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 The Sensuous President, a collection including previously unpublished work, was also published in 1972.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.
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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.
In the passage I have chosen for an epigraph, Louis Simpson notes how “the meaning of a thing may be changed by the manner of saying it. Life is transformed into style. …” The first clause is clear and accurate; the second is a bit fuzzy, and for a semantic reason: the word “style” is too close in meaning to the phrase “the manner of saying it.” I don't wish to take exception to the first statement, but I do suggest that the second would be more accurate if we were to substitute some other word for “style”—say, “fiction,” or “idea.” Literature does alter life—it gives it a form and a meaning which are generally lacking within the rawness of reality....
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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 Kellogg1 called our attention to narrative's post-epic division into two antithetical types: empirical, or realistic, narrative; and fictional, or idealistic, narrative. Furthermore, these branches could be subdivided: empirical narrative into the historical and the mimetic; fictional narrative into the romantic and the didactic. Though Scholes and Kellogg employed this framework to arrive ultimately at an explication of the modern novel, its application also provides a compelling historical context for reading contemporary poetry. It is clear, to this reader, that the narrative types, or recombinations of them, listed above are everywhere present and necessary in the volumes I will consider...
(The entire section is 780 words.)
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 offing. To these competitors for our attention, we would be wise to offer strenuous resistance, at least initially, and as much in self-defense as in the earnest desire to distinguish the genuine from the spurious article. Perhaps no period before ours has set such great store by originality and authenticity as values; and how, except by an act of nerve, are we to evaluate the putatively original, the assertedly authentic? In the absence of any kind of objective criterion—it being generally conceded that command of the old techniques of verse reveals a reactionary temperament—what else can the reader rely on but his impatience with vanity, his truculence in the face of so many assertions put forth on the basis of so little evidence?...
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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 so—and for the first time felt himself having to find his own words and go on speaking by himself—marked his entry into poetry as well as adulthood. The poems that came to the lips of the solitary young man continued the speech he had previously directed toward his mirroring mother; they were efforts to reach within himself to “the blank caverns of namelessness we encase.” Yet the lines of the beginning artist were also reaching outward toward an embrace of otherness; thus, at the close of “My Mother's Lips,” the poet speaks with the “sweet, alien air against [him] like a kiss.” In his published work, C. K. Williams has pursued with ferocious intensity both the impulse to look deep within his own darkness and the impulse to...
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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 included in influential anthologies, and one would not easily “place” him in the current scene. He simply has not emerged as a literary personality, the kind of poet about whom readers have immediate opinions. Still, the impression of a strong personality is on every page of his new collection. Although we do not know where he lives (probably New York City), he is certainly an urban poet who delights in the incongruities of a great city. Most of the poems are vignettes about people observed at a close angle of vision. There is little artifice, almost no literary borrowing.
Williams's verse medium is unusual. He has evolved a very long line (up to twenty-five syllables) with which he feels comfortable. The lines necessarily...
(The entire section is 367 words.)
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 reversed; then a chapbook of translations from Issa called The Lark. The Thrush. The Starling, first published in 1983 but actually written in the mid-seventies and so placed between his two early and his two mature books; and finally, complete, the remarkable With Ignorance (1977) and Tar (1983), the best work of his career to date, the work whose distinctive style and brooding tone announced a singular presence in American poetry.
From the start, Williams has been above all a stylist. Here, almost chosen at random, is a stanza from his first book, from a poem called “Twice More”:
understand me please there's no man underneath there's no woman no dog no opening what happens in the...
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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 abstractions and assured invective of his earlier poems to more concrete, less certain considerations of particular human conditions.
The earlier poems of Lies and I Am the Bitter Name do not wear well; too often they are made of extremes of emotion and diction whose causes remain unclear; they abound in disjunctive syntax and images of scabs, scars, tumors, and genitalia that seem intended to force the reader's assent that the poems are genuine. Williams at times resorts to embarrassing declarations: “I am going to rip myself down the middle into two pieces” (“Halves”), or “this poem is an onion / for you … because / I want tears from you now” (“A Poem for the Governments”). The poem...
