C. K. Williams 1936-
(Full name Charles Kenneth Williams; has also written under the pseudonym K) American poet, critic, and memoirist.
The following entry presents an overview of Williams's career through 2000. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 33 and 56.
A Pulitzer-prize winning poet, Williams is recognized by critics and readers alike as a keen observer of the subjective states of awareness and the urban and civic scenes, which he relates in distinctive long lines and colloquial language. Sociopolitical concerns are often at the heart of Williams's works. Williams is known for his belief that all experience—even the most profane and degraded—is a viable topic for poetry. Vignettes of contemporary urban life, subconscious reactions to tragedies both large and small, and the interaction of reason and emotion are represented in his work. Credited by some for reintroducing philosophy into contemporary American poetry, Williams believes that poetry expresses truth in ways that other forms of literature cannot.
Born in Newark, New Jersey, to Paul Bernard and Dossie Williams, Williams was educated at Bucknell University and the University of Pennsylvania, where he completed his B.A. in 1959. Williams's friend, poet Anne Sexton, convinced him to publish his first volume of poetry, Lies, in 1969. The last poem in this collection, “A Day for Anne Frank,” had been published separately a year earlier. His next volume, I Am the Bitter Name (1972), contains “In the Heart of the Beast,” written in response to the killing of four student Vietnam war protestors by the Ohio National Guard at Kent State University in 1970. The Sensuous President, a collection including previously unpublished work, was also published in 1972. Williams married Sarah Jones in 1966, but divorced her in 1975. He then married Catherine Mauger, an editor. Williams's second wife and their son, Jed, became the subjects of several of his better known poems. Williams held academic appointments as a writing professor at Columbia University in New York and a literature professor at George Mason University in Virginia during the 1980s and 1990s. Williams also held a number of visiting professorships at other universities, including the University of California at Irvine, Boston University, Brooklyn College, and the University of California at Berkeley. Since 1996 Williams has been a lecturer at Princeton University. Williams also has won a number of awards throughout his career. Flesh and Blood (1987) won the National Book Critics Circle Award, and Repair (1999) won both the Pulitzer Prize and the Los Angeles Times award for poetry. Williams divides his time between residences in France and the United States.
Williams's trademark style is known for its long succession of lines of twenty to thirty-five syllables. It is also noted for descriptions of mundane scenes from urban America, and narratives that leap from specific to universal experiences. Williams found his populist, storyteller voice in With Ignorance (1977), his first collection to contain poems with long lines and a conversational voice. One of the poems from this collection, “Sanctity,” employs only a few lines to effectively describe the dual sides of a working man's personality. The man is completely in control of himself—even jovial—at work, but at home he sulks and becomes violent. The title poem of Tar (1983), Williams's next volume focuses on a crew of roofers working during the Three-Mile Island nuclear crisis in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in 1979, and comments on humanity's ability to cope with uncertainty and potentially harmful effects of technology. A poetic memorial to a colleague and friend, Flesh and Blood, is an eighteen-part work tracing Williams's grief process and his attempt to savor a friendship with someone who is dying. The final section, which is titled “Le Petit Salvié,” is an elegy to poet Paul Zweig. The collection Poems, 1963–1983 (1988) contains selections from Lies and I Am the Bitter Name, and all of the poems from Tar and Flesh and Blood. A Dream of Mind (1992) explores the machinations of thought and the relationship between reason (conscious thought) and dreams (subconscious thought). Williams's subjects continue to be linked to urban life—particularly the urban street scene—with sociopolitical statements appearing throughout the narratives. The collection is anchored by two long poems, “Some of the Forms of Jealousy,” and “A Dream of Mind.” The first poem consists of vignettes that focus on the miseries and doubts caused by jealousy, while the second poem, in part a philosophical essay, attempts to transcribe those fleeting moments when unconscious thought rises to the conscious level. The work is technically complex and includes a juxtaposition of long and short lines to form rhythmic units.
