in what is here. I fear Blackbird Dust may bite the dust and be in the remainder bin almost as quickly as its predecessor The Magpie’s Bagpipe.

That is why I want to serve as guide here, providing a bit of history and a kind of map before you set out. Williams is a poet, publisher, photographer, designer, musical connoisseur, hiker, lecturer, essayist, art critic, folk-art collector, sports freak, gourmand, raconteur, and neighbor in the heart of Appalachian and in England’s green. He has published more than 100 books of his own, and more than 100 books of others. He has garnered admiration from some the major figures of our time: William Carlos Williams, Buckminster Fuller, Hugh Kenner, Robert Creeley, Charles Olson, Kenneth Patchen, Robert Duncan, Paul Goodman, and Basil Bunting. Yet he is probably destined to remain on the margins because he avoids the mainstream and is willing to brave the struggle on the frontier or in the backcountry.

In an interview by Jim Cory in the James White Review: A Gay Literary Quarterly, Williams declares:

I don’t measure up by American Standards. I do everything backwards. Or I don’t do it very well. I’ve never learned how to make money. I hate the agora and the idea of competition. I don’t screw women. I don’t shoot people.… I suppose I should be locked up in the attic.… Being a good Southern lady, my mother was so embarassed when I got a Guggenheim, she wouldn’t tell any of her friends. It sounded like what it is, a Jewish word.… That was kept quiet, along with most of my artistic history. The only gay son, who’s a concientious objector, who’s a post-modern poet—for lack of a better word—, who’s a hillbilly faggot, who doesn’t make any real money, who doesn’t even belong to the country club… I must seem like something straight out of David Koresh.

The truth is Williams never intended to “measure up to American Standards.” He has been intent on doing it his way since he began. What you will discover in this book is a testament to his refusal to follow a party line, to even construct a proper book (though his Jargon books have consistently been recognized for design and appearance). Blackbird Dust is a miscellany, a collection of essays, occasional poems, and photographs that ramble through literary history, offering glimpses, reviews, obituaries, or intense commentaries of figures such as Robert Duncan, Basil Bunting, James Broughton, Henry Miller, Kenneth Patchen, Alfred Starr Hamilton, Joel Oppenheimer, Paul Potts, Matthew Mickler. Underneath it all is the voice of his literary mentors: Charles Olson and Louis Zukofsky.

I suggest that the unintroduced reader start on page 114 with the fake interview Williams conducted with himself for the Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1984, entitled “The Jargon Society.” Here we learn that Williams was born in Asheville, N.C, and raised mostly in Highlands, N.C. the highest incorporated town in the Appalachians. He went to Princeton from St. Albans prep school where he began his love of Henry Miller, Kenneth Patchen, Kenneth Rexroth, C.S. Lewis, and H.P. Lovecraft along with Sibelius and Delius and Courbet and Redon. He couldn’t stand Princeton and the directions it led and began studying art in Washington and eventually studied at the Chicago Institute of Design where began his intense interest in photography that led him to Black Mountain College in the summer of 1951, signing up for courses under Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind.

Black Mountain College. What that must have been like. Perhaps the ultimate outsider educational institution, it has influenced the arts and culture more than perhaps any other school of its size in America. Charles Olson was the head, but the teachers and students, whose roles often overlapped, included a pantheon of post-modern art and letters: Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, Paul Goodman, Stefan Wolpe, Buckminster Fuller, Franz Kline, M. C. Richards, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombley, John Chamberlain, Joel Oppenheimer, Ed Dorn, Michael Rumaker, John Wieners, Francine du Plessix Gray, and the list goes on. Though Williams had already printed his first Jargon book in 1951, when he arrived at Black Mountain he began publishing others matched with art. He had to go into the service and while in Germany began printing Creeley, Patchen, and the first volume of Olson’s Maximus Poems. When he returned from his tour he continued to publish the so called Black Mountain Poets, Creeley, Olson, Oppenheimer, Duncan, Dawson, Lou Harrison, Denise Levertov, Paul Backburn, Larry Eigner, Gilbert Sorentino and others sometimes associated with that group, Zukofsky, Paul Metcalf, Irving Layton, and Michael McClure. Soon he was publishing and recovering older generation writers, some of whom had fallen out of favor or through the cracks: Henry Miller, Sherwood Anderson, Mina Loy, Walter Lowenfels, and Buckminster Fuller.

He still has books coming out of Jargon which he has supported by subscription, patrons, foundations, and hauling the books around from place to place selling wherever he goes, squeaking by and putting everything he and his associate, Tom Meyer, a wonderful poet in his own right, can. His dedication to poetry and publishing should confer sainthood on him if there is poetic justice in heaven.

Next I suggest the reader dip into “A Wild Gould Chase,” a hilarious interchange between him and a younger William Harmon in search of an obscure poet, Wallace Gould, mentioned in passing by William Carlos Williams in his Autobiography. Jonathan lets us know about his penchant for locating and photographing the graves of significant (and obscure) writers, artists, musicians, and oddballs. This is a hilarious piece, indicative of Williams’ humor and peculiar pleasures.

Now you are ready to venture into stranger geography. One of the most intriguing pieces is “The Moon Pool and Others” originally a letter to Ian Young who was to edit an issue of Little Caesar called “Overlooked and Underrated,” originally published in 1989 and rewritten and amplified in 1998. He begins saying that he remembers who wrote “The Moon Pool,” Honest Abe Merritt. From there Williams launches into one of the most interesting catalog of books and authors and commentaries on literature and book publishing to be found. If you love books and bookstores and the serendipity of finding and following meandering literary trails, this will be a delight. No one other than Jonathan could possibly have created such a marvelously weird and yet enlightening book list.

Now you are ready for some of his poetry. It is an acquired taste. Some have characterized his poetry as found poems, others call them Hillbilly Haikus. They are very accessible, funny and irreverent. He has some clerihews, a form invented in 1890 by Edmund Clerihew Bentley. Next read his own verse form, Meta-Fours. Each line can have only four words with all punctuation and capitals eliminated except for possessive apostrophes. Look at these on page 29 and you will probably soon be giggling at the strange combinations.

By now you have probably located some of the photographs and have been drawn into an article here or there. You are on your own now. Lost in the highlands of punning poetry and hillbilly snobbery. If you don’t get it, you don’t get it, and brother don’t ask me for a dime. There are treasures here and golden seals and weeds and losses in Jonathan’s great knot garden of enthusiasms.