(The entire section is 470 words.)
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 alliterative, double pentameter line—normally ten strong stresses played against an unpredictable number of syllables—that recalls Old English or Hopkins's sprung rhythm. To anchor that line, and to save it from bombast, Williams employs a gritty, streetwise realism that assumes the character—and charged vernacular—of the common man. This overlay of the colloquial onto the line's innate oratorical sweep gives his poems uncanny tonal range, mimetic of the mind reeling in flux between the worlds of experience and contemplation.
In fact, it may be no exaggeration to say that Williams has done for the long line what William Carlos Williams did for the short one: recast it in such a way that a reader discovers within it an...
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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 Ignorance. As such the Issa serves as both a divider and bridge between the early and later work.
With Ignorance and Tar are characterized by long-lined narratives dramatized by elliptical and anecdotal meditations. The diction is colloquial, conversational; its rhythms wind through the length of a poem rather than being fenced off by line breaks and caesuras. The poems, with titles like “Spit,” “Neglect,” “The Dog,” are inclusive and expansive, almost Whitmanesque in their eagerness to declare all experience a suitable domain for poetry. Williams writes in “With Ignorance”: “Imagine a space prepared for with hunger, with dread, with power and / the power / over dread which is dread, and the love,...
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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 you think has living in Paris had on how you view social situations, on how you write? Has living in France and having to conduct so much of the ordinary business of life in another language affected your relationship to English?
[Williams:] There's no question there are advantages to having distance from your home place; you can see certain things more clearly if you're not involved in them every day. I was reading an article this morning which was talking about something I'd already realized, which is that Americans tend to be more attached to cultural than to political issues. Americans don't argue, for instance, about the fact that the last ten years have seen a huge proportion of the national wealth taken away...
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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 composes frameworks far too crude for the intricacies of lyric sensibility, or one can evaluate poets in terms of the degree to which they address, or even subscribe to, the “sophisticated” intellectual life which theory now composes. Faced with this binary, one has little choice but to opt for both, seeking a rapprochement that puts intellectual pressure on the poets and demands more intricately contoured thinking from the theorists. However, this opting for both cannot suffice. One must decide on priorities. Is theory to determine which poets matter, or is there some possible independent position from which we can say that certain poets address the theorists’ issues more richly than the theorists do? This of course requires our deciding...
(The entire section is 7321 words.)
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 light of language, to anatomize the psyche with a continual tally of internal and external evidence.
Behind the acute, painstaking self-consciousness of this work there is a sense that the burden of poetry is to discover the darkest inner truth, to confront the secret that can no longer be sublimated, that forces itself to be known. “The return of the repressed,” Williams names it in his poem “Child Psychology,” and the phrase reverberates throughout the rest of his new book. In A Dream of Mind he has taken his candid and inclusive poetry of agonistic consciousness even further in the direction of interiority and discursiveness, as if literalizing the dictum of the baroque Jesuit poet Tommaso Ceva that poetry...
(The entire section is 2261 words.)
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, turning his attention inward and creating a sort of poetic metapsychology of dreams, meditation, prayer, and abstractions about mental life. His genius is most striking when he observes and communicates the moment, the incident, the image of a person. For example, in “When,” he describes a dying man,
he wanted out of the business, out of the miserable game, and he told whoever would listen, whenever they'd listen, wife, family, friends, that he'd do it himself but how could he, without someone to help, unable to walk as he was, get out of bed or up from the toilet himself?
In “Harm,” he sees that a homeless vagrant relieves himself in the street,
and that a slender adolescent girl from...
(The entire section is 1169 words.)
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. This form, which owes more to late 18th-century blank verse than to Whitman, is the site for sharply different kinds of poems. The first is an unflinching description of the brutalities of urban America.