Selected Poems (1994) contains thirteen new poems in addition to verses from Flesh and Blood, and A Dream of Mind. The Vigil (1996) builds on themes from “A Dream of Mind,” moving towards a preoccupation with psychological analysis in Williams's work. The three-stanza poems in The Vigil are structured with the first two stanzas describing a scene and the third providing a moral or psychological analysis of what has been observed. The poems in Repair initiate unanswerable, open-ended queries, and prompt readers to consider questions from a wide variety of stances. Williams also has translated or adapted a number of works, most notably The Lark. The Thrush. The Starling. (1983), an adaptation (rather than a direct translation) of verse by Japanese poet Kobayashi Issa. Whether collaborating with a scholar or working with other translated copies of works, Williams transforms foreign-language verse into his own interpretations, speaking to contemporary concerns. “Hercules, Deinira, Nessus,” found in Selected Poems, is a direct translation of Ovid, in which Williams's characteristic long line structure resembles Ovid's hexameters. Williams also has written the memoir Misgivings (2000), and a major work of criticism, Poetry and Consciousness (1998).
Although Williams has earned the respect and admiration of several reviewers, many believe he has yet to receive the recognition that he deserves. Despite his literary achievements, some critics find fault in the content rather than the structure and diction of his poetry. Others, however, praise his gift for organization and form, commending the energy and dramatic tension found in his poetry. Some reviewers consider Williams's first two volumes, Lies, and I Am the Bitter Name, dated due to their topical concerns. Many commentators feel that Williams found his true voice in With Ignorance, the collection where he began to experiment with expansive lines. This signature line structure—frequently compared to the blank verse of Walt Whitman—is extolled by many critics as evidence of Williams's poetic virtuosity. Others, however, find Williams's long lines limiting and relentless, noting that his later work has suffered from a degree of self-absorption. Williams's middle volumes, especially Tar, Flesh and Blood, and A Dream of Mind, continue to receive critical praise and are considered fine examples of late twentieth-century American poetry.
A Day for Anne Frank (poetry) 1968
Lies (poetry) 1969
I Am the Bitter Name (poetry) 1972
The Sensuous President (poetry) 1972
With Ignorance (poetry) 1977
*The Lark. The Thrush. The Starling. (poetry) 1983
Tar (poetry) 1983
Flesh and Blood (poetry) 1987
Poems, 1963–1983 (poetry) 1988
Helen (poetry) 1991
A Dream of Mind (poetry) 1992
Selected Poems (poetry) 1994
New and Selected Poems (poetry) 1995
The Vigil (poetry) 1996
Poetry and Consciousness (criticism) 1998
Repair (poetry) 1999
Misgivings: My Mother, My Father, Myself (memoirs) 2000
Love about Love (poetry) 2001
*This work is an adaptation, not a direct translation, of verse by Japanese poet Kobayashi Issa.
SOURCE: “A Variegation of Styles: Inductive, Deductive, and Linguistic,” in Georgia Review, Vol. XXXVII, No. 4, Winter, 1983, pp. 894–905.
[In the following excerpt, Stitt concludes that Tar is Williams's “best book,” noting that the poet is at his finest when observing the concrete external world, and at his worst when looking inward at the psyche.]
The sentence has increased our awareness of how the meaning of a thing may be changed by the manner of saying it. Life is transformed into style, and we are no longer at the mercy of accidents—the infidelity of a mistress, the treachery of a friend.
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SOURCE: “Recombinative Poetry,” in Hudson Review, Vol. XXXVII, No. 1, Spring, 1984, pp. 115–31.
[In the following excerpt, McDowell comments on the narrative modes of contemporary poetry and offers a favorable assessment of Tar.]
If poets today are up to anything it may be this: recombinations of traditional strategies (or impulses) that define anew our relationships to timeless subjects—love, death, isolation, God and His godless double, anxiety, fear. Whether the poets know it or not, this recombinant impulse has its roots in what happened to narrative after the epic tradition waned.
Nearly twenty years ago, Robert Scholes and Robert...
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SOURCE: “The Prosaic Principle,” in Partisan Review, Vol. LII, No. 3, Summer, 1985, pp. 302–08.
[In the following excerpt, Lehman comments on the prose quality of contemporary poetry and offers a tempered assessment of Tar. According to Lehman, Williams's long lines are often well-suited to the poet's subject, but occasionally come off as “plodding” and needlessly elaborate.]
