C.K. Williams

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 The Sensuous President, a collection including previously unpublished work, was also published in 1972.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

(The entire section is 1,121 words.)