It was with great sadness and a sense of immense loss that I received news of the death on March 16 of my neighbor over in Macon County, Jonathan Williams, in the Highlands Hospital. A renowned and celebrated poet and publisher, he was born on March 8, 1929, in Asheville, and spent much of his life at the family’s Skywinding Farm in Highlands.
Jonathan’s interests and talents revealed him as a Renaissance man—publisher, poet and satirist, book designer, editor, photographer, literary art and photography critic and collector, cultural anthropologist, curmudgeon, happy gardener and resolute walker.
Over his lengthy career he won numerous awards and honorary degrees, including a Guggenheim, numerous National Endowment Fellowships and a Longview Foundation Grant. In 1977, he received the North Carolina Award in Fine Arts. And in 1980, he joined a handful of other poets to read at the Carter Administration White House Poetry Day event. In 1998, he was inducted into the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame.
Buckminster Fuller once called Jonathan “our Johnny Appleseed.” His Southern Appalachian origins created in him a deep sympathy for the underdog, for society’s throwaways and for the underappreciated creativity of the outsider. Nothing typified this more than his passion for visionary folk artists, whom he began to champion in the 1980s and whose work is represented in his essays and his outstanding personal collection of outsider art.
As a poet, he has been described as a cross between Socrates, Basho, Tu Fu and Richard Prior, arguing the primary importance of imagination as a foil to ignorance. At the forefront of the avant-garde, his writing is audaciously original. His poems and essays draw on a wide range of subjects and themes including politics, jokes, local speech and customs, classical music and jazz. Over a lifetime, he published over 100 works—many [through] the most important small presses in this country and Britain.
Jonathan was a celebrated student at the now-legendary Black Mountain College where, under the tutelage of rector-poet Charles Olson, he was hired to be the college publisher. Ultimately his Jargon Society Press, along with New Directions, Grove and City Lights, became one of the four most famous small presses of a burgeoning 1960s movement that continues not only on the printed page, but today, even on the Internet.
Williams and his [surviving] partner of 40 years, poet Thomas Meyer, lived since the early 1970s in a 17th-century shepherd’s cottage in the Cumbrian hills of England in the summer and at the Scaly Mountain home near Highlands in the winter. For the past decade, they resided mostly at Skywinding Farm in Scaly. Those of us here in Western North Carolina who knew him will miss his generously aristocratic good manners and his good-ole-boy sense of humor and eccentricities. Truly one of a kind, his successors will be a longtime comin’.
— Thomas Rain Crowe