Jeffery Beam

The Truffle-Hound of American Poetry:

Poet, publisher, and photographer Jonathan Chamberlain Williams,
founder of The Jargon Society press, one of the most renowned
small presses of the last half of the twentieth century, and champion
and publisher of some of the most important mid and late
century poets in the United States and England, died of natural
causes on March 16, 2008 in Highlands, North Carolina. Williams,
79, began his avant-garde press while a student at the Chicago
Institute of Design, naming it “Jargon” not only for its meaning of
personal idiom, but after the French spring pear, “jargonelle,” and
the French “jargon,” meaning the twittering of birds.

The only child of the late Thomas Benjamin and Georgette
(Chamberlain) Williams, Williams was born on March 8, 1929 in
Asheville, North Carolina, grew up in the District of Columbia and
spent summers at the family’s North Carolina mountain home. His
father, who designed office systems for government contracts in
Washington, grew up in Hendersonville, North Carolina; his
mother, a gifted decorator, was the daughter of a successful banker
in Atlanta, growing up there and on the ancestral farm near
Cartersville, Georgia.

Williams’ interests and talents revealed him as a Renaissance man—
publisher; poet and satirist; book designer; editor; photographer;
legendary correspondent; literary, art, and photography critic and
collector; early collector and proselytizer of visionary folk art; cultural
anthropologist; curmudgeon; happy gardener; resolute walker;
and keen and adroit raconteur and gourmand. Williams’ refined
decorum and speech, and his sartorial style, contrasted sharply, yet
pleasingly, with his delight in the bawdy, with his incisive humor,
and his confidently experimental and inventive poems and prose.
His interests, in his own words, raised “the common to grace,”
while paying “close attention to the earthy.” At the forefront of the
avant-garde, and yet possessing a deep appreciation of the traditional,
Williams celebrated, rescued, and preserved those things he
described as, “more and more away from the High Art of the city,”
settling “for what I could unearth and respect in the tall grass.”

Despite numerous awards and honorary degrees, including a
Guggenheim, numerous National Endowment Fellowships, and a
Longview Foundation Grant, Williams was never sufficiently
acknowledged for his achievements as a poet or prose stylist by the
writing establishment, nor for his press’s generosity toward artists
from all walks of life. His southern Appalachian origins created in
him a deep sympathy for the underdog, for society’s throwaways,
and for the unbridled creativity of the outsider. He unapologetically
celebrated his gay identity long before it was fashionable. By the
Reagan years he had begun to object even more vigorously to the
failure of American democracy and education. Williams’ concerns
about threats to the natural world, the loss of a humane and wellmannered
society, and his distaste for hypocrisy in government, religion
and the arts, made for vivid poetry, prose, and conversation,
and informed his choices as a publisher. Known for his irascible and
opinionated manner, he once stated (quoting Henry Miller paraphrasing 
Celine), “one of the things Jargon is devoted to is an attack
on urban culture. We piss on it all from a considerable height.”

Nevertheless, acclaim came despite the poetry world’s general indifference.
Buckminster Fuller once called Williams “our Johnny
Appleseed.” Guy Davenport described him as a “kind of polytechnic
institute,” while Hugh Kenner hailed Jargon as “the Custodian
of Snowflakes” and Williams as “the truffle-hound of American
poetry.” Williams held a number of poet-in-residencies early in his
career. The Maryland Institute College of the Arts honored him in
1969 with a Doctor of Humane Letters, and in 1974 he received the
“Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels” for services to the arts in
Kentucky. Publishers Weekly awarded the press its Carey-Thomas
Citation for creative small-press publishing in 1977, and in the same
year Williams received the North Carolina Award in Fine Arts.

In 1980, Williams joined a handful of other poets who’d been
invited to read at the Carter Administration’s White House Poetry
Day event. In 1998, he was inducted into the North Carolina
Literary Hall of Fame. Not only was Williams the master at the
helm of The Jargon Society Press, he was also a contributing editor
to the photography magazine Aperture, and distinguished
Houghton-Mifflin Editor, Peter Davison, stated in 1990 that “a
sensible society would set up a permanent outsize subsidy for…
Williams and let him go to whatever his hand fell upon. “Jargon is
still searching out astonishments; it is one of the irreplaceable
American small-press institutions.”

