A poet, essayist, photographer, and publisher, Jonathan Williams was a multifaceted artist who left his most notable mark in the form of The Jargon Society, a small-press publisher with a focus on unsung voices in poetry, photography, and experimental prose. After starting The Jargon Society in 1951, Jonathan Williams came to Black Mountain College, first to study photography under Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind, then as a student of poetry influenced by the charismatic Charles Olson.
When Jonathan Williams came to BMC, he was also returning to his hometown. He was born in Buncombe County, North Carolina and, upon his return, became interested in observing the dialect of the rural southeast and the many traditions and cultural aspects represented through language there.
A place can be seen in many different ways, besides geographical landmarks or street names. Through conscious observation, information that might go unnoticed or be taken for granted can become representative of culture. By working through the following exercises, we can begin a practice of observing and translating as well as begin to gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of the places we call home.
Jonathan Williams at Shakertown, Pleasant Hill, KY, 1982. Guy Mendes. Collection of BMCM+AC. Gift of Chan and Miegan Gordon
A Chorale* of Cherokee Night Music As Heard Through an Open Window in Summer Long Ago (*screech owl, hoot owl, yellow-breasted chat, jar-fly, cricket, carolina chickadee, katydid, crow, wolf, beetle, turkey goose, bullfrog, spring frog) From Six Rusticated, Wall-eyed Poems, 1969. Jonathan Williams with graphic realizations by Dana Atchley. Published by Maryland Institute College of Art. Collection of BMCM+AC. Gift of Brian Butler.
Williams was a master of translating sound onto the page. In many of his poems, he inspires the question, “What do the sounds of a place look like?”
In order to begin this process, we must observe sounds in an intentional way that may feel unnatural at first. Maybe you can hear a car horn honking on your street, but can you listen deeply and imagine what that sound may look like separate from the car that’s making it? Can you write it out? Can you assign a visual representation to it?
Sitting on a street corner, in your yard, on the bus, in a restaurant – what do you hear? What can those sounds look like?
We began this poem-writing process by sitting in the center of the Museum’s neighboring Pack Square Park and just listening. We wrote out some ideas on the spot, and tried to use the shapes of letters and fonts to our advantage, while trying to avoid basic onomatopeias. William’s titles are often exceedingly descriptive and so we tried to create a title that informed the poem itself. Our finished piece became an exploration of the peaceful sounds of nature juxtaposed with the loud and often jarring sounds of a city.
“All That (sirens & engines & horns & birds) And The Fall Of A Leaf”
THE CONCRETE POEM
There is a bounty of mundane text that we overlook in our daily lives that can tell us a lot about the area in which it is found – street signs, grave stones, billboards, restaurant names, graffiti, etc. Observations can reveal a representation of the emotions, history and traditions that exist within a place, and these random pieces of text are incredible places to pick up that kind of information. What can you observe in your neighborhood that speaks to you?
“The concrete poem, the seen poem, is just another tool, another way – the slow curve to go with the lyrical fastball – to keep us all alive and in the majors.” – Jonathan Williams
The Epitaph on Uncle Nick Grindstaff’s Grave on the Iron Mountain Above Shady Valley, Tennessee, from Six Rusticated, Wall-eyes Poems, 1969. Jonathan Williams, with graphic realizations by Dana Atchley. Published by Maryland Institute College of Art. Collection of BMCM+AC. Gift of Brian Butler
We began this poem by going on a short walk around downtown Asheville. We took pictures of any text that jumped out at us – because it was funny or politically charged or a weird shape or font – and then sat down back at the Museum and looked at all of our pictures together. We selected our “favorite” of the photos and tried to parse out why it affected us so much.
Upon close examination, the “Bike Lane Ends” photo reveals paint that has rubbed away on the “B” in “Bike”. We could not stop thinking about little creatures named “Pikes” not having anywhere to go, since their lane was about to end – and so this is the photo we used for our poem. We decided on a title that told what we were thinking regarding the “Pikes,” but also gave some insight into what the original image was.
“Where will the Pikes go afterward? (Faded Paint)”
To learn more about Jonathan Williams and his lifelong dedication to artists and eccentrics alike, visit our current exhibition Jonathan Williams and the Jargon Society at 120 College St. in downtown Asheville until August 14, 2021.