It's not easy being a Renaissance Man in postmodern, fin-de-siecle America. Just ask Jonathan Williams. Poet, publisher, photographer, essayist, designer, calligrapher, art collector, musical connoisseur, gourmand, peripatetic lecturer, sports freak - Williams is all of the above and more, and he has spent the past 45 years racking up a remarkable list of accomplishments in the literary and visual arts. Fellow writer Guy Davenport has described Williams as "himself a kind of polytechnic institute."(1) Williams is the author of more than 100 books and - through his small press, the Jargon Society - the publisher of more than 100 others by highly respected figures in twentieth-century arts and letters. His photographs have appeared in a number of important publications and exhibitions in this country and England, and he has served as curator or introductory essayist for many exhibitions of work by other contemporary photographers. Despite these formidable achievements - and accolades from the likes of William Carlos Williams, Buckminster Fuller and Hugh Kenner - he has been all but ignored by this country's cultural establishment.
A review of Williams's multifaceted career and record of feisty public pronouncements reveals several possible answers to that question, which in turn raise serious, larger questions about the support and dissemination of culture in these troubled and tricky times. One of the more likely reasons he hasn't been more widely acknowledged and rewarded for his many contributions to post-war American culture is the very fact that his career has been so diverse. We live in a society that rewards and encourages specialization, in the arts as in all other fields. Individuals like Williams, who manage to do not just one but many things well, tend to get dismissed as dilettantes in such a cultural climate, regardless of the nature of their accomplishments.
Another factor that may contribute to the weak response to Williams's work is his unrelenting iconoclasm. He has no use for most of the institutions that dominate our culture, and has never been timid about saying so. His stance has always been defiantly anti-urban, anti-academic and anti-commercial, as he is fond of declaring in colorfully audacious language befitting a self-described "maverick poet." A few years ago, when discussing the Jargon Society press with a writer for The Advocate, he commented, "one of the things Jargon is devoted to is an attack on urban culture. We piss on it all from a considerable height."(2) As for academia, he has referred to universities as "pecuniary brain factories."(3) In a recent lecture he backhandedly boasted:
Institutions of higher learning know instinctively to leave my poetry alone. It might cause offense. Absolutely. I put a label on every book: 'Offense is always provided for those who will take some.' . . . To cause offense to the moribund and unfeeling is a necessary thing. Aesthetic is the opposite of anesthetic.(4)
And in a 15-year-old interview, he provided this assessment of the national arts-support structure, which in retrospect seems more prophetic than outrageous: "The handmaidens of the arts now are supposed to be Government and Business. Neither has an attention span of more than 15 seconds, so very soon both will tire of the whole mess."(5)
It was this kind of talk that led Williams's British contemporary, poet and playwright Adrian Mitchell, to describe him as "one of the loosest cannons on the good ship Literature"(6) As these comments suggest, Williams's outsider status vis-a-vis the American cultural mainstream is to some extent self-chosen. Ever since 1949, when he dropped out of Princeton University ("an Ivy-League chain gang," in his words), he has steered clear of the more well-traveled paths to literary and artistic success, choosing instead to follow an independent course in the various pursuits in which he excels. These tendencies were encouraged by several teachers he studied with or otherwise became acquainted with soon after his escape from behind the ivy-covered walls. …