Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Jonathan Williams: Toward a Second Look

What's the old maxim? Don't speak ill of the dead? There's a curious metamorphosis that takes place after death, besides the body's moldering. If we believe less these days in a reckoning before a juridical God (or Pluto, or Osiris), we know there's still a reckoning of a different sort, one that affects not our afterlife in the world beyond, but our afterlife within the community and culture of which we're each a part. For those who lead public lives, especially our artists and writers, the departure sometimes offers a moment of public reconnection, new recognition that what the artist has done has significance and resonance, beyond whatever claims the contending artist might have made for it. Or not. And sometimes ... well, Melville's death was little noted in 1891, eliciting but one obituary; re-appraisal, and the recognition of achievement it provided, had to wait for thirty years and the publication of Raymond Weaver's 1921 biography; his edition of Melville's last work, the short novel Billy Budd, in 1924; and texts like D. H. Lawrence's 1923 Studies in Classical American Literature.

The recent death of Jonathan Williams, late of Scaly Mountain, near Highlands, seems happily to have spurred the world to give his work a more immediate second look. Ron Silliman, one of the leading conceptual poets of the generation that came of age just after Donald Allen's 1960 anthology New American Poetry had reshaped the landscape of American verse, recalled in a post after Williams' death that he'd heralded Jubilant Thicket, his last collection, as "one of those absolute must-have books of poetry." And the Electronic Poetry Center, one of the primary Internet source sites for poets who appeared (as Jonathan did) in that anthology, as well as their spiritual progeny, has now created a page for him with an array of links to the small part of his work that's made it to the web, and to a slew of articles, obituaries, and appreciations* that help provide context for the encounter with his work. Such notice, however belated, is always welcome to the kin, friends, and fans who survive.

A curious fact about Mr. Williams, of course, is that he didn't start out to be a poet at all. When he came to Black Mountain College in 1951, it was to study with photographer Harry Callahan, who was teaching in the summer session. Charles Olson, who headed the college and taught courses in writing, cosmology, and "the present", recognized Williams' great gift as a writer, though, and - shazam! - writing soon became for Williams the primary creative focus. He'd founded Jargon Press by the end of 1951, when he was just twenty-two; he'd go on to publish under the Jargon imprint roughly a hundred titles by the brilliant wildcat pioneers and outliers of American arts and letters in the decades after the college had ceased to exist.

Fortunately, he continued to use his camera, too; thanks to him, we have images of many of the denizens of Black Mountain College during their time together there - Charles Olson, for instance, sitting at his desk in his quarters at the college writing an early Maximus poem. And Robert Creeley, who used one of Jonathan's photos of him on the cover of 1969's The Charm, which collected poems from the Black Mountain era. Poet Thomas Meyer, Jonathan's longtime partner in Jargon, said recently that Jonathan had shot thousands of photos over the years, many with a Rolleiflex twin-lens reflex camera that used a medium format film - and so provided negatives with much higher resolution than those from 35mm cameras. He later favored the Polaroid SX-70, whose print format was of a similar size. When Jonathan and Thomas would join friends for dinner, Jonathan would often use the Polaroid to shoot everyone present and document the antics of the occasion. In the fall, he'd go through the stacks of shots from the previous year, and mount them in albums. He'd also assemble slide shows of whatever images had caught his eye - poets, landscapes, architecture, landscapes, art works. Williams, according to Meyer, continued taking photos through 2004. By 2006, when the transparencies were archived at Yale's Beinecke Library, he'd amassed "several thousand", including a "core collection" of about 2400. Two of his published titles, 1979's Portrait Photographs and A Palpable Elysium, published in 2000, drew on this vast photographic work.

This month Asheville's Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center will help us give Jonathan's work as a photographer the same sort of second look that his poetry has recently begun to receive. On June 13th, the Center will open a show of Williams photos, many of them fine black and white prints that beautifully register and find form in occasions during his years at Black Mountain. Others, some of them in the vibrant saturated colors with which he later loved to work, feature Black Mountain artists and writers, like M. C. Richards and Robert Duncan, who came into the orbit of his eye after their years at the college. Williams became, I think, a master of the post-modern portrait, situating his subjects in vivid color fields or apparent contexts that give the images depth and dimension.

But take this opportunity to give the work a look for yourself.

The show will be up at the Center through September 20th.

Jonathan made it clear that he wanted no memorial services - but while the show is up, the Center will also celebrate Williams' work as a poet on July 19th. Plans for that event were developing at last Sunday's "life celebration" at Scaly Mountain. More about it in a future note.

If You Go:
What: Photographs by Jonathan Williams. Visions of Wonderment + Affection

Where: Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center, 56 Broadway, Downtown Asheville
When: June 13th through September 20th , 2008, Opening with a reception on June 13th, 7:00pm
Admission: $3, free for members of the Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center; the reception is free.

More Info: (828) 384-5050 or
online at

The photo: Jonathan Williams, Beauty and the Beast: Joel Oppenheimer and Francine du Plessix Gray, BMC, 1951, gelatin silver print, 21.75 x 21.25 inches, BMCM+AC Collection, Gift of the artist.

*Including an earlier post here. Other posts on Jonathan are here and here.

This post appeared in slightly different form in the June, 2008 issue of
Rapid River.

Labels: , , , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home