Marianne Moore recommended that we read poetry “with a perfect contempt for it.” Sensible advice, especially these days when, from the swelling ranks of MFA poetry programs, every Tom, Dick, and Harry—not to mention Jane, Judy, and Janice—seems to have a volume in the...
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SOURCE: “An Interview with C. K. Williams,” in Contemporary Literature, Vol. XXIX, No. 2, Summer, 1988, pp. 157–76.
[In the following interview, originally conducted on November 21, 1985, Williams discusses the political role of poetry, his literary influences and preferred poets, his approach to writing and aesthetic concerns, his work as a translator, and his thoughts on contemporary poetry.]
C. K. Williams recalls, in his poem “My Mother's Lips,” that throughout his childhood his mother had mouthed his words whenever he attempted to communicate “something important.” As recreated in the poem, the evening in his adolescence when he asked her not to do...
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SOURCE: A review of Flesh and Blood, in World Literature Today, Vol. 63, No. 1, Winter, 1989, pp. 104–05.
[In the following review of Flesh and Blood, Brown commends the distinctiveness and accessibility of Williams's poetry.]
C. K. Williams is a rather curious case among contemporary American poets. Aside from some interesting work in translation, he has published five collections of verse since 1969. They have been well reviewed in a number of journals, and in 1987 he won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry. He is thus known in the quarters where literary reputations are made. However, he is not discussed by fashionable critics or...
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SOURCE: “Masks and Passions,” in Poetry, Vol. CLIV, No. 1, April, 1989, pp. 29–48.
[In the following excerpt, McClatchy praises Williams's collected work in Poems, 1963–1983, drawing attention to Williams's distinct style and social consciousness.]
To accompany C. K. Williams's prize-winning 1987 collection, Flesh and Blood, his new publisher has now gathered his four earlier books into a comprehensive volume. Poems, 1963–1983 includes the long out-of-print Lies (1969), minus two poems; I Am the Bitter Name (1971), from which three poems have been deleted, and the order of its first and second (of four) groupings of poems...
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SOURCE: A review of Poems, 1963–1983, in World Literature Today, Vol. 63, No. 4, Autumn, 1989, p. 685.
[In the following review of Poems, 1963–1983, Leddy comments that he finds Williams's later poetry in With Ignorance and Tar richer than that of his earliest volumes.]
Poems, 1963–1983 collects C. K. Williams's first four volumes of poetry—Lies (1969), I Am the Bitter Name (1972), With Ignorance (1977), and Tar (1983)—along with The Lark. The Thrush. The Starling (1983), translations of the Japanese poet Issa. The four volumes reveal a marked development, as Williams moves from the ominous...
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SOURCE: “The Disparates Fuse,” in Parnassus, Vol. 16, No. 1, 1990, pp. 115–35.
[In the following review of Flesh and Blood and Poems, 1963–1983, Santos examines the development of Williams's distinct poetic voice and style from the 1960s to present.]
After two decades of wrestling by turns with discursive and dramatic modes—a struggle chronicled in Poems, 1963–1983—C. K. Williams developed a voice almost instantly identifiable; and in Flesh and Blood, his fifth collection, he has devised a form supple enough to accommodate both tendencies. Each of its 147 eight-line poems is set in a highly...
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SOURCE: “Poetic Voices,” in Partisan Review, Vol. LVIII, No. 3, Summer, 1991, pp. 565–69.
[In the following excerpt, Collier praises aspects of Williams's more mature work, but finds his early poetry marred by too much raw emotion.]
C. K. Williams's Poems, 1963–1983 brings back into print his first four books of poems (Lies, 1969; I Am the Bitter Name, 1971; With Ignorance, 1977; and Tar, 1983). The volume also includes lovely versions of the late-eighteenth-century Japanese poet Kobayashi Issa. Although the Issa versions were published in 1983, Williams places them between I Am the Bitter Name and With...
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SOURCE: “An Interview with C. K. Williams,” in New England Review, Vol. 17, No. 2, Spring, 1995, pp. 127–40.
