C. K. Williams Essay - Critical Essays


C. K. Williams achieved early success in the era of cynicism and protest surrounding the Vietnam War. His early work sketches in a tough, cryptic style the nightmare visions of a godforsaken world. I Am the Bitter Name is a howl of protest against the various corruptions of the world, lacking even the tonal variety and scant hope of his earlier work. Though powerful, Williams’s protest poetry was seen by critics as an artistic dead end.

During the five-year interim between the publication of I Am the Bitter Name and With Ignorance, Williams remade his style, writing in long lines that fold back from the margin of the page and tell stories with proselike lucidity. The sense of human suffering and isolation common in the earlier poems remains, but the long-line poems narrate dramatic tales set in American cities: scenes of family life, recollections of childhood, and views from the windows of urban apartments. Exact description and conventional punctuation replace the blurred grammar and dreamlike flow of the earlier verse. The later Williams poses in his poems as a survivor who, seeing clearly the complexities and disillusionment of contemporary life, shares astonishing personal associations with the reader.

Stylistic originality distinguished C. K. Williams’s earliest work, and he has continued to evolve as a poet. Consistent in all periods of his work has been a “metaphysical” roughness and avoidance of merely literary polish. Meanwhile, he has treated frightening realities that are not conventionally subjects of poetry. His experimental style began with dreamlike lyrics with short run-on lines, sporadic punctuation, and startling leaps of image and diction. Strident in tone, sometimes shocking, the early poems found quick acceptance in the Nixon years.


Lies includes the long poem A Day for Anne Frank, which was published in a limited edition the previous year. In Lies, Williams anatomizes the horrors of modern history and existential despair. The absence of divine order grounds a series of nightmare visions with titles such as “Don’t,” “The Long Naked Walk of the Dead,” “Loss,” “Trash,” “Downward,” “Our Grey,” and “It Is This Way with Men,” which allegorizes men as spikes driven into the ground, pounded each time they attempt to rise. Williams’s universe is the indifferent or hostile one of classic American naturalism, but it takes much of its apocalyptic substance from the Holocaust and from the Vietnam War. In spite of the negativity of his lyric outcries against suffering and waste, Williams’s early poems burn not only with terror but also with a passion that things should be better. Optimism, authority, and poetic form are smashed like atoms. Williams’s complaint is that of the child-man against the parent universe in which he finds himself an unloved stepson.

There is monotony, even callowness, in this stance, in improbable metaphors and scatological language flaunted for shock value—a gnostic rejection of his prison-body in the inhospitable universe. Nevertheless, Lies was critically acclaimed for its fusion of moral seriousness and verbal ingenuity. It concludes with the long poem about Anne Frank, the quintessential victim of history; to borrow a comparison from one of Williams’s poems, she was like a little box turtle run over by a bus. “It’s horrible,” he says in that lyric. A Day for Anne Frank displays the horrible motto “God hates you!”

I Am the Bitter Name

I Am the Bitter Name takes the technique of Lies one step further toward the abolition of technique—one step too far, most critics have argued. More homogeneous than Lies, this collection appears to try for and achieve self-portraits of apocalyptic incoherence. The poet displays, piled like monstrous fish, the products of his vigorous dredging of his nightmare unconscious. Critic Jascha Kessler, in one of the more positive reviews of Williams’s work, catalogs his strengths and failings: “the simplicity, clarity of diction, haste and jumbling of his thought by the unremitting stroboscopic, kaleidoscopic pulsing of a voice from thought to speech to image to unvoiced thought.” Impressed that the source of Williams’s expression is valid, calling the book “real poems,” Kessler is nevertheless disoriented by it. Other critics were less positive, charging that Williams’s passionate flailings missed their targets or even dismissing the poems as sentimental and blurred.

As the tonal consistency of I Am the Bitter Name suggests, and as his later work confirms, Williams is a deliberate experimental stylist. Purged of commas, capitals, and periods, the poems sprout unpredictable question marks, exclamation points, and quotations. The sense spills over the ends of the short, jagged lines, so that it becomes almost a rule in these poems that a line end does not signal a break in sense. The effect is one of breathlessness, of a mind that, insofar as it is conscious at all, barely understands what it is saying. The reader seems to be hearing the raw material of poetry at the moment of creation. Williams’s vocabulary, too, suggests breathless, regressive speech, almost childishly simple but scatological—especially in the political poems. The voice again suggests a righteous man-child, outraged to surreal protest by the extent to which the real God and the real governments betray his standards.

Sometimes the words in I Am the Bitter Name are explicitly political, as in “A Poem for the Governments.” This poem offers itself as an onion to make governments cry for the family of the imprisoned Miguel Hernandes, whose family has nothing but onions to eat. Reminding “mr old men” how they have eaten Miguel and “everything good in the world,” the poem becomes “one onion/ your history” and concludes self-referentially, “eat this.” Such explicit ordering of metaphor, common in Lies, is not the rule in I Am the Bitter Name, where even poems on political subjects dissolve into cryptic collisions of word and image. “The Admiral Fan,” for example, begins with a “lady from the city” removing her girdle and baring her “white backside” in a barnyard and dissolves into a vision of her dismemberment, apparently not only by farm animals but also by a Washington lobbyist in a long car. She is emptied of “dolls.” Her breasts become “dawn amity peace exaltation” in a vegetable field identified—as the grammar blurs—with nothingness, and flashing stoplights. Like the poems of André Breton, these let go even of grammatical structure in submission to the uprush of image and emotion.

With Ignorance

Between 1972 and 1977, Williams was divorced, remarried, and received grants and teaching appointments; during this time, he dramatically reinvented his poetic style. Except for its closing title poem, With Ignorance withdraws from the nightmare abyss and grounds its associations on human stories expressed in conventionally punctuated long lines with all the clarity of good prose. The change was presumably as much psychological as stylistic. The mature Williams, turned forty, tells his daughter that he has already had the bad dreams: “what comes now is calm and abstract.” Later, in “Friends,” he stands outside the terrors of his earlier poems to observe that “visions I had then were all death: they were hideous and absurd and had nothing to do with my life.” The style of these self-possessed reflections is easy informal prose, the style of a personal letter refined in its very plainness, which sets the stage in the more effective poems for sudden outbreaks of metaphysical anguish or human pathos equal to the best of his earlier verse.

In “The Sanctity,” Williams remembers going home with a married coworker from a construction site and seeing homicidal hostility between his friend’s mother and wife, and the coworker’s rage—a dark side of his character wholly masked by the ironic idyll of the workplace. The construction site is the only place, apparently, where the workmen feel joy, where they feel in power. Printed...

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