For instance, “Harm,” in which a vagrant defecates so horribly in front of an “adolescent girl” that even Charles Bukowski might have turned his eye. The long line drags out such experiences to the threshold of tolerance. It is, however, as it sustains Williams’ extended enquiries into human motivation that its full value is realised.
In the sequences “Some of the Forms of Jealousy” and “A Dream of Mind,” the poet encounters a series of ethical and epistemological problems. Never...
(The entire section is 310 words.)
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 still believes that ‘these parcels of experience have a significance beyond their accumulation. … solutions are implied’ and is prepared to ‘butt in’ (‘Vocations’) to distill a kind of faith from ‘the fearful demands consciousness makes for linkage, coherence, congruence.’ The faith can only be ‘partial, imperfect,’ threatened by ‘imperious laws of doubt and denial,’ closer indeed to ‘dread’ in contemplating ‘the sad molecule of the self in its chunk of duration’ (‘The Gap’). The self may be ‘fleeting, dissolving,’ ‘my character has become the function of its own revisions,’ yet he can entertain the hypothesis of its being ‘more than the field of these interchangings’ (‘Shadows’). The...
(The entire section is 853 words.)
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 latest answer to the perennial and destructive query, “Where, today, is American poetry at?” In A Dream of Mind, that question may have met its match.
Williams's sixth collection is divided into five parts which seem at first sight to bear little relation to each other. The first consists of a number of short poems serving up uncomfortable or harrowing realities; a remembered insult, a child's burned face, a man's son sawn in half, a tramp excreting in the street watched by a horrified girl and watched in turn by the poet, who wants to tell her, “It's not like this, really it's not this,—but she was gone, so I could think. But isn't it like this, isn't this just what it is?” Other poems end similarly,...
(The entire section is 1277 words.)
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 which the speaker argues that to achieve union with the dead, the living must enter death themselves—not literally, but in a dream state where death is truly the mother of beauty, restoring the dead to the pure form of which the act of dying has robbed them.
Technically, Williams is in top form, creating two-line combinations that are not so much distichs, where the shorter line is a response to the longer (or simply has a foot less than the longer), but rhythmic units, where the shorter line forces the reader to stop, pause, or reflect. Sometimes the transition is rough, when the long line ends with a preposition or the definite article (e.g., “I protest, but the violence goes on, I cry out, but the pain, the rage,...
(The entire section is 384 words.)
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.
The spotlight catches one figure dressed completely in black, including a hooded mask. Faceless, he is all body—tall and fluid. Through the sound system: the odd beat of a drum, an occasional rasp of flute, a tinkle, a shimmer—nothing that could be called a tune. Against this “music,” the body jerks into syncopated motion, begins a wide sweep, a truncated spin. The skates resist the ice, making a sound. Shhhkk. And the ice resists the body, stops it midmovement. Forces it back on itself. The flashing strobe light momentarily illuminates, then conceals, segmenting motion into separate frames. Faceless, the body reveals the way each jump or spin is made up of a specific sequence of individual moves. Watching this, I...
(The entire section is 2134 words.)
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, his fear of death and his yearning for religious belief, come under the scrutiny of intuitive awareness, and the less admissible feelings are made known. Thus, in “The Insult,” as the narrator walks in the forest, he recalls an insult incurred “a continent and years away.” “[S]immering and stinging,” the memory impels him faster down the path, even as it prompts his intellect to question. “Are there deeper wounds in us than we know,” he asks; “might grief itself be communion and solace?”
One of William's subtlest poems situates the narrator at a dinner party, where he becomes aware that his friend's wife has taken a lover:
My friend's wife has a lover; I come to this conclusion—not...
(The entire section is 1018 words.)