[In the following interview, originally conducted on October 30, 1991, Williams discusses the function of poetic form in his own work, the historical and narrative aspects of poetry, trends in contemporary poetry, criticism, and writing programs, and the role of poetry as a moral force and mode of shared consciousness.]
The interview was conducted on 30 October 1991, at the University of Tennessee, and was revised by C. K. Williams in 1992 and 1993.
[Norris:] I'd like to begin with what seems almost a digression. What kind of effect do...
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SOURCE: “Contemporary Poetry as Philosophy: Subjective Agency in John Ashbery and C. K. Williams,” in Contemporary Literature, Vol. XXXIII, No. 2, Summer, 1992, pp. 214–42.
[In the following excerpt, Altieri examines the philosophical notion of subjective agency and its manifestation in the poetry of Williams and John Ashbery as an alternative to poststructural theory.]
If one teaches contemporary poetry in the academy there seems no way to avoid engaging the tangled question of its relation to literary theory, now more imperially dubbed simply “theory.” And if one engages the question, there seem only two basic options: one can try to show how theory...
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SOURCE: “Walking the Line,” in New Republic, August 17–24, 1992, pp. 46–48.
[In the following review of A Dream of Mind, Hirsch examines the development of Williams's poetic style and thematic concerns. ]
C. K. Williams is a poet of disquietudes, of the mind aggressively questioning and requestioning its own workings, brooding upon the fluctuating data of consciousness, quarreling with itself. No other contemporary poet, except perhaps John Ashbery, has given us a more textured or pressurized rendering of what it feels like to think—to try to think—through a situational or mental problem moment by moment: to bring the unconscious into the available...
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SOURCE: A review of A Dream of Mind, in American Journal of Psychiatry, Vol. 149, No. 12, December, 1992, pp. 1745–47.
[In the following positive review of A Dream of Mind, Michaels concludes that Williams is “an important poet.”]
“I couldn't put it down” is a phrase not often associated with a volume of poetry. This book is an exception. C. K. Williams, who won the 1988 National Book Critics Circle award, is one of the nation's most gifted poets. He writes about the themes that tend to interest psychiatrists—sex, love, jealousy, anger, aging, disease, and dying. Like many psychiatrists, he is also interested in the workings of the mind,...
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SOURCE: “House Guests,” in New Statesman & Society, December 4, 1992, pp. 39–40.
[In the following excerpt, Herd offers a favorable assessment of A Dream of Mind.]
At one point in the title poem of C. K. Williams’ A Dream of Mind, the poet's rigorous speculations carry him to the edge of Ashbery's world. “How even tell who I am now, how know if I'll ever be more than the field of these interchangings?” Here, however, the comparison ends, as Williams draws back from the conclusion Ashbery so gladly entertains.
A Dream of Mind is written in the long, double pentameter line Williams has used exclusively since the mid-1970s....
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SOURCE: “Recent Poetry,” in Stand Magazine, Vol. 35, No. 1, Winter, 1993, pp. 77–84.
[In the following excerpt, Saunders offers a generally positive assessment of A Dream of Mind, while noting that Williams's long lines and ordinary language occasionally fall flat.]
Doubters who think [John] Ashbery reduces mental activity to a kind of effete daydreaming could try C. K. Williams's latest collection A Dream of Mind. Here the title sequence investigates ‘this mind streaming through me, its turbulent stillness, its murmur, inexorable, beguiling’ but at least sets out with ‘a dream of method,’ however intractable its potential application. He...
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SOURCE: “A Leap Backwards,” in Times Literary Supplement, February 12, 1993, p. 11.
[In the following review of A Dream of Mind, Norfolk praises Williams's “masterly” technical skill and his “extraordinary, magisterial” approach to unanswered philosophical questions.]
C. K. Williams's work has never flinched from the difficulties and complications of American life. As his readership dips a cautious toe in the pleasant ambience of President Clinton's mysterious policies, Williams offers a vision of capability and purpose. This is poetry that can cope, it seems to say, that can deal with the uncertainties of its time. He is also being advocated as the...
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SOURCE: A review of A Dream of Mind, in World Literature Today, Vol. 67, No. 2, Spring, 1993, p. 387.
