C.K. Williams Critical Essays

Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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 The Sensuous President, a collection including previously unpublished work, was also published in 1972.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.

Major Works

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).

Critical Reception

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.