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 with, that the spine of so many master poems from the Bible onward is parallelism, doubling, interior resurrection. Prose, on the other hand, isn't asked to curl itself back; instead it stops dead in time, something which the genre of the story requires in no vague manner, either. “The death of another lends an appetite for novels,” Walter Benjamin wrote in his essay “The Storyteller.” “What draws the reader to the novel is the hope of warming his shivering life with a death he reads about.” A character's character can be foreshadowed by the quality of that person's eventual end-in-time: “How do the characters make him understand that death is already waiting for them—a very definite death and at a very definite place?...
(The entire section is 1844 words.)
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 lines much longer than those normally written in English. Among the thirteen new poems in this collection there is a remarkable version of the story of Hercules, Deianira, and Nessus from Ovid's Metamorphoses, book 9. Williams here comes close to reproducing Ovid's hexameters. It is a small masterpiece of translation; in which frequent present participles (mostly trochees) give the verse much of its energy. One could easily imagine the entire Metamorphoses being rendered by this poet, and it would probably be more readable than Golding's famous Elizabethan version, highly recommended by Ezra Pound but perhaps too rich in its texture for long stretches. The effect of reading Williams for half an hour is something like the effect...
(The entire section is 567 words.)
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 one I kept returning to most often, as I might phone a friend who's always home, always welcoming, and always has a new angle on What's Happening. Williams’ signature long, long (eight to ten beat) lines and looping syntax seem to be generated more by a liking for lucidity than a lyrical impulse, yet one never feels, as one does with [Galway] Kinnell or [Andrew] Hudgins, that his poems are simply inspired conversation. They have the force, rather, of the best journalism—human interest stories, editorials, news flashes from around the world and across the street, all of it rendered in a level tone that one is surprised to find so surprising.
Here was my relation with the woman who lived all last autumn and winter day and...
(The entire section is 511 words.)
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 Poems replaces and partly replicates Poems, 1963–1983. Excerpts from his first books, Lies and I Am the Bitter Name, have been heavily curtailed to make way for extensive selections from the most recent, Flesh and Blood and A Dream of Mind. Although this results in a comprehensive compilation, it actually reduces the scope of his available work, since his last two volumes are the only ones published in Britain; it would be a shame if the origins of his art were mislaid. His early poetry establishes at a crucial distance the hard facts and a subjective experience of history, with topics ranging from the annihilation of Anne Frank to Three Mile Island and the “unquenchable agony” of Vietnam. Later work...
(The entire section is 420 words.)
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 line, Williams can fit more of what thinking is into his poems, nor that the unconscious (which must be very big) is subjected to more “available light of language.” Thought has no size.
So, what is the big deal about the big line? It is the quality of Williams's line, not its length. Take, for example, the poems from A Dream of Mind; nothing could be less dream-like than Williams's manner of exposition, but then his approach is not mimetic but interpretive, or analytical:
How dream away these tireless reflexes of self-protection that almost define heart and these sick startles of shame at confronting again the forms of fear the heart weaves, the certitudes and the hatreds, the thoughtless...
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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 to warfare, is a pretext. Since the Romantics, lyric poetry has been inherently idealist—although Imagists, Futurists, Objectivists, and Brechtian constructivists have tried to subordinate word to thing or mind to world. Even Surrealists and Projectivists have attempted, through various associative techniques, to escape conventional modes of subjectivity and the constricting poetic personae based on them. The net effect of these attempts, however, has been to sustain an old ideology with new styles. The concerns of most contemporary poets fill only a segment of the axis we have outlined. Most contemporary poems are not about the world but about the poet's feelings, which may involve no other reality.
(The entire section is 2711 words.)
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, and was rewarded by grim, unwieldy slabs of abstraction. The Vigil is somewhere between the two.
Here, too, as in both preceding books, there is a poem about a vagrant which attends unflinchingly to infirmity and terminal squalor. In this latest example, “Thirst,” it is Williams's perceptions, from the first phrase, that hold the foreground of the story. “Here was my relation with the woman who lived all last autumn and winter day and night / on a beach in the Hundred and Third Street subway. …” The “shocking seethe of her stench” is a feral protest the poet recoils from but can't escape: “how rich, I would think, is the lexicon of our self-absolving, / how enduring our bland, fatal assurance that...
