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literature

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Williams, Jonathan (1929-2008)  

Jonathan Williams was the author of more than a hundred books and booklets of gay poetry that merges flesh and spirit with a sense of history.

Williams was born in Asheville, North Carolina, and educated at St. Alban's School in Washington and at Princeton University. His real education, however, began at Black Mountain College (1951-1956), where he met Charles Olson and, in company with another gay poet, Robert Duncan, took on Ezra Pound's lesson of compact speech and William Carlos Williams's maxim "no ideas but in things."

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Jonathan Williams has been described as a cross "between Richard Pryor and the Roman poet Martial." Indeed, his poetic reception has suffered from his refusal to keep the flesh and the spirit separate.

Either he is criticized by the traditional straight world for lowering poetic tone or ignored by the gay world, both for seeing the raunchiness of our world in classical terms and for having a sense of history. For him Zeus is a randy old-goat tourist snatching up the local Ganymede trade, and Catullus is familiar with jock straps.

His old friend, the writer and classical scholar Guy Davenport (who has also written the best criticism on him), offers him such a vision: "he suggests Socrates sat on a bench in the gym, / the lovers came flocking / for the simple reason he was the best talker in town."

"I haven't seen the territory yet that can't be sexualized or examined for its poetic cuisine, or its birds, or for its dialects," Williams wrote. In one of his collections, Quantulumcumque (1991) (the word means "as much as can be said in a small space"), is an epigram of a modern hustler that reappropriates classical epigram form:

Donnie
pocket full of green
bottom full of cum

But he was also concerned with feeling--with getting beyond what he called the verbal and imaginative penury of "hardcornponeography." What he imagined best was the hard-on longing for it of country boys wild for passion.

He also wrote a fine sequence based on the fears and failings of the men interviewed by Havelock Ellis and a beautiful love poem ("Lexington Nocturne"), in which he lets his hand hang for a moment in the hair of his as-yet-unseduced bedmate and concludes "let that be all / for then."

Words were always squirming away from Williams as he attempted to see (not say) what is out there. (He talked about making poems out not up.) Often his titles (the lens of his poetic camera) are longer than the poems themselves.

Believing, like William Blake, that to generalize is to be an idiot, he has been described as a "poet of the complex actual." Williams was a pathologist of the ordinary, listening to the quirks and privacies of speech as they reveal character.

Many of his poems sound like (and were) overheards:

i hear you do
not care greatly for
the fair sex the
fair sex he snapped
back which is that

Along with his lover, the accomplished poet, Tom Meyer, Williams kept busy running Jargon Press, which has been responsible for publishing a number of gay poets--James Broughton, Robert Duncan, Harold Norse, and Paul Metcalf among them.

Some of his essays and reviews have been collected in The Magpie's Bagpipe (1982), but much of his liveliest work still remains uncollected in the annual collections of squibs and ripostes that he sent out to friends.

If he had failings, they were the result of his being too large, of embracing multitudes, as Whitman would put it. His bibliography extends to more than a hundred books and booklets as well as many other publications. It would be hard to think of any one person who did more for poetry, gay and straight, in America.

[Williams died on March 16, 2008 in Highlands, North Carolina. He was survived by Meyer, his companion for more than 40 years.]

Douglas Chambers

     

    
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    Bibliography
   

Davenport, Guy. Jonathan Williams, Poet. Cleveland: Asphodel Book Shop, 1969.

Fielding Dawson/Jonathan Williams Number. Vort 4 (Fall 1973).

Interview with Jonathan Williams. Gay Sunshine 28 (Spring 1976).

Irby, Kenneth. "America's Largest Openair Museum." Parnassus (Spring 1981): 307-328.

Marks, Jim. "A Jargon of their Own Making." The Advocate 24 (Nov. 1987).

 

    Citation Information
         
    Author: Chambers, Douglas  
    Entry Title: Williams, Jonathan  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
 
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated January 8, 2009  
    Web Address www.glbtq.com/literature/williams_j.html  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
 
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  
 

 

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