Jonathan Williams (March 8, 1929 – March 16, 2008) was an American poet, publisher, essayist, and photographer. He is known as the founder of The Jargon Society, which has published poetry, experimental fiction, photography, and folk art since 1951.
Williams attended St. Albans School in Washington, D.C., and then Princeton University, before dropping out to attend the Chicago Institute of Design and Black Mountain College, where he studied painting and graphic arts with Stanley William Hayter.
Along with David Ruff, Williams founded The Jargon Society in San Francisco in 1951 , with the goal of publishing obscure writers.
Associated with the Black Mountain poets, Williams was inspired by the visual arts, music, and the natural world; he experimented with found poetry and at times illustrated his work. His interests included civil rights, Appalachia and the Appalachian Trail, folk arts, and avant-garde poetry.
Through the relatively obscure but highly influential Jargon Press, Williams promoted the writings of such poets as Denise Levertov, Lorine Niedecker, Basil Bunting, Robert Creeley, Charles Olson, Louis Zukofsky, Paul Metcalf, Lou Harrison, Mina Loy, Joel Oppenheimer, Ronald Johnson, James Broughton, Alfred Starr Hamilton and many other works by the American and British avant-garde.
Once described as a “a busy gadfly who happened somehow to pitch on a slope in western North Carolina,” Williams was a living link between the experimental poets of Modernism’s “second wave” and the unknown vernacular artists of Appalachia. Guy Davenport likened Williams’ use of “found language” to the use of “found footage” by avant-garde filmmakers, as well as describing Williams as a species of cultural anthropologist. Williams for his part explained the fascination of such material in plainer terms:
“Well, as you know, a lot of my poetry is found and that’s, I think, because I think I’m quite a good listener and I’m willing to lay back and listen, and I think it’s something do with living in the country. I mean, this place, Skywinding Farm, there are times when Tom Meyer and I will only see somebody from the outside world once or twice a week. And we’ve known each other so long that we don’t talk as much as we might. Tom can talk up a storm, He’s up there in the Duncan/Olson class. So I like to listen and I like to hear things, so if you listen carefully then you do find things. I do it all the time. I mean, you know the early book, Blues and Roots, which was done in the course of walking a big piece of the Appalachian Trail, I listened to mountain people for over a thousand miles and I really heard some amazing stuff. And I left it pretty much as I heard it. I didn’t have to do anything but organize a little bit, crystallize it, you know. That’s the thing I love about found material, you wake it up, you “make” it into something.”
The literary critic Hugh Kenner described Williams as the “truffle hound of American poetry”.
A. Primary Publications
1. Williams, Jonathan. GARBAGE LITTERS THE IRON FACE OF THE SUN’S CHILD
(San Francisco): Jargon, 1951
First edition, 4″ x 13″ broadside folded twice to make a 4″ x 5″ leaflet, engraving by David Ruff, 50 copies. Printed by David Ruff at The Print Workshop. Published as Jargon 1. (Jaffe A4)
[not in archive]
2. Williams, Jonathan. LA VIE ENTRE LES GADARENES (INFINITY FIRST, NOT LAST)
Black Mountain: Grapnel Press, 1951
First edition, 8.5″ x 11″ sheet folded once, 150 copies with envelope. (Jaffe A6)
3. Williams, Jonathan. RED/GRAY
Black Mountain: Jargon, 1952
First edition, 8.75″ x 10″ folio with halftone drawings by Paul Ellsworth tipped in, 100 copies. Publishes as Jargon 3. (Jaffe A7)
4. Williams, Jonathan. FOUR STOPPAGES / A CONFIGURATION
Stuttgart: Jargon, 1953
First edition, 40″ x 15.25″ sheet folded three times to make eight panels, 200 copies. Drawings by Charles Oscar. Publishes as Jargon 5. (Jaffe A8)
5. Williams, Jonathan. THE EMPIRE FINALS AT VERONA
Highlands: Jargon, 1956
First edition, perfect bound illustrated wrappers, 8″ x 10.75″, 26 pages, 1000 copies. Collages by Fielding Dawson. Publishes as Jargon 30. (Jaffe A12)
6. Jonathan Williams. LORD! LORD! LORD!: TRADITIONAL FUNERAL MUSIC
Highlands: Jargon, 1959
First edition, folded card in envelope, 5.5″ x 4.25″, handset and printed “for the friends of the Jargon Press” by Igal Roodenko. Published as Jargon 39. (Jaffe A13)
JONATHAN WILLIAMS: A BIBLIOGRAPHIC CHECKLIST OF HIS WRITINGS, 1950-1988. Compiled by James S. Jaffe