[In the following review, Dick offers a positive assessment of A Dream of Mind, noting that the collection is an important work of poetry.]
Using his familiar combination of long and short lines, C. K. Williams has arranged his latest collection so that it culminates in “Helen,” a summary poem in which are fused his main themes of death, dream, and memory. Death haunts A Dream of Mind, beginning with the very first poem, “When,” in which children help their terminally ill father end his life with dignity, and concluding with “Helen,” in...
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SOURCE: “Skating on Paper,” in Georgia Review, Vol. XLVII, No. 3, Fall, 1993, pp. 578–95.
[In the following excerpt, Kitchen offers a mixed assessment of A Dream of Mind.]
“Poetry in motion!”—the announcer bursts forth with the old cliché as soon as the skaters hit the ice. I am instantly on the defensive. But, resist as I will, the skaters win. Three hours of Brian Boitano, of Mark Mitchell or Lu Chen, of the dancers Klimova and Ponomarenko, the Duchesnays, Torvill and Dean, three hours of the electric Viktor Petrenko and I am convinced that I know the source of the cliché and that, as is often the case, the source resides in what is most true....
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SOURCE: “Masters of Transience,” in Poetry, Vol. CLXIII, No. 3, December, 1993, pp. 158–70.
[In the following review of A Dream of Mind, Howard concludes that Williams's shorter poems mitigate the shortcomings of his longer poems in “this uneven collection.”]
“The poems flow from the hand unbidden,” writes Derek Mahon, “and the hidden source is the watchful heart.” C. K. Williams has called his tenth collection A Dream of Mind, and to an extent rare in contemporary poetry his new poems enact the dialectics and tease out the nuances of analytical thought. But these are also poems of the watchful heart, in which the poet's insecurities,...
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SOURCE: “Timing and Spacing the As If: Poetic Prose and Prosaic Poetry,” in Parnassus, Vol. 20, Nos. 1–2, 1995, pp. 11–31.
[In the following excerpt, Feld discusses distinctions between prose and poetry, and offers a favorable assessment of Williams's Selected Poems, drawing attention to the use and effect of Williams's long line.]
Where it starts as well as ends, Roman Jakobson told us, is with the etymologies. Prose: oratio prosa < prorsa < proversa (speech turned straightforward) and Poetry: versus (return). He'd have us keep in mind, too, Gerard Manley Hopkins’ early insistence, historically difficult to argue...
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SOURCE: A review of Selected Poems, in World Literature Today, Vol. 69, No. 3, Summer, 1995, pp. 589–90.
[In the following review, Brown offers a positive assessment of Williams's Selected Poems.]
Selected Poems represents C. K. Williams very well at the height of his career. He has become known for his poems in long lines (up to twenty-five syllables) that run across the page and necessarily carry over. Reading him is an unusually active process; the eye follows the lines with a kind of fascination; what are they leading to? At times the process of reading almost seems an end in itself. However, Williams is not concerned merely with the virtuosity of...
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SOURCE: “Poetry Chronicle,” in Hudson Review, Vol. XLVIII, No. 2, Summer, 1995, pp. 339–49.
[In the following excerpt, Disch offers a positive assessment of Williams's Selected Poems.]
Readers with only a casual, or dutiful, interest in poetry seek out poets they can be comfortable with. Shades of the schoolhouse begin to close round such readers when poems require too much deciphering. So, according to their temperaments, they will gravitate to poets of amiability or moral earnestness, whose work they will reward with a knowing chuckle or an approving nod. …
Of all the collections reviewed here, C. K. Williams’ Selected Poems was the...
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SOURCE: A review of New and Selected Poems, in Times Literary Supplement, December 8, 1995, p. 28.
[In the following review, Jeffery offers a positive assessment of New and Selected Poems, though he regrets its small selection from Williams's early volumes, which are unavailable in Britain.]
C. K. Williams is one of the most important poets currently using and recharging the English language. Hitherto he's been very much a poet's poet, enjoying the lively respect of his peers both in Britain and in his native America; this book should accelerate the dissemination of his work into the literary culture at large.
New and Selected...
