Friday, March 21, 2008


Just wanted to mention the recent passing of three “artists” whose work touched me over the years.

JONATHAN WILLIAMS (1929-2008) was a poet, publisher and photographer. But most of all, he was an example of being true to oneself.

A cultured Southern gentleman, who happened to be quite comfortable with his homosexuality before the word “gay” even gained currency in the wider society, he started out as a student at the most experimental arts college perhaps ever seen in this country, Black Mountain, which existed in its most original form for not much more than a decade, but saw many, if not most, of the modern masters of the avant-garde art, dance,, poetry, music, etc. worlds pass through as either students or teachers.

(Just a small list would include John Cage, Willem DeKooning, Merce Cunningham, Charles Olson and Robert Creeley, etc.)

Edward Dahlberg, a much admired writer of the first half of the 20th Century, who is pretty much ignored now, called Williams “the most cultivated poet of the whole brood” meaning the younger poets of the 1950s, and “the most lyrical,” and then added “you can throw in most of the older decayed ones too.” Jonathan was also a very funny man, who used his intelligence and taste to poke fun at the foibles of his times, no matter what direction they were coming from.

He was also a teacher and mentor to many poets, and under the aegis of his Jargon Press he published a wide array of “avant-garde” poets. And he did it all out of his North Carolina mountain home, not far from where he had grown up (in Ashville as I remember it).

I knew him most in the late 1960s and early 1970s when he took an interest in my own poetry and small press publishing ventures. He visited Washington DC occasionally, where I was living at the time, and was always a gas to spend time with.

There’s no typical example of his “art,” since he responded to the moment with different approaches, but almost always with a foundation of humor. Like the time he made a bumper sticker—we’re talking c. 1970 in the South—that played on the common one found in the region then: “HONK IF YOU LOVE JESUS.”

Only Jonathan’s had an image of a Crusader on it and said ‘CONQUE IF YOU LOVE JESUS” (as I remember it, though that may not be the exact spelling for the Latin imperative for “conquer”).

Here’s two examples from MAHLER, one of my favorite books of Jonathan’s:

II. Moderately slow “Schubertian”


summer sun

paens of

And this, from a later section (and without as much of an ironic undertone):

II. Stormily agitated

to be a block of flowers
in a wood

to be mindlessly in flower
past understanding

to be shone on

to be there, there
and blessed

IVAN DIXON (1931-2008) is probably best known for acting on and directing TV shows, most of which I never saw. But for me, the first time I saw him and was impacted by his work was his leading role in a film included on my list of movies from the 1960s that best expressed the tenor of those tumultuous years.

The film was NOTHING BUT A MAN, which I haven’t seen since it came out in the early 1960s and seriously impressed me. I went to see it mostly because his co-star was Abbey Lincoln, the great jazz singer and civil rights activist, as well as great beauty, who most of the musicians I knew and hung around with and played with were in love with, including me.

But it was Ivan Dixon that carried the film, one of the first to address Southern racism from a completely “black” perspective. It was “avant-garde” in its own way, for its unique perspective and its black and white documentary style, but was also still a good story well told. If you ever get the chance to check it out, imagine watching it back then.

ANTHONY MINGHELLA (1954-2008) is the most famous of these three, having won an Oscar for his direction of THE ENGLISH PATIENT. But he was also nominated for screenplay adaptations (at least one, THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY), and as a writer his taste was also pretty “avant-garde,” or at least not as main stream as most Hollywood big production movie directors.

THE ENGLISH PATIENT has its problems, for my taste, but it was still an enormously successful work of art, lush and complicated, absorbing while somehow still distancing the viewer, or at least this viewer.

I think I got teary-eyed when I saw it, if I remember correctly, and fell in love with all the actresses in it, and yet was still very aware of watching a movie, a work of art, unfold mostly successfully before my eyes. Kind of a cross between Brecht and David lean.

Minghella had a great eye for the screen, and an ear for dialogue better than many of his contemporaries. It’s a shame he died so young, though back in the 1960s I would have thought him old enough for death at 54. Now, death seems to pretty much always come too soon for my aging perspective.


Curtis Faville said...

"Black Mountain, which existed in its most original form for not much more than a decade...."

Michael: Black Mountain College existed for well over a decade. It was started in 1933 and closed in 1957. Olson closed it, as I recall, being the last rector of record.

The Black Mountain phenomenon is notorious in the history of American letters, since its "influence" has been so blurred by misinformation and extrapolation that it's thought to have involved dozens of writers and artists who never taught there or attended, but were "connected" through some vague association (usually in the mind of the critic or fan). Also, just what it means to "be" Black Mountain is entirely vague, since its "practitioners" were so various and distinct that to call it a movement or a style is meaningless.