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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 least five of these poems are among his finest: “Interrogation II,” “Time: 1976” and its successor “Time: 1978,” and especially “Villanelle of the Suicide's Mother” and “Hercules, Deianira, Nessus.” The last is a splendid version of the story in Ovid's Metamorphoses, book 9, in which Williams's characteristic long lines (up to twenty-five syllables) resemble Ovid's hexameters.
The recent poems in The Vigil are composed in these longish lines in every case. As I have already suggested, reading them is a quite active process, since the eye, which cannot take in the entirety of a line at once, is virtually directed to follow it to the end and then over. The poet is frequently a kind of observer...
(The entire section is 528 words.)
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, Repair, again situates him in America (or an American's Europe) once again—and again the reader prepares to enter the holy precincts of the Bible—Psalms—Whitman—Ginsberg—where pious homage is paid to the Long Line, that great big democratic yak-vista.
Frankly, the long line holds less interest for me than the nature of “address”—or the introspection that becomes a kind of extroverted style, a style that insists on the reader's sympathetic ear. Whitman feels entitled to our attention: that interests me. Williams, too, feels entitled to our attention, and for some of the same reasons. Not the reasons that stoked the fires of the Puritan jeremiad or ran William Jennings Bryan's mouth from a cross-country...
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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 layer.
Williams's approach has not changed in Repair, his eighth book, which won this year's Pulitzer Prize in poetry. Readers must still lower themselves gingerly into his poems. Take, for example, these lines from the book's opener, “Ice”:
The astonishing thing that happens when you crack a needle-awl into a block of ice: the way a perfect section through it crazes into gleaming fault-lines, fractures, facets; dazzling silvery deltas that in one too-quick-to-capture instant madly complicate the cosmos of its innards.
Williams has not made it easy for someone to dive in, but as the work progresses, one often finds the cold inviting. And there are a few warm springs. A poem to his...
(The entire section is 565 words.)
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 the prosaic, and his inspections of motive and meaning seem more fit to offer moral instruction than to summon aesthetic intensity.
Too often, the second half of a Williams stanza devolves into critical commentary on the event of the first half, swerving casually from the fictional scene it has been sketching into speculation on what that fiction means for “us,” as though the duty of the poet were not only to propose the metaphor, but also to supervise its interpretation. In these moments Williams does not make art of the process by which the mind arrives at explanation; he simply explains, never describing so much as a housedress without also informing the housewife that
I see the dresses also as a...
(The entire section is 4249 words.)
Dickerson, Debra. “The Parent Trap.” Washington Post Book World (23 July 2000): 6.
Dickerson discusses Williams's recollection of his parents and upbringing in Misgivings.
Gunderson, Elizabeth. Review of Selected Poems, by C. K. Williams. Booklist (1 October 1994): 232.
Gunderson offers a positive assessment of Selected Poems, calling the work a “complete and thoughtful collection.”
Kirby, David. Review of Misgivings: My Mother, My Father, Myself, by C. K. Williams. Library Journal (1 March 2000): 92.
Kirby offers a positive assessment of Misgivings.
Kizer, Carolyn. “Poetry.” Washington Post Book World (9 October 1983): 8.
In this positive review of Tar, Kizer focuses on the poem “Combat” to illustrate the “splendor” of Williams's style and authentic American voice.
Logan, William. “Angels, Voyeurs, and Cooks.” New York Times Book Review (15 November 1992): 15.
Logan offers a mixed assessment of A Dream of Mind.
McKee, Louis. Review of A Dream of Mind, by C. K. Williams. Library Journal (1 May 1992): 86.
McKee offers a positive assessment of A Dream of Mind, and calls Williams...
(The entire section is 393 words.)