Williams began his education at Washington’s Cathedral School at
St. Albans, entering Princeton in 1947, where he soon found the
academic track stifling. He wrote in a 1984 self-interview, “I
clearly did not want to become a Byzantinist in the basement of
The Morgan Library; or an art critic for The New Yorker; nor did I
want to live in the world of competitive business.” Escape, much to
his parents’ dismay, was inevitable and leaving Princeton in his
sophomore year, he studied painting at the Washington’s Phillips
Gallery with Karl Knaths, later joining Bill Hayter’s Atelier 17 in
Greenwich Village to study etching, engraving, and printmaking.

Williams’ interest in photography and bookmaking led him eventually
to the Chicago Institute of Design. Again, he soon found the
commercial focus too confining, and his interest in photography
deepened. Photographer Harry Callahan, a professor at the school,
was unable to allow a lower-classman into his seminars, and suggested
that Williams go to Black Mountain College in the summer
of 1951, to study with him and Aaron Siskind. Before leaving,
however, Williams detoured through California to meet with
Kenneth Rexroth, Henry Miller, and Kenneth Patchen, all writers
and visionaries with whom he had been corresponding. Their
enthusiasms for the enhancement of words through visual dimensions,
and Black Mountain’s principles of learning by doing and the
tactile importance of art, were to play an important role in the
development of Williams’ aesthetic principles as a poet, photographer,
publisher, collector, and critic.

Jargon and Williams came to life at Black Mountain where
Williams, under the tutelage of rector poet Charles Olson, began
writing more of his own poetry. Olson hired his talented student to
be the college publisher. Ultimately Jargon, along with New
Directions, Grove, and City Lights, became one of the four most
famous small presses of a burgeoning 1960s movement that continues
not only on the printed page, but today, even on the Internet.
Jargon’s books, in particular, became collectibles, setting the standard
for the small press, and were widely praised for their meticulous
beauty and refined craft, and for Williams’ ability to discover
new and important talent. In the late 1950s, the 1960s and 1970s,
Williams was known for filling his Volkswagen Beetle with books
and traversing the country, selling books out of the back seat, giving
readings, and spreading the word about the many writers and
artists he had come to know.

Writers and artists nurtured by Jargon number in the hundreds.
Many of their careers began or blossomed under Williams’ and
Jargon’s patronship, including American authors James Broughton,
Robert Creeley, Guy Davenport, Robert Duncan, Russell Edson,
Buckminster Fuller, Ronald Johnson, Denise Levertov, Mina Loy,
Paul Metcalf, Lorine Niedecker, Charles Olson, Joel Oppenheimer,
and Louis Zukofsky; photographers Lyle Bongé, Elizabeth
Matheson, John Menapace, Mark Steinmetz, and Doris Ullman;
British poets Basil Bunting, Thomas A. Clark, Simon Cutts, and Ian
Hamilton Finlay; and bookmakers Jonathan Greene, Doyle Moore,
and Keith Smith. Some of the artists and photographers who contributed
visually to Jargon designs include Harry Callahan, John
Furnival, David Hockney, R. B. Kitaj, James McGarrell, Ralph
Eugene Meatyard, Guy Mendes, Robert Rauschenberg, and Art
Sinsabaugh. Thornton Dial, St. EOM, Georgia Blizzard, Howard
Finster, Annie Hooper, and James Harold Jennings, are just a few
of the visionary folk artists whom Williams began to champion in
the 1980s, and whose work is represented in his outstanding personal
collection of outsider art, in his essays about visionary art,
and his yet unpublished monograph Walks to the Paradise Garden.
One Jargon title, Ernie Matthew Mickler’s White Trash Cooking,
took America by storm, appearing on the New York Times bestseller
list, with major interviews and reviews in the national media,
standing alone as the book which temporarily made Jargon a
household name.

North Carolina writers and artists published by The Jargon Society
are poets Jeffery Beam, Janet Lembke, and Thomas Meyer; art historian
Tom Patterson; and photographers Roger Manley, Dave
Spear, and Matheson and Menapace mentioned above.