It's certainly a stretch to make the claim that "most of the modern masters of the avant-garde art, dance, poetry, music, etc. worlds pass through as either students or teachers." You'd have some big arguments on your hands if you stuck with that.

I recently saw e.e. cummings referred to as a Beat Poet, a title often applied to many writers who had nothing whatever to do with the so-called original Beats, such as Bukowski, Ted Berrigan, Frank O'Hara, and dozens of others.

These monikers begin to be used adjectivally, rather than specifically, as if anyone who wrote a poem that used the page ("projectively" like Olson) was "Black Mountain" or even someone who mentioned a Black Mountain figure as "important" to them could be included. Early Leroi Jones was "influenced" by Olson, therefore is "associated with" Black Mountain. Nonsense! Jones had nothing to do with Black Mountain.

A tendency towards experimentalism is about as far as I think I'd be willing to go in characterizing the "avant" writers and artists of the post-War period. Experimentation had characterized both conservative and radical writers during the Modernist period, with reactionaries like Eliot and Moore on the one side, and radicals like Pound and Williams on the other. Both sides experimented, successfully, with form, but that had nothing integral to do with their respective political political or critical views. They're all Modernist, but attempting to cluster or group them in other ways is difficult, and usually not very useful.

Since by definition, almost, any instructor and/or student of Black Mountain would naturally have been "experimental" because of the school's mandate, it's no more than obvious that they'd be regarded as "masters" by those who consider themselves "experimental." It's hard to think of two writers more different than Olson and Creeley--both in style and intent--despite the fact that they were best friends for 20 years, corresponded intensively, and promoted each others' work at every turn. Advocates of "coterie" and "milieu" and the importance of association notwithstanding, the social and/or institutional context isn't what makes individual artists interesting or important.

Jonathan Williams was nothing if not a believer in the local, the strange, the isolated, the independently original. As the quintessential genteel Southern White Gay cosmopolite entrepreneur/hustler, he understood the value of labels, publicity, and getting the word out. Methinks he would have--and certainly did--discover Williams and Pound and Catullus and Ovid and Delius and Satie and Bruckner and Siskind and Guy Mendes all by himself, with or without having attended Black Mountain during his impressionable youth. We can appreciate writers and artists for being special examples of nothing more than, simply, themselves, without having to validate that regard by invoking movements and schools as a form of justification.

Lally said...

Thanks for the erudite comments Curtis. I wasn't classifying Jonathan as a "Black Mountain poet" or a projective verse poet or open field poet or any of the other terms often associated with that place and time. I was pointing out for those who don't know much about it, that Black Mountain was a big influence on Jonathan, according to what he told me. I had no idea he had also attended the University of Chicago, for design I think I read, and even did a stint at Harvard, if I remember correctly. But it was what he was exposed to at Black Moutain, in addition I am sure to what he learned on his own and from others elsewhere, that made him who he was, from my experience of him. As for not categorizing, or quibbling with the way others do it, Bukowski has nothing to do with "the Beats," most of whom hated that term being applied to them anyway (and I notice Ann Waldman is now included in "Beat" anthologies, although she wasn't even born when the movement was, and was only a girl when they became notorious etc.) and if Eliot is considered by you "conservative" in his poetics and Pound the opposite, "experimental" or whatever, to me, that's all hindsight and from a "L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E" poetics perspective. They were both "conservative" politically, Pound obviously more so in his own way, and both were, as you point out, initially "experimental" with Eliot much more so than Pound, and in fact from my reading of their relationship, it was editing "The Wasteland" that turned Pound in a truly "experimental" direction at last, after spouting all kinds of theories and encouragements for "modernization" but actually writing mostly turgid, retrograde, way too steeped in "tradition" or his sense of it, "verse." Yes, his CANTOS are an amazing attempt to chart the interests of one mind and the leaps and juxtapositions of seemingly unrelated fragments of history/dialogue/thoughts/judgments/opnions/letters/essays/formulas/manifestos/et-almost-endlessly-cetera, and is about as "experimental" as any one had been when he began them, though a lot of people caught up pretty fast. I was just trying to express who i thought Joanathan Williams was for those who might not know, and attempted to touch on what I experienced as him in person and in his writing and what made that unique. I didn't do a great job, and I am as against generalities as anyone, especially since I have been classified as being one of many different groupings of poets and equally dismissed by the same groups or their defenders when my work seemed to deviate from the dictates that define the classification etc. Oh, and I'll also stick by my statement that what made Black Mountain, what I think of when I read or hear that name, the uniquely supportive environment for the kinds of experiments in the arts that led to many of the works I admired as a young man and that inspired me to keep going on my own path etc. didn't last for much more than a decade, but you're right that I got a little carried away in describing the scores of artists associated with the place, artists I consider "great" and "masters" and who again inspired me as a young "artist" by just doing work I could relate to in terms of my own "experiments" with various arts. There obviously were many great artists of all kinds who never went near Black Mountain. But still, I don't think there is any other school in the 20th century U.S. that had as many great artists pass through as students and/or teachers in such a short period of time.