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SOURCE: “The Big Poem,” in Poetry, Vol. CLXX, No. 2, May, 1997, pp. 90–100.
[In the following review, Murphy offers a positive assessment of Selected Poems, drawing attention to Williams's effective use of the long line.]
The “big line” of C. K. Williams somehow invites the assumption that bigger must mean fuller, more capacious, even encyclopedic—that a big line makes a big poem. Certainly this is the thrust of the comments of Edward Hirsch, Michael Hoffman, and Robert Pinsky on the back of the Selected Poems. Williams did not discover the long line (think of Hopkins, or Langland, without it). It is not true that, because he chooses a big...
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SOURCE: “Axis of Passion,” in Salmagundi, Nos. 114–115, Spring–Summer, 1997, pp. 205–27.
[In the following excerpt, Pollack offers a tempered evaluation of The Vigil. While noting the great achievement of A Dream of Mind, Pollack finds shortcomings in Williams's subsequent inability to balance idealistic and objective elements in The Vigil.]
Imagine an axis, not of realism per se, but of poets’ degrees of commitment to mimesis. At one pole, the “empirical,” poetry is about something. At the opposite, “idealist” pole, it exists only to call attention to itself or to the mind that wrote it; subject-matter of any sort, from nymphs...
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SOURCE: “The World's Violences,” in Times Literary Supplement, October 3, 1997, p. 25.
[In the following review, McKendrick commends Williams's intensity and empathy in The Vigil, but finds shortcomings in his tendency to allegorize and to employ dubious shifts of perspective in this volume.]
The long lines and short poems of the American poet C. K. Williams's Flesh and Blood (1988) combined the leisure of a flâneur with the urgency of a frontline reporter. His next book, A Dream of Mind (1992), although it contained some poems of the same extraordinary quality, turned inwards (at least in the long title sequence), quarrying the psyche,...
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SOURCE: A review of The Vigil, in World Literature Today, Vol. 71, No. 4, Autumn, 1997, p. 794.
[In the following review, Brown offers a positive assessment of The Vigil.]
The Vigil follows C. K. Williams's Selected Poems by only three years. The poet has published seven volumes since 1969, and perhaps a review should note that ten of the forty-four poems in the new collection were published in the Selected Poems, where they appeared among a group designated as “New Poems.” Since there are no textual changes in the poems as reprinted, one can only suppose that the poet wishes to emphasize their importance in his oeuvre. And indeed, at...
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SOURCE: “Poetry in Review,” in Yale Review, Vol. 87, No. 4, October, 1999, pp. 154–64.
[In the following excerpt, Muske offers a positive assessment of Repair. According to Muske, “These poems demand everything of the reader, and thus they are political and social in the most profound reconfigurative sense.”]
What is often said about C. K. Williams is that he is “Whitmanesque”—he's got that Whitman-like long line, that Whitmanish turn of phrase, the expansive vision. It would be pointless to deny Walt's influence on this work, but finally, the comparison yields little in terms of getting under the skin of the poems. Williams's new book,...
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SOURCE: “A Plunge into the Still, Cold Lake of Self,” in Christian Science Monitor, August 10, 2000, p. 20.
[In the following review of Repair, Lund agrees with Williams's status as a “major poet,” but finds the volume “inconsistent.”]
Some poets are perfect for reading at the beach. Others are better beside a still lake. C. K. Williams is the latter.
Williams's work is not something one can breeze through. His long, dense lines force readers to slow down and let the language seep into their skin. It's a bit like wading into very cold water. The movement is inch by inch, ankle to knee to hip. The poems must be unpacked layer by...
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SOURCE: “Plainly, but with Flair,” in New Republic, September 18, 2000, pp. 42–45.
[In the following review, Phillips objects to Williams's overly explanatory verse in Repair and suggests that the long lines are essentially indistinguishable from prose, and thus do not serve any aesthetic purpose.]
“Didactic poetry,” Shelley declares in the preface to Prometheus Unbound, “is my abhorrence; nothing can be equally well expressed in prose that is not tedious and supererogatory in verse.” The poems of C. K. Williams are not quite didactic, but neither are they quite undidactic. His long poetic line often dips its toe testingly into the waters of...
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