C.K. Williams Criticism - Essay

Peter Stitt (review date Winter 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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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Robert McDowell (review date Spring 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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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David Lehman (review date Summer 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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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C. K. Williams with Lynn Keller (interview date 21 November 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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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Ashley Brown (review date Winter 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 run over and are frequently sentences in themselves. In Flesh and Blood all the poems consist of eight lines; there are always two to a page. One could hardly call them parts of a sequence, but here and there little groups are unified by a thematic center (“Reading,” “Suicide,” “Love,” et cetera); and finally there is a group of eighteen called “Le Petit Salvié,” an elegy on the death of the poet Paul Zweig that is the finest thing in the book. Here Williams moves beyond the vignette to a meditation that engages much more than the sympathetic eye which controls the main group of poems. Here the poet commits himself to a view of life and death which was only implied earlier. He is a very accessible poet, and one can see why he has appealed to the nation's book critics.

J. D. McClatchy (review date April 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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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Michael Leddy (review date Autumn 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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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Sherod Santos (review date 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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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Michael Collier (review date Summer 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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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C. K. Williams with Keith S. Norris (interview date 30 October 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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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Charles Altieri (essay date Summer 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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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Edward Hirsch (review date 17–24 August 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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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Robert Michaels (review date December 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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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David Herd (review date 4 December 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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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John Saunders (review date Winter 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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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Lawrence Norfolk (review date 12 February 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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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Bernard F. Dick (review date Spring 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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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Judith Kitchen (review date Fall 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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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Ben Howard (review date December 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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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Ross Feld (review date 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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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Ashley Brown (review date Summer 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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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Thomas M. Disch (review date Summer 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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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Keith Jeffery (review date 8 December 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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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Bruce Murphy (review date May 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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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Frederick Pollack (review date Spring–Summer 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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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Jamie McKendrick (review date 3 October 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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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Ashley Brown (review date Autumn 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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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Carol Muske (review date October 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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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Elizabeth Lund (review date 10 August 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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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Brian Phillips (review date 18 September 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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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