The Jargon Society archives, containing personal papers as well as
press materials, rest at the Poetry/Rare Books Collection—SUNY
at Buffalo. Williams’ correspondents were legion. In his letters, no
less than in his poetry and essays, Williams—who was known to
write under various noms de plume such as Lord Stodge, Big Enis,
Colonel Williams, and Lord Nose—held court, preaching the art
gospel with his usual flair. He was fond of quoting Robert Duncan,
“Responsibility is to keep the ability to respond.” Yale University
recently purchased Williams’ personal photographic archive,
including his uncommon portraits of poets, painters, writers, and
artists—major works documenting Black Mountain College and
Williams’ peripatetic wanderings across America and Europe. His
letters, negatives, and photographic prints alone will provide bountiful 
insight into 20th century culture, history, sensibility, and community.

Celebrated as a Black Mountain Poet, Williams’ work argues the
primary importance of imagination as a foil to ignorance, and pinpoints
ignorance (whether in the arts, civic or personal realms) as
the source of cultural blight. As a poet he has been described as a
cross between Martial, Socrates, Basho, Tu Fu, and Richard Pryor.
Experimental and open in form, the symbiotic relationship between
music and poetic composition and the possibilities of beauty found
in the high and low, the ribald and the erudite, the metaphysical
and the concrete, set his writing apart as audaciously original.
Oftentimes expressed through word-play, found poems, paeans to
pastoral significance, and rails against contemporary despoliation,
the poems and essays draw on a wide range of subjects and themes
including politics, jokes, local speech and customs, classical music
and jazz, and visionary, photographic, and abstract art. In them
Mahler, Bruckner, Delius, Ives, Satie, Samuel Palmer, and William
Blake commune with Mae West, Jelly Roll Morton, Thelonius
Monk, Frederick Sommer, and Richard Diebenkorn. Articulated
through an unconventional synesthetic panache, commanding musical
economy, and vinegary wit, they demand attention to ecological
guardianship of the arts, nature, and local traditions. His works of
local speech equally capture the unpretentious nuances of country
vernacular and the refinement of the “aristocracy,” as well as the
sometimes dumb misapprehensions of each.

Williams’ over one hundred works, published by many of the most
important small presses in this country and Britain, exemplified his
playful blend of polish and earthiness, and revealed his massive and
impressive circle of friends. Williams seems to have known practically
everyone of consequence in early and mid-twentieth century
American alternative arts. An Ear In Bartram’s Tree (1969,
University of North Carolina) and Blues & Roots/Rue & Bluets
(1971, Grossman; 1985, Duke University) demonstrate his sensitivity
to the nuances of language and the simple charms of
Appalachian and White Trash culture. Quote, Unquote (1989, Ten
Speed Press) was one of many editions of Williams’ astonishing
accumulations of revelatory quotations discovered in his wide reading.
A Palpable Elysium: Portraits of Genius and Solitude (2002,
David Godine) offers a select view of Williams’ photographs of
unique people and places accompanied by pithy, revealing miniessays.
The Magpie’s Bagpipe (1982, North Point) and Blackbird
Dust (2000, Turtle Point) collect spicy essays on artists and culture.
Jubilant Thicket: New and Selected Poems (2005, Copper Canyon)
contains a selection of over 1000 of Williams’ poems.

Williams and his partner of forty years, Poet Thomas Meyer, lived
since the early 1970s in a seventeenth century shepherd’s cottage in
the English Cumbrian hills in the summer and at the Scaly
Mountain home near Highlands, North Carolina, in the winter. For
the past decade they have resided mostly at Skywinding Farm in
Scaly. Williams is survived by Meyer, their beloved ginger-cat H-B,
and numerous devoted friends and supporters. In the Appalachian
poem “Epitaphs for Two Neighbors in Macon County No Poet
Could Forget” Williams captures Uncle Iv Owens. It seems a fitting
epitaph, too, for this remarkable man of American letters, Jonathan

          he done
          what he could
          when he got round
          to it