Curtis Faville said...

Michael: Perhaps my comments came across as too pejorative. They weren't meant to be.

My point--and I think you got that clearly--was to reject the notion that groups validate individuals, or that people are only important because of the historical buzzwords we can invoke. The marketplace of ideas is so slipshod. I was just watching a debate about Wikipedia on public television, and several of the speakers were disturbed about the lack of context and hierarchical discrimination which characterize that fake online "encyclopedia". If Anne Waldman is a "Beat" then the word obviously has no meaning. I think it's important not to underestimate your audience by assuming they don't know the simplest things about your subject.

From my perspective, Beat has no meaning anyway. Writers frequently indulge their own "associations" as cynically as publishers and critics do. You might want to note that I was NEVER a "language" poet, and have done my best to make that distance clear on Silliman's blog. Despite that, I was close to Barrett Watten, Robert Grenier and Ron Silliman at a certain point in my life (1970-1975), but I was never accepted as "one of the group". I regard Watten's current pet project "Grand Piano" to be a public embarrassment, not only for the individual participants, but for the movement they all appear to want, now, to have been such a crucial part of.

So much for associations!

Thanks for the post on JWilliams. Was Black Mountain important to him?--of course, but I think he was bigger and more original (and important) than what that fact might tell us about his career, in retrospect, if you see what I'm getting at. Whereas, with Oppenheimer, his first book (and perhaps his second) are possibly the best things he ever did, and they were clearly his "Black Mountain" work. Black Mountain may have been the best thing about Oppenheimer. Not so with Williams, whose development as a writer (and thinker) had to wait a decade or more to flower.

One thing that appears lacking is the sort of first hand evidence of what actually occurred at Black Mountain. We have a handful of secondary reports, but not much concrete. Olson and Creeley were just in the early stages of trying to figure out what they thought, and to formulate their apprehensions into rubric (Olson's word). We ordinarily think about influential schools as being important for the transmission of some essential gift or message, passed down from master to acolyte. But Black Mountain may not have been that kind of scene at all. The casual, relaxed, open-ended quality of the instruction probably legislated against that. Black Mountain was created, as I recall, to liberate the student so that his/her own creative impulse could be animated. One thing we can say with certainty: The radical Moderns were definitely NOT being taught in the "straight" academy in the early 1950's; hence an oppositional stance, offering Pound and Williams, for instance, as against Eliot and Stevens and Ransom et al., would have been considered revolutionary for its time.

Lally said...

I hear you Curtis, and it makes a lot of sense. As for my over explaining at times. I'm guilty of that in a lot of my writing, partly because I write for the boy I once was who felt excluded by all the intellectual elites, even those who weren 't very much of either. In my posts about poetry especially, I try to create some context, because a lot of those who check out my blog are family and old friends, who have little knowledge of literary history or critical or self-identification within it. But your points are all well taken. And though I use the various critical and self-identified categories when I teach poetry workshops, to help those unintitiated get some kind of grip on the various trends and tendencies in modern and contemporary poetry etc. I always throw in the caveat that these groupings are completely arbitrary and few fit the formulas perfectly, or even imperfectly in some cases. I guess the category I cling to the most is that of my taste. I was always admonished (at the U. of Iowa Writers Workshop, where I was one of the oldest, being a vet there on the G. I. Bill etc., or from "language" poet friends and/or Black Arts movement friends and/or feminists, gay revolutionaries, New York school, Beats, ad nauseum) that my taste was too broad, that, as one professor put it, "you love too easily Michael," which, come to think of it, my family and friends told me over the years is true of the rest of my life as well. But I've found that loving anything, be it a poem, a gerbil, or your mate or kids or that song on the radio, is what opens the heart, and an open heart is the key to happiness. Now what school of writing would this comment fit into, or category for the back of the book so bookstores would know where to file it! Anyway, thanks for caring enough to comment Curtis, I was happy to see that you did. And yes, I do often read your comments on Silliman's blog, but I also often have trouble following the "thread" of the arguments there because the language in them often gets as "lang-po" as the topics often are. But you usually propose perspectives that make me rethink what's being discussed, or my own old ideas, so keep up the good work.