The two collections and individual poems differ in content and approach. Likewise accounts of Jonas' life. A gay African-American, Jonas (1921-1970) seemed to be an enigma even to those who knew him. A man of various institutions- not academic, but military, penal and mental- Jonas could be described as the link connecting Pound and Olson to John Wieners Joe Dunn, Robin Blaser and, when it comes to the deployment of the serial poem, Jack Spicer. Spicer would acknowledge Jonas by basing his character Washington Jones in his detective novel Tower of Babel at least partly on Jonas. Furthermore, according to Blaser as quoted in Ellingham and Killiam's Poet Be Like God, Spicer would dedicate his "translation" of Lorca's Ode to Walt Whitman to Jonas because it was "Steve who taught me to use anger (as opposed to angry irony) in a poem."An autodidact and man who inhabited the margins of the culture, Jonas was, on the one hand, well-versed in the classics, and, on the other, au courant with the language of the street. Above all, he was a jazz poet, with various references to musicians like Charlie Parker and Ornette Coleman, and a finely tuned ear that depended on precise timing and a be-bop control of both line and attack.
"....not so much for receiving
as for placing the junk
dead as the world
before the senses
In such times
one is put upon within
You know how we squeeze today
the few words we have left to us
Here in a word is the sea before me
but the sea cannot be squeezed
So I sit as close to it as close as safe
The sea speaks if speech be sound
but speech is not sound
so turn for meaning
to the Poem..."
(from LOVE, THE POEM, THE SEA & OTHER PIECES EXAMINED BY ME)
"Spain is located somewhere between Polk Street & Laguna Beach/
as you cross the Oakland Bridge into Portugal/
Oh, that Spicer/
he was a flamenco, that one/
for wld save America from
the abuses of rime. Like Lorca (our Fedy) was 'gipsified.'
Heard 'Bird's' playing & for three years
didn't know the taste of meat. sd. he didn't know
music had attained to it. A tear & one blue note upon yr brow..."
(CANTE JONDO FOR SOUL BROTHER JACK SPICER, HIS BELOVED CALIFORNIA & ANDALUSIA OF LORCA)
One can be forgiven for thinking that, for Jonas' work, the whole can be more than the sum of its parts. But any close examination will reveal that the parts are more than resilient and equal to the task, capable of standing on their own. The determining feature being Jonas' use of space, margins, parenthetical enclosures, line breaks and the exploration of breath and rhythms that power the poem, making him sound like the most cultured of that era's hard-boppers. Particularly in Exercises for Ear, the fragments of which display a hip intensity informed by an eye and ear that's never less than accurate, and lines that are seem like nuanced objects, existing somewhere between anger, observation and a sly sense of humour. Forget schools of poetry, what it all comes down to is the eye, the ear, how one views the world, and the manner in which that view reaches into every crevice of the poem.
"the set-up of a poem
may not always please
but the ear can be
where the hither-to un-
(one might even venture un-
(Exercises for Ear LXIV)
All of which makes the publication of Arcana is not only welcome but long overdue. And City Lights has to be commended for getting Jonas' work out there. Likewise, the book's editors Garrett Caples, Derek Fenner, David Rich and Joseph Torra. Their introductory remarks and postscript have managed to not only gumshoe Jonas' life- a noir existence by any definition of the term- but to place his poetry in a historical context.
Of course, Jonas, like many a poete maudit, had personal problems. These no doubt fed into the occasional off-the-wall sentiment- though none worse than Spicer's anti-semitic diatribe, or Pound's WW2 rants- not to mention run-ins with the law. But Jonas was never one to take an easy turn, much less turn-of-phrase, or allow himself or his poetry to become an object of public consumption. Strip away some of the excess and what is left is a beauty and sense of being in the world that runs deep. As I mentioned elsewhere, no matter good you might have thought Jonas was, read this volume and you'll discover he was even better. One hopes Arcana will succeed in placing Jonas' work before a wider poetry reading public.
"i have come to
chew up yr language
to make more palatable
the L's & collaterals
(at the service
(CVIII, Exercises for Ear)
You can hear Stephen Jonas reading (from around 19 minutes) in Joseph Torra's excellent